originally published by The New Yorker
Sometimes the news leaves me with the throat-constricting feeling that the late Soviet dissident Larisa Bogoraz described as follows: “It becomes impossible to live and breathe.” It happened last week, when I read about Omer Abdelmaed, a Sudanese man who was arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in San Francisco—at his asylum interview. Abdelmaed’s lawyer, Caleb Arring, who described the arrest in a Facebook post, wrote that he had never before witnessed anything of the sort.
But something like this had been happening in Massachusetts for months: icehas been arresting spouses of American citizens when they come to file their initial applications for a green card. This is not dissimilar to the much more widely publicized arrest of Ravi Ragbir, a New York immigration activist who was taken by ice agents when he came in for his annual immigration check-in. Following a wave of publicity and activism, Ragbir has been released.
I suspect that cases that get no publicity far outnumber the ones that become known, in part because the people who are arrested, their families, and their lawyers often place their hopes in settling the issue quietly. (Arring agreed to talk to me after writing about his client’s arrest, but soon stopped responding to my attempts to contact him.) The reflex to lie low seems to kick in, in response to a sense of a profound lack of safety.
The ultimate effect of President Trump’s war on immigrants, from his disavowal of daca to the unleashing of ice with the apparent intention of deporting the maximum possible number of people, is to create a class of people who are never safe. This is why my throat constricts at the news of these arrests: not only because I am an immigrant, and the people I love most in the world, including my children, are immigrants, but because the emergence of a group of people who are never safe is a terrifying development.
Hannah Arendt understood this well. She wrote that the figure of the refugee, when it appeared in the twentieth century, gave the lie to the concept of human rights. When we say that all people have inalienable rights, we really mean that people who enjoy the protection of a state have rights. Once a person is stripped of that protection, purged from a state, his rights seem to vanish along with his proof of citizenship.
The good people of America respond to Trump’s talk of “illegal immigrants” by talking about immigrants who are merely “undocumented.” This is a misleading term, and a telling one. Most of those whom Americans think of as “undocumented” immigrants have documents—more documents than do many native-born Americans. They have passports, visas, temporary work permits, thick binders of information that they have collected to support their asylum claims or another bid for a change of status; more often than not, they have Social Security numbers. Most “undocumented” immigrant adults have lived in the country for at least ten years, and the vast majority are employed; this means that they have amassed leases, utility bills, bank accounts, credit histories, and state or city I.D.s—all documents essential to be able to live freely in the United States.
Many —possibly most—of them entered the United States on a valid visa, or weren’t legally required to have a visa in order to enter. An asylum seeker, for example, is likely someone who entered on a visitor’s or other temporary visa, and then applied for asylum. The asylum system, meanwhile, is designed in such a way that most people benefit from waiting until the end of their legal stay in the country—that is, the date written by a Border Patrol agent in their passports—before applying for asylum. Most immigration judges would consider these asylum applicants to be in the country legally, even after their initial visas had expired; increasingly, under the Trump Administration, iceagents would tend to disagree, assuming that asylum seekers entered on false pretenses. The average wait for an asylum interview in New York is between two and three years. But, a hundred and fifty days after applying for asylum, a person has the right to obtain a work permit. So, most asylum seekers have documents that allow them to work in the U.S. but not, in the eyes of ice, to bein the U.S.
In short, when we say that they are “undocumented,” what we mean is that they lack a document that would entitle them to feel free in a country founded on a declaration of the fundamental equality and inalienable rights of all people. “Undocumented” is the lazy, pseudo-liberal alternative way of saying “illegal.”
Many Americans understand how important it is for every person in this land to feel safe. The most commonly advanced argument for sanctuary cities (or towns, or states) is that immigrants must feel safe reporting crimes—they must know that the police will not be monitoring their immigration status. This is the simplest expression of the thesis that none of us are safe unless all of us are safe.
Trump seems to understand this instinctively. Tyrants—or aspiring tyrants—thrive when populations feel unstable and under threat. His Administration’s ongoing attack on sanctuary cities is more than the belligerent demand for total compliance: it is part of an effort to insure that some of us are never safe, in order to insure that no one is ever really safe.