“Thinking sets the agenda for action, and thinking of humans as less than human paves the way for atrocity.” — David Livingstone Smith, author of “Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others”
The policies put forth by Donald Trump this past week were bad enough. The announcement by Attorney General Jeff Sessions — Trump lacked the, er, courage to make it himself — that the White House was ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program put in place by President Obama threatens 800,000 people, most of whom barely remember living in any country other than ours. The average age a DACA recipient arrived in America was 6.5 years old. Perhaps Congress will save DACA, but either way, Trump’s actions were cruel, harmful, and, as President Obama wrote in a Facebook post viewed by 1.4 million people, simply “wrong.”
Those actions were preceded by years of rhetoric in which Trump dehumanized undocumented immigrants. It was rhetoric that prepared the ground for those actions, and that stood at the center of his rise to political power.
“Illegals” are “pouring across.” [snip] “These are not their best and their finest. These are not you coming across,” he said, gesturing to the audience. “These are people ― and some are very fine, I’m sure ― but they’re sending their killers, their rapists, their murderers, their drug lords. This is what we’re getting.” [snip] “Everything’s coming across the border: the illegals, the cars, and the whole thing. It’s like a big mess. Blah. It’s like vomit.” [snip] “[Undocumented immigrants] are coming over by the millions through the border like it’s water, like it’s a sieve.”— Donald Trump, April 30, 2015
When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people. — Donald Trump, June 16, 2015
The Mexican Government is forcing their most unwanted people into the United States. They are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc….Likewise, tremendous infectious disease is pouring across the border. — Donald Trump, July 6, 2015
And that was just Trump in 2015. Now, he’s president.
Trump has spoken about DACA recipients and DREAMers in kinder terms on occasion as well, but the vile language exemplified by the above statements (and they far from the only ones) about undocumented immigrants as a whole cannot be erased from our collective consciousness. Now, let’s compare them to the way Barack Obama has spoken.
In announcing the creation of the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) program—which was ultimately blocked by the courts and never implemented—on November 24, 2014, President Obama described undocumented immigrants thusly:
After all, most of these immigrants have been here a long time. They work hard often in tough, low paying jobs. They support their families. They worship at our churches. Many of the kids are American born or spent most of their lives here. And their hopes, dreams, and patriotism are just like ours.
As my predecessor, President Bush, once put it, they are a part of American life.
[snip] Over the past years I’ve seen the determination of immigrant fathers who worked two or three jobs without taking a dime from the government, and at risk any moment of losing it all just to build a better life for their kids. I’ve seen the heartbreak and anxiety of children whose mothers might be taken away from them just because they didn’t have the right papers. I’ve seen the courage of students who except for the circumstances of their birth are as American as Malia or Sasha, students who bravely come out as undocumented in hopes they could make a difference in the country they love.
These people, our neighbors, our classmates, our friends, they did not come here in search of a free ride or an easy life. They came to work, and study and serve in our military. And, above all, contribute to American success.
[snip] Scripture tells us, we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger. We were strangers once, too.
My fellow Americans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants. We were strangers once, too. And whether our forbearers were strangers who crossed the Atlantic, or the Pacific or the Rio Grande, we are here only because this country welcomed them in and taught them that to be an American is about something more than what we look like or what our last names are, or how we worship. What makes us Americans is our shared commitment to an ideal, that all of us are created equal, and all of us have the chance to make of our lives what we will.
On April 29, 2011, Obama spoke out in favor of the DREAM Act that would have granted permanent relief to those who will be vulnerable to expulsion if DACA does indeed come to an end. Here’s how he talked about not only DREAMers but the undocumented in general, as well as how we define ourselves as a people:
We didn’t raise the Statue of Liberty with its back to the world; we raised it with its light to the world. (Applause.) Whether your ancestors came here on the Mayflower or a slave ship; whether they signed in at Ellis Island or they crossed the Rio Grande ― we are one people. We need one another. Our patriotism is not rooted in ethnicity, but in a shared belief of the enduring and permanent promise of this country.
The part about the Rio Grande refers to the undocumented coming across the river that, for so many miles, serves as the border between our country and our neighbor to the south. It’s a line Obama has used in many speeches, and its purpose is to define those whose ancestors came across that river as being just as American as any of us.
The details Obama cited about the lives of the undocumented encouraged anyone listening to see them as full human beings and as part of our American community, even if they are not full citizens. Trump called undocumented immigrants from Mexico violent criminals, characterized them as vomit, talked about disease and water flowing through a sieve, and in general spoke as if they were devoid of any human qualities. His details encouraged anyone listening to see them as sub-human.
The aforementioned David Livingstone Smith noted: “when people dehumanize others, they actually conceive of them as subhuman creatures,” and stated that doing so allows the people doing the dehumanizing to “liberate aggression and exclude the target of aggression from the moral community.” That’s how we got two men in Boston savagely beating a man they believed to be undocumented while saying “Donald Trump was right.”
On a related note, the inclusive way Obama talks about American identity and his conception of our unifying civic national consciousness is something progressives, at least those involved in electoral politics, must include in their own public rhetoric. Certainly, we saw them doing so at last summer’s Democratic National Convention, where Democrats strongly identified progressive values as American values and vice versa. Doing so also provides a necessary foundation for talking about, in this case, undocumented immigrants as members of the American community. Unless we progressives strongly identify with being American—even as we acknowledge our country’s flaws and fight to make it a more just place—we will have a harder time convincing others to see the undocumented as part of that American community as well. Obama has shown us how to square this circle.
Thinking of humans as less than human: It’s a concept that makes my skin crawl. It’s also Donald Trump’s stock in trade. When it comes to talking about undocumented immigrants (and plenty of other topics that relate to racial or cultural issues), our two most recent presidents could not be more different.