Arendt’s Paradox: The Right To Have Rights
“Human rights are not worthy of the name if they do not protect the people we don’t like as well as the people we do.” (Trevor Phillips)
“The greatest threat to our way of life is not migration. It is that we will swallow the lie that some human lives matter less than others.” (Laurie Penny)
As outrage over family separations along our southern border continues to mount, well- meaning citizens protest that, “this is not American”, and “this not who we are “. Unfortunately, history and the facts suggest otherwise. In truth, this is exactly who we are and have been; and family separations have been long carried out under American law. Denial of our historical and ongoing situation risks an abdication of our power to effectively respond to our world, exactly as it is, in order to see what we can and want to do. In reality, our current crisis along this border is yet another iteration of a very long, still replicating fractal of legal injustice. On this continent, one could speculate that such legal injustices date at least as far back as 1492 which gave rise to theft of a continent, genocide as well as a violation of bodies,souls and indentities which led to further destruction, conflict and enslavement. One could also speculate that our American history of separating and dehumanizing families has deep roots within the trans-Atlantic slave trade .
Prior to abolition, children of Black slaves could be sold at legal slave markets and also by owners at will. Under the laws of those times, Black men and women could not protect the integrity of their families.Those who ran away, alone or with family members, faced harsh punishment and even death, if captured by slave hunters. Then, as now, Bible passages were invoked to justify such polices: Romans 13, for example, which urges believers to “obey the laws of government because God ordained them for the purpose of order”. In her Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome (2005), Joy Degrury describes the impact of these draconian policies on Black familes and their relationships today. Recent developments in epigenetic research have confirmed that unresolved trauma can be transmitted down through many generations. My clinical experience with nearly 50 years of work with individual, family and collective trauma confirms the validity of this research and her clinical experience.
Our history of separating and dehumanizing families also continued on with mandatory government and church affililiated boarding schools for Native American children. Following the 1890 South Dakota massacre at Wounded Knee, which concluded many chapters of America’s Indian wars; authorities forced Native American families to send their children away to government and church affiliated boarding schools. Those who declined were kidnapped for purposes of painful and humiliating “white washing” indocrination and assimiliation away from forbidden language, traditional dress, and tribal customs. Records clearly show the degree to which these children were subjected to neglect, psychological abuse and severe corporal punishment. I know this to be true since some Native American survivors of this cruel system were patients of mine in a Family Practice Clinic in Colorado. It was not until 1978 that Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Law granting tribal authorities a strong voice in child custody cases and that attendance at these boarding schools was no longer mandatory. (Dee Brown, Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, 1972)
During the Great Depression, an anti-Mexican hysteria resulted in authorities in California and Texas legally deporting Mexicans and Mexican Americans who were wrongly blamed for the country’s economic downturn. Familes were separated and many children never saw their parents again. (Russell Contreras, Chicago Tribune, July 8, 2018).
Official government policy also mandated the arrest of some 120,000 Japanese-Americans as an “enemy race”, who were ordered to evacuate, leave their places of employment, dispossessed of their properties, and confined within a series of internment camps around the country. At least 30,000 of these prisoners were children. Moreover, a case could be made that such coercive practices persist within our present- day detention centers for marginalized youths who are then targeted for school to prison for profit pipelines.
Our current Trump administration’s fiasco of “Zero Tolerance” immigration policies have fostered an ugly climate of anti-immigrant rhetoric by maintaining that there is an “us” who must be protected from “them”. These refugees who come to us out of fear for their lives, for asylum, security and opportunity, have been demonized by our President’s toxic, imflammatory rhetoric; demeaning them as “animals, “criminal aliens, pouring in to “infest and overun”, in order to defend his policies against the most vulnerable. Even more surreal is this administration’s invocation of Biblical verses about “God”s Law”, slave owner’s Romans’s 13 again, to justify tearing children from their parents, and putting them in steel and chain link cages. Some of these children who are as young as one year, are legally required to appear before immigration judges and without legal representation. Children have been forcibly separated from their familes with separate case numbers with no plan for keeping track of where either parents or children might wind up. The mind boggles in the face of such perfectly legal, senseless cruelty and, never mind that immigrant detention is a profitable corporate industry which has grown into a billion dollar enterprise. (Manny Fernandez and Katie Benner, NY Times.com, June 21, 2018.)
Adding to this collective trauma we have our militarized ICE raids, using Gestapo style tactics. These high profile operations are designed to humiliate, and terrorize communites where everyone is a suspect; if they dare to speak a language other than English in public, especially Spanish. Much of our Southwestern territories including parts of California, Arizona, Colorado, UItah, Wyoming and New Mexico used to be Mexico before our Mexican American War. (1846-1848 ) Many Mexicans have been here longer than many Americans and as a result many of these regions have been and still are bilingual and very fond of Mexican cuisine as evidenced by our ubitiquious Taco Bell concessions.
The plight of millions of refugees existing in legal limbo is nothing new. In seeking a wider perspective upon our current border crisis I turn to the writings of Hannah Arendt , German born American political philosopher (1906-1975) who, in fleeing Nazi persecution and therefore stateless, was one of the very few lucky ones who managed to successfully immigrate to the United States in 1941. In 1943, she wrote, “We Refugees”, an essay expressing her outrage at the existential crisis such people faced and again in “Origins of Totalitarianism”, she continued to pursue the subject of refugee rights.
Without legally enforcable rights, Arendt maintained, refugees can be treated as less than human. Even if they were sheltered, fed and clothed by some public or private agency, this was a result of charity, not rights. While the USA and many other nations recognized the rights of the persecuted to seek asylum in another country, these same nations assert their right for sovereign control over nationationality, immigration and deportation . Arendt identified this conflict as a paradox central to the belief that human rights are inaliable. However, without legal residence, refugees lack those basic rights, intrinsic to being regarded as human. In theory, human rights were supposedly independent of gender, race, religion, citizenship or nationality. Yet, in regard to the right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, the stateless still remain in need to have rights. As a result of this painful and still ongoing paradox , Hannah Arendt wrote:
“The right to have rights, or the right of every individual to belong to humanity, should be guaranteed by humanity itself. It is by no means certain whether this is possible because of the present sphere of internationsl law… which still operates in terms of reciprocal agreements of treaties between sovereign states. As a result, individual nations retain the power to deny segments of humanity, and their “right to have rights” by asserting national sovereignity.”