“Let Live” or “Let Die” — The high stakes’ of Biden’s “carrot and stick” immigration policy.

Lynn Tramonte
15 min readJan 21, 2024

Migration is as old as time, as basic as breathing. Today, there are more people forcibly on the move than at any other time in history. A paper in the March 2023 edition of Social Science & Medicine, “‘Letting die’ by design: Asylum seekers’ lived experience of postcolonial necropolitics,” examines the “triple trauma paradigm” in today’s migration journeys, regulated by the United States and Europe, whose policies actively “let [people] die” (or risk death) in the attempt to save their own lives.

Brenda K. Wilson, Alexis Burnstan, Cristina Calderon, and Thomas J. Csordas, the report authors, recognize a “convergence for migrants of 1) trauma in the country of origin; 2) trauma incurred during transit/flight; and 3) trauma of arrival and relocation/resettlement in the host country.” They write:

“The bodies of migrants dislocated from the postcolonies of the Global South have indeed been the subject of racialized political exclusion by the United States and other countries of the Global North through decades of policies that limit, block, or expel those arriving at borders and result in violence, ill health, trauma, and death.”

As was often said during the Trump administration and remains true today, the cruelty is the point.

In “Broken Hope: Deportation and the Road Home,” Suma Setty and I show that for those who are deported, the third layer of trauma is continued (or replaced) with return to the country they originally fled. Return can reignite, or even ratchet up, the abuse they tried to leave behind.

The front and back covers of the book “Broken Hope: Deportation and the Road Home” by Lynn Tramonte and Suma Setty.
Download “Broken Hope: Deportation and the Road Home” at reunite.us/read or purchase a paperback at bit.ly/BuyBrokenHope.

Recently, I accompanied a man seeking asylum in the U.S. who was having delusions, as medical and mental health professionals assessed whether he needed care, and what type. His asylum case was going badly, and “Allister” decided to “self-deport” to a country he feared. Both the medical and psychiatric staff questioned why he would choose to return to a country where he had been tortured.

They failed to understand how the U.S. immigration system is further traumatizing an already deeply harmed man. They also failed to understand the privilege of having a choice, and the strength it took to make this decision.

“The Way They Deported Me Was Painful”

Control over where you go and how you arrive somewhere is an attempt at survival. When the U.S. government deports you from a detention center, they don’t tell you what day or time you are leaving, or where you are going along the way. The route can encompass multiple early-morning transfers to unknown places by callous and intimidating agents, as well as hours and hours of immobility. You don’t get to decide what belongings are sent with you, or say goodbye to loved ones. You have no idea when you will arrive at the destination country. You are shackled the entire time.

For “Broken Hope,” Ohio Immigrant Alliance organizer Maryam Sy interviewed 255 people who were deported from the United States, mainly to Africa. They had a median U.S. residency of seventeen years — some as many as three decades. Half of this group (126) was formally deported. The others were ordered to be deported by a U.S. immigration judge, knew their deportation was imminent, and left before they could be detained and forcibly returned by the U.S. government. Said one man we interviewed:

“The way I was deported was painful…They deported me and I left all my belongings…In Mauritania, the ICE officers spoke to a woman police officer and lied to her and said that I was a criminal in the U.S. and that I was in prison in the U.S. They asked me about my background and asked me for my Mauritanian papers. I didn’t have any. They locked me up. The ICE officers stole $200 of the cash I had during the flight.”

During the flight, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents may even restrain you in something called The WRAP, which immobilizes and can kill you. “It was like being rolled into a bag,” said “Castillo,” who was subjected to the WRAP after resisting deportation to Cameroon. His story was detailed in a civil rights complaint filed by Texas A&M University School of Law Immigrant Rights Clinic with the support of six other human and migrants’ rights organizations, including Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI):

They tied my feet together, then they tightened the WRAP around my legs with three straps. They put something over my neck and around my torso and arms. They cuffed my hands in front of me and attached them to a chain around my waist. They snapped a rope or strap or cord from my neck to my feet. Then they leaned on my back and pushed my face toward my knees, and pulled the strap tight. My body was at a 40-degree angle. I was left completely immobile. I was forced into the WRAP while we were still at Prairieland Detention Center. I was left in the WRAP from around 10:30 a.m. on November 11, 2020, until we were somewhere over the Atlantic ocean that night….

They eventually took the WRAP off, but I remained shackled all the way to Douala [Cameroon] — around sixteen hours. I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t eat. All I remember is the pain and the yelling of the officers. I was detained in the U.S. for two years and four months.

When I arrived in [Cameroon], I was arrested at the airport and taken to police detention for further investigation. I was detained for 12 days. There were open sores [on] my wrists where the ICE cuffs had cut into my skin. In detention I had no water or soap to keep them clean. They got infected. I was in a cell with many men. There was no toilet. My family finally managed to get me out and now I am in hiding in a third country. I cannot remember what [it is] like to feel safe. — Testimony from Castillo, deported by the U.S. to Cameroon.

It’s reasonable and intelligent that Allister would want to save himself from that.

Necropolitics, The Rationale of U.S. Immigration Policy

In “‘Letting die’ by design,” authors unpack the concept of “necropolitics,” a term Cameroonian scholar Achille Mbembe developed to describe the “racialized political exclusion by the United States and other countries of the Global North through decades of policies that limit, block, or expel those arriving at borders and result in violence, ill health, trauma, and death.” Put simply, necropolitics is the “politics of death.”

The primary migration policy employed by the United States and Europe is not facilitating ways for people who have to move to do so safely. It is necropolitics, a policy of “deterrence” (repression of the natural human instinct to move to find safety), and making it harder for people to ever reach the U.S. border through “border externalization.” The theory is that people can be prevented from migrating if the dangers of migrating are high.

“Deterrence” policies involve a system of landmines, a real-life “Squid Game: Migration.” Wilson et al write, “the means of death may be direct or indirect, and includes multiplying the potential for death, and the social or political death associated with denial, expulsion, or exclusion.”

People sit in a hotel conference room and listen to lawyers talk about the U.S. asylum application process.
A 2023 community meeting on asylum policy, hosted by the Mauritanian Network for Human Rights in US.

So why do people keep moving? A long-time activist for Black Mauritanians’ human rights, Abdoul Mbow, described what he hears from young people leaving Mauritania today: “We are dead already.”

If people survive the journey, they are met by border agents and immigration judges who view them as “economic migrants” looking for jobs, a status that disqualifies them from protection in the U.S. But there is a straight line between government and other repression and economic poverty. Mineral rights, land rights, and water access — the ability to survive — are co-opted by governments in service of international corporations (and their own pockets). Often, these robberies play out along racial and ethnic lines, with Black and indigenous people on the losing end, whether in Mauritania or Guatemala.

“Abdoul” talks about apartheid in Mauritania. He was deported from the U.S. in 2018.

To survive, people move. Often that means moving long distances, to places they believe will let them live.

But “letting live” is not the policy of the U.S. or Europe. That would require the creation of safe channels for movement. It would mean recognizing migrants’ inherent human dignity. And, it would most likely expose the U.S. and colonial powers’ role in creating the conditions that force people to leave.

Instead, the U.S. and European governments turn away. They employ policies of “deterrence” so that our nations don’t have to see migrants, or see them clearly. So we don’t grapple with the moral bankruptcy of our imperialism.

Today’s Immigration Debate — “Let Live” Or “Let Die”

The current immigration fight in Congress is, in some ways, a battle between “let live” and “let die.” Republicans want to limit President Biden’s authority to allow people seeking asylum to request permission to apply before they arrive, known technically as “parole.”

In one instance of this policy, people from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Ukraine can request U.S. entry before leaving their current home, if they have a financial sponsor in the U.S. This is “let live” approach responds to the reality that migration exists, has always existed, and will continue to exist as long as humans survive.

David J. Bier at the Cato Institute writes that the Biden parole policy “transformed migration to the United States. By July 2023, parole had already redirected about 316,000 people away from long, perilous treks through Mexico and into a legal framework to fly directly from their home countries or third countries to the United States.”

Of course, the current policy only applies to people from five countries, and requires them to know someone in the United States wealthy enough to “sponsor” them. But it is still an example of how “let live” policies work, and that is exactly why Republicans want to kill it.

This is not to say that the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress have fully embraced a “let live” approach. The administration is ready to make “compromises” with parole-killers and has implemented its own “let die” policies.

Instead of putting people who profit off of migration out of business — the kidnappers and ransomers — by creating alternative and safe routes, most of the administration’s policies ratchet up the costs to migrants and the risks of death.

The administration is also bullying other countries to block migrants from even getting to the U.S./Mexico border. Many African migrants I’ve spoken to describe police beatings and extortion while attempting to transit through Tapachula and other places in Mexico and Latin America. Some Democrats in Congress are embracing border externalization.

A screenshot from Rep. Landsman’s website shows the jarring juxtaposition of two press releases on immigration, with diametrically opposed values.
A page on Rep. Landsman’s congressional website shows the dissonance between supporting policies that “let live” and policies that “let die.” The values are not reconcilable.

Congressman Greg Landsman (D-OH/1) recently co-sponsored a bill to grant Temporary Protected Status to Mauritanians, a key constituency in Ohio, with Senator Brown (D-OH) and Representatives Mike Carey (R-OH/15) and Joyce Beatty (D-OH/3). Landsman coupled his support with a demand for more border agents and “pushing on authorities in Mexico to provide even more enforcement.”

Democrats call this clashing of facilitation and deterrence policies a “carrot and stick” approach.

In it, some people get to live and some people get to die.

Many of the constituents Congressman Landsman wants to protect were victims of police violence in their transit to the United States, because of the border externalization policy he supports.

“Anywhere But There”

After surviving all of this, why do some people like Allister decide to “return”? This decision does not mean their fears of abuse were unfounded. It is, like every difficult decision they have been forced to make, an exercise in calculated survival.

About half of the people the Ohio Immigrant Alliance interviewed for “Broken Hope” were ordered to leave the country by an immigration judge, but departed the United States before they could be officially deported. They had been living safely in the United States despite losing their asylum cases. Many were issued “Orders of Supervision” by the U.S. government, which had decided not to deport them due to the dangers of sending them back and the consequences for their families and communities. They had work permits, were working legally, and paid taxes. They “checked in” with Immigration and Customs Enforcement periodically, a requirement of their permission to stay.

Immediately after taking office, President Trump revoked that policy and began deporting them. Many had to make the difficult decision of whether to wait and see what would happen at their next ICE meeting, or take matters into their own hands. Among Black Mauritanians, disappearances from ICE check-ins became routine. Even business owners and religious leaders were taken.

Upon arriving in Mauritania, they were arrested and held in filthy Mauritanian jails until they could collect the money needed to pay a bribe for their release. From there, they were either on the run or went into hiding.

A man deported from the U.S. describes conditions inside a Mauritanian jail, where he was taken.

Franklin Foer of The Atlantic chronicled Black Mauritanians’ experiences under Trump as an example of how the administration changed policy to focus on the people who were the easiest to find, regardless of the consequences their deportation would bring. The practice was not limited to people from Mauritania; it was widespread and destroyed many lives.

Foer wrote about “Jack,” a homeowner and co-founder of a moving company in Columbus, Ohio. Jack had started from scratch when he arrived decades earlier, fleeing genocide and apartheid in Mauritania. Having become a successful business owner, Jack was building a “man cave” in his basement filled with Ohio State football paraphernalia, until the U.S. 2016 elections changed everything.

He showed Foer a leather-bound notebook with instructions for how to contact his son, access his bank account, sell his home, and close out his affairs. It was written for his girlfriend to use “when the day comes.” When.

The Ohio Immigrant Alliance worked with African Immigrant Relief, the Mauritanian Network for Human Rights in US, Undocublack Network, Julie Nemecek, and attorneys at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, among many others, to try to stop this horrifying trend. I received many calls from people seeking to assess their options ahead of a looming ICE check-in.

I’ll never forget one man who wanted help immigrating to Canada before his next appointment at ICE. He was an older man, having lived in the U.S. for decades at that point.

“I can’t go back [to Mauritania],” he said quietly, and I could tell he was crying over the phone. “Anywhere but there.”

The people we interviewed in “Broken Hope” were born in twenty-seven countries, with half from Mauritania. Over two-thirds (175) were from a country designated at Level 3 or 4 in the U.S. State Department’s Travel Advisory system, due to terrorism, crime, kidnapping, civil unrest, piracy, armed conflict, arbitrary enforcement of laws, and wrongful detentions.

A substantial minority (48) live in those countries today. Thirty people we interviewed left the U.S. before being detained and deported and went to Canada, although none were born there. One hundred thirty-seven live in Senegal today, but only forty-one were born there. Of those deported to Mauritania (127), only thirteen live there now. Most who do are in hiding, because living openly would mean near-constant police violence and extortion.

Said one man we interviewed, “In Mauritania, they locked me up…We couldn’t use the bathroom. People were urinating inside the cell. Whenever a detainee screamed, they would beat them up and torture them. It was horrible. So then we asked to be taken to Senegal, but we were incarcerated for 15 to 20 days in Mauritania before being taken to Senegal.” As experiences like these echoed throughout the diaspora, Maurtainians fled the U.S. rather than waiting to be deported.

Our project #ReuniteUS and the book, “Broken Hope,” are about the reasons they should be allowed to return to the U.S. The number one reason they cite for wanting to come back is safety.

“Nobody Knows Where I Am”

The authors of “‘Letting die’ by design” interviewed three migrants who successfully ran the gauntlet of U.S. anti-immigrant policies and live here today. Two won their asylum cases and one’s case remained pending as of the paper’s writing. All have ongoing physical and mental health issues due to the violent experiences they fled; the violence of the migration journey; and the violence of their treatment in U.S. immigration jails and courts.

Their cases were “successful.” They “won.” At what cost? Nearly everything. And for every person in their same situation, there are one or more people who were not even that lucky.

“Fred”’s fourteen days in the hieleras or “iceboxes,” frigid temporary detention cells used by the U.S. Border Patrol, clearly violates the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treament or Punishment. “That was the toughest time,” he said, ”because I felt like I was losing my mind … like I was going crazy. I was having panic attacks and thinking to myself ‘Maybe I will just die here, and my family doesn’t know I’m here. Nobody knows where I am.’”

The U.S. is a party to this international agreement, but does not apply it to its own treatment of migrants.

In addition to discussing the external dangers migrants face due to deterrence policies, “‘Letting die’ by design” lifts up the real and lasting health impacts — the “dual pathologies of disease and discrimination” that play out, practically, along the route and inside U.S. immigration systems.

Fred was bitten by a parasite at some point along the journey. While detained in a U.S. immigration jail, his lymph nodes swelled. He was seen by a doctor who failed to appreciate the severity of his illness. Said Fred:

The infection was very big. I asked to see a doctor repeatedly. I was panicking; I had no idea what it was. They finally transported me to [San Diego] to see a doctor … I was cuffed, my hands and legs in chains. When I got to the clinic, he gave me a medicine and warned that it was very potent and may cause liver damage … When I asked if there were safer medicines, he said there were but that this was the only option covered by the health plan [for detained migrants].

The medicine required two courses. Fred received the first in immigration jail, and was abruptly released. The U.S. government did not want to pay for his second round of treatment.

Write the authors of ‘Letting die’ by design“:

Constellations of death-making forces constrain asylum seekers’ wellbeing throughout their tripartite trajectories — displacement from home countries, transit to post-displacement arrival, and relocation in destination countries — that undermine in material and embodied ways their physical and mental health…. The political exclusion institutionalized by predominantly targeting black and brown asylum seekers from the Global South represents a continuation of the racist-colonialist project that silences marginalized voices and reinforces colonial boundaries….. “Letting die” by design is now a global response to the growing global issue of migration, as well as an ongoing everyday lived reality even for migrants who have ostensibly reached safety.

Everyday Heroes

While violence is one side of migrants’ journey, the other side is abject heroism. Courage is inherent in the decision to leave; in managing along the route; in building a new life in their destination countries; and, if unlucky, in their return. While the current political narrative mainly demonizes people who journey to the United States, or even send their children alone, the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. No one makes a decision like that unless the alternative — staying — is worse.

Orlando, also interviewed in ‘’Letting die’ by design,” explained his thought process.

“On my mind when I swam across [the Rio Grande] was that I either die in Mexico — tortured, humiliated, broken — or I can take a chance and swim across. And at that moment, I didn’t really care about what might happen to me when crossing the border.”

ICE arrested Amadou Sow at his check-in and set him on a path to deportation to Mauritania, a country that treated him as a slave. He had lived in the U.S. for thirty years, raising five children. Months after his arrest, ICE agents came to get him at the Morrow County Jail, a former ICE detention center, handcuffed him, and took him to the Columbus Airport to be deported. Sow refused to board the plane. That act of courage cost him, physically and mentally, but he’s still at home today.

Migration is an act of courage and strength, and a direct affront to one’s oppressors. Oppressors don’t like being told who they are. Unfortunately, U.S. policies of repression, “deterrence,” et cetera force people to keep being heroic over and over again, and risk many human lives. The right to exist should not have to be won through a fight.

Black Mauritanians first migrated to the United States in the 1990s and early 2000s, pushed out by a racist genocide. They settled in and built good lives. Today, they are opening their arms and homes to the new group of refugees seeking asylum.

In Medium, I wrote about a community meeting in Cincinnati where more than 500 Black Mauritanians showed up to learn how to seek asylum. The meeting was organized the Mauritanian Network for Human Rights in US, a group of former refugees who made the U.S. their home and are now assisting recent arrivals:

The people who need assistance today are strong, brave, intelligent, and resilient. Many told us that the journey here was the hardest thing they have ever done. With the arms of the established Black Mauritanian community around them, they already feel less scared. They are eager to get settled in the US and feel useful. They will be wonderful neighbors, friends, and coworkers when they find their footing. And, they will be helping others in no time, too.

Why can’t this be our policy as a nation, as a federal government? Our social contract is full of holes. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Instead of the politics of death — policies that let people die — we could embrace their energy, human dignity, and will.

And Allister wouldn’t have to go.

A young man with a blurred face wears a t-shirt that says “Peace, Justice, Freedom, Dignity for All.”



Lynn Tramonte

Director, Ohio Immigrant Alliance. Daughter, sister, Mom, wine drinker, proud NE Ohioan! Lifetime #immigration advocate. Views are my own, unless you agree!