Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Fear and Silence in the Wake of the Feb. 20 DHS Memos Yxta Maya Murray


Fear and Silence in the Wake of the Feb. 20 DHS Memos by Yxta Maya Murray

President Trump’s threat to deport 11,000,000 undocumented immigrants from the United States puts people in terror.  Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary John Kelly’s February 20, 2017 memos, which promise an expanded use of expedited removal procedures and a “strengthen[ed]” deportation force, will only increase the paralysis that now grips millions of people in the country.  I write to describe, insofar as I am able, the quality of this fear, and how it relates to key democratic values:  This extreme anxiety touches upon the ability to protest, even the very capacity to read, learn, and speak. 

In my recent work on equal housing and poverty, I have been conducting interviews among homelessness advocates, tenants’-rights advocates, and teachers in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood in Los Angeles.  My current writing project focuses on the insecurities and instabilities created by gentrification and eviction.  In the past months, I have met with advocates in L.A. to get their thoughts on how dislocation affects the health and psyches of poor people and people of color.  But in almost all of my interviews, my subjects inevitably steered our conversation away from housing and toward Donald Trump and the suppressive emotional effects of his anti-immigrant speeches. 

Out of concern of alerting authorities, I am going to shield the identities of two out of three of my subjects, because of their close association with undocumented clients:[1]

When I interviewed the director of a shelter that serves Spanish-speaking people in Boyle Heights, I asked her about resistance and protest in the neighborhood.  How do people push back against poverty and insecure housing? I asked.  How do they fight for their rights?  She told me:  “People are afraid.  If you look at the marches, the protests, I think that . . .  people that won’t be directly affected are going out, and people who are going to be affected are not going out.  [What I mean is] undocumented people.  They’re worried about being spotted and identified.  People are in disagreement [with what’s happening,] but because they’re concerned about their well-being, they’re not going to go out and risk that.”[2]

When I interviewed an educator in Boyle Height, she told me that children were having trouble concentrating on their studies:  “The one thing I know about students is . . .  they are more successful when they know they don’t have to worry about a lot of other things.  . . . The more secure and stable any student is, the more they are able to focus on what the program is.  But, with what’s happening [with Trump], we don’t know what’s going to happen next week.  There’s a lot of mental anguish.  I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, and it’s hard to feel hopeful when you have that kind of instability.  We’re afraid of mass deportations.  And if our kids have a parent who’s undocumented, and they don’t know what to do either.”[3]

And when I interviewed tenants’-rights advocate Larry Gross, of the Coalition for Economic Survival, he told me that Latinx tenants often refused to object to sub-human living conditions.  He said;  “We’ve been trying to convince the Mayor [Eric Garcetti] and the Apartment Association to do a joint news conference putting out the word to landlords that they’d better not use threats of immigration [against our tenants].  We need [the authorities] to alleviate fears, [and to tell our tenants] that they still have a right to object to conditions and file complaints!  What’s going on [with Trump] will impact [housing conditions] significantly!  We’ll see more abuse, [and shady landlords will] further push undocumented tenants underground.  They will be more fearful, and so unable to deal with poor housing conditions!”[4]             These three advocates all describe a psychological recoiling that divests immigrants, and children of immigrants, of the equilibrium necessary to think, learn, protect themselves, and protest against the deep inequality that torments this nation.  This counts as a catastrophic loss for a country that prides itself on creating progress through education and the exercise of voice.

February 20’s memos from the DHS, which promise to delete immigrants from U.S. soil expeditiously, and in probable violation of many people’s due process rights, offer the daylight reality of the nightmare that had already relegated people to the shadows.  The voices that were muted in November may now become completely silenced, and with their absence will come also the vanishing of much-needed opposition and debate.


[1]    I will not name an educator, even though she works with children who may be covered by DACA.  John Kelly’s comments about the “proper processing” of unaccompanied children raises enough red flags to withhold her name.  See John Kelly, Implementing the President's Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements Policies, Feb. 20, 2017, at p. 10 (“[Un]accompanied alien children are provided special protections to ensure that they are properly processed and receive the appropriate care and placement when they are encountered by an immigration officer.  An unaccompanied alien child . . . [possesses] no parent or legal guardian in the United States. . . . Approximately 155,000 unaccompanied alien children have been apprehended at the southern border in the last three years. Most of these minors are from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, many of whom travel overland to the southern border with the assistance of a smuggler who is paid several thousand dollars by one or both parents, who reside illegally in the United States. With limited exceptions, upon apprehension, CBP or ICE must promptly determine if a child meets the definition of an ‘unaccompanied alien child.’”).

[2]    Interview with [name withheld], Feb. 8, 2017.

[3]    Interview with [name withheld], Jan. 30, 2017.

[4]    Interview with Larry Gross, Feb. 17, 2017.


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