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State of Disunion

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Calling Immigrants “Animals” Is Just the Beginning


Separating children from parents and dehumanizing immigrants, the Trump administration is engaging in a politics of depravity reminiscent of the Third Reich.



Immigrants in America today serve the role that the Jews did in the early days of Hitler’s ascension to power: They are blamed and targeted and persecuted. In a U.S. coal mine filled with dead canaries, the orchestrated mistreatment of immigrants, dressed up as “law and order,” is a kind of über-canary, a blaring warning that the U.S. has started down a path of cruelty that may end in horror. What Trump—together with Jeff Sessions, John Kelly, and Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen—has done is set up the legal framework for what I call a Politics of Depravity.

This is a politics that uses racist and prejudicial rhetoric and lies to scapegoat immigrants, and then deploys that same language to justify ever-harsher policies and giving free reign to border and ICE agents to terrorize them and even to profile and harass U.S. citizens. In adopting gratuitously cruel policies, Trump, Sessions, and Kelly have given the full imprimatur of the U.S. government to what had previously been a quietly reported and alarming practice: separating children from their parents at the border. As Masha Gessen noted in her New Yorker piece, an official policy of taking children from their families is a form of state-sponsored terror typically practiced by authoritarian regimes to cow populations.

In making the Hitler comparison, I am not suggesting that immigrants are about to be placed in ovens or gas chambers, nor am I  equating the administration’s policies against immigrants with the Final Solution. But I am talking about the trajectory that could lead to something like it. Immigrants in the U.S. are not only being detained in facilities and then deported, they are being criminally prosecuted for coming here at all even though they are typically seeking asylum and refuge from gang violence, and they are being forcibly separated from their children,  even from their babies. When that happens, the children are treated as if they are unaccompanied minors,  placed into government facilities run by the Department of Health and Human Services, and then into temporary living arrangements with strangers. In 2017, the government lost track of almost 1,500 of such children. We are setting the stage for mass deportations as people rot in detention centers with children thousands of miles away.

Death camps and systematic murder at the hands of the state are not the only measures of depravity—Hitler did not start out murdering Jews, either. He started out as Trump has:  using the language of demonization and dehumanization that both plays on pre-existing prejudices and normalizes that prejudice across the population; the prejudice then becomes its own, unquestioned justification for later official state policy predicated on that very prejudice. We are seeing that pattern replicated here.

Trump made anti-immigration, particularly attacks on Mexican and Latino immigrants, a centerpiece of his campaign, and his administration has hewed closely to that strategy. Trump’s one-dimensional approach to immigration is grounded not in any attempt to balance the interests of treating people humanely, providing asylum for those who qualify, or permitting law-abiding undocumented immigrants a way of remaining here, with the need for deterring illegal immigration. There is no balance. There is simply arrest, and deportation, and the demonization of immigrants as criminals to justify his refusal to engage in any balance at all.

Most recently, in decrying sanctuary cities, Trump denied the humanity of immigrants entirely: “These aren’t people. These are animals.”  Few missed the chilling similarity to Hitler’s demonization of Jews as rats (animals who required extermination). While he later claimed to be referring specifically to members of the M-13 gang, neither his statement nor his past comments nor the context differentiated between this tiny percentage of immigrants and others. 

This past Monday marked a new low and a turning point in the conflation of linguistic dehumanization and official policy: The White House put up on its website a piece called “What You Need to Know About the Violent Animals of MS-13. MS-13 gang members are referred to as “animals” no less than eight times in a single page. The site recounts in gruesome detail several of their horrific crimes, and the point could not be more clear: In the face of criticism of his off-the-cuff remarks that earned him rebuke for calling immigrants “animals,” he has doubled-down and transformed his casual dehumanization into an official White House communication and policy position. The United States government is now, in official communications, labeling human beings “animals” to serve Trump’s political ends, in his thuggish voice. 

And the White House website notably draws no distinction between members of this gang and the thousands of Central Americans fleeing the violence in their home countries to try to escape them. That is no accident. Trump routinely invokes the specter of rampant crime to tar all immigrants with illegality, and uses false sweeping statements about criminality to justify draconian policy changes that do, in fact, treat immigrants more like animals than human beings. Trump has long pretended that immigrants bring “tremendous crime,” and that violent criminals and would-be terrorists are simply pouring into this nation in a kind of epidemic.  But those statements are false. In particular, illegal border crossings are the lowest they have been in 40 years, and the percentage of immigrants who commit crimes is lower than the citizen population’s. Trump deliberately speaks about violent crimes committed by the few to stoke fears and prejudice against all immigrants and build support for his policies against them.

Jeff Sessions and John Kelly also have dehumanized immigrants to further Trump’s xenophobic narrative. For example, Kelly defended the cruel policy of separating children from their parents by saying that the children would be “put into foster care or whatever.” His callous suggestion that terrified children would suffer not at all being ripped from their parents, and his “or whatever” signaled his total indifference to the children’s (and their parents’) pain and the cruelty of the policy. And in the very next sentence, he pivoted to this: “But the big point is they elected to come illegally into the United States and this is a technique that no one hopes will be used extensively or for very long.” The word “technique” recalls the Bush administration’s use of the same euphemism to refer to torture; an antiseptic term meant to sanitize and mask the cruelty of the action, which was also “justified” based on putative outcomes and without any regard for the humanity of those subjected to it.

Sessions, in announcing the administration’s new, depraved “zero tolerance” policy, painted all asylum seekers coming to the border as inherently criminal in nature, characterizing their travel with their own children as “smuggling” and the “smuggling” as a justification both for prosecution and for ripping their children from them. And, of course, the prior policy, which entailed not criminally prosecuting first-time attempted border-crossers, was informally known as “catch and release”—the same phrase used in  fishing policy. Human beings are hunted, caught, and released like so many salmon or trout. Animals.

The fact that the U.S. has adopted inhumane policies and used demonizing rhetoric to legitimize the inhumanity, matters. It matters because it is certainly true that inhumane, zero-tolerance, vicious policies have a deterrent effect. Authoritarian policies are often more efficient and effective than democratic policies in deterring behavior; when free speech is met with a threat of death from the state, free speech withers—as has happened historically in Russia. When the prospect of drug dealing is met with the threat of summary execution without trial, as is happening now in the Philippines, drug dealing decreases. When the prospect of illegal immigration into the United States is met with criminal prosecution and loss of your children, it is likely that policy will have a deterrent effect too.

But that does not make it right, or acceptable. This is an inhumane politics of depravity that knows no nuance; one that elevates deterrence over all other values. Official U.S. policy is now a policy of utter cruelty, characterized by punishment and terrorism of innocent children. Official U.S. policy is thus now aligned with that of some of the world’s worst despots.

We kid ourselves if think these cruel policies will be short-lived, or not get worse. Indeed, Trump’s immigration stance has become progressively worse over time. During the campaign he claimed his focus would be removing from the U.S. the “bad hombres” —undocumented immigrants who were guilty of violent crimes. But instead he has used his “illegal” and “criminal” rhetoric to broaden his approach from those who have been convicted of violent crimes to those who have been convicted of any crime (no matter how minor or long ago) to those who have been arrested, and then to any one here at all. Trump is detaining and deporting women who report domestic violence; people who have lived in the U.S. productively for decades; people with American spouses and children; people who run their own businesses and/or are otherwise gainfully employed and serving their communities—shattering families and causing untold heartache and economic hardship. The number of immigrants with no criminal record who have been arrested for being here illegally doubled in 2017 and has surged again in 2018.

Further, Trump’s methods of ripping families apart have become their own form of domestic terrorism: setting up dragnets, camping out in front of schools to nab parents dropping off their children, tricking people into legally showing up for appointments and then summarily arresting them, targeting and deporting dreamers and immigrant activists, storming into homes to terrify children as their parents are ripped from them, and so on. ICE now feels like the Gestapo. The practice is cruel, unmoored from any practical need, and serves no economic or other purpose other than to inflict gratuitous and exemplary punishment. Demonization, lies, cruelty, naked propaganda; the State deployed to inflict maximum pain divorced from legitimate outcome.

It is this abusiveness, this absence of proportion or nuance, this sense of ICE run amok, of people, including American or wholly Americanized children living in fear, that draws natural comparisons to Hitler. For here, in America, Trump’s abusive language started us along a trajectory of policy change that has incrementally other-ized and harmed those under attack.

Language paves the way for policy; language sets its stage and creates the argument for the vicious laws that follow. That is the trajectory Hitler followed; he went from using the language of prejudice against Jews, to scapegoating them, to persecuting them. This is the trajectory that Trump has placed the U.S. on in how we treat immigrants—and it has had the collateral effect of legitimizing the demonization of and even detention and arrest of legal immigrants and U.S. citizens.

Is it any wonder that cities with major immigrant populations have declared themselves sanctuaries? Under Trump, immigration policy seems more like persecution; deportation seems twisted and wrong, divorced from any rational policy outcome or notion of fairness or proportion, for he makes no distinction between the gang member and the gang victim; between the parents who have been here for years as productive members of society, and the occasional law breaker without a job. It is no wonder that immigrants now hide in safe houses and that there is a network of people risking themselves to help others in the same way that some Christians risked their lives to help Jews during the Holocaust. Because what this country is doing in our names is evil and wrong. Yes, we have intractable problems around illegal immigration and we have not figured out the best way to address it. But adopting a politics of depravity worthy of the world’s worst governments is not the answer that any democratic or humane society should be willing to accept.

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