Invisible enemies, immigration policy, and the language of oppression

Imagine from Swarthmore Phoenix

Political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. ~George Orwell

In light of the attack from the Invisible Enemy, as well as the need to protect the jobs of our GREAT American Citizens, I will be signing an Executive Order to temporarily suspend immigration into the United States. ~Donald Trump, April 20, 2020

I read the news today, oh boy. ~John Lennon


In 1946, George Orwell wrote the essay “Politics and the English Language.” Of particular concern in this essay was what Orwell portrayed as a general decline in the English language, evident in the use of unimaginative metaphors, pretentious diction, extraneous verbs and other operators, and, finally, what he simply calls the use of “meaningless” words. Orwell argues that the general decline in language is both a cause and effect of environmental factors. In his words, language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

Orwell’s particular target was political language, which is constantly deployed to “defend the indefensible.” He writes, “political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification.”  

The manner in which language is used to conceal more than to reveal in the hands of politicians, political commentators and even politically engaged “everyday people” was hardly a new concern, even in 1946. Whether the English language has suffered a general decline is not precisely an empirical question, of course, but if we agree that political language was in a sorry state of affairs in 1946, abused as it was to deflect attention away from the brutality of war and conquest, it is not a huge leap to suggest the language of politics has continued to devolve. Political language has become inherently untruthful. Indeed, we hardly expect honesty at all from our political class any more (beyond what can be defended from our own “standpoint”). The result is brutality, which if commented on at all, is veiled in lies. 

The Invisible Enemy

The segue from this general observation to the Trump administration is not a difficult one. Trump is known to lie pretty much continuously. When he tries to tell a version of the truth, he is often wrong, or minimally, confused about the details. And yet, his administration has been the fulcrum employed to engineer a massive redistribution of wealth – to the wealthy – while gutting every regulatory regime that existed prior to January of 2017. Alongside these activities, his administration has employed a hyper-nationalistic narrative to turn an already brutal immigration system into one of abject cruelty. This brutality has evolved over the years behind consistent use of terms like “criminal alien” and “illegals” (one hardly needs to ask who “illegal” refers to anymore). Justified by this rhetorical twist that turns migration into a crime, the United States has built the largest immigration jail network in the world. Most of the people trapped in this system have committed no crimes, of course, but the language of criminality works here as it works in domestic “criminal” justice to dehumanize.

This network of immigrant jails and the mechanics of removal enfolds otherwise disparate institutions and interests, from thousands of private companies to dozens of county and local police agencies, alongside the largest federal law enforcement agency in the country, into a constituency with a material commitment to maintaining the detention and deportation machine. If there is any doubt about this publicly-funded commitment to profit from the pain of migrants, one need merely look at how the last two months have played out. From the standpoint of reason and public health, detention centers would have been cleared and deportations halted. Border controls, unavoidable in such times, would have been crafted in a way that maximized the provision of health services to migrants (and all of us!) — as it is no one’s human interest to leave people uncared for in the face of a pandemic that is indifferent to the borders we draw around our otherwise imagined communities.

But Trump is not operating from the standpoint of reason nor concern for public health. Unable to even say COVID-19, Trump’s team has sacrificed thousands in order to capitalize on brutality in the fight against the “invisible enemy.” Since early March, the Trump administration has fought against humanitarian releases from detention facilities, has continued to deport thousands of people from those detention facilities to countries around the world, and has engineered a public health crisis at the U.S./Mexico border out of sheer indifference to the human suffering these policies mean for tens of thousands of people. 

“Committed to Health and Welfare”

On Sunday, May 17, 2020, Choung Woong Ahn took his own life at the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center in Bakersfield, California. Ahn was 74 years old and a diabetic. ICE had refused to release Ahn on bond after multiple appeals from family and attorneys since the time he was taken into custody in February. Ahn was a permanent resident. He had been convicted of attempted murder in 2013 and was taken into custody by ICE after he had completed his sentence earlier this year. Given his age and health conditions, there seems little reason to have kept him detained. His crime made him deportable, but he had already served his sentence. If he were a U.S. citizen, he would simply have been sent home. Had he been permitted bond, and allowed to wait for his hearing with family members, he would still be alive.

In the press release announcing the death of Choung Woong Ahn, ICE included this statement: “ICE is firmly committed to the health and welfare of all those in its custody.” If this was remotely true, the people in ICE’s custody would mostly be released. Certainly, they would have been released in the face of a global pandemic. ICE, when pressed, will claim that immigrant detention is civil detention and not intended to be punitive. This is true – legally speaking. And yet behind the prison walls where ICE detains people, those people are brutalized, emotionally scarred, physically scarred and in too many cases, whatever the ultimate outcome of their cases, suffer what will become lifelong trauma as a result. Many take their own lives. Ahn was not the first to do so this year. And sadly, he won’t be the last. We can expect such human losses until the detention machine is shut down.

Overall, Ahn was the eleventh person to die in ICE custody since the fiscal year began on October 1, 2019, and the third person this month. This is the highest annual total of deaths in ICE custody in a long time, and we are only half-way through the year. As a sign that things are about to get far worse, the other two deaths in May were due to COVID-19. As of May 19, ICE reported that 1,145 people in custody have tested positive for COVID-19. Since ICE has only tested 2,194 of the 26,660 people currently being held, the actual number is surely much higher. 

The first person to die in ICE custody as a result of COVID-19 was Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejía. Carlos was born in El Salvador and he fled that country as a child with his mother and sister after his brother was killed during the civil war in 1980. He had lived in the United States for 40 years. Like many people who live in the shadow of trauma, Carlos struggled with addiction and one result was a number of arrests for possession and a DUI. For these offenses, he served sentences like anyone else, and yet, under Clinton-era laws, the convictions made him deportable. With a removal order in place, Carlos was placed in detention at the Otay Mesa Detention Facility after being stopped at a check-point by Border Patrol in January of this year. Carlos also had diabetes severe enough that an injury to one of his feet several years ago led to its amputation. In a wheelchair, diagnosed with hypertension and diabetes, he should have never been detained at all while awaiting his hearings — and certainly should have been released with humanitarian parole once the threat of COVID-19 was apparent. Instead, he was incarcerated. He contracted COVID-19 in detention and died on May 6 after being transferred to a medical facility for treatment.

After forcing Carlos into detention, delaying testing and treatment for COVID-19 until he was very ill, (and in the process exposing many of the people detained with him to the disease as well), ICE also wrote in the release about his death, “ICE is firmly committed to the health and welfare of all those in its custody.”  ICE’s expressed concern for the people in its custody has to be set alongside the tomes of affidavits, reports and inspector general findings that testify to the contrary. Against this wealth of evidence of abuse, denial and/or serious delay in the provision of health services, ICE’s boilerplate expressions of commitment ring hollow. More importantly, what this means is that ICE was unprepared for COVID-19, and, per its track record in dealing with other outbreaks of communicable diseases, ICE has altered its operations only minimally in response to the crisis. For example, in a May 14 letter to ICE director Matthew Albence, congressional leaders wanted to know why…

At the Otay Mesa facility, Marciela Ortiz was assigned with 15 other women to begin working in the kitchen, the same workspace where another detainee had tested positive for the virus. Within days, Ms. Ortiz and other women on the kitchen detail began experiencing coronavirus symptoms. When Ms. Ortiz sought help, she was told to walk around and take a shower. Ms. Ortiz and others with symptoms were left in the general population rather than being isolated. Ms. Ortiz was not able to get tested for coronavirus until after she was released on bond. She tested positive.

Members of the House Oversight and Civil Rights committees have written three letters to Albence demanding answers about scenarios like this since April. They are still waiting. Meanwhile, people keep getting sick.

Óscar López Acosta was born in Honduras. He had been charged for irregular re-entry, having crossed the border after being deported in 2009 and again in 2012. Rather than simply plead out, however, Óscar fought the charge and was held in pre-trial detention for months. In May of 2019, he was released from federal prison after a judge sentenced him to time served for the re-entry charge. Rather than get released, however, he was transferred back into ICE custody, where he remained for another year. On April 24 of this year, after it was confirmed that another person detained with him (and dozens of other people) had tested positive for COVID-19, he was released from Morrow County Jail. Oscar himself tested positive on May 3, and died of complications from the disease on May 17. He should have never been detained. Óscar López Acosta also had diabetes, and ICE knew this. During his trial for irregular re-entry in January of 2019, he went into diabetic shock after jailers forgot to give him his insulin injection. There was no purpose to his detention to begin with, and given his risk factors, he should have certainly been released much sooner. Now he is dead. 

Earlier this month, a federal judge ruled in Fraihat v ICE, that ICE must undertake a mandatory review of everyone in its custody that is at high risk if exposed to COVID-19 and release more people. In making this ruling, the judge noted that ICE had utterly failed to adopt practices consistent with Center for Disease Control and Prevention guidance. He wrote that ICE’s “systemwide inaction” has “likely exhibited callous indifference to the safety and wellbeing” of ICE detainees. It is worth noting that two guards, Carl Lenard and Stanton Johnson, are also among those who have died after contracting Covid-19 in ICE detention facilities. Both worked for Lasalle Corrections at the Richwood facility in Monroe, Louisiana. They, and others working in the facility, had been directed not to wear face masks.

Throughout this system of detention facilities ICE claims 44 people who work for them are confirmed positive for COVID-19. However, ICE does not report on the people employed by contractors. Carl Lenard and Stanton Johnson were never included in this count. So, again, ICE is engaged in spreading serious misinformation about conditions in detention facilities. Of the cases ICE will claim, the facility with the worst outbreak among staff is in Alexandria, Louisiana. This facility is one of several staging facilities used by ICE Air Operations for deportation flights. 15 people have been confirmed positive at this facility. 

Protection?

Over 100 people who have been deported through the same facility over the last month have tested positive once they returned home to Guatemala, Haiti, and Colombia. They may or may not have contracted the disease in Alexandria. They could have gotten it anywhere in ICE’s network of detention facilities. Why? Because ICE continues to transfer people within its network, carelessly spreading the disease by taking people from facilities with high infection rates and transferring them to facilities where there were none. For example, an outbreak at Prairieland, Texas was traced back to a transfer of people from hard hit detention facilities in the Northeast. When ICE was told by a federal judge to reduce crowding in facilities in South Florida – they simply transferred people. The result was an increase in cases at the Broward Transitional Facility from 3 confirmed to 19 over the weekend. All 16 of the new cases were among people transferred from the Krome detention center in Miami.

Under such conditions, ICE’s decision to continue with deportations demonstrates the “callous indifference” with which it views not only the people in custody but the communities from which they originate. The number of people held in ICE detention facilities has fallen from just over 38,000 in March to 26,660 as of May 16. Most of this decline is the result of continuing deportations while book-ins to ICE facilities have fallen off. In March, 20,000 people were booked into ICE detention facilities as a result of border arrests and internal removal operations. That fell to 8,500 in April, and 3,900 through the first half of May. Humanitarian releases have been relatively few and far between, as ICE has fought every effort in court to gain release of people. At the same time, ICE has continued to deport thousands of people.

Using flight information retrieved from FlightAware’s database, Jake Johnston with the Center for Economic and Policy Research has documented 273 likely deportation flights to countries in Latin America and the Caribbean since February 3, 2020. While the pace of flights has slowed somewhat over this time period compared to recent years, it is still an astounding number. Almost all of the destination airports for ICE charters are otherwise closed to international commercial flights, as countries seek to restrict travel and contain the spread of COVID-19. The efforts of governments in Guatemala and Haiti, in particular, to stop deportation flights after people have arrived testing positive, have only resulted in vague promises from ICE that they will be more careful, and pressure from the Trump administration, which threatened to sanction any country that refuses to accept deportation flights. And so ICE’s “callous indifference” to the people in its custody is now the world’s problem as well.

In addition to these deportation flights, 21,000 migrants have been pushed out of the United States into Mexico since mid-March as the Trump administration has used its war against the “invisible enemy” to shut the border. In reality, Trump’s administration has been trying to shut the border to asylum seekers and other immigrants since he took office. Currently, under the guise of a CDC order on restricting border crossings, people seeking asylum at the southern border are denied any hearing. They are simply deported back to Mexico. Many of those from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador are then picked up by Mexico’s immigration authorities, and bused to Mexico’s southern border. There they may be detained, deported, or released with temporary papers. The CDC order that Trump is using to justify this policy was extended indefinitely on May 19. 

Others so removed join the tens of thousands of refugees already crowded into towns along the Mexico-U.S. border who have been waiting, in some cases over a year, for a chance to have their asylum cases heard by a U.S. immigration judge. The hearings they are waiting for have been suspended. The people jammed into border camps, overcrowded shelters, or scratching out a living in the streets of Tijuana, Matamoros and Ciudad Juarez are the unfortunate “beneficiaries” of the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols.

The impact of this policy has already been devastating. 57,000 people forcibly returned to Mexico over the last year to wait, with only a handful receiving asylum through immigration hearings that are a farce. With the border closure and summary expulsion of asylum seekers and others, the situation becomes more overcrowded, unhealthy and uncertain. This week, ProPublica and The Texas Tribune released a report on the impact of these border policies on children. The opening story is of two sisters, ages 8 and 11, who crossed the border at Brownsville after their father disappeared in Matamoros. The family had been waiting for a year for their hearing under the MPP. Instead of reuniting the girls with their mother, who is living in the US, they were held for two months by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, at which point ICE declared their intent to deport them back to El Salvador. As the result of a last-minute appeal, they were reunited with their mother, and are allowed to stay…for now. Other kids have not been so lucky. 1,000 unaccompanied minors have been summarily expelled at the border under the CDC order since mid-March. 

“All I want is the truth”

The Trump administration’s approach to COVID-19 has clearly been to deflect attention and thus responsibility for its own very botched efforts to take the looming crisis seriously back in January and February, when concerted actions might have made a huge difference. In deflecting blame, Trump has rolled out a whole barrage of nonsense, from endorsing conspiracy theories, to popping hydroxychloroquine, to blaming China and Obama. Accompanying the nonsense has been a quieter war on people whose only “crime” is being non-citizens of the United States. On the frontlines of this war, people are also dying. 

While the United States will struggle, perhaps for years, to reverse the damage done by the last two months of crisis, there are fairly simple and reasonable things that can be done today: Allow people to leave detention facilities in this country, reinstate asylum at the border, accompanied by health screening and care, and stop deportations. Aside from boosting capacity to screen and care for people at the border, none of these things really cost money. Indeed, a moratorium on detentions and deportations would save millions. More importantly, these steps would save lives and reduce the chances of infections for everyone.


Get involved

There are efforts afoot to address all of this. We are facing an uphill battle to be sure, but you can weigh in and get involved. Here are a few of the efforts that are already under way: 

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