In my senior year of high school, our school’s FREE Club (Friends of Rights, Emancipation, and Equality), a student-led social advocacy group, devoted the year to promoting student awareness of President Donald Trump’s then-recent rescission of DACA. Their campaign included a map of the world hung in the main school hallway, where people could stick thumb tacks to signify their family’s place of origin.
I put one at Chernivtsi, Ukraine, where my grandparents are from. At the time, I viewed the map as a political statement, one that I was proud to join; almost all of us have an ancestor who found refuge in the United States, so we should extend that opportunity to those who are just like our ancestors.
Now, reading about our current border crisis, I think the map made a different and far more important statement. Not that immigrants are people like us, but that they are people.
Perhaps nothing has defined Trump’s presidency as much as his penchant for dehumanizing immigrants at every turn. One of his first statements on the campaign trail was to equate immigrants with rapists. (“And some, I assume, are good people.”) He would later say, “These aren’t people. These are animals.”
Even if he were referring only to undocumented immigrants, as he claimed, these comments would be no less repugnant. But it’s clear he makes no distinction between documented and undocumented.
His tendency toward dehumanization has become evident in his reaction to the group of Central American migrants who are currently camped in Tijuana, planning to exercise their legal right to claim asylum.
His desire to make the asylum-seekers wait in Tijuana while their claims are processed, which can take years, furthers his effort to portray them as subhuman. Trump hopes dragging this excruciating story out will make the American public forget and become indifferent to their suffering, and soon the media will move on to something else.
His thinking (very appropriately for the host of “The Apprentice”) is that if you’re invisible, if you’re not on the nation’s TV screens, then you don’t exist.
Ironically, his rabid xenophobia may be a big part of why these migrants are on America’s TV screens in the first place. If he just let them claim asylum and enter the country, without trying to seize the opportunity to promote his anti-immigrant agenda, he wouldn’t have the problem of America watching Border Patrol tear gas children.
The asylum-seekers, like so many before them, would have vanished into the years-long asylum process, and they really would have been invisible to many Americans. But, if he let them in, the majority of them would have shown up for their court dates and some might actually get asylum, and he can’t have that.
It’s possible Trump believes he can only hold his base together if he restricts immigration. The problem is, most of the old canards against immigrants don’t pack the punch they used to. Gallup reports that a record high 75 percent of Americans say immigrants benefit the country, and 84 percent say the same about documented immigrants, which the Tijuana asylum-seekers would be.
Immigrants (documented and undocumented) commit crimes at a lower rate than native-born Americans, and make up a smaller proportional share of the prison population. There is no evidence immigrants take away jobs or depress wages. (Trump’s trade agenda has that covered.)
Although I can name one job that an immigrant took from a native-born American: being Trump’s wife. Well, they say immigrants take the jobs Americans don’t want.
So, if Trump is to dehumanize immigrants, he doesn’t have that many talking points. If a chance at dehumanization comes with the cost of drawing increased media attention to the group in Tijuana and exposing his administration to public censure, that’s a price he’ll pay. After all, his anti-immigrant message was always meant to appeal to a small segment of Americans.
Even Trump’s usage of the word “caravan” to describe the asylum-seekers, which I have avoided in this article, is part of this strategy of dehumanization.
A caravan brings to mind an endlessly wandering people, different from all they encounter, who have no home and do not want one. They may have some exotic appeal when they pass through town, but they can never be trusted, simply because no one knows where they come from. And it’s definitely not the same place as you.
Such a characterization as the eternal “other” has been used to justify atrocities against many groups of people in the past — including Jews, the Roma people, and Native Americans.
Of course, the caravan wants nothing more than a home. And they do come from the same place, or rather places, as us.
However, the emphasis that immigrants are “like us” because of our common backgrounds implies that the only reason we care about immigrants is because we personally identify with them. This not only is disingenuous (We’re not going through what they’re going through, after all), but suggests a mindset not that different from Trump’s favored tactic of othering, where anyone different from you is a threat.
For an example of a better way to defend immigrant communities, read an April 2018 announcement from Pomona College President G. Gabrielle Starr, about Pomona signing an amicus brief in a court case seeking to protect DACA. It begins simply, “Pomona stands united with all DACA and undocumented students … Dreamers’ aspirations speak to the highest ideals of the United States.”
Starr doesn’t go to great lengths to justify why the aspirations of DACA and undocumented students are worth defending. That’s because, ultimately, justification isn’t needed. Because they are people just as much as we are, who have the same fundamental rights to those aspirations.
Ben Reicher PO ‘22 is a contributing writer from Agoura Hills, CA. He joined his high school newspaper in ninth grade because he loved to argue, and hasn’t stopped since.