Euphemisms can be well-intentioned. Perhaps the most famous of all New Yorker cartoons depicts a mother offering a plate of greens to her toddler. “It’s broccoli, dear,” she says. The toddler glares at the plate and says, “I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it.”
Euphemisms can also mask evil intent and remarkable cruelty. Consider the term “self-deportation.” Promoted to one degree or another by various proponents of curtailing immigration, this is typically described as the notion that the flow of immigrants into the United States, and the percentage of the U.S. population represented by undocumented immigrants, can be reduced by taking away economic and other incentives for them to enter or remain in this country, so that they never come or they decide to leave after arrival. A quick scan of such a description might suggest that self-deportation is a relatively moderate political goal that relies on voluntary acts rather than draconian changes to existing law.
Think about that. The decision to flee one’s home country permanently and come to a strange land is not made lightly. Many refugees seek to escape starvation, persecution, torture or certain death, which could be due to their ethnicity, gender or gender orientation, political beliefs or religion, or it could be simply because conditions in their country of origin make it impossible to stay. Such people often have a legal right to asylum.
What the concept of encouraging “self-deportation” embraces is intentionally making conditions in the United States worse for undocumented immigrants than the conditions in the country from which they fled. Not the American Dream, but the American Nightmare. On purpose.
Consider one of the most egregious ideas, that undocumented parents be separated from their children at the border, with the parents placed in a detention center for adults and their children in a children’s detention center. This proposal, which had the stated goal of deterring families from making the journey in the first place by threatening to have their children pulled from their presence and separately incarcerated, was seriously advanced by the Department of Homeland Security until public outcry forced it to be walked back. The Advocates for Human Rights was one of 184 organizations that have signed onto a letter to Secretary John Kelly of the Department of Homeland Security, registering outraged protests over this proposal. Among other objections, the letter points out that family unity is a fundamental human right under international law, and that the American Academy of Pediatrics has called the proposal “harsh and counterproductive” and pointed to the inevitable emotional and physical trauma to children from family separation
The proposal to separate families by no means exhausted the ingenuity of the “self-deportation” advocates. An anti-immigrant organization that calls itself the Immigration Law Reform Institute has promulgated a menu of 24 methods by which state and local legislatures can make life miserable for immigrants while supposedly minimizing the danger of being found in contravention of federal immigration authority. The related Federation for American Law Reform (cutely called “FAIR”) has published a similar list of anti-immigrant actions to be taken by the federal government, entitled “Immigration Priorities for the 2017 Presidential Transition.”
To refer once again to the New Yorker, the issue of April 3, 2017 contains an article by Rachel Aviv entitled “The Apathetic.” It tells of the heartbreaking suffering of refugees, especially children, resulting both from the trauma which they flee and from the prospect of deportation. In Sweden hundreds of children aged eight to fifteen, all refugees and most from Russia or the former Yugoslavia, have fallen prey to what Swedish psychologists are calling resignation syndrome. In response to the emotional trauma resulting from the prospect of deportation and return to their countries of origin, these children simply fade away. They stop speaking, lose muscle tone, stop eating, and become mute, incontinent and unresponsive to stimuli, including pain. The article compares this syndrome, the particular symptoms of which are likely culture-related, to other severe psychological reactions to the emotional trauma suffered by refugees, such as when one hundred and fifty Cambodian women who had seen family members tortured by the Khmer Rouge lost the ability to see, or when Laotian refugees would cry out in their sleep and die, apparently frightened to death by their dreams.
Think about these refugees and what sort of trauma could cause the body to shut down in this fashion. Then think about comfortable, intelligent Americans who advocate that our country should intentionally create an environment for those refugees that is less nurturing and less attractive than they already face, and do so in order to promote “self-deportation.” Does putting America First require us to make ourselves ashamed of our country?
I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it.
By James O’Neal, volunteer attorney and Vice Chair of The Advocates for Human Rights’ Board of Directors.