the body politic

Cages, ‘Infestations,’ and the Demonization of Immigrants

Ai-jen Poo at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Photo: Riccardo Savi/The Aspen Institute

This week, as appalled Americans continued to seek ways to help families separated under Donald Trump’s new “zero tolerance” approach to immigration, a group of activists, policy makers, journalists and rich people gathered in Aspen, Colorado, for the annual Aspen Ideas Festival. The schedule of panel discussions in a luxe setting, at which I was a speaker, seemed on its face at odds with the conflagration happening all around, but at the conference were many participants who were wholly aflame, consumed by the work of conveying to all who would listen — and who might have the power to help enact change and support protest — the urgency of the situation.

I spoke to Ai-jen Poo, the executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the co-director of Caring Across Generations, about the current crisis in immigration policy, the way the story of “zero tolerance” is being told, both by those perpetrating it and by those who are responding to it with fury, what we’re getting wrong and getting right, and how it connects to efforts to damage children and families via other kinds of policy shifts.

Poo’s organization has helped to plan protests at detention facilities in Texas and New Jersey, and last week released a detailed report about the high rates of wage theft, abuse, and personal and familial insecurity due to immigration laws faced by domestic workers on the Texas–Mexico border, most of them immigrant women. Poo has herself been part of the protests at the detention facility in McAllen, Texas, and is among the activists supporting Saturday’s national day of action; she and members of her organization will be at the planned march in Washington and at others around the nation. She told me what she believes is at stake in the Trump administration, and about the urgent work of mounting an insurgency against it.

Can you put what’s happening in a historical context?
I think that what we are experiencing are the kind of atrocities that we will read about in our history books. Like Japanese internment, where Ronald Reagan in 1988 had to pass legislation formally apologizing for Japanese internment and offering reparations to survivors. We will someday read about this moment as an atrocious error with enormous human cost. This administration has been telling a story about immigrants to dehumanize them, to portray immigrant families as less than fully human, less than mothers and fathers and now children. And this is where it’s brought us. Where these babies are being kept in cages and I think the American public is saying we won’t stand for it.

Let’s make the connections between the language and the cages really clear; immigrants are being kept in cages within the same days that the president is referring to immigrants as animals …
And infestations.

As infestations. So there’s the cages combined with the animal language, and the language of illegality and criminality. Trump has been tweeting about immigrants trying to “invade” and “break into our Country.” Somebody must be telling him to use this language because it’s so clearly strategic.

So this is part of a strategy that has linguistic dimensions to justify the caging of human beings and the sequestering of families in camps.

Detention camps. The connection to the Japanese internment is very close.
Exactly. We are talking about family internment camps. This is not hyperbole. Baby cages and family camps. That is what we are talking about and the thing that feels really important to just say, because I think we can get pulled into that narrative so easily about criminality, is that these parents who are arriving are doing exactly what parents do, which is protect their children from harm.

Let’s talk more about the messages that we’re being sent. We know that there have been no pictures of the girls. Or very few. Either of the young girls or the teenage girls. Can you talk about why you believe we haven’t seen those photographs?
I believe that this administration understands that when we are shown images of young girls that we actually connect to the vulnerability of those children in a very visceral and immediate way in a way that we may not with a young boy. When men, especially immigrant men have been so demonized by this administration.

And especially brown and black men, which is what we see happening. Mike Huckabee sending a picture of young Latino men in a racist tweet about Nancy Pelosi and who the Democrats want to elect …
It’s completely connected. But you know what it makes me think, and Tarana Burke actually said to me: Imagine the vulnerability to sexual predators on the part of these girls that we can’t see.

Right. The vulnerability of all of them, including the boy children.
The boys too.

But the fact that we haven’t seen them … The other thing that is indicative of the profound and unbelievable, almost unimaginable, unthinkable inhumanity of this is the lawyers and others advocates, all of us, have been trying to get items of comfort to the children like blankets, like stuffed animals, like a children’s book, something to offer some comfort in the situation and we are forbidden. They are not allowed to be touched, to be held, or to have anything that might bring them any kind of comfort. It is actually torture.

What is the recourse at this point? I think there’s a feeling of paralysis. Whether as activists or simply people who care, what are we to do?
The thing that we cannot forget is that our actions forced a reaction. The executive order last week was not a victory, we should not be relieved, but it was the administration responding to public outrage about what’s going on. So I think we’ve actually proven that they are not unmovable, that they are not unshakable. This is our country. We have to protect the moral fabric of it and we are seeing more and more people recognizing the insanity. Like awakening to the insanity of what’s happening, and so everything from the letter Laura Bush sent to all kinds of leaders in the church community saying Wait a minute, this is outrageous. This kind of mounting public outrage and refusal to allow for this policy to continue is going to be essential; the goal has to be to keep the focus on what the administration can do immediately, which is to pick up the phone. They don’t need an executive order, they don’t need laws, they need to pick up the phone and reverse those zero tolerance policies that created this disaster.

So you think we have the power to scare them?

In order to scare them we have to keep shouting and protesting and interrupting their dinners?

Absolutely. And I think we have to get every elected official and candidate for office on the record on this.

How do you feel that the Democrats as the opposition party have been responding to this?
You know, I’ve seen some real leadership from some members who have gone down to the border, demanded entry, demanded to see the conditions, demanded answers, and I think that’s critical. I want to see more of it.

Can you talk about people who have particularly impressed you?
Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal has been a huge leader on this. And in fact she was the one to really announce the protests on Saturday. And she’s been a leader on this issue for a long time. She’s recognized the inhumanity of our family detention system for a long time and has been working on trying to reform it. Senator Jeff Merkley was one of the first to go the border. Senator Kamala Harris. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee. There’s been a number of women and women of color who have really stepped up and I need to see more of that.

Can you connect this immigration law to the work that you do as the head of the Domestic Workers Alliance?
I think that most people understand that the people we’re counting on to take care of our aging parents as they grow older, or our children, or maintain sanity in our homes … a large percentage of that workforce is immigrant. So contrary to this notion that immigrants are rapists and criminals, they’re actually, like, raising our children and making sure that the people who raised us have a dignified quality of life and that’s what they’ve been doing. The domestic-workers industry is the industry with the largest concentration of undocumented immigrants of any sector of the economy and it is absolutely vital. It’s the work that makes everything else possible in our economy. If all of the immigrant domestic workers disappear the way that Donald Trump wants them to there’s not a single industry that wouldn’t be shaken to its core.

And we’re talking about women.

Right. The majority of domestic workers are women.
Women. And moms. Right. And they live in fear in many instances, particularly in this climate, fear of just simple activities of daily living. Like taking your child to school or going to the grocery store to buy groceries. In this climate of immigration raids and deportations and criminalization basically people live in fear of family separation every day. Because if you get deported there’s no telling when or if you’ll ever see your family again. So a broader way of thinking about family separation is that we’ve failed to create a path for the people who are here and contributing and making a life and a home. We’ve failed to recognize their citizenship. And yet they’re so vital to our economy. They’re so much a part of the fabric of our families and that’s absolutely core to what we’ve been doing.

The way you put it is such a replication of the sort of founding sin of this country which is that it was built on the labor of enslaved people whose citizenship and humanity were not recognized and whose families were separated by force by the state.
Yeah. Absolutely.

It’s almost it’s a repetition of those founding dynamics. Right?
Exactly. Immigrants are going to be a huge part of the solution for the future. And it’s not an either/or. Just thinking about elder care: There is no way we are going to care for the growing aging population without a really strong elder-care workforce and it’s never about displacing American workers. Actually we need everyone; it’s like an all-hands-on-deck situation. So all of these myths, these false choices, and these ways in which we’ve been divided and torn apart are actually hindering our ability as a country to fully be successful and whole.

Can you talk about how other policies that have been implemented by the Trump administration and the party that supports and abets it have been working alongside these immigration changes to further subjugate, oppress, and terrorize the populations who you are fighting for?
The thing this moment reveals which not very many journalists have talked about is that this president really is not just anti-immigrant, but anti-children. Tax reform gutted programs that so many children — white, black, brown, everybody — count on. The gutting of affordable housing options is gonna hurt children the most. This is just the newest manifestation of an administration that is toxic for our children and our babies.

Education policy.
Education policy. Health-care policy.

CHIP. SNAP. So many examples. Every day, every week there’s a new example.

Right. It’s anti-children and deeply anti-woman.
Deeply anti-woman. This piece around eliminating the ability for survivors of domestic violence … first of all if you can prove you are a survivor of domestic violence, that’s a hard bar to reach already. This administration is eliminating the ability for survivors to get refuge in this country. Talk about promoting a culture of violence and toxicity.

I’m struck by how the justification has all been sold on vilifying men as gang members, yet there are so many women being punished. Is it also true that it’s women leading the charge on responding to this and challenging it? Women have always been first responders. The fact that the first mobilization after the Trump era, Trump administration, or Trump got elected in 2016 was a women’s march was not an accident.

And then the response to the Muslim ban was in many cases led by women.
That’s right. And I think we saw the same thing here. Women were the first responders. There were all these reports coming out about parents being separated from their children, children who were kind of lost track of in the system, and it was women who started to kick up outrage online. And women members of Congress like Pramila Jayapal who are really leading the charge, the first weekend, Memorial Day weekend, when things were really starting to break, a group of women got on the phone who are part of these different organizations and we called for the first day of action on June 1 and more women volunteered to march on June 14. So that June 14 national march was organized all by volunteer women. This Saturday’s march was organized by Pramila Jayapal. And it’s women who are organizing. Men are too. Let’s be clear. But I think the courage it takes for someone like Laura Bush the way that she did, I think we are seeing women of all walks of life basically realize that this is an emergency.

What happens next? What happens after June 30?
Members of Congress are gonna be in district for July 4 recess.

So what do people do? Find them?
Find them and get them on the record about this issue.

Cages, ‘Infestations,’ and the Demonization of Immigrants