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Moral Blindness and Immigration in America

The Trump administration's inhumane approach to immigration

Reactions to Donald Trump’s immigration policies — whether in the Supreme Court’s upholding of the Muslim ban, rejection of domestic and gang violence as valid reasons for asylum or, more pointedly, the separation of families seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexican border, have primarily focused on the architects of such policies: President Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielson and Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar. And yet, it is not only the heads of the various governmental agencies who are responsible, but the numerous correction and immigration officers, especially those employed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), in conjunction with law enforcers, who are carrying out the orders that have turned the international right to asylum into a criminal offense.

Official policy cannot be enacted without a vast bureaucracy of people who agree to their individual tasks within the system. Through bureaucratic authority and policy decisions, pleas for asylum are rejected because the foreigner at the border has been defined as a criminal charged with unlawful entry while their child has been categorized as an “unaccompanied minor” with an unclear family relation to the adult with whom they entered the country. The arrest of migrants at the border, seizing of children from their parents’ arms, placing into processing centers, transporting of separated children from detention centers to “tender age” centers and foster homes across the U.S. is a huge administrative operation. Without a bureaucratic apparatus of administrators who choose not to look or listen to the human cries of those whom they are arresting, separating and incarcerating, we would not be where we are today.

As immortalized by Kafka’s short story, “Before the Law,” the individual is at the mercy of a bureaucratic gatekeeper who protects the law. For Kafka, it is impossible for the suppliant to question the validity and justice of the law. There is no justice, only the law. There are no answers, only the law.

“Before the law sits a gatekeeper. To this gatekeeper comes a man from the country who asks to gain entry into the law. But the gatekeeper says that he cannot grant him entry at the moment. The man thinks about it and then asks if he will be allowed to come in later on. “It is possible,” says the gatekeeper, “but not now.” At the moment the gate to the law stands open, as always, and the gatekeeper walks to the side, so the man bends over in order to see through the gate into the inside. When the gatekeeper notices that, he laughs and says: “If it tempts you so much, try it in spite of my prohibition. But take note: I am powerful. And I am only the most lowly gatekeeper. But from room to room stand gatekeepers, each more powerful than the other. I can’t endure even one glimpse of the third.”

The Trump administration’s immigration policies are a chilling reminder of the power of bureaucratic gatekeepers to distance themselves from the reality and humanity of those who stand before them. The logic of efficiency is that the end justifies the means. The political end of a secure border justifies the inhumane means of family separation. Doing one’s job, not asking questions, following orders are the hallmarks of bureaucratic administration. And yet, as Herbert Marcuse points out, bureaucratic rationalization may be deeply irrational. “We are again confronted with one of the most vexing aspects of advanced industrial civilization: the rational character of its irrationality.” [1]

Beyond the audacious cruelty of family separations, the flagrant violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the Geneva Convention on Refugees (1951 and 1967), what is the rational benefit of Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy? At face value, it is irrational, inefficient and inhumane: parents and children are placed into two separate bureaucratic worlds that run parallel to one another. Parents are treated as suspected criminals and children as “unaccompanied minors” when most entered the country along with their parents. As if confirming Kafka and Marcuse, the accused, along with members of NGOs, human rights advocacy groups and immigration lawyers, stand before the law as witnesses to its sovereign power.

The policy of separating families without any clear path for re-unification, combined with the possibility that some parents may be deported while their children remain in the U.S., is testimony to what Zygmunt Bauman and Leonidas Donskis characterize as “moral blindness” and “liquid evil.” “The liquid modern variety of adiaphorization is cut after the pattern of the consumer-commodity relation, and its effectiveness relies on the transplantation of that pattern to interhuman relations.” [2] Inspired by Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil, their trenchant reflections on the rationalization of “enhanced interrogation techniques” during the Bush administration shed light on the numbing processes of moral blindness that are endemic to current immigration policies. However, while the U.S. policy of torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay was shrouded in secrecy, the Trump administration’s separation of families and criminalization of migrants seeking asylum openly ignores international law and human rights. When confronted by international outcry over the violation of human rights of migrant families, Nikki Haley, U.S. Ambassador to the UN responded: “We will remain a generous country, but we are also a sovereign country, with laws that decide how best to control our borders and protect our people.” Even more sharply, she stated: “Neither the United Nations nor anyone else will dictate how the United States upholds its borders.”

For Arendt, Adolf Eichmann’s administrative organization and deportation of Jews to concentration camps epitomized the banality of evil as he shielded himself behind bureaucratic language or Amtsprache. Protected by such dehumanizing language, he felt exonerated in his Pontius Pilate moment at the Wahnsee Conference. What immediately struck Arendt during Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem was his lack of malicious intent. “He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing.” [3] He didn’t seem to hate Jews, nor did he seem particularly monstrous or sadistic. Eichmann characterized himself as an ordinary bureaucrat and functionary in the Nazi party, who cared first and foremost about the advancement of his own career. For Arendt, Eichmann was terrifying in his normality. He was, as she wrote, a nobody. Looking back, Eichmann now appears to be more of a somebody than a nobody; however, Arendt’s point is worth reflecting on today. The cruel policy of separating children from their parents can only happen if nobodies do the work of arresting, separating and detaining. The normalization of defining Jews as vermin, superfluous, unwanted and less than human bears more than a haunting similarity to the bureaucratic language of the Trump administration’s demonization of the migrant as an infestation, gang member, rapist and criminal.

As Bauman and Donskis argue, moral blindness as adiaphora or indifference is the temporary withdrawal of sensitivity towards others. Moral blindness places “certain acts and/or omitted acts regarding certain categories of humans outside the moral-immoral axis—that is, outside the ‘universe of moral obligations’ and outside the realm of phenomena subject to moral evaluation…”[4] Charged with the crime of illegal entry, the migrant, defined as an infestation becomes an enemy who should be caged and detained. He or she is no longer a human being with rights protected by the Geneva Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Moreover, since, as Yvonne Vissing recently discussed on Public Seminar, the U.S. is the only UN member state that has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), migrant children separated from their parents stand outside the very laws that might have protected them from detention and family separation.

Moral blindness, the inability to see the migrant as a person, to acknowledge our common humanity corrodes our sense of responsibility for one another and destroys our conscience. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ quoting of Romans 13 was a reminder of how selective readings of religious texts have justified both slavery and family separation: “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful.” Had he read a few paragraphs further, Sessions would have confronted a fundamental tenet of Christianity in Romans 13:8: “The commandments, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not covet,’ and whatever other commandments there may be, are summed up in this one rule: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” Current immigration policy treats the migrant and asylum seeker as a criminal and enemy, not as a neighbor.

With Trump’s executive order to end the separation of families without clear recourse for the reunification of those already separated, the U.S. government has entered into an Orwellian world of double-speak as the highest gatekeepers rationalize their unjust actions in the name of national security. As Kafka wrote, there exists a hierarchy of gatekeepers to the law, “but from room to room stand gatekeepers, each more powerful than the other.”

As the protests, public demonstrations, outcry among ordinary people, religious leaders, human rights and advocacy groups demonstrate, many Americans care deeply about the unjust immigration policies implemented in their name by enforcement and immigration officers. Many disagree with the demonization of migrants and rejection of international rights of asylum by the Trump administration that have been agreed upon after World War II. History demonstrates that when we, the ordinary people, gatekeepers included, stop thinking about what we are doing, when we stop caring about those who need our help, when we become blind to how our everyday actions affect others, that is when we are capable of violence on an unprecedented scale.

Siobhan Kattago is Senior Research Fellow in Philosophy at the University of Tartu, Estonia. She is the editor of The Ashgate Research Companion to Memory Studies and the author of Ambiguous Memory: The Nazi Past and German National Identity.

 


[1] Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, Boston: Beacon Press, 1964, p. 9.

[2] Zygmunt Bauman and Leonidis Donskis, Moral Blindness, London: Polity Press, 2013, p. 15.

[3] Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, New York: Penguin, 1963, p. 287.

[4] Zygmunt Bauman and Leonidis Donskis, Moral Blindness, London: Polity Press, 2013p. 40.

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