“Refugees” and “Illegals”: Our Dehumanizing Discourse on Migrants

One of the peculiarities about the modern age is that it is possible to see the same issue framed in two very different ways almost simultaneously. Since October, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has detained more than 50,000 unaccompanied children attempting to cross the southwestern U.S. border after traveling from El Salvador, Honduras and other Central American countries. Government officials place most of the children in congested detention centers as they scramble to process and deport the migrants back to their nations of origin.

This morning I came across the following picture:


I do not know which is the more provocative claim: that the influx of migrants to the United States is secretly a jihadist plot or that the Rio Grande has apparently completely dried up. Of course, crazy right-wing propaganda such as this is nothing new, and most people can share insane e-mails forwarded to them by their grandparents making similar outlandish and inaccurate claims. It is, however, fascinating to compare the message of the image with even just the headline of this NPR story: “U.N. Urges U.S. To Treat Migrants As Refugees.”

On the one hand, you have the narrative that brown-skinned Spanish-speaking non-Americans are lining up to be catapulted (literally) into the United States to steal jobs and commit crime, contrasted with an approach that treats the issue as a humanitarian crisis, with the migrants involved to be treated as human beings fleeing terrible conditions in search of a better life. Unfortunately, I do not need to tell you which of these portrayals prevails when dealing with this topic.

In Murrieta, CA, the mayor of the city called on residents to protest the transportation of recent migrants to a U.S. detention facility, depicting the migrants as a threat to public safety. Throngs of right-wing protestors descended on the city and succeeded in diverting three buses away from the facility. Rather than the Statue of Liberty calling out for the “huddled masses” that greeted new arrivals at Ellis Island, the migrants at Murrieta received vitriol and hate from a mob that believed only criminals and parasites sat within those buses, instead of children who had yet to fully form actual identities.

One might think that it takes a special kind of monster to make it their mission to spew loathing at children, but Hispanic migrants in the U.S. are so frequently dehumanized467px-Ellis_Island_arrivals and degraded in popular discourse that it should come as no surprise. The very term “illegal immigrant” (sometimes shortened to just “illegal”) defines migrants as fundamentally felonious, a mere life support system for the concept of law-breaking. With migrants so defined, to advocate for their interests is to promote injustice, to be “soft” on crime – even when that “crime” walks, talks, and has a family. If you refer to them instead as “refugees,” however, this brings forth feelings of compassion and humanitarian intervention. However, thanks to the power of language, people fleeing war and extreme poverty in Darfur or Kosovo are “refugees,” but people fleeing war and extreme poverty in Central America are not.

The difference? “Refugees” in Africa and Eastern Europe are removed from our immediate lives, sad pictures and video clips only encountered on the evening news. Our assistance is also minimal (“For just pennies a day…”) or militaristic (bombing Serbia into submission), and therefore more digestible somehow. The Latino “illegals” on our doorstep, however, require that we actually care for them, feed them, shelter them, grant them human rights and – dare I say it – live among us. The poor souls wept over by Jeffrey Sachs and Angelina Jolie, fought over by Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, somehow cease to matter when they inhabit the bodies of our national neighbors to the south.

This is despite the fact (or perhaps because) the U.S. can claim much more responsibility for what has happened in Central America than in most other places ofFrente_Sur_Contras_1987 the world. After all, the U.S. acted as a major player in the civil wars that tore apart El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala in the 1980s. That noted spendthrift, Ronald Reagan, provided more than $4 billion in economic and military assistance to the army of El Salvador, which in turn kidnapped and “disappeared” more than 30,000 people. Death squads massacred thousands of innocent people, all in the name of putting down left-wing guerillas. Most infamously, a U.S.-trained unit killed six Jesuit priests for daring to work on behalf of the impoverished, meaning they must have been sympathetic to communism. In Nicaragua, the Reagan administration backed the contras to the tune of $1 billion, with the CIA encouraging contra leaders to kill, kidnap, rob and torture civilians to bring down the Sandinista government. In nearby Honduras, the U.S. government essentially created a puppet state to serve as a staging ground, while also using government entities like Battalion 3-16 to commit extrajudicial killings of local Marxists. In Guatemala, the U.S.-backed military dictatorship there killed more than 200,000 people over 35 years of bloody tyranny. If conditions in these countries are so rotten that their people are fleeing to come here, we should acknowledge that we are responsible for that suffering.

Obviously, dealing with our awful legacy in Central America cannot be resolved overnight. But there are some simple ways the U.S. could improve how it is handling the treatment of migrant children. As a recent report by Human Rights Watch proposes, the U.S. should only detain unaccompanied children as a last resort, releasing them as soon as possible. They should have access to legal representation and guardians that will look out for their interests. Ideally, they should not face screenings with heavily armed Border Patrol officers, but professionals trained to interact with children should conduct the required screenings.

As to our larger social tendency to dehumanize Hispanic migrants and our collective amnesia regarding our involvement in Central America, those are subjects that will only be discussed once they are brought out of the shadows and confronted. Since it is easier to wave a U.S. flag and shout nationalist slogans than it is to come to terms with harsh truths, that is not likely to happen anytime soon, unfortunately.


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