Often, in our frequent reflections on issues of adjudged political importance, we use and absorb rhetoric of refined dehumanisation. Many, regardless of intent, speak of immigration as a ‘crisis.’ They speak in numbers, in crime statistics, and in legal terminology. Although the word ‘illegals’ is slowly beginning to phase out, at least in news media, the language used in our assessment of issues such as immigration is important to the way many interpret said issues. ‘Crisis’ is, and has been, used frequently – but are the immigrants themselves really a crisis? They are certainly fleeing one, but their existence is not in itself a ‘crisis.’ In fact, the true historical crisis has been the response to influxes of immigration, with a large representative portion of the debate lacking clear understanding of both American and British systems. More importantly, many lack clear understanding of the people themselves, the catastrophes they flee, and their human stories of adversity.
The year 2014 brought with it one of the largest influxes of Mexican and Central American immigration into United States (U.S.) in its history, mostly of families or single children, and mostly centralised in entrances in South Texas border towns. Over 68,000 unaccompanied children, another 68,000 families and over 342,000 individuals, mostly fleeing violence, were apprehended at the southwest border. Widely publicised, the instance sparked much public debate and scrutiny, not of the migrants themselves, nor of the numerous organisations and charities that worked tirelessly to accommodate, but of the ‘failing’ legal system that, to the eyes of many, illicitly enabled the entrance of hundreds of thousands of human ‘threats to their jobs and safety.’ By 2015, both the numbers of people immigrating and the public scrutiny had significantly decreased; however, in the past year the latter has not remained true. The number of families arriving at the southern Texas border has nearly doubled since 2015, a fact given little attention by the media. And yet, the rhetoric still stands. Migrants, a large amount of them young children, are labelled as violent, called aliens, referred to almost as an invading species, dehumanised in a very literal sense of the world. These labels are disturbingly reminiscent of The Sun journalist Katie Hopkins’ claim that, ‘migrants are like cockroaches,’ even more so of Rwandan media during the genocide, of radio messages proclaiming, ‘you have to kill the Tutsis, they’re cockroaches.’ These are perfect examples of how the moment human beings become non-human it is a mandate for murder.
The policy changes and governmental reactions to the influx very much reflect the rhetoric, and actualise real effects. ‘The full force of the United States Government is brought to bear prosecuting ‘respondents,’ what we call defendants in immigration law,’ says Karen Grisez, a special public service counsel litigator at a DC law firm, who specialises in asylum cases and immigration law. ‘There is a judge, there is a prosecutor, there is an agent of the U.S. Government, seeking to deport these individuals, including children, from the United States.’ Children, just like adults seeking asylum, are not given government-appointed council while in immigration court. They are expected to defend themselves – many alone, in a foreign country, speaking a foreign language, many irreparably traumatised. Legislation, like that proposed by Texas Senator John Cornyn – indicatively labelled ‘humane’ by fellow Republicans, only exacerbates a system that many, including the American Bar Association, feel to be exceedingly broken. Said legislation, which expedites an already unfair process by having the initial ‘fear of return’ screening conducted by armed border guards, has been followed by equally dehumanising policy. All of this has resulted in over 93 per cent of unaccompanied children arriving at the border being deported, many to their deaths. The doleful truth is that large amounts of those children have the legal right to live in the U.S, and are simply being denied that right. ‘There are laws in place, and a procedure in place that allows these children to be able to go to court, and present a case. You risk a lot when you try and short-change that process,’ says Carly Salazar, an immigration law analyst at USCIS Ombudsman, at the US Department of Homeland Security. In fact, two landmark policies, introduced by Obama in 2012 and 2014 titled ‘Deferred Action of Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA),’ and ‘Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA),’ were supposed to change all of that. Their scope and forgiving exemption from deportation were on track to alleviate some of the issues with a system that was sending thousands of children into dangerous situations and causing logistical nightmares for aid organisations, until one court stopped them in their tracks – a court, surprisingly enough, from a town on the Texas border. In a locally unpopular decision, a federal judge from Brownsville, TX, (a majority Hispanic city that has done much to accommodate fleeing children and families) filed an injunction on both policies, resulting in a supreme court decision that, following Justice Scalia’s death, concluded in a tie vote and therefore a standing injunction. The decision affected millions, leaving undocumented children and adults in limbo as their potentially life-threatening future waits to be decided on. Those allowed release from the already overflowing detention centres are now forced to wear GPS-tracking ankle bracelets, a much criticised symbol of the undue criminal status they possess.
The year 2016 has brought with it a second influx, and children and their families face the same uncertainty and abuse they have in the past. It is important to acknowledge undocumented immigrants and their true situation: many, if not most, are refugees. In other parts of the world the term has come under some scrutiny for its connotation, but Mexican and Central American immigrants are not afforded the sympathy the term entails – many flee violent and oppressive climates, yet are greeted as invaders, not émigrés. In many cases, miserable detention centres await their arrival, not shelter or trauma response. This is not to say that there is not hope; however, it must be sought out – not in policy or the discussions of far-removed politicians, but in human response, and in genuine acts of kindness. On the South Texas border there exists charities that have attempted to, despite lacking even remotely the sufficient resources, allow the refugees some reprieve. One of the largest and most effective is the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley’s (CCRGV) Humanitarian Respite Center, which has received over 47,000 people since its opening in 2014. The centre provides food, clothing, and shelter for many who arrive carrying everything they own on their backs. It is costly operation, as are many of the other charities run on the border. In 2014, some local jurisdictions requested the US government reimburse the Rio Grande Valley $480,000 in expenses. The funds were appropriated through FEMA, but Texas Governor Greg Abbot decided to use the funds on increased border security.
But others associated with crisis aid fear for the refugee safety not only in their trip through Latin America, but in the U.S. as well. A social worker in South Texas who has worked extensively with the child refugees, wishing to remain anonymous, states that she has, ‘mixed emotions’ about the children coming to the United States. ‘Of course I love that they feel they can come here for a better and safer life, but I fear for them as well. I know that here is better than their home, but here they are still not treated fairly. Many are trafficked for work, especially Guatemalan [immigrants] … They are often treated as second class citizens, working harder than anyone else and valued less than anyone …the whole situation is an emergency of epic proportions, but no one wants to see this as anything but illegal immigration.’
And now, with the U.S. election of Donald Trump, obvious changes in presidential immigration opinion will enter the White House. Trump has faltered some on his promises of a border wall, but his limited and radicalised policy goals in regards to illegal immigration will have wide-reaching effects. It is no secret that the President-elect based his campaign on racially charged statements, and has pushed for the extreme border securitisation policies. But a larger fence and more patrols don’t address the true problem. Policy of border militarisation assumes persons attempting to enter the United States do so with mal-intent and attempted covertness. However, most families and unaccompanied children simply turn themselves in to border patrol, desperately hoping for a chance at asylum and safety. In fact, this action is not illegal, and asylum seeking is a process protected by US law. Militarisation certainty does not help those who have experienced appalling trauma during their long journey. Families and children threatened with gang violence, children whose family members have been murdered in their own homes, and women and children who have suffered abhorrent levels of sexual assault are among those who seek respite in the United States, not dangerous criminals as many politicians claim. They are families, mothers and fathers searching for a better life for their children, ready to work harder than anyone and do anything to ensure their safety. They are children, many 8 to 15 years old, attempting to reunify with family members, escape violence, or in many cases, are now the sole provider for their family and must find work. With the turmoil, migration, and human rights violations that occur in places like the Middle East and Africa and that so populate our news media, it is easy to forget the suffering that occurs in the Western hemisphere. It is a strange situation, with political discourse so focused on the prospect of immigration, yet so disconnected from the actual people that it entails. If the U.S. is ever to address these pressing issues, it must not only be vigilant of policy and rhetoric of the new presidential administration, but move away from dehumanising and detached narratives that only perpetuate the violence it attempts to address.