Originally published by The NY Yorker
In an essay published last week in The Atlantic, adapted from a new afterword to her book “What Happened,” Hillary Clinton wrote about “the unspeakable cruelty that [Trump’s] administration has inflicted on undocumented families arriving at the border.” I keep thinking about this phrase. It is evidently inaccurate—no one is “undocumented” before crossing into the country—yet apparently it didn’t strike the editors at either Clinton’s publisher or the magazine as unusual. The word has become as commonplace as the assumptions it reflects, and these assumptions are shared across the political spectrum.
“Undocumented” is a euphemism; we know this, in part, because its opposite is not “documented” but “legal.” As euphemisms go, it’s unfortunate because it’s the opposite of descriptive: the people described as “undocumented” usually have many documents, indeed piles of them, compiled in the hopes of obtaining asylum or a green card or simply maintaining an existence in the United States as an apparent foreigner. It’s also unfortunate because it creates the fiction that there are two kinds of immigrants, those with legal status and those without, when, in fact, many people live in an in-between state while their applications for adjustment of status are pending, or while their asylum application awaits a review date, or while a deportation order is being appealed. It is the people who are between statuses that ice has been targeting in the Trump era: they are the low-hanging fruit of deportation cases. But journalists, politicians, and even many immigration activists now always append an adjective to the word “immigrant”: either “undocumented” or “legal.” This usage serves to affirm the consensus that immigrants who are not “legal” can, or even should, be removed from the country. We forget that this consensus is relatively new.
I’m thinking of this because in Sweden, where I am now, a new immigration consensus became evident during the election that was held earlier this month. For all the obvious differences between the United States and Sweden, there are a few important similarities. For both countries, welcoming immigrants has been an important part of national self-understanding. For much of the last hundred years, Sweden’s borders have been among the most open in Europe. When the Syrian refugee crisis became evident, Sweden committed to bringing in more people per capita of the existing population than any other European country. Then, seemingly overnight—or at least over the course of the fall of 2015—public opinion shifted drastically. Sweden significantly reduced the number of new immigrants and deported a record number of people who had already entered. During the recent election campaign, almost all of the major and minor parties agreed that immigration should be restricted, and the big news was that the Sweden Democrats, an insurgent right-wing party whose entire platform is built on the idea of immigration restrictions, got 17.5 per cent of the vote—less than many people feared but nearly five per cent more than it did four years ago.
The rhetoric used to shut Sweden’s borders is familiar: it traffics in the fear of crime and accuses immigrants of “failing to integrate”—somehow, that is always a failure of the immigrants and not of the society that resists absorbing them. But Vanessa Barker, an American sociologist who teaches at Stockholm University and studies Swedish society, has argued that the biggest issue for Swedes is the perceived strain on the welfare state, which, in turn, is at the core of Swedish nationalism.
The Swedish welfare state was created as an explicitly national project, Barker explained to me—not only as a response to inequality or class strife but as a way to “rebuild the population” in a country that had been hit by famine and emigration. The construction of the welfare state, a century ago, went hand in hand not only with industrialization but also with pro-natalist policies and the forced sterilization of those deemed unfit to reproduce, like the mentally disabled and Roma. The welfare state in Sweden is perceived not as a safety net but as a “nest” that everyone has built together, and everyone benefits from. As a result, Barker said, people see refugees as a “personal threat—not just that immigrants will come in and take jobs but that they will come in and take mywelfare state, the welfare state that my grandparents worked for.” In 2015, when Sweden, which has a population of fewer than ten million, accepted a hundred and fifty thousand refugees, it appeared that the welfare state may be unable to accommodate them. One of the reasons cited for turning people away was that there wasn’t enough housing—but, Barker said, when private citizens offered to house refugees themselves, state authorities rejected this option because they couldn’t guarantee that private housing would conform to standards established by the state. And if refugees ended up without shelter—or dead—outside of Sweden, it wouldn’t be Sweden’s failure.
At first glance, the Swedish approach to turning away immigrants has a parallel in one of the many weapons the Trump Administration has turned on immigrants. Over the weekend, the Department of Homeland Security published proposed new regulations that would restrict immigrants who have used public assistance, such as Medicaid, from being granted green cards. The new rules are expected not only to drastically reduce the number of immigrants who are granted permanent status but also to discourage immigrants from seeking public assistance at all. In a sense, the message is the opposite of Sweden’s: where Sweden, at least nominally, requires that immigrants be guaranteed a standard of living comparable to that of Swedes, the United States is pushing its immigrants into a new underclass. The new rules, in effect, draw a separate, lower poverty line for immigrants: the Times reported that they will not be applied to those who earn fifteen per cent or less of the legal poverty level. In other words, immigrants can be forgiven for using public assistance so long as they earn eighty-five per cent less than what is considered to be poverty if an American earns it.
Both approaches to excluding immigrants from the welfare state reflect similar anxieties about the “undocumented”—about the exact credentials of the strangers who are coming to take what’s perceived as ours. Barker calls it a “crisis of solidarity.” This view of immigrants is not only inhumane but also, in an economically interconnected world, factually wrong: the wealth of developed nations cannot be separated from the production and consumption, the labor and the natural resources, outside their borders. But the new consensus—in Sweden, the United States, and elsewhere—makes it harder to question the assumption that we have a right to decide who gets to live in certain rich countries and have access to a tiny portion of their spoils.