Systems that Punish



Time to read

4 Minutes

Guest post by Alejandro Olayo-Méndez. Alejandro is an assistant professor at the Boston College School of Social Work.  He is particularly interested in the intersection of humanitarian aid and migration, as well as questions regarding human rights, inequality, transit migration, meso-level structures, and the so-called “Migration Industry.” He has collaborated with Jesuit Refugee Service by conducting interviews with internally displaced people (IDP) in Colombia and Tamil Nadu, India. Also, he has done clinical work with immigrant and refugee communities in Chicago, IL, and Spokane, WA. Alejandro is currently working on a project researching the effects of 'Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP)' on Mexican communities, humanitarian interventions, and the lived experiences of asylum seekers at the Mexico-US Border. He is a Jesuit Catholic Priest from the West Coast Province in the U.S. This is the fourth installment of the Border Criminologies themed series on Crimmigrant Nations organised by Maartje van der Woude and Robert Koulish.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 changed the United States’ foreign policy and ignited a process of securitization of the nation.  The aftermath of this trend has given rise to a nationalistic or ‘patriotic’ agenda that has advanced with dire consequences after the election of Donald Trump as President in 2016. Fear, suspicion, and mistreatment of some immigrants and racial minorities is becoming more visible in the U.S. Securitization of the border, lack of due process for many asylum seekers, and a largely inaccessible asylum system are becoming expressions of political systems that punish rather than systems that protect and foster justice, opportunity, and equality. For example, since the beginning of 2019, the United States has been sending asylum seekers to wait for their proceedings in Mexico. Close to 60,000 people wait at different border cities across the border between Mexico and the United States. Crowded shelters, minimal information, scarce support from the Mexican government, long waiting times, violence, kidnapping, and precariousness are the norm in the lives of migrants. The Migration Protection Protocols (MPP or ‘Remain in Mexico’) have emerged as a deterrence strategy that has been aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic

Asylum seekers waiting in the city of Matamoros in Mexico under the Migration Protection Protocols (MPP), February 29, 2020 (Photo: Alejandro Olayo-Mendez) \n\n

Specific requirements in the Protection Protocols have effects that punish and discourage people from continuing with their proceedings. For example, MPP demands asylum seekers to travel to other cities across Mexico to reschedule their appointments when there are lockdowns because of the pandemic. Similar scenarios appear across the globe. During February 2020, around 20,000 people, many of them families with children, gathered at the Western Turkish border with the hopes of crossing into Bulgaria and Greece. As frontiers close across Europe, rescues of capsizing boats with African migrants and refugees also subsided. In countries like Singapore, where migrant workers have the authorization to work, they do not receive minimal legal protections. The COVID-19 pandemic has made even more evident the vulnerability of migrants and refugees, as well as the ways different legal frameworks in the world inflict pain and punish migrants and refugees.

Migration and asylum systems have evolved to be selective, leaving many people with rightful claims to asylum and refuge.  David Scott FitzGerald (2019) has emphasized how remote-control patterns emerged to keep asylum seekers away from the possibility of reaching a safe haven through legal means. In practice, Adela Cortina (2017) states that countries reject those who are poor or those perceived as unable to contribute to the machinery that benefits the receiving country.  Crimmigrant Nations (2020), an edited volume, discusses in many different ways and contexts the convergence of border controls, crimmigration, and nationalism. Ultimately, this work reveals the effects policies have on the lives of migrants and asylum seekers.

Border wall between Brownsville, Tx and Matamoros, Tamaulipas, February 29, 2020 (Photo: Alejandro Olayo-Mendez)

However, selective and punitive immigration policies have existed for a while.  Kubal and Olayo-Méndez (2020), making an unlikely comparison, discuss how ‘operation streamline’ and the migration cases heard in the courts of Moscow strip migrants of any real chance of fair treatment or justice. The heavily staged ‘operation streamline’ with processions of detainees moving in chains who recite the standard answer ‘guilty’ over and over, resemble more the time of slavery than a court that imparts justice. In contrast, the courts in Moscow, while dealing with administrative procedures, still base their decisions on the ‘file’ and whatever documents or testimonies are in it. The Russian courts’ reliance on the administrative process also leaves migrants without justice. What the ‘case studies’ reveal is the punishment migration systems inflict on immigrants and the minimal opportunity to find justice through the legal system. They illustrate how ‘crimmigration’ looks like on the ground. In a way, punishing immigration systems are the perfect running mate for the surging nationalism and the anti-immigrant sentiment in both the United States and Europe. 

There is no immediate change on the horizon. Furthermore, it appears as if governments circumvent the rule of law to impose restrictive regulations aimed to keep migrants at bay. Immigrant regulations become deterrence strategies aimed at keeping people out or kicking them out if they are already in the host country. At the macro level, migration policies are supposed to be more comprehensive as they help regulate admissions, strengthen foreign relations, foster diversity, and integration, regulate job markets, and contribute to national sovereignty. Unfortunately, “crimmigration” infiltrates the micro-level, where an ever-expanding list of crimes leads to detention and removal, affecting anyone who does not benefit from the rights, protections, and prerogatives of full incorporations or citizenship. This amalgamation of immigration law and criminal consequences is an unsettling trend that has emerged in different parts of the world. The contributions in Crimmigrant Nations (2020) help us in reflecting that “crimmigration” is not a trend in law that remains exclusively at the level of regulations or written law, but that it has profound effects on the day-to-day practices of enforcing the law and ultimately influence people’s lives.

Any comments about this post? Get in touch with us! Send us an email, or post a comment here or on Facebook. You can also tweet us.


How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Olayo-Méndez, A. (2020). Systems that Punish. Available at: [date]


With the support of