Abandoned, a girl lies on a damp floor in a dark room. Carrying a child inside of her after being raped, she herself was still a child. This is just one of many cases of misery caused by President Donald Trump’s 2018 family separation policy. The majority of children suffered from mental trauma, and then there is “trauma after trauma.” Many, like the girl, suffered from a catastrophe with potentially lifelong impacts.
In April 2018, the Trump administration announced a “zero tolerance” policy on illegal immigration, in effect allowing families to be separated at the U.S.-Mexico border. This policy seemed to be aimed at deterring an influx of illegal immigration, as Attorney General Jeff Sessions said, “If you cross the border unlawfully … then we will prosecute you. … If you’re smuggling a child … that child will be separated from you.” Enforcing such a policy, the Trump administration presented itself as saving the U.S. from the negative effects of illegal immigration.
But it’s not obvious how using taxpayers’ money to separate young children from their families somehow contributes to “making America great again.” Moreover, such a policy seems to be motivated by the harmful stereotypical belief that immigrants are criminals and murderers, which Trump affirmed by saying, “(Mexican illegal immigrants) are bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
Many criticize Trump for bringing out such a policy. But is it his fault alone? This policy represents an extreme version of deep-rooted prejudices, which many act on every day. It is our society telling the single story of immigrants corrupting our country that encouraged this policy of family separation.
Statistics surrounding illegal immigrants tell another story, however. Research has suggested that illegal immigrants do not commit crimes at a greater rate than American citizens who were born in the U.S. Between 2007 and 2016, the crime rate across most areas remained flat, while the number of undocumented immigrants increased from zero to 1,500 people (out of a 100,000-person population). There’s no relationship between violent crime rates and the illegal immigrant population.
So what have immigrants done wrong to generate these persistent assumptions, to bring on such a reputation and fate for themselves?
In asking these questions, the first mistake is to regard immigrants as alien and abnormal. We unconsciously divide immigrants from the traditional American identity — often imagined as white, Christian and middle-class — and we project whatever we feel cannot be associated with this identity onto them. For example, if white American citizens are tagged with “wealthy” and “well-educated,” then immigrants are “lazy” and “uneducated” — any negative traits white Americans want to purge are then attributed to immigrants.
This process of demonizing Mexican immigrants is one form of othering, or an instant generalization. Once they are viewed as a nonself compared to the self — the white American identity — they can be freely abused. This othering demeans the nonself as inferior. Furthermore, the nonself (the immigrant) is to be feared because people tend to fear everything unfamiliar. Ongoing fear produces the image of immigrants as “murderers” or “criminals” without an actual basis in reality. Otherness forms a clear dichotomy and incompatibility between “us” and “them,” so treating immigrants as if they don’t have ordinary human needs, such as maintaining a family, becomes common.
The assumption of immigrants as “job stealers” can also be explained through othering. The contradiction within the social image of immigrants reveals the problem with this assumption. In order to compete with Americans, immigrants have to be hardworking. But another damaging stereotype of immigrants is that they’re lazy. This contradictory, negative image of immigrants is the outcome of an accumulative process of othering that is entirely indifferent to consistent reasoning.
Nowadays, it’s very easy to involuntarily other immigrants. When we tell the story of immigrants as “others,” we position Americans over immigrants. When immigrants are only associated with negativity, their inferiority reinforces the superiority of “us.” When we tell the same story again and again, the monolith of “bad immigrants” becomes real.
One might argue that even if these immigrants are not evil human beings, they are still responsible for whatever fate they might face in the U.S., such as the family separation policy. Because immigrants have choices, they need to face the consequences of their actions. But this view does not capture the reality that many immigrants face.
Imagine a person in a sinking boat, weighed down by all of his goods. As a rational agent, he can choose whether to lose all of his valuables and let the boat float or to hold on to them but allow the boat to sink. The person chooses to throw away all of the valuables to survive. This person in one sense has a choice, but he doesn’t have options.
Immigrants, such as those affected by the family separation policy, are likely to face a similar dilemma, making the choice to immigrate in order to survive. These are known as push and pull factors. For example, factors, such as disease and poverty, can “push” immigrants out of their original countries and “pull” them into a new country because of other factors, such as the presence of job opportunities, for example.
Before migrating, immigrants evaluate these factors. They know there is a risk in coming into a country, legally or illegally, and yet they choose to come. We believe that it’s their fault for letting this destiny befall them. But the concept of push-pull factors present a rational entity who can choose like a free agent. But, as a Triqui immigrant stated in an interview, “In Oaxaca, there’s no work for us. … A shoe like this costs 300 Mexican pesos. It’s difficult. We come here, and it is a little better. … We still suffer.”
Push-pull factors provide the structural context that constrains choice. They don’t give immigrants options to evaluate; they eliminate options for them. Choosing voluntarily doesn’t mean choosing freely: Immigrants migrate to survive.
Immigrants are often seen as making free choices that entirely determine their fate. But when irrational assumptions are cleared out, the family separation policy seems more like a failure of empathy and understanding. Trump enforced such a policy to protect “us.” But the hatred that often comes with this identification makes people blind. Only by seeing immigrants without prejudice can we truly understand them, and only by understanding them can we produce more policies that truly benefit the United States.
Dahlia Li is a freshman at UC Berkeley, double majoring in philosophy and comparative literature.