Watching, hearing, reading, and absorbing the news in the last few weeks of travelers being turned away at American airports, of bullying immigration officials, of questions and tears and signatures demanded on undecipherable pieces of paper in rooms where no lawyers have been allowed, what is one to conclude?
From the list of seven Muslim-majority countries that were targeted by Trump’s initial, now stalled travel ban—six of the seven victims of United States military aggression, from outright invasion to drone attacks, over the past few years and the seventh, Iran, where US involvement has meant the overthrow of a democratically elected leader, the shooting down of civilian aircraft, the supply of weapons during wartime to its enemy (Iraq, one of the six), and being targeted, constantly, as an “evil” nation—one gets the sense of an empire with amnesia, of a giant intoxicated, enthralled, and confused by its own power.
One thinks, too, of Walter Benjamin, German Jew, Messianic Marxist, philosopher poet, never making it to the United States. Instead, US visa in hand, procured through the intervention and influence of the philosopher Max Horkheimer (already in exile in New York), Benjamin went on the run from Marseilles to Port-Vendres in France, across the Pyrenees, into Portbou in Spain, clutching his tired heart, needing a rest of one minute for every ten-minute climb. He took his own life with morphine pills at night in a Portbou hotel after being informed that the Francoist authorities would deport him in the morning, back to France, back to the Nazi authorities, back into the confused, drunken hands of power. Benjamin, patron saint of those turned back at border crossings.
One gets the sense of an empire with amnesia, of a giant intoxicated, enthralled, and confused by its own power.
A conversation last March between Trump Svengali Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, policy adviser in the White House, seems to suggest that, if these men could go back in time, Benjamin would have never received his visa at all. “We should follow America’s history, and the history of America is that an immigration-on period is followed by an immigration-off period,” Miller says to Bannon. “Immigration-on” from 1880 to 1920, “immigration-off” from 1920 to 1970, “immigration-on” from 1970 to now,” and so time now for “immigration-off” again, time for Muslims to be turned away from the airports, for the wall to keep out Latinos from south of the border.
The Silicon Valley technocratic jargon, a machine pulsing on and off, conceals the twisted bitterness at the heart of this vision. No room in this history for settler colonialism and slavery, none for the importation of cheap, easily exploited labor in the “on” periods, for the racial exclusions of the “off” periods expressed in a preference for white European populations, for the tawdry reality of the hostility of the world’s most wealthy and powerful country towards those who have dared their way across these daunting borders, in no small part because they have seen their aspirations for liberty and equality destroyed by US engines of war, by imperialism and neoliberalism, by the shock doctrine and by the Washington consensus.
This obsession with borders precedes the Trump administration, of course, as we see in Valeria Luiselli’s moving and powerful Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions, a nonfiction account based on her voluntary work in 2015 interpreting to child refugees from Central America the questions being asked by the state which has detained them. On one side, the border-crossing children; on another, disgruntled protesters encountered by Luiselli in Arizona and New Mexico, demanding the deportation of the children; in the middle, the indifferent, bureaucratic state, with its Byzantine classification of “illegal aliens,” “nonresident aliens,” “resident aliens,” and “removable aliens,” all watched over by a free media that writes, of an expulsion from Roswell, New Mexico, the surreal sentence, “Looking happy, the deported children exited the airport on an overcast and sweltering afternoon.”
The free media writes, “Looking happy, the deported children exited the airport on an overcast and sweltering afternoon.”
Another aspect of the picture emerges from Chasing the Harvest: Migrant Workers in California Agriculture, an oral history compiled by the journalist Gabriel Thompson. The introduction by Thompson offers a series of moving connections, a counterpoise to the Bannon-Miller theory of American history, one that runs from John Steinbeck’s account of migrant agricultural workers in the 1930s in The Grapes of Wrath to Cesar Chavez’s organizing in the sixties and continues on to the present-day workers interviewed by Thompson, who have experienced heat stroke, chemical poisoning, sexual assaults, homelessness, the theft of their wages, the separation of children from parents and of parents from children, and, of course, the threat of deportation.
Yet there is also, Thompson notes, joy and resilience and sharing. “Nobody ate alone,” he recalls of a group he worked with while harvesting iceberg lettuce in Yuma at the beginning of his involvement with agricultural workers. The voices are defiant and nuanced, aware of the human complexities that spill across bureaucratic categories and arbitrary borders. Not everybody comes wanting to stay, but nobody who stays wants to be forced to leave. “I just wanted to make money to support my family and then come home,” Heraclio Aspete, a former sheepherder says of his journey from Peru to California. Benjamin didn’t really want to leave Paris, either. He knew that the border guards, the executives passing their orders, and the volk chanting in support would not be satisfied with the expulsion of people from their realm, or with the visiting of destruction upon the world beyond their walls and borders. They operated, and still operate, at the very crossroads of existence. “[E]ven the dead,” Benjamin wrote, “will not be safe from the enemy if he wins.”