Opinion: What’s really behind the dehumanization of immigrants?

Coils of razor wire installed by Texas National Guard soldiers as well as a floating barrier ordered by Texas Governor Greg Abbott lie along the Rio Grande on Jan. 10, in Eagle Pass, Texas.

Coils of razor wire installed by Texas National Guard soldiers as well as a floating barrier ordered by Texas Governor Greg Abbott lie along the Rio Grande on Jan. 10, in Eagle Pass, Texas. John Moore / Getty Images / TNS


Published: 01-29-2024 6:00 AM

Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot.

My sister, Lisa Baird, was an immigration attorney. Before she died in 2009, she had a very active private practice in Philadelphia where she represented people who were seeking asylum and trying to avoid deportation from the United States.

Lisa had a wide variety of clients including a Ugandan child soldier, Salvadoran asylum seekers, victims of female genital mutilation, Vietnamese boat people, Japanese and Chinese restaurant workers and an Indonesian woman of Chinese ancestry who was persecuted for being ethnically Chinese and Christian in a society that was predominantly Muslim.

Earlier in her legal career, Lisa had worked for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society also know as HIAS. Historically, HIAS had focused on helping Russian Jews who were trying to emigrate to the United States. Lisa played a role in moving HIAS toward representing a far wider client base. She was met with some resistance inside HIAS about the clients she was representing.

Readers may remember that the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooter was obsessed with HIAS because it was Jewish and it helped refugees. Before his attack, the shooter posted on social media: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics. I’m going in.”

With the shooter in mind, I couldn’t help but think about my sister’s role in moving HIAS toward a goal of broader immigration representation. In his demented way, the shooter was talking about Lisa and others like her. The stories my sister told about her clients often had similar themes. Many of her clients had lived in the United States for decades without incident. Typically, there was some crime or incident of bad judgment earlier in their life that came back to haunt their immigration case.

In hearing Lisa’s stories, I was always struck by the specificity and uniqueness of her clients’ situations. Her clients were often fully integrated into American life and far removed from earlier foreign residences. They were almost exactly like other Americans except for the matter of their immigration status. Who they got as a judge often made a big difference in their chance of success in their immigration case. Her clients wanted what other Americans wanted: a chance to live a good life, with their family.

Over the course of the last fifteen years, since my sister’s death, there has been a worsening in how immigration is talked about. What passes for public discussion is the opposite of the specificity that I learned from my sister. Immigrants are talked about as an undifferentiated mass. Rather than individuals with personal stories, they became a faceless horde and, without basis, they are blamed by politicians for the nation’s problems.

I would suggest the scapegoating of immigrants is rooted in racism. The MAGA narrative is the great replacement theory where Black and brown immigrants are seen as replacing those Tucker Carlson calls “legacy Americans” which means white people. The false accusation is that somehow illegal immigrants will magically become eligible Democratic voters skewing the electorate away from the interests of white people.

Former President Trump referred to Haiti, El Salvador and African countries as “shithole nations” and he expressed a preference for immigrants from Norway. Trump baselessly disparaged Haitians saying “hundreds of thousands are fleeing in and probably have AIDS.” In December, he said immigrants from South America, Africa and Asia are “poisoning the blood of the nation.” He has touted the Eisenhower-era Operation Wetback as a model he would emulate.

These racist comments are consistent with an immigration system that is institutionally racist. Its origins go back to the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. More recently, Black and brown immigrants face disproportionate detention and deportation. We create more and more hurdles for Central Americans seeking asylum. The conditions of confinement in ICE detention facilities remain abysmal and inhumane. Trashy treatment is considered acceptable for people who are viewed as trash.

Lost is the fact that non-citizens are less likely to commit crimes than those born in the United States. The blame associated with immigrants is rooted in fear, not facts. Nor do we ever consider the American responsibility for why so many people are fleeing from Central America.

As Douglas Massey, a professor at Princeton, has written about Central American migration, saying, “The migration from there is the direct result of U.S. interventions in the 1980’s. Back then, the U.S. intervened directly in El Salvador and Honduras, on the side of right-wing/military regimes, and the Reagan administration enthusiastically endorsed a similar government in Guatemala that carried out a genocide against indigenous people in the Mayan highlands.”

The awfulness of our treatment of immigrants was driven home by the recent deaths of three migrants, including two children, who drowned near Eagle Pass, Texas. The deaths were unnecessary. Texas state authorities blocked the U.S. Border Patrol from accessing 2.5 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border near Eagle Pass. They made a potential rescue impossible. The Department of Homeland Security issued a statement: “The Texas governor’s policies are cruel, dangerous and inhumane and Texas’s blatant disregard for federal authority over immigration poses grave risks.”

This is a statement from the federal government, not advocates. Under Texas Senate Bill 4, the state is trying to usurp authority from the federal government even though it is well-settled law that immigration laws can only be enforced by the federal government. The Border Patrol has sole legal authority to search for non-citizens within 25 miles of the border.

Texas has been particularly vicious in installing concertina wire fencing on private property along the Rio Grande River. It has also installed a stretch of orange spherical buoys loaded with razor wire in the Rio Grande to deter and trap migrants trying to cross the river. Texas state troopers found a dead body lodged in the buoys last August.

The federal government had to sue at the Supreme Court to stop Texas’s ultra-aggressive anti-immigration initiatives and by a 5-4 vote the Supreme Court just blocked Texas. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, along with other Republicans, is using immigration as a wedge political issue. Democrats have only weakly responded. Too often border security is demagogued for political gain.

We are in one of those periods in American life where there is a widespread reluctance and refusal to recognize both the legacy of racism and its current incarnation. Racial denialism doesn’t serve America. It is almost delusional to see Republican primary voters in places like Iowa or New Hampshire cite border security as a major concern. This is not a problem at their doorstep.

The great majority of immigrants seeking refuge and asylum in the United States have compelling personal stories. No one would make the dangerous trek to our southern border if they didn’t have very good reasons. Rather than a Fox News stereotype, progress would be looking at those seeking entry into the U.S. as individuals with complex stories who deserve due process and an individualized determination on immigration eligibility.