Migrants run from tear gas near the border fence between Mexico and the United States in Tijuana. PHOTO: HANNAH MCKAY/REUTERS
A migrant family, part of a caravan of thousands traveling from Central America to the United States, run away from tear gas in front of the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico in Tijuana, Mexico, on Nov. 25, 2018. Kim Kyung Hoon—Reuters (For the story of this photo see TIME.)
This is horrific. Full stop.
I’m not writing to comment on why or how this is horrific. Instead I want to float a couple of observations about the language used to describe the people and their movements. I know I’m not the only one to notice this language and comment on it. But most commenters focus on a singular problematic use of language rather than multiple uses, sometimes intersecting, sometimes contradictory. I want to bring a couple of things together for myself. I want to look at the mischaracterizations and erasures of this language. From these observations, can we see similarities, differences, tensions, bolsters? I’ll start with the observations, so that I can begin to answer some of these questions on my own.
In most reporting coming out in November, this was described as a “migrant caravan.” This sounds objective, right? A large group of people, moving from one place to another, linking up to travel together. Sure, migrant caravan. But I think that this descriptor leaves out the primary motivation for the people’s movement while subtly suggesting more benign alternatives. To me migration first brings to mind the instinctual, seasonal movement of animals. When I think of human migrants I also tend to think of seasonal movement, that of migrant farm laborers, though it is compelled by economics rather than instinct. Migration for other kinds of reasons is sometimes clarified by the use of qualifiers, like “forced migration,” or different words altogether, like “displacement.” This language conveys that the movement is coercive or unwelcome in a way that mere “migration” does not.
Clearly, people migrate, immigrate, emigrate, travel for all kinds of reasons. But most of the people currently being housed in inhumane conditions on our country’s southern border are not economic migrants as the dominant label implies. They are people fleeing extreme violence who have suffered trauma and fear for their safety. They are people fleeing the imminent threats of climate change.“Migrant caravan” fails to capture the urgent motivations of the people who would leave everything they know, risk their lives, and travel thousands of miles for an attempt at safety for themselves and their companions. What would be better? Certainly “asylum seekers” would better suit a large number of the group. Despite its more limited official meanings, perhaps “refugee” would be applicable to most? What do you think, readers?
I have noticed another trend of describing the movement of asylum seekers as a a deluge, a “river,” a “flood.” My feeling is that this language serves to naturalize the phenomenon in a way that erases or deemphasizes its social causes. The danger of this is that it makes the role of the United States and its policies in the ongoing displacement less visible and less available for interrogation. When described as a natural phenomenon, even as a natural disaster, there is a connotation of inevitability. I also think that there is a dehumanization of the victims of social injustices in these metaphors. The individual stories and traumas that brought them to their desperate situation on the border are just drops that become indiscernible as the flood waters rise.
Most insidious of all — and most noticed and condemned by commentators — is the description of the mass arrival of asylum seekers as an “invasion.” This is clearly Mr. Trump’s preferred descriptor. It reinforces his ongoing racist vitriol and the falsehood that these desperate individuals are “stone cold criminals.” The language of invasion gives the people more agency than the naturalized descriptors above, but all of the connotations are negative, threatening, and purposefully drawn upon to create fear. Despite the fact that this was a group of a couple of thousand poor families, walking on foot, in seek of asylum, when characterized as an invasion, it is manipulated into a national security threat and used to justify the mobilization of a military response.
Just take a look at these threatening invaders:
Now recall the image at the top of the page. Conclusion: words matter.
*There is a lot more that I could say. But part of the exercise of writing this blog is to try to mitigate some of my tendencies toward perfectionism and just put the ideas out there in a more conversational way. The support that you all have already shown me has exceeded my expectations. I want to try to meet yours by posting at least once a week, whether I feel that the ideas are fully shaped and adequately described or not. We can continue a conversation in the comments if anyone would care to. Thank you so much for reading.