To Make Live and Let Die: How Our Immigration System Treats Migrants’ Lives as Expendable

Austin Kocher, PhD
6 min readFeb 7, 2021

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Depending on who you are, your emotional response to talking about death and the migration system ranges somewhere between uncomfortable to re-traumatizing. If you belong somewhere on the “uncomfortable” side of the spectrum, I believe we have a responsibility to make ourselves uncomfortable by actively analyzing and engaging with the ways in which our lives are ethically bound up with the suffering of others. If you belong somewhere closer to the “re-traumatizing” end of the spectrum, this may not be the post for you.

The idea of expendability is captured in one of the French philosopher Michel Foucault’s most influential concepts: “biopolitics.” At its most basic, Foucault describes biopolitics as the way in which life, mainly social life in the aggregate, has become a domain of the exercise of political power in the modern era. Think about the ways in which life-giving forms of welfare, medical care, housing, and exposure to environmental poisons are fought over as political issues.

More importantly, I think by now it is (relatively) common knowledge that race plays a powerful, sometimes determinate, role in shaping who is exposed to air pollution and able access to mental health care. Study after study shows that people of color live, on average, several years fewer than their white counterparts. These outcomes can be understood as biopolitical. And one distinguishing feature of biopolitics is that it’s not like the state is directly and intentionally targeting individuals to die. Rather, all the state has to do is simply to withdraw life-giving types of support. As Foucault said, the state “makes live” (i.e. actively provides support to some) while “letting die” (i.e. simply withdrawing support or doing nothing to help).

Immigration systems can be understood as perhaps one of the most lucid yet constantly-evolving examples of biopolitics at work. To illustrate this point, this post has two parts. First, a short section on migrant deaths at the physical borders of the US and the EU, with examples of how state agencies are complicit in allowing migrants to die…

Austin Kocher, PhD

I study America’s immigration enforcement system. Assistant Professor at TRAC. Graduate of OSU Geography. Online at