For the last several weeks, global and American audiences have been confronted by the heart wrenching plight of Central American refugees crossing the US-Mexico border in search of safety and shelter, only to be forcibly separated from their children and placed in detention centers. The conditions such helpless people have been placed in are often scarcely better than the difficult conditions they fled in their home nations, many of which have been ravaged by poverty, violence and political instability.
The situation unfolding has been condemned by many and condoned by some. Many supporters of hardline immigration policies championed by the Trump administration are quick to argue that a draconian approach toward refugees is warranted by the fact that many of them are deemed to have crossed into the U.S. in a manner that is ‘’illegal.” Indeed, the very term ‘’illegal immigrant’’ has been toyed around by the right of the political spectrum for decades as a means of not only justifying hard-nosed immigration policies toward undocumented people, but also vilifying them in a manner which often borders on dehumanisation.
But at the risk of being considered apologists for ‘’illegal’’ immigration, people may also question why illegal immigration should be the only illegal activity to be outraged by.
Successive U.S. governments, including the Trump administration, could also been accused of activities which were illegal under international and possibly even American law.
Take the 2003 U.S. led invasion of Iraq. The Bush administration had argued the military operation, code named ‘’Iraqi Freedom,’’ was designed to disarm Iraq of its ( famously nonexistent) weapons of mass destruction and pre-empt the non-existent threat of a military attack from that nation. Almost all experts in the field of international law seemed to agree the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq was illegal under international law for assorted reasons. But that did not stop much of the right of the American political spectrum from enthusiastically supporting the invasion and occupation.
Illegal as it probably was, the Iraq war was not the only time conservatives cheered on controversial and often destructive policies. Ditto the U.S. supported Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, now in its fifth decade with no sign of ending), the siege of Gaza deemed illegal by a United Nations Human Rights Council report in 2011), the Israeli wall in the West Bank (ruled illegal in 2004 by the International Court of Justice in the Hague).
Similarly, the War on Terror has seen large numbers of terror suspects under indefinite detention without trial. This blanket practice has been the cornerstone of both the Guantanamo Bay detentions as well as the practice of extraordinary renditions of terror suspects. A U.S. district judge in 2012 ruled indefinite detention to be a likely violation of both the First and Fifth Amendments, and hence, unconstitutional. And yes, illegal.
The same could just as easily be said about extrajudicial killings by both the military and police of armed and unarmed individuals and groups of individuals, both inside and outside the U.S. Such killings have included the shooting and killing by police of people suspected of committing crimes, a disproportionate number of whom have been people of color.
To bring the very concept of ‘’illegal’’ into some necessary perspective, one could argue illegal activities are seen as an affront when they involve desperate people crossing borders in search of safety, dignity and a hope for a decent life. But many who condemn this kind of illegal activity are all too willing to condone or justify policies which border on the repressive and extreme when they are taken by powerful governments at the expense of vulnerable populations, even when such policies help contribute to the plight of displaced people in the first place.
Which leads us to the perhaps seldom asked question: Why the selective outrage over ‘’illegal’’ immigration?
(Shafi is a contributing writer for Susquehanna Valley Progressives, which provides a “Working for Progress” column for every other Sunday.)