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The monstrous unity of American immigration politics: protection as persecution

The 600 miles of existing fence structure along the 2,000-mile-long southern border is literally made of remnants from America’s history of violence.

Admir Skodo
4 February 2020, 2.28pm
The first-ever privately funded wall, in Sunland Park, New Mexico, June, 2019.
USA TODAY Network/PA. All rights reserved.

History doesn’t repeat, but it often rhymes
Mark Twain

Beneath the manufactured antagonism between the nationalist immigration policy of the Trump administration and the “human rights” approach of the Democrats lies a monstrous unity of opposites permeating the choices of the American state power at large, whether wielded by GOP or the Dems. “Given the choice between modernity and barbarism, prosperity and poverty, lawfulness and cruelty, democracy and totalitarianism, America chose all of the above,” in the sociologist Matthew Desmond’s apt phrasing.

Such choices have led America to acquire a penchant for first creating victims through conquest, racism, capitalist exploitation, and imperialism, and then offering opportunities and protection to some of those victims, while further victimizing others. America thereby not only exculpates itself from its crimes, but in an act of moral alchemy transfers its culpability onto its victims.

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Examples of such transfers abound. Nowhere is the unity of America’s choices, and such heinous transfers of guilt, currently more pronounced than in the politics of immigration. The response to the ongoing “humanitarian crisis” along the southern border, with its concentration camps and family separations, walls symbolic and physical, deprivations and deaths, its private detention centers and military deployments, immigration courts, and its cultural representations, points to a brutal coherence in the way Washington governs immigrants by means of both law and violence, history and contemporaneity.

Remain in Mexico

The ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy from 2019 has become the new measure of “protection.” Under this policy, asylum seekers are sent back to Mexico to undergo their asylum proceeding. 57,000 people to be more exact, are forced to stay in extremely dangerous cities or regions, such as Nuevo Laredo and Sonora, where they face a constant threat of rape, torture, or kidnapping. 201 cases of kidnapping or attempted kidnapping of children have been reported. Most of these asylum seekers have no legal representation. Courageous American immigration attorneys that try travelling to Mexico to help asylum seekers have been denied entry as a result of pressure from US authorities. Of the 24,000 completed cases under Remain in Mexico, only 117 or 0.5 percent have been granted.

The intent, methods, and outcomes of the policy jarringly reveal how the logic of guilt transferal can lead to abusing people seeking protection. Under this and other policies, protection has come to take on its opposite meaning. US asylum policy and procedure has, in the most conspicuous form in its history, become a new form of persecution.

The power behind American immigration law

All decisions regarding immigration policy and status fall under the shadowy plenary power doctrine. This doctrine provides American immigration law and policy with a coherence that harkens back to America’s history of settler colonialism, racism, unwanted immigration, nationalism, and imperialism. Riding on the heels of the modern concept of sovereignty (bolstered by the more recent concept of national security), the plenary power doctrine was worked out in the late nineteenth century through a series of Supreme Court rulings on matters concerning Native Americans and immigrants. The doctrine that arose from these rulings grants to the executive branch of the federal government full power to decide in legal matters concerning non-citizens according to extra-legal criteria such as administrative grace, will, pleasure, foreign policy, political considerations, national security, or the pursuit of profit. The plenary power doctrine means that immigrants are at once within and outside of the law, as suits the will and whim of the executive branch.

Practically, today, this means that non-citizens, including Lawful Permanent Residents, are not afforded the same due process protections as US citizens when appearing before the law. Immigration courts, unlike other courts, are – thanks to the plenary power doctrine – not independent from the executive branch, but fall under the Department of Justice and its Attorney General – a purview former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his successor William Barr have amply used to remake immigration law along nativist lines.

Democratic administrations have been an integral part of this scheme. Today’s legal framework for criminalizing undocumented immigrants, leading to the death of countless men, women, and children, can be traced back to a Democrat: it was the Clinton administration riding on a wave of legislative activity that criminalized the poor even as it dismantled the last vestiges of post-World War II welfare state, that enacted the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA).

IIRIRA, passed in 1996, belongs to the same family as the “three strikes law.” It sought “to increase penalties on immigrants who had violated US law in some way (whether they were unauthorized immigrants who’d violated immigration law or legal immigrants who'd committed other crimes).” It includes, among other things, a “prevention through deterrence policy” which has made it exceedingly difficult for immigrants to enter the US through the major ports of entry along the southern border. But rather than deterring, the policy has forced migrants to enter via treacherous uninhabited terrain, with deadly outcomes: between 1998 and 2017, according to conservative estimates, 7,216 people have died attempting to cross the southwest border.

Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Trump’s Muslim Ban rest on the same power vested to the executive branch in immigration matters.

Many if not most decisions in immigration status adjudications on both the individual and policy levels, rely on the discretion of some official secretary or president. Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Trump’s Muslim Ban rest on the same power vested to the executive branch in immigration matters. Even when they manage to enter and seek to adjust their immigration status in the US, immigrants encounter a Kafkaesque legal space. Immigration lawyers too have a difficulty in navigating this system. One attorney reports that it feels like entering an uneven playing field “from the moment the respondent’s counsel enters the physical space of an immigration court.” Standard rules of legal evidence have never applied in immigration courts.

The doctrine haunts people even after they become US citizens by limiting their ability to re-unite with their non-citizen family members. Indeed, various absurd bureaucratic, evidential, and legal conditions and requirements can be imposed by immigration authorities on a naturalized US citizen to remove suspicions of fraud when petitioning for their non-citizen family member to immigrate to the US.

Whether kind or cruel, pro-immigrant or anti-immigrant, the ultimate source of immigration decisions and policies is the power of the sovereign American executive. The basic set of rights and protections afforded to citizens are simply not afforded to non-citizens. To loosely paraphrase Oscar Wilde, the remedy accorded to some immigrants is part of the disease of plenary power affecting all of them. The solution must be to create a society in which such a disease is an impossibility.

Recycling an American history of violence

The physical or symbolic violence codified in the plenary power doctrine rhymes through the history of the American Republic. What were once tools for American internal colonialism and forms of state-sanctioned or state-led racial violence, whitewashed by Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis, have in the last three decades been retrofitted to align with what the historian Greg Grandin calls the Myth of the Wall, a new metaphor through which in the collective imagination of its elites America conceives of its national identity.

The 600 miles of existing fence structure along the 2,000-mile-long southern border is literally made of remnants from America’s history of violence. Trump’s Muslim Ban retraces and then continues in the footsteps of the 1884 Chinese Exclusion Act and the immigration quotas in place between 1924 and 1965 founded on nativism, racism, and the pseudo-science of eugenics. Fort Sill in Oklahoma, used during World War II to detain US citizens of Japanese heritage, now detains asylum seekers. Before that, in 1945, material from the Crystal City internment camp for Japanese-Americans was used to build the first fence structure along the US-Mexico border. Surplus Vietnam War material, purposed to control Viet Cong movement in and out of Vietnam, made its way into fence structures along the California-Mexico border in 1989. The latest military and surveillance technology used to identify and kill terrorists across the globe, from Predator drones to facial recognition data analysis, is deployed to identify, detain, monitor, and deport migrants.

The practice of separating children from their mothers and fathers was a well-established practice by the late nineteenth century. Throughout the centuries of chattel slavery, plantation owners would routinely separate children from their parents in the pursuit of profit, punishment, and control. In the late nineteenth century, thousands of Native American children were ripped away from their families and forced to attend government-run or church-run “boarding schools,” where they were forbidden to speak their mother tongues, forced to become Christians, adopt English names, and feel shame over their heritage.

America’s long history of military interventions supporting coups, dictatorships, and death squads in Central America, compounded by a more recent imposition on countries in that region to obey the dictates of the predatory neoliberal economy, are directly responsible for the violence and poverty that has driven so many people from countries like Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala to seek refuge in the US.

In July 2019, CNN reported that “Trump still has not reached anywhere near the level of interior removals as the early Obama administration.”

But Democrats are agents in this history of violence and continue to keep it alive and well as much as Republicans. In July 2019, CNN reported that “Trump still has not reached anywhere near the level of interior removals as the early Obama administration.” Even brutal border control measures see a confluence, as when the Democratically-controlled House in 2019 approved $4.6 billion for border funding, a necessary measure according to leading House Democrat Nancy Pelosi to ease the “humanitarian crisis” along the southern border. The money, apparently, is for the sake of the migrant children, yet Pelosi assured the public that Democrats remain “committed to border security.” There was reportedly a deal struck between House Democrats and the White House, a deal which did not specify standards for care and holding in immigration detention centers, currently with a holding daily average of around 44,000 people. I hope I am forgiven for having misgivings about Pelosi’s concern for the children.

Trump’s Jekyll and Pelosi’s Hyde became one monster in their respective statements and policies on this initiative. Take for example Trump’s plan from January 2019 to address the “humanitarian and security crisis on our southern border that requires urgent action.” Trump: “Thousands of children are being exploited by ruthless coyotes and vicious cartels and gangs… Nearly 50 migrants a day are being referred for urgent medical care… Many of these security ideas have been proposed by Democrats themselves, and all of them have been supported by Democrats in the past, including a physical barrier, wall, or fence.” Pelosi. Trump. Same terms, same choices, same outcomes.

Seeing immigrants through Hollywood

It is not only in laws, policies, and acts of violence that America’s unitary immigration politics plays out. American political hegemony also rests on popular culture like no other hegemony before it. What we might call the Hollywood ideology of Americanism has proved adept at disseminating it even as it ingeniously portrays a false version as “coming to terms” with historical injustices.

Hollywood in one fell swoop acknowledges and thwarts Americans’ thirst for the truth, justice, and genuine political alternatives by devising a form of story-telling that presents itself as multi-perspectival and “real” – think of the pseudo-realism of HBO or even the mockumentary format. In this new format, major characters suddenly become minor or die, storylines are as contingent as any sequence of real-life events, morality is deeply tied to perversions and self-interest, current politics is criticized, prior racial and ethnic groups are put front stage, and so on. America, through movies such as Black Panther and shows like The Wire, both “come to terms” with and sanctions America’s violent past.

To find politicized cultural representations of the immigrant, then, we must turn to Hollywood. Among the many archetypes in production, let’s singled out two: the conservative archetype of the zombie, and the liberal archetype of the house elf Dobby from the Harry Potter books and movies.

Border agents and zombies

Recent reports from the border concentration camps on the southern border reveal how border patrol agents see persons seeking international protection as zombies. One agent, who until recently worked at the McAllen Detention Center in Texas, describes his first sight of the detention center as a “scene from a zombie apocalypse movie.” He observed how border patrol agents wore surgical masks and rubber gloves because there was “sickness and filth everywhere.” The facility itself “looked like a walled-off compound where the government had the last safe zone and was taking in refugees fleeing the deadly zombie virus.”

What does the zombie stand for here? Throughout history, zombies have stood for an imagined threat to a social order achieved through horrid violence, marking a return of the repressed origins of a socio-political order, the victims of which come back to haunt the perpetrators. The zombie projects a failure on the part of a perpetrator to recognize a legitimate agent seeking just retribution for a wrong. The ideological function of the zombie seeps into the realm of political psychology: it not only exonerates the perpetrator (for the cause of zombies is always something ghastly, unnatural, evil) but it also reverses culpability.

As a result, border patrol agents or detention center guards do not see ailing and suffering fellow humans who undoubtedly call for help as a consequence of ruthless American foreign policies. They see sick flesh, an undead, an affront to nature itself, and certainly therefore an affront to America. It is easier to imagine an unnatural evil threat than a legitimate threat to an unjust foreign policy.

On top of this foundational archetype is built a militaristic duty which informs agents’ behavior and action. Border patrol agents come to see an enemy that must be contained or destroyed in an exercise of individual sovereignty which at once fulfils the agent’s will to power, frees him from any responsibility from wrongdoing, indeed displaces that wrongdoing onto the victim, and ties into a struggle deemed worth fighting and killing for. In this way, agents and guards behave like countless monarchs making up, in Herman Melville’s phrase, “a monster of a million minds.”

Through repetitions of actions steered by the zombie imaginary, the social life of the immigrant concentration camp has taken form: immigrants are hunted, captured, detained, quarantined, denied basic necessities, and tortured. And true to the ending of a conservative zombie script, conservatives now have a chief zombie killer, Trump. Finally, somebody not afraid to draw the proper conclusions: we have to build moats, shoot migrants in the legs, recognize them as monsters on a Biblical scale (the snake in the Garden of Eden), and so on. The 2016 Trump presidential campaign masterfully placed TV ads during The Walking Dead, today’s most popular zombie TV show.

House elves and liberals

Where conservatives see a zombie, liberals see a Dobby, the house elf in the Harry Potter books and films. Dobby begins his literary life as a slave in the Malfoy household, but finds himself freed by Harry Potter later on in the narrative arc. But that particular arc bends toward injustice. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire a free but unemployed Dobby finds himself at Hogwarts, where a liberal capitalist fantasy of a bonded labor economy unfolds. Hogwarts’ kitchen, we come to learn, is staffed by house elves, that is, asylees turned casual laborers. While Headmaster Albus Dumbledore does not allow physical coercion or abuse of his kitchen staff, he acts as a benevolent patriarch who expects the house elves to perform their duties without question. Dobby finds a job at Hogwarts – receiving a pathetic salary, one day off per month, and the scolding of his fellow house elves for basically being a traitor to tradition. Dobby even turns down an offer of a higher salary “as though the prospect of so much leisure and riches were frightening.”

In this way, the freedom of the house elf twists and turns until it comes back to a freedom that enchains the elf as it enhances the freedom of someone else: the students, teachers, and administrators of Hogwarts are free from performing menial tasks such as cooking and cleaning, and free to realize and develop their magic, play games, socialize, and so on. Dobby’s only exercise of freedom thus finds its way back to bondage. That is why Dobby in Harry Potter and the Half-blooded Prince asserts: “Dobby is a free house-elf and he can obey anyone he likes and Dobby will do whatever Harry Potter wants him to do.” How can Harry refuse? Dobby dies protecting Harry Potter as a “free elf.”

The liberal ideology here is superbly encapsulated. Among other things, Dobby stands for the asylum seeker who, in the mind of those benefiting from his labor, abhors class or any other political collective consciousness and is so grateful for being granted protection that he freely chooses to perform labor for the ultimate benefit of others and detrimental to his own well-being. Dobby never has a home of his own, and is forced to seek protection in a social and economic system over which he has no control. And in all this, the massive wealth of Hogwarts and its students, the fact that the labor performed by house elves could be automated by magical spells, are not seen as a solution by anyone to the plight of the house elves.

On top of this liberal archetype is built a moralistic duty which grants protection to those fleeing persecution as it absolves liberals from coming to terms with the exploitative history and nature of their ideology as it focuses their desire on de-politicized individuals who objectively suffer from an exploitative order the redress of which can only be set into motion through politicized collective action.

Liberals come to see in the immigrant a simple individual that must be “saved” and then “helped” into a freedom whose sphere of action is already pre-determined and clouded in an ideological magic beyond the reach of the immigrant. Through repetitions of actions steered by the Dobby imaginary, the social life of granting asylum followed by entry into the free informal labor market takes shape: immigrants are saved and then employed, as “independent contractors,” to build or repair houses, clean homes, care for infants or the elderly.

Before his election in 2008, Obama was ‘outed’ as a massive Harry Potter fan, and it has been suggested that part of the Millennials’ electoral embrace of Obama can be explained by the values they have all internalized from Harry Potter.

The alignment between ‘moderate’ liberals and conservatives

Because of the belief in the sanctity of the American Republic at work in both archetypes, “moderate” conservatives and liberals can agree on basic issues. Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera, for example, was in a true liberal capitalist moral key “ashamed” when he saw the treatment of migrants at the border: “We treat these people — these economic refugees — as if they’re zombies from ‘The Walking Dead’!” We should be ashamed because: “They want to fill the millions of unfilled jobs we have in the agricultural sector. They want to wash dishes in the restaurants. They wanna deliver the pizzas. For goodness sake! We suspend our humanity when it comes to this issue, and I fear that it is because they look different than the mainstream.”

The politics of “moderate” liberals and conservatives is like a Russian doll. The outermost doll exercises free speech and professes a superior morality by crying “shameful,” “heart-breaking,” “cruel” when encountering carefully curated instances of indignity and injustice. The next doll supports the political candidates and policies that claim to want to “fix the broken system” through rule of law, “responsible” capitalism, and technocracy. The innermost doll follows an entrenched religious belief in the sanctity of the American political system. The system is good, sacred even: there are only “evil actors” who are external to “who we are as a nation.”

An opening in American politics of immigration

In its belief that it has already achieved universal freedom, an ideal republic, America is stuck in what we might call abstract universality. As a consequence, in the words of Octavio Paz, for America “evil is outside, part of the natural world, like Indians, rivers, mountains, and other obstacles that must be domesticated or destroyed.”

It is election season in the US. The Democrats are engaged in the primary elections that will result in the choosing of the politician who will challenge Trump in this year’s presidential election. Bernie Sanders, in my opinion, offers the best immigration policy agenda and indeed the best new agenda overall irrespective of his will and ability to implement it. His immigration proposals include explicitly denouncing the current system as racist, militaristic, and profit-seeking. It further includes repealing IIRIRA and ending immigration detention except for violent offenders. Sanders has vowed to place a moratorium on deportations. He has promised to create a citizenship path for undocumented immigrants. He proposes to break up the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). His Medicare for All and free college education will be available to undocumented persons.

Bernie Sanders’ immigration proposals include explicitly denouncing the current system as racist, militaristic, and profit-seeking.

These proposals are radical in re-imagining the American Republic in the present moment. Thus Sanders provides an opening, increasingly more popular among American voters, onto the political project of true universality. Like the American socialists in whose footsteps he walks, he at least partially finds true universality not in the lofty abstractions of American national myths, but rather in the concrete demands by those victimized in the name of those myths: people of color, workers, immigrants. He dares to posit the fundamental political choice today as socialism or barbarism.

Yet it is a narrow opening, for Sanders does not fundamentally reject American abstract universality. Sanders told an Iowa audience in April 2019: “If you open the borders, my God, there’s a lot of poverty in this world, and you’re going to have people from all over the world. And I don’t think that’s something that we can do at this point. Can’t do it.” Sanders too has inserted into his politics the Americanist wedge that has pitted worker against worker, putting the blame for depressed wages on cheap undocumented labor, thus justifying restrictive immigration policy and the givenness of borders.

Even for someone like Sanders, the extreme difficulty of breaking the cycle of complacency when it comes to the structural problems of US politics and society is all too real. If it is considered mad and unrealistic to re-imagine the foundations of America by embarking on a project toward universal equality, fundamental social and economic rights, and freedom both individual and collective, both at home and abroad, then let us be thought of as mad, but let there be method in our madness.

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