White liberal America makes a spectacle of itself—again. / Fibonacci Blue

A March For the Marchers

Despite their good intentions, marches do not help undocumented immigrants

White liberal America makes a spectacle of itself—again. / Fibonacci Blue
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The mood at the Families Belong Together marches this weekend was effervescent and ebullient. Subjected to a sordid panorama of pain at the border, white liberal America vented its frustrations in a spectacle of its own. There were children here, too, many riding along in strollers that cost as much as a down payment on a small car. Their parents sweated; it was hot all across the country, lending marching a sanctimonious halo, the luminosity of selfless sacrifice. The babies at the border must not be snatched, many of the signs and placards declared. The pathos of imagining their own cozily ensconced, sun-screened progeny pumped the volume of chants. Others demanded the abolishment of ICE. “Its 95 degrees: Let’s Melt ICE,” said one sign, the weak joke exposing the privilege of the person carrying it.

And so they marched, the well-intentioned white opponents of Trump, sweaty and eager and energized by the presence of others just like them, everyone cheerily engaged in a weekend morning of brunching and resisting.

In it also lies the tragedy of all the marches that took place this weekend, marches whose agendas, mien, and manner are all crafted to fit the anger of the urban and privileged and white and American born who participated in them. A Saturday given up to a march, an exhausting physical act, was quickly packaged up as a glib stand-in for any deeper examination of complicity. A moment of rage became just another opportunity for virtue-signaling, and marching the sum of the “doing something” to be shared with friends and on social media. And so they marched, the well-intentioned white opponents of Trump, sweaty and eager and energized by the presence of others just like them, everyone cheerily engaged in a weekend morning of brunching and resisting.

Despite all their incipient good intentions, marches do not help undocumented immigrants. The people swiftly mowing lawns, cleaning hotel rooms, and tending children remain as invisible after the march as they were before it. Enraged at the Trump Administration’s snatching of the babies at the border, the marchers made no moves to understand the un-dramatic distress of the undocumented others all around them. Their apathy revealed a terrifying truth: the abstract, unknown immigrant is gladly lavished with sympathy; the real one, riven with the scratches and scars and complexities of actuality, receives almost none. The perfect innocence of the small children at the border incurs no dilemma of humanity or morality. Anyone else, everyone else, is questionable, acceptable only after they fit themselves into the narrowest of legal boxes, presenting their spotless characters and devastating circumstances as offerings to the gods of admissibility.

It stings, this unexamined duplicity of white liberals, whetted by the urgency of producing a spectacle that will “show” the Trump Administration the mass and volume of its opposition. The Trump Administration, however, need not fear. None of the marchers in Los Angeles or in San Francisco or in El Paso or in St. Louis were focused on insulating the undocumented from the avalanche of detentions and deportations that Trump’s team is unleashing on them. That buffer, one that shields men and women and children from being stripped of due process, dumped in indefinite detention, treated as inhuman, could only come from legal representation. The Sixth Amendment right to counsel enshrined in the Constitution provides legal representation only to those accused of a crime. This means that immigrants facing deportation or investigation in the United States do not get any access to legal representation. The consequence is an extreme helplessness—no voice, no argument, and no retort before the authorities that come to take you away. It is the most salient difference in rights between those imprisoned for immigration offences from those imprisoned for just about anything else.

If America’s undocumented immigrants had organized the marches this weekend, they would have looked and sounded markedly different. Their aim would not be the satisfaction of the inchoate demands to “do something” and “do it visibly.” Instead, theirs would have been a specific and particular call for an army of immigration lawyers that could be tasked with protecting them. It’s not a novel idea; activists during the Civil Rights era did just that when large numbers of African Americans participating in organized civil disobedience were arrested and thrown in jail. An army of lawyers now, like the ones of old, would serve as a layer of protection, insulating America’s most helpless from the excesses of its most powerful.

An army of lawyers would serve as a layer of protection, insulating America’s most helpless from the excesses of its most powerful.

Immigrants, documented and undocumented, are expected to be glad and grateful for expressions of white liberal support. To pick and prod at the failings of such benevolence is not the done thing, nor is pointing fingers at the privilege that enables some to protest while trapping others in silence. And yet the equality this weekend’s protesters support demands just this sort of examination. If the emphasis continues to be on the visible—the sounds and pictures of the torturous policy of the Trump Administration and then the consequent protests—immigrants will remain caught in perpetual political tit for tat. Even more troublingly, when the opposition is directed to a particular spectacle, that of parents and children torn apart, room is made for a “solution” that simply ends the spectacle and presents it as an end to the problem, driven out of sight—and thus out of heart and mind.

It has already happened. By Monday, everyone had already moved on from being incensed at the Trump Administration’s slicing up of families at the southern border. Each side, it seemed, had taken a turn: the Trump Administration had sated the gaping maw of its supporters’ xenophobia, and white liberals had attended yet another “historic” march for the lesser blessed. The immigrants, documented and otherwise, having exhausted their ten minutes of America’s scattered attentions, were left watching and wondering what new construction of cruelty would follow and who, if anyone, would be there to protect them.

Rafia Zakaria is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon 2015) and Veil (Bloomsbury 2017). She is a columnist for Dawn in Pakistan. She writes regularly for the Guardian, Boston Review, The New Republic, and The New York Times Book Review.

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