Intervention – “Pandemic and (Im)Mobility in the Americas”

By Soledad Álvarez Velasco (University of Houston) and Lucía Pérez Martínez (FLACSO Ecuador)

Based on the findings of the collective project “Covid-19 and (Im)Mobility in the Americas” (, in this Intervention[1] we analyse 11 common situations which are either reinforced or begin to shape up in various regions of the American continent as an outcome of state measures to control mobility adopted before and during the pandemic and of social responses provoked by the irrepressible movement of migrants and asylum seekers. By focussing on the commonalities, it is possible to see that the tension between mobility and control today magnifies accumulated injustices that transcend the national scale, disproportionately impacting the migrant population and generating spatial reconfigurations across the Americas.

Against the Pandemic: Control?

Since the first confirmed COVID-19 case, millions of bodies worldwide have been infected while hundreds of thousands others have died. If controlling the mobility of people has been a primary function of the sovereign state since its origins (Scott 1998), during a health emergency, this function comes to the fore. Unlike other health emergencies, COVID-19 has emerged at a time of increased global inequality. Obscene uneven geographical development, together with conflicts of various kinds have led to the unprecedented global movement of migrants, asylum seekers, refugees and internally displaced people (IOM 2020).

Before COVID-19, borders were already reinforced to selectively deter or divert the movement of racialized and impoverished bodies. At the same time, restrictive policies were adopted in destination and transit countries which overtly deprived the migrant population and asylum seekers of elementary rights. In other words, unequal mobility had already perpetuated defining which bodies can freely move and which cannot, how they move and through which infrastructures they do so (Sheller 2018). In times of COVID-19, border closure and the elementary reduction of our freedom of movement in defence of national societies cannot be merely seen as a promise to retrieve public health, for they produce unequal effects that disproportionally impact on people on the move.

(Im)Mobility and Control in the Americas

Locating this reflection in the Americas has analytical and political relevance. If there is one thing that characterizes the region, it is its structural poverty and inequality, to the point that it is the most unequal in the world (CEPALSTAT 2018). Because of this, the continent’s social, economic, political and cultural formation is incomprehensible without taking into account the forms of mobility that have shaped it and continue to transform it.

Most of the countries in the Americas are senders and receivers of transnational flows, while others have also come to be spaces of transit and voluntary and enforced return (IOM 2020). The continent is criss-crossed by migratory routes used by irregularized Latin American and Caribbean migrants to reach the United States, their leading migratory destination (UNODC 2020). Furthermore, in the last decade, South-South flows have augmented just as North-South migratory transits. Because hundreds of women and men, adults and minors, have not stopped moving to reconfigure their lives, this is a continent where the migrant struggle has not ceased.

As the migrant struggle proliferates, so too do state forms of control. On the one hand, the weight of the US has been decisive in outlining the geopolitics of control over mobility in the region (Menjívar 2014). That is the country where the most significant number of undocumented migrants worldwide reside; the one that has hardened its migration policies; the one that deports most Latin American and Caribbean migrants (Pew Research Center 2018); and the one that has transferred control of mobility to “safe” third countries in the region such as Mexico, Guatemala or Honduras (Villafuerte Solís 2020). On the other hand, in the last decade, restrictive measures have been adopted which multiply the legal production of illegalized and deportable migrants (De Genova 2002). In a generalized way, in the region state interest has turned from the expansion of migrants’ rights to the fight against migrant illegality, while a xenophobic discourse has normalized in receiving societies (Domenech 2017).

COVID-19 has stricken, therefore, a space marked by the tension between (im)mobility and control. What repercussions do the closing and strengthening of borders, the limitation of freedom of movement, and the imposition of forms of immobilization within national spaces have on the lives of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers who have found themselves in the current pandemic on the move?

What is Common to Us?

That question triggered the collective project under construction, “Covid-19 and (Im)Mobility in the Americas”. Between 1 April and 15 May, a transnational team comprised by 45 researchers, gathered press information to map out three themes: [i] adopted state measures; [ii] risk situations faced by migrant populations; and [iii] social responses in 19 national spaces in the continent.[2] This information helped us to create 19 country-specific record cards as part of an online digital archive. Inspired by critical cartographers, mapping has meant for us “deconstructing the map” (Harley 1989) of the continent to bring to light hidden spaces and latent conflicts that deliberately remain outside traditional maps and public discussions. Reading between the lines of gathered press information, we wanted to comprehend the tension between (im)mobility and control in times of pandemic and its spatial repercussions. Beyond a national view, this project is interested in looking at several common situations that are either being entrenched or emerging in various regions in the continent. So far, we have identified the following 11 common situations:

  1. Border closure and hyper surveillance;
  2. De facto suspension of the right to seek asylum and refuge;
  3. Externalization of the US border and the production of a spiral of violence towards the South;
  4. Spaces of confinement and human sacrifice;
  5. Undocumented-ness and dispossession of rights;
  6. Selective hyper-nationalism;
  7. Migrant workers, essential but disposable;
  8. Childhood and adolescence on the margins;
  9. The production of fear as a form of control;
  10. Reverse migration; and
  11. Social responses.

We now look at each one of them.

The current pandemic has justified a perverse intersection between state health policies and control measures configuring a de facto and/or de jure state of exception in migration matters. In the name of national health, the governments of the region have taken one or more of these exceptional measures: [i] border closure; [ii] border militarization; and/or [ii] denying entry to those who pose a health risk even if they are unaccompanied migrant children. Border closures have also impacted tourists, students, and business people, preventing them from returning to their countries of origin, except on humanitarian flights.

In parallel, the resolution of cases or the reception of new applications for asylum and refugee have been suspended or deferred in most of the mapped countries. This second common situation impacts Central Americans, Mexicans, Colombians, Venezuelans, Haitians and extra-continental applicants – either individuals or families – who are now stranded in a legal limbo that exacerbates their everyday precariousness in the different countries across the Americas in which they are awaiting for a resolution.

The third common situation is an aftermath of the externalization of the US border in the region through geopolitical mechanisms which produce a spiral of violence in the continent. The invocation of the Public Health Service Act of 1944 has allowed the US government to increase express returns and the temporary impediment of asylum applications (Chishti and Pierce 2020). This exceptional situation has led to an increase of migrants and asylum seekers – including accompanied and unaccompanied children – stranded in unsafe conditions in Mexico but also in those Central American countries designated as “safe third countries”. At the same time, deportations from the US, including migrants infected with COVID-19, continue, increasing the risk of infection in countries of origin and discrimination against deportees accused of bringing “the plague” from abroad. This situation has taken place, for example, in Guatemala, El Salvador, Ecuador and Haiti.

Border closures and the temporary impossibility of applying for asylum has had spatial reverberations. People on the move are stranded between six different national borders. Returned and deported Mexicans, Central American asylum seekers, regional and extra-continental migrants are stranded at the Mexico-US border. At the Mexico-Guatemala border, Salvadoran, Honduran and Guatemalan deportees from Mexico are docked. At the Panama-Colombia border, Haitians, Cubans, South American, and extra-continental migrants in transit to the US are stranded. At the Ecuadorian-Colombian border, Venezuelans en route to their home country have been immobilized. Bolivians are stranded at the border with Chile. At the Brazil-Venezuelan border, Haitians and extra-continental migrants in transit to the US are also stranded. In those six borderland spaces of confinement (Coutin 2010), illegalities and violence abound daily. These spaces lack decent shelters or facilities to procure food and medicines. Under these conditions they can easily turn into spaces of possible human sacrifice (Klein 2001).

Before COVID-19, reinforced migratory policies had already multiplied the production of undocumented migrants in the continent and the dispossession of their rights. During the pandemic, their risk has increased. They continue to work on the streets and dwell in overcrowded conditions; they can become infected, yet they get no treatment; and they can be detained and deported. This fifth situation occurs among Latin American, Caribbean and extra-continental undocumented migrants residing or detained in Canada and the United States; among Central American undocumented migrants in Mexico; among Nicaraguans in Costa Rica; Haitians in the Dominican Republic; among South American, Caribbean and extra-continental undocumented migrants in transit through Panama; among Venezuelan, Caribbean and extra-continental undocumented migrants residing in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Argentina and Brazil; and among Bolivian and Peruvian undocumented migrants living in Argentina and Chile.

Central governments have implemented social and economic relief measures aimed to protect citizens living in their national territory, and to a lesser extent for regularized residents. Yet, generally speaking, in the region there is an absence of such measures for emigrated nationals residing abroad and especially for undocumented migrants and asylum seekers in the mapped countries. This sixth situation confirms the widespread adoption of nationalistic but selective measures for specific categories of citizens mainly residing in the national territory. In contrast, there are measures taken by a few central and/or local governments. The governor’s office in California, for example, implemented an economic aid programme for irregular migrants (Westervelt and Peñaloza 2020). This exceptionality shows the potential role of local governments as guarantors of social and economic rights.

The pandemic stopped most economic activities except those declared as essential such as the food industry. In the Americas, millions of undocumented migrants are agricultural workers or labourers in the processing, marketing and distribution of food. This is the case of the US and Canada, where undocumented Latinxs are agricultural workers or work in food processing and packaging plants (e.g. in the meat industry), in supermarkets or in delivery services (Nair-Reichert 2014). It is also the case of Venezuelan undocumented migrants employed in food delivery services in Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Argentina, or Brazil. Although these workers are essential for the reproduction of societies in these national spaces, during the pandemic no measures have been taken to protect them. This seventh situation shows how in several countries the perverse “differential inclusion” of migrants is openly perpetuated (Mezzadra and Neilson 2013) – included only as undocumented migrants, stripped of their elementary rights, exposed to premature death.

The eighth common situation has to do with migrant children and adolescents. Before the pandemic, alone or accompanied, they migrated to reunite with their parents in the US or to flee violence in their home countries. This is the case of Ecuadorian, Mexican and Central American children. Migrant children were separated from their families; were detained; faced deportation hearings in US courts alone; were deported; or were stranded at the US-Mexico border waiting to be recognized as asylum seekers (Álvarez Velasco and Glockner, 2018). In South America, the majority of Venezuelan migrant children transiting alone or accompanied were exposed to diverse forms of violence, including, but not limited to, becoming street workers or even begging (CLACSO 2019). Against these complex realities, during the pandemic, no special protection measures for migrant children have been implemented by states in the continent.

If national borders have reinforced, indoors, the production of fear has operated as a primary mechanism of control. This is the ninth common situation shaping across the Americas. Fear of the virus, of the Other-foreigner, and of death justifies the control of mobility. Fear also affects the migrant population: they fear getting sick and not being cared for, losing their jobs, being evicted, detained, deported, or dying with COVID-19 in detention. Fear can immobilize and make people docile, but it can also trigger strategies to fight for life. That is exactly what has happened across the Americas.

Economic collapse, the fear of contagion, and a realisation of a lack of protection has provoked new forms of migrants mobility. Transnational reverse migration – from countries of destination or transit to countries of origin – or national reverse migration – from urban destinations to rural communities of origin – is emerging as a new form of mobility in the continent. These are some examples of this tenth common situation: internal migrants in Mexico, Bolivia, Ecuador or Peru returning to their rural communities; Bolivians or Peruvians returning from Chile and Argentina; Central Americans en route returning from Mexico; Nicaraguans returning from Costa Rica; Haitians from the Dominican Republic; or Venezuelans throughout the Andean region returning to Venezuela. Many return by foot. They all defy forced immobility in national spaces and border closures. This is an unprecedented trend whose transformations we are only beginning to see.

Against the de-politicization of social life that Agamben (2020) warns of as one of the worst effects of the pandemic, social responses, as the last common situation, abound in the continent. On the one hand, the migrant struggle does not cease; in detention centres in Canada, the US and Mexico, for example, detained migrants have staged hunger strikes and protests against overcrowding and the risk of contagion, demanding their release. In South America, Venezuelans, Peruvians and Bolivians have pressured consulates to return to their home countries, while migrant workers in delivery services have protested to demand protection for their health. On the other hand, migrant and grassroots organizations, the church, international agencies, and ordinary citizens have strengthened networking to provide food, medicine and shelter to migrant populations in the 19 mapped spaces while encouraging petitions, public protests, and even legal suits. Although these networks fight for migrants’ rights, xenophobia has also flourished – verbal and/or physical aggressions or evictions based on national origin, are some examples. Xenophobic outbreaks must be radically questioned because they prove that the normalization of violence against the migrant population today is expanding on the continent.

What Comes Next?

By focusing on these eleven common situations, we have confirmed that the tension between (im)mobility and control currently has spatial reverberations in the Americas. The governance of migration is producing a perverse coexistence between unequal mobility and immobility. As shown, a vast majority of undocumented migrants and asylum seekers in multiple spaces across the continent are confined to a permanent itinerancy, stripped of elementary rights and therefore lacking a symbolic and material place in receiving societies.

This first analytical effort must expand. Several countries were left out and we are conscious that we must go more in-depth, from an intersectional approach, into how during the pandemic gender, race, age, class, nationality, and sexual orientation inequalities, characteristic of migration dynamics, have exacerbated. Despite these limits, this effort already traces a transnational analytical route around the effects of the tension between (im)mobility and control in the Americas. This route should contribute decisively to the politicization of the migratory question. Reinforced control over mobility cannot be seen merely as a promise to achieve public health because it provokes unequal impacts that magnify legal, social and economic injustices disproportionately impacting on asylum seekers, child migrants, detainees, deportees and undocumented workers residing in or transiting across the Americas. These are injustices that transcend national spaces, being common to multiple continental realities.

The neoliberal border control regime has intensified – a tendency that would not seem to change in a post-pandemic context. Today, echoing Nancy Fraser (2005), “lives depend at least as much on processes that trespass the borders of territorial states as on those contained within them”. This is precisely the daily battle that thousands of migrants – especially undocumented migrants and asylum seekers – simultaneously deploy in national and transnational spaces across the Americas. Inspired by their struggle, we must make a collective internationalist call to demand justice at multiple scales – transnational justice – simultaneously from states of origin, transit and destination, responsible for the obscene injustice impacting on the migrant population.

We cannot prolong any longer the non-defence of those millions of diverse racialized, irregularized, criminalized bodies on the move, exposed to the risk of contagion and death. We cannot tolerate any more their daily confinement to dwell in a limbo between life and death. The just defence of their lives is the responsibility of all societies in the Americas, societies formed and transformed by the unceasing movement of migrants and refugees that historically have fought and today continue to fight for their lives.


[1] A Spanish version of one part of this text has been published in LASA Forum (Álvarez Velasco 2020).

[2] Canada, the US, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Cuba, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Argentina, and Brazil. This is an unfinished project, and we invite new researchers to join us: [email protected]


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