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Immigration and the Politics of Moral Corruption

Photo by Jonathan McIntosh | CC BY 2.0

Genocides, drug trades, gang violence, famines, natural disasters, poverty, political upheaval, ecological degradation… All around the world, asylum seekers and migrants, displaced by forces larger than themselves, are crossing national borders in search of basic human rights. Authors of Up Against The Wall, psychologist Mary Watkins and philosopher Ed Casey argue that as the global refugee and immigrant crisis continues to grow, how America manages its relationship to the U.S.-Mexico border will set an example for the rest of the world.

If Watkins and Casey’s postulation is correct, and if America is setting an example, this is what the world is seeing: Tent cities. Chain-linked fences. Bare cement floors. Foil sheets for blankets. Kids, some in diapers, herded into cages, crying for their lost mothers and fathers. And President Trump attempting to justify the separation of families: “They could be murderers and thieves and so much else.”

The United States has a long past in racial, ethnic, and religious scapegoating. But criminalization of migrants is essential in particular to today’s detention and deportation industries. After all, the detention-industrial complex is an extension of the prison-industrial complex. Hired by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and assigned a yearly detention quota by Congress, private prison companies strongly benefit from the President’s rhetoric labeling undocumented immigrants drug dealers, rapists, causes of “death and destruction.”

This is what the world sees: For-profit prisons and private corporations banking on the broken immigration system and the underprivileged who are trapped in it. With the federal government’s backing, of course. Capitalism in its best.

Historically the United States achieved its position as an industrial and capitalist world leader largely due to immigration. However, history also demonstrates that century after century, in America the issue of immigration has raised endless debates.

In fact, there has never been a time when nativist attitudes were not present in American society: Between the years of 1830 and 1850, hostile movements targeted Irish and German Catholic immigrants. In the 1870s anti-Asian sentiments paved the way to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This was followed by an anti-Japanese period from 1905 to 1924, after which came the anti-Filipino period from 1920 to the 1930s. In the 1940s World War II brought with it intolerance against German and Italian immigrants, and following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese-American citizens and Japanese immigrants became subject to detention in concentration camps and deportation. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon engendered a new wave of racism against Muslims, Arabs, and other Middle Eastern immigrants, as well as Arab Americans. And these days, concerns about the unauthorized crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border bring the attacks on immigrants from Latin America and Hispanic populations at large.

This is what the world keeps seeing: A nation of immigrants habitually forgetful of its immigrant past.

Historian Roger Daniels reflects that successful nativist movements have predominantly been related to overall fears or unease in American society. He explains, “When most Americans are generally united and feel confident about their future, they seem to be more willing to share that future with foreigners; conversely, when they are divided and lack confidence in the future, nativism is more likely to triumph.”

American citizens have been becoming increasingly divided along ideological lines and intolerant of one another’s political views. According to Pew Research Center’s report on polarization in the American public, in the last two decades partisan animosity has grown significantly. Contained within their “ideological silos” both the conservatives and liberals alike consider each other’s policies as threatening to the nation’s well-being.

Meanwhile, the President, Attorney General of the United States, Secretary of Homeland Security, Republicans and Democrats in Congress, all point fingers at each other, contradict one another, even contradict themselves. They are caught in the usual power struggle. Utterly incapable of meaningful agreement.

The world is witnessing America’s inner turmoil in real time.

Though public outrage has pressured President Trump to reconsider the Zero Tolerance policy last week, his new executive order merely exchanges one detrimental tactic with another: rather than separating families, detaining them together indefinitely.

Pediatricians and psychologists warn of the long-term mental, emotional, and physical effects of trauma experienced at a young age due to detention. The kids will not forget the terror of being torn from their parents’ arms, placed in pens, persecuted unjust and inhumanely.

The world will not forget the audio of the detained kids wailing, while a Border Patrol agent mocks them. They will not forget America’s politics of moral corruption.

What will America choose to remember?

 

More articles by:

Ipek S. Burnett is a psychologist, novelist, and academic living in San Francisco.

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