Trump, “Shitholes” and the nature of “us”


Donald Trump’s comment about “shithole countries” capped a week that included the arrest of the immigration-rights activist Ravi Ragbir during his annual check-in with ICE. Photograph by Mark Lennihan / AP

On Thursday, Trump called Haiti and African states shithole countries,” and that was, in a way, the least of it this week. The same day, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in New York City arrested the immigration-rights activist Ravi Ragbir during his scheduled annual check-in with the agency. On Wednesday, ice raided 7-Eleven stores in seventeen states and the District of Columbia, arresting twenty-one people. And on Tuesday the Justice Department announced that it had secured an order revoking the U.S. citizenship of Baljinder Singh, who had been living in the United States since 1991. That was this week in America’s war on immigrants.

Tempting as it may be to see this war as the creation of the Trump Administration—the outcome of electing the man who promised to build the Wall—this is not the case. The raids on the 7-Eleven stores apparently stem from an ice investigation of the convenience-store chain that goes back to 2013. The denaturalization proceedings against Singh grew out of a 2016 report by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General about an investigation into the fingerprint records of naturalized citizens; it found more than a hundred thousand records that had not been transferred from an older database to a current one, and identified more than eight hundred people who may have been naturalized in spite of being ineligible. In other words, the Trump Administration didn’t start the hunt for “bad” immigrants but merely intensified it. It has revoked Obama-era guidelines for setting priorities in the deportation process, rendering it indiscriminate. The number of icearrests has grown by forty per cent in the past year (though the number of deportations remains comparable to the Obama years).

The apparent schizophrenia of Obama’s policies, with a swelling wave of deportations on one hand and his attempt to secure an American future for Dreamers on the other, reflects a tension inherent in immigration policy. America claims the identity of a nation of immigrants, yet it strives to keep out the immigrants it deems undesirable. In the past, the United States has banned entry to homosexuals, members of certain political movements, and people seen as nonwhite. In fact, the relatively short list of naturalized Americans who have been stripped of their citizenship includes the case of Bhagat Singh Thind, an Indian man who served in the U.S. Army during the First World War and who, the Supreme Court concluded, in 1923, had lied when he claimed to be a “free white person” as defined by the Naturalization Act of 1906.

Most of the people who have been stripped of their U.S. citizenship are guilty of heinous crimes: they are Nazi concentration-camp guards, Bosnian Serb killer-brigade members, participants in the Rwandan genocide. A handful appear to have been denaturalized for less-serious reasons, such as having committed immigration fraud by marrying solely for the purpose of getting a green card. But the Baljinder Singh case might be the first in a new category of bureaucratic enforcement.

Singh, who was born in India, came to the United States in 1991, without any identity documents. He was placed in detention, and deportation proceedings against him began. Then, after he was released into the custody of a friend, he failed to appear for a deportation hearing and was ordered deported in absentia; he filed for asylum. None of this is unusual for an asylum seeker, nor is what happened afterward: Singh still hadn’t had an asylum interview in 1996, when he married a woman who was a U.S. citizen. After that, he abandoned his asylum application and filed for a green card and, eventually, for citizenship. On his citizenship application, he failed to indicate that he had once been ordered deported, and that he had originally been admitted into the United States under the name Davinder Singh, rather than Baljinder Singh. These omissions have now cost him his citizenship. The case against Singh contains no allegations of other violations. It appears that Singh has lived in the United States his entire adult life, without incident. The Justice Department has stated that he is forty-three, which would mean that he came to this country as a teen-ager.

Denaturalization is a terrifying concept. It’s a way of literally and legally other-ing a person. The very possibility of denaturalization makes it impossible for immigrants ever to feel fully secure. All non-citizens in the United States live in a state of precariousness: one’s visa or legal-resident status can be revoked on the basis of even a minor violation (jumping a subway turnstile can be interpreted as an act of “moral turpitude”), or because the President has said so. Since the election of Donald Trump, non-citizen immigrants have lived with ever greater uncertainty; many have been advised to avoid leaving the country, in case they are not allowed to reënter, for any reason or no reason. But the uncertainty is supposed to dissipate once one is naturalized. Naturalization is like adoption: once it has taken effect, the adopted child is legally indistinguishable from a biological one. But, if one can be denaturalized, one can never really become a child of America.

The philosopher Moshe Halbertal has written that a moral life demands overcoming the natural human tendency to “self-privilege.” People feel most comfortable and secure in a closed circle of “us,” but we also realize that broadening that circle to include others makes us better people. For most of its history, U.S. immigration policy has represented an attempt to negotiate the duelling demands of moral ambition and a sense of security.

Trump, and Trumpism, rejects the very idea of this negotiation. The White House doesn’t recognize the tension that plagued previous Administrations; this Administration has no moral ambition. It’s all “us.” The White House statement following the President’s reported “shithole” remark confirmed this attitude yet again: “Certain Washington politicians choose to fight for foreign countries, but President Trump will always fight for the American people,” the deputy press secretary, Raj Shah, said.

In the absence of moral ambition, fear comes to the fore: the fear of the other, and the fear that “we” want to instill in the other. Singh’s denaturalization, and other pending denaturalization cases that stem from the same Inspector General report, are meant to scare potential immigrants into compliance—or, better yet, into not coming to this country in the first place. Commenting on the 7-Eleven raids, top ice officials also stressed that they were intended to send a message to potential violators, and that there would be more such raids in the future.

In scaring others, Trump Country also scares itself. Trumpism traffics in fear and demands mobilization. Mobilization demands an enemy. With every passing day, and every tweet, the image of the immigrant as the enemy looms larger, while the circle of “us” continues to get smaller.