I knew we were in trouble when undocumented immigrants started disappearing.
It was 2008, and they were being snatched by immigration agents right off the subway platform at the 8th and Market station in Philadelphia. Or they were dumped across state borders after being offered a ride in New York’s Westchester county. Or they simply never came home after their workplaces were raided in Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Mississippi.
It had been happening before then, of course, but that’s when I decided to change the novel I was writing at the time into a cautionary tale about immigration policy turned totalitarian. I came by the instinct for projecting worst-case scenarios honestly – I had grown up in Guatemala during the 36-year internal armed crisis that left 200,000 people dead or permanently disappeared.
The resulting novel, Ink, was published in 2012 by Crossed Genres Publications. Some who read it commented that the premise seemed unlikely, that nothing resembling the dystopia it depicted would ever happen in the United States.
By the time Rosarium Publishing (a very woke small press in Washington DC) decided to rerelease the novel this September, however, I had received countless messages from readers pointing to real-life concordances. Just this week the Mexican Canadian fiction writer Silvia Moreno-Garcia tweeted: “I read this years ago when it came out and it was good, but a tad far-fetched. I’m sad to report it’s now very likely.”
Where we stand now – poised on the precipice of a real-life immigration dystopia – cannot be laid entirely at Trump’s feet. Obama, Bush and Clinton all helped escalate the criminalization of undocumented immigrants in the US. But it is Trump’s unabashed ill will against immigrants that may finally drive us over the edge.
What does one do with an infestation of vermin? Eradicate and exterminate
In real life, as in fiction, it starts with language. Throughout my journalism career I have railed against the use of “illegals” to describe those whose immigration status is irregular. But the leap from that to Trump’s use of “animals” and his statement that immigrants are infesting the nation, is a leap from abstract to concrete dehumanization. To verminization, in fact. And as Anil Kalhan, a professor of law at Drexel University, noted recently, what does one do with an infestation of vermin? Eradicate and exterminate.
While we haven’t yet – thank God – escalated to extermination, the administration’s plan to eradicate the influx of immigrants (many of them asylum-seekers from the Northern Triangle of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras) has been far-ranging. It includes efforts to physically block people from the US ports of entry where they can legally petition for asylum; overturning asylum protections for victims of domestic and gang violence; even creating a taskforce to consider stripping citizenship from naturalized citizens who are deemed to have “lied” on their applications.
But nothing has illustrated the Trump administration’s willingness to employ the most noxious means to attain their ends than the separation of 2,000 immigrant children from their parents and their detention in centers and “tender age” shelters for infants and pre-toddlers.
While the executive order Trump issued on Wednesday temporarily stops the process of separation, the damage will probably be long-term. Immigration attorneys are uncertain that those children who were already separated can be successfully reunited with their parents, and the process is likely to further psychologically damage an already traumatized generation of immigrant children.
Ironically for the administration’s plan (and befitting the predictive quality of my novel) it may well be that the heartrending photos of those separated and detained children is what actually checks our slide into full-on immigration dystopia.
I am heartened by the level of public outrage the photos have triggered across the nation. As I stood amid a crowd of approximately 2,000 protesters at Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia on 19 June, the willingness to act to stop these breaches of human dignity was palpable.
“The eye is a strange organ,” says Del, one of the characters in my novel. “The true repository of memory.” I can only hope that the memory of the photos of the children housed in chain-link perreras (kennels) and under reflective emergency blankets in the detention center rooms known as hieleras (freezers) – as well the one of the toddler girl wailing as her mother is patted down – remains vivid in our collective memory long after the news cycle turns to other matters.
Our future as a nation depends on remembering these very images, and seeing this moment for exactly what it is. A chance to reverse the course of this administration’s destructive policies. Let’s not allow a dystopian future to be written for us.
- Sabrina Vourvoulias is a freelance journalist and novelist