Some time ago I attended a “know your rights” workshop sponsored by an immigration rights organization near my home in Los Angeles. The attorneys conducting the workshop offered a broad array of ideas and suggestions, but one piece of advice stood out for me. It dealt with potential workplace raids conducted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers, and the attorneys’ advice was straightforward: if you are told at your workplace to get into two lines – one for those “with papers” and one for those “without” – simply refuse. Stay in one group.
I thought about that suggestion when reading the text of a recent address by Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly at George Washington University. In his address, Kelly hammered home a basic theme: “we are a nation under attack,” and this attack, he claimed, is directed at us from many quarters: from transnational criminal organizations, and from “failed states, cyber-terrorists, vicious smugglers, and sadistic radicals.” As he declared, “we are under attack every single day. The threats are relentless.” And, as Kelly also maintained, the policies and approaches of the Trump administration represent a new level of support for Homeland Security personnel, a support that finally allows them to “do the jobs they were hired and trained to do, and recognize them for doing it.”
In an editorial published a few days later, The New York Times editorial board criticized the address for its ominous, apocalyptic tone, maintaining that this kind of fearmongering – and the policies it justifies – actually make us less safe, “driving segments of immigrant communities underground, making them fearful of any encounters with law enforcement.” The Times board rightly chastised Kelly for this fearmongering and the threat it poses to civil society. But they also neglected to take two important additional steps: naming the political functions performed by this rhetoric and exploring the deeper implications it carries.
One function, of course, is to distract. If crafted skillfully enough, the rhetoric helps draw attention from the administration’s utter incapacity and unwillingness to address the needs of citizens, whether these have to do with health care, job growth, the ensuring of workers’ rights and benefits, or the protection of our air and water. A fear-based rhetoric also helps divert attention from the administration’s various efforts to promote the Trump brand worldwide while it helps out wealthy allies and friends.
But fearmongering doesn’t simply distract. It also casts a veil of complicity over unwitting listeners and readers. Nowhere in his long address does Kelly once mention the new rules on immigration enforcement promulgated this past February by the Trump administration, rules that vastly expanded the government’s potential net for detention and deportation. No longer is the emphasis on individuals who have committed violent crimes; now anyone who has committed a crime, including the “crime” of illegal entry, is subject to this new regime of enforcement. And it is this regime that has inflicted untold suffering upon families wrenched apart by detainments, deportations, and fear – families I know, or know of, personally through my affiliations with immigrant rights groups in Los Angeles.
In his omissions as much as in his declarations, Kelly presents a persona more sophisticated than that of race-baiting, scapegoating candidate Trump in last year’s presidential election. Yet Kelly’s words and omissions are just as repressive as those of his boss insofar as they enable the criminalization of people not on the basis of crimes they’ve committed against others but simply on the basis of who they are. We don’t expect Secretary Kelly to recount the events leading up to this benighted moment, but some attention must be paid to a history of intentional, conscious disenfranchisement. Only four years ago, the US Senate passed an immigration reform bill (Senate Bill 744) providing some kind of path, albeit a tortuous one, to citizenship for 11 million undocumented people, and it wasn’t long after that Speaker John Boehner, under pressure from the Tea Party and others, allowed the bill to languish, then die, in the House of Representatives. There is a direct link between the nativist, anti-migrant politics that long pre-dated Donald Trump and the suffering and fear experienced by so many people today.
This is why the sanctuary movement – and the kind of workplace solidarity strategy I mentioned above – are so critical in resisting the politics of fear and the complicity it can easily induce. But as the rhetoric of fear gets more sophisticated, it is equally important to take it on frontally and expose it for what it is. To do so means that one recognizes that citizenship is not simply bestowed by a protective piece of paper (a birth certificate, a “green card,” a certificate of naturalization) but by the fulfillment of one’s responsibilities to one’s fellow human beings and to their rights – and to the democratic institutions that sustain those rights.