The Roman historian Tacitus opined long-ago on the destruction of the city of Carthage when he stated: “We created a desert and we call it peace.” Today, during these troubling Trumpian times, Tacitus’ insights have much to teach us about the specter of state-induced violence against immigrants and the nefarious manipulation of language.
President Trump’s fear-based anti-immigrant initiative kicked-off on Sunday, July 14th. That is the day when the Trump administration planned to begin deporting immigrants who failed to appear for their scheduled court date. In effect, these individuals are deemed to be in violation of U.S. law and subject to deportation.
If the past is truly prologue, then we can assert – with a certain degree of certitude – that Trump’s incursion into immigrant neighborhoods will be marked by violations of due process and human rights. This assertion is not made lightly. Its based on the president’s aggressive use of the abrasive language of white supremacy. This hateful language hypes dehumanizing executive orders that foster intolerance along ethnic, racial, and religious lines. These executive policies, otherize and physically constrain what the president calls “bad hombres.” As of late, this abusive strategy of containment has been expanded to include the incarceration – under the most inhumane conditions – of children who have been forcefully separated from their parents and caregivers.
The current federal deportation initiative of fear is adorned with a righteous language that invokes the rule of law. The unbending letter of the law is mouthed ad nauseum by the president in a manner that unequivocally mitigates any sense of empathy and humane connectedness. The Trumpian policy – as publicly rolled out – also includes so-called “collateral deportations. This toxic form of technocratic doublespeak refers to random immigrants that are not specifically listed for immediate deportation, but due to circumstances are ensnared in the roundups. Clearly this approach allows for the casting of a wide immigrant net and creates – by obvious design – a slippery slope that opens the door for the establishment of a wider and generalized immigrant dragnet.
“Collateral deportations” should not be simply viewed as unfortunate happenstance, but as integral component of an incremental and duplicitous strategy designed to: generate and stroke fear across immigrant communities; numerically increase the number of deportable migrants; and appeal to the crude xenophobic instincts that drive the president’s nativist political base.
The short- and long-term outcomes will not be limited to the mere hollowing out of immigrant communities. The initiative is implicitly structured to debilitate and dismantle the ethnic psychic resources that ground migrant neighborhoods with resiliency and purpose. In effect, the fear that will be generated by “collateral deportations” will eviscerate fragile immigrant networks and drain the reservoir of neighborhood-based social capital that fuels community-building. The social and political outcomes are, in short, a concerted attack against immigrant communities of color.
The manufacturing of fear and roundup/expulsion of immigrant “aliens” is a strategy with a dark – albeit largely forgotten trajectory in U.S. history. The expulsions were unabashedly marshalled, during the depression of the 1930s, against Spanish-language migrants and U.S. citizens of Mexican descent. Scholars have estimated that approximately 400,000 Mexicans were expelled during the 1930s. Of those rounded-up and expelled, many were U.S. citizens. For example, on February 26, 1931, La Placita, the historic plaza that functioned as the epi-center of barrio life in Los Angeles was cordoned off and migrants and U.S. citizens of Mexican descent were arbitrarily apprehended. The underlying driver of the racialized roundups was to: foment fear in immigrant barrios; function as an antidote to growing labor militancy along the southern border; and create a submissive and compliant “otherized” workforce that could not compete with native-born workers.
The commonalities between the mass deportations of the 1930s and Trump’s immigrant roundup easily come to mind. First, both policies are predicated on a stark racism that demonizes Mexicans, and collapses undocumented/documented immigrants with U.S. citizens of Mexican descent – thus establishing in the popular mindset the notion that Mexican-Americans are provisional/inauthentic “Americans” – which serves to reinforce their racialized “otherness.” Secondly, both cast a wide net and include – by default – U.S. nationals – that approximate folks with racialized Mexican stereotypical characteristics as targeted objects of these deportation regimes. Thirdly, both deportation strategies undercut the proverbial sanctity of the family which has traditionally been a core element in the ideology of U.S. exceptionalism. Fourthly, both target unauthorized border crossers, visa violators, and individuals who have committed a so-called deportable offense while living in the United States. And lastly, both regimes were implicitly designed to debilitate and reconfigure – along a more compliant axis – the internal spatial and institutional structures that define immigrant communities.
Beyond the commonalities in kind there also exist significant differences in degree between the two regimes. The expulsions during the Great Depression were managed by local municipalities and state governments. This decentralized approach is in counter distinction to the Trumpian policy which is administratively centralized and federalized. It should also be noted that left-of-center resistance to the Trumpian expulsions is situated at the localized domain of municipal and state government, which has been the traditional terrain of right-wing conservative impulses.
The Mexican expulsions, are largely driven by race and the ideological precepts of white supremacy. According to the scholar Mae M. Ngai, the scale of the expulsions during the 1930s were only surpassed by the racially-driven federal removal of Native Americans during the nineteenth century. With this backdrop, what awaits us will not be a unique development in the history of U.S immigration, but a continuation of the politics of subjugation and subordination. But as we know, historical events are not preordained. Which means, that during this moment of systemic crisis, it’s imperative to organize, mobilize, and resist. The “times they are a-changing” and politically conscious folks must struggle – to the best of their abilities – for an agenda that revolves around social justice and the defeat of Donald J. Trump who represents a threat to one and all.
Arturo Ignacio Sánchez, Ph.D. is an urban planner and the former chairperson of the “Newest New Yorker Committee” of Community Board 3, Queens. He has taught at Barnard College, City University of New York, Columbia University, Cornell University, New York University, Pratt Institute, and various Latin American universities.