“Migrant Caravan”



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.

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:

The caravan originally started in mid-October as a group of several hundred migrants who set out from San Pedro Sula, Honduras.

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.




5 thoughts on ““Migrant Caravan”

  1. Aeschylus wrote that ‘in war, truth is the first casualty.’ The difficulty in knowing the truth suggests that we are at the threshold of a kind of war, and maybe not just ‘a kind.’

    It is not just the words that can deceive; the images can too. Those images that you posted are only available to you because they were carefully chosen and forwarded. This was done because they captured something someone wanted to emphasize. I would not trust the pictures more than the words.

    Conflict poses an epistemelogical problem. When fights begin, people begin shading the truth in every way they can. At the level of war, we get what von Clausewitz called ‘the fog of war,’ in which you can no longer be sure of anything that you haven’t had directly reported to you by someone you trust. All other reports are suspect at best, and likely to prove false. If you really need to know what is going on — what the just terms are, what images are manipulations of the facts — you have to send someone like that, or go yourself.

    Otherwise you are acting on faith, which is deadly in this context. As Sun Tzu warns, victory only comes if you ‘know yourself, and your enemy.’ Uncertainty about one of these is crippling; uncertainty about both ensures defeat.

    I don’t claim to know what is going on. I haven’t been, and I don’t trust any of the reports. But I notice that the reports from the official agencies differ sharply from the reports in the media. The shading of the claims on Twitter differ sharply depending on faction. This suggests to me that some sort of conflict stronger than ordinary political disagreement is pending, and that avoiding the flourishing of this conflict may be our most proper and immediate concern.


  2. Thanks, Brad. Your point about the images is well taken. Anyone who has a photo-centric social media presence would be familiar with the idea of curating the images you share for some intended effect. You know I’m cropping out my mess and applying filters to my Instagram feed! I recognize that the selection and dispersal of images has many of the same implications with regard to connotation, erasure, etc. I included the link to the TIME piece about how the photographer came to capture that particular iconic photo as a way to gesture toward this. Many of the images of the children of this caravan were put forward as a direct response to some of the most militaristic rhetoric, with the intended purpose of undermining the “invasion” trope that the Trump administration favors. So, yes, there is an agenda there too. I never mean to suggest that we ought to question the language while taking other modes of information sharing at face value.

    Your warning from Sun Tzu has me feeling pessimistic. We neither know ourselves nor our “enemy.” I also fear that regarding this group as an enemy is both prevalent and misguided. Neither is the movement of this group as benign as the more “objective” way of describing it suggests. In terms of thinking about trusting reports, it seems to me that the place to start is in listening to and amplifying the voices of the people themselves. What are they saying in their asylum reports? What are their stories? Can we answer these questions without subjecting them to inhumane treatment? This requires a kind of humility, patience, and moral openness that our institutions and their representatives lack. Unfortunately this lack is the only answer I feel that I could give in response to the prompt “know yourself.”


  3. Your response, Anne, suggests that I might have been unclear in making the Sun Tzu reference; perhaps the whole metaphor was unclear. I think the rhetorical problems you’re raising have an underlying epistemelogical problem. That underlying problem comes, I think, from the early stages of a kind of war, and the distortions of truth that are common to war.

    However, I don’t mean to suggest that the migrants are one side of this war that is giving us an epistemelogical problem (and a rhetorical one, as you say). Both sides of the conflict are political factions of the United States. Your proposed solution is a good one if it can be done.

    As for the rhetoric and its effect on politics, at times like this when factionalism is high and people are swept with passionate differences, I think the first book of Aristotle’s Rhetoric offers extremely good advice. It’s a more political book than students expect, because for Aristotle and the Greeks rhetoric was first and foremost the methodology of politics. If you’re looking for a topic to write about next week, it might be worth doing a close reading of it to see how its advice strikes you in the light of the present moment. I would certainly enjoy discussing it with you.


    1. Thanks, Brad. Your point is more clear now. I fear that the answer to the question whether it can be done is “no,” especially if the epistemological situation is as dire and the “war” as entrenched as it seems.

      I will take a look at the Aristotle for my own purposes. I don’t intend this site to be a forum for close readings of philosophical texts, though that may change with time.


  4. Victor Klemperer wrote a book in 1947 “Language of the Third Reich: LTI: Lingua Tertii Imperii”. He came to the conclusion that language in the time of National Socialism influenced people less through individual speeches, leaflets or the like than through stereotypical repetition always the same, with National Socialist conceptions occupied. (Wikipedia)


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