Children. Before. Borders.

Bennington College

Academics are typically tasked with giving complex accounts of complex situations. We specialize in stories of nuance, where power operates with such subtlety that its movement through the social body requires explaining and unmasking. Simple explanations are to be suspect, as are prescriptions for immediate action. There are moments, however, when we confront realities that require a different register of response and resistance. Such is our situation today, with the U.S. government’s treatment of migrant children and families.

What more can be written about – and what mode of historical or theoretical analysis can be deployed to confront – a human tragedy so obvious and odious as one where the naked power of the state collides with the bare life of the child? There is no need for a genealogy of how nativists have historically constructed immigrant children – the answer is too predictable (as criminals, imbeciles, and, more recently, potential terrorists). There is no point in responding to the myths being propagated by the Trump Administration – that this was the Democrats’ fault, that there is a law that compels this, that the Obama administration did the same thing, etc. – because no more than a fraction of the 25% of so of Americans who believe them are going to change their minds. And I can’t bring myself to write a biographical piece that imagines what I’d do if my own infant daughter – together with her parents, sleeping soundly in her crib – were put in the shoes of the children heard wailing through the walls of detention facilities. The mere thought of it is too terrifying. There is no nuanced story to be told here, only a seething rage to be marshalled toward collective action.

What logic can possibly justify the cruel and unnecessary separation of children from their parents? The policy was swiftly condemned by all but the most callous of restrictionists. Jonah Goldberg, writing in the National Review, referred to it as a “moral horror.” Red State called it “traumatizing and devastating.” Rod Dreher, of The American Conservative, opined that it was “vicious and inhumane.” Even immigration restriction groups like the Federation for American Immigration Reform, Center for Immigration Studies, and Californians for Population Stabilization avoided directly voicing support for the policy of family separation, preferring to more obliquely defend it by diverting blame onto immigrants for their allegedly phony asylum claims, the Obama administration for its refusal to control “border chaos,” and even Congressional Republicans who supported Paul Ryan’s “Amnesty Plan.”

Only in the depths of nativist and white-supremacist land did the family separation policy find enthusiastic praise. Fortunately, most people don’t share this sentiment. The images of children, the accounts of their plight, and the recordings of their cries led to widespread outrage. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt, herself a Jewish refugee, famously remarked that, amid the rise of 20th-century fascism, the liberal democratic states who had so-loudly touted their commitment to inalienable rights were incapable of recognizing or restoring the rights of refugees. When those who had been stripped of political rights most needed help, she observed, “the world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human.” This was – and still is – unfortunately true.

But, much of the world – or at least much of a notoriously nationalistic country – saw, in the images of the children in detention, something sacred being profaned. More than two-thirds of Americans opposed the family separation policy. In this case, the abstract nakedness of being human – the fact that children’s bodies are not perceived to be quite-so-tightly bound to their membership within a national polity – was their saving grace. Due to the lack of agency that we attribute to children, the images are more easily translated, accurately, as the suffering of people who have done nothing to deserve it. They are simply human beings – literally, biological lives – born into difficult situations, taken along on an arduous journey, and now separated from their parents. They made it to the land of freedom only to find themselves in chains. The resistance that these images produced is not proof of American progressivism or a deep commitment to human rights, but it does reflect an extant limit to encroaching neo-Fascism. Thankfully, there are some moral lines that you still don’t cross without political repercussion.

Recent survey data suggest that it is a precarious limit, though, and that the moral lines are blurry. According to an Economist/YouGov poll, 44% of Americans feel that the most responsible way of dealing with immigrant children is to hold them together in detention with their families until an immigration hearing. A CBS/YouGov poll found that 48% want to deport the entire families back to their home country, where many face extreme poverty and violence. These statistics point toward a tension that warrants interrogation: we’ve reached a breaking point on immigration politics. On one hand, if we are going to continue to have restrictive immigration laws, especially those that rely on securitized borders, families will be torn apart on a large scale. It is inevitable given the size and scope of the deportation machine constructed under Clinton, Bush, and Obama. Most Americans don’t want this. On the other hand, if we are to protect children and keep families together, we need to have relatively open borders and an inclusive immigration policy. Most Americans also don’t want this.

Broadly speaking, there are three ways of navigating this tension. The first is to convince more Americans to become moral monsters who embrace the nativist project currently institutionalized in the Trump administration; one that revels in the ethical and political imperative of keeping out non-European populations, including children, by any means necessary. The second is by acceding to the politics of centrist liberals and conservatives, where guest worker programs and paths to citizenship are coupled with further securitization and, perhaps, the construction of Trump’s Great Wall. This still results in mass family separation, but it positions the ethically unsatisfactory result as a regrettable outgrowth of necessary political compromises. The final path is to persuade more Americans to join in the Leftist project of working-class solidarity across borders; one that seeks relaxed immigration restrictions coupled with strong civil rights and labor protections for immigrants and refugees. If ending the separation of families and the suffering of children is our goal, then this is the sole project worthy of our support.

In this vein, the immigrants’ rights crisis of the past month – Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy and the Supreme Court’s upholding of the “Muslim ban” – has made several things clear. First, immigrant children pose real threats to the nativist project, and we shouldn’t be surprised to see more cruel policies in which they are targeted. The problem – from a nativist perspective – is not that immigrant children are incapable of becoming Americans; it’s that they are too capable. The ease of their transition renders intelligible the real foundation of the nostalgic nationalism to which nativists cling: immigrant children become Americans, but their complexion persists. The danger posed by immigrant children lays bare the foundational urge of the nativist project, revealing the racism that undergirds all hyper-nationalism, and showing just how weak and pathetic the nativists are.

Second, Trump’s failed policy, a response to an imagined influx of immigrants, was unlikely to have any notable deterrent effect to begin with; the real political impact is to lower an already low bar on American immigration policy. Just as Dreamers have been used as bargaining chips in conservative efforts to increase border securitization, the executive order simply ends one humanitarian disaster (the separation of immigrant families in detention) and seeks to replace it with another one (the indefinite detention of families). But now, such a shift appears like progress. (Indeed, classical conservative Andrew Sullivan has already argued for a grand immigration compromise that necessitates giving Trump his wall).

Finally, the racialized – and false – image of immigrant criminality is so ubiquitous today that it takes the image of a child to rupture it, however momentarily, and to remind the American public that our ethical obligations to other lives ought not be dictated by an imaginary line in the sand. This creates a punctuated equilibrium in which changes to immigration policy are possible. The direction of these changes, however, is an open political question. Since the centrist option seems even more palatable to many politicians than it did a month ago, a Leftist explanation for (and alternative to) our current political conjuncture must be more forcefully and unequivocally advanced.

To recap: why would anyone support the separation or indefinite detention of immigrant families? The explanation is simple: they are nativists. What should be done about it? The immediate solutions are not easy, but they are clear: create sanctuary cities and states, vote all restrictionists out of office, abolish ICE, and tear down the border walls. The long-term solution requires a more thorough and thoughtful reworking of the global political economic order. Only then will we have a world – as my friends working with the Repeal Coalition demand – where everyone is free to live, love, and work anywhere they please.


John Hultgren teaches politics at Bennington College. He is the author of Border Walls Gone Green: Nature and Anti-immigrant Politics in America.

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