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UCD Fáilte Refugees: Refugee Awareness Week 2019

March 27, 2019

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The Idea of Choice: Migrants Fleeing to the USA

The integration of newly-arrived Latin American immigrants has been notoriously difficult as of late in the U.S. Several media outlets have explained how the abolition of family separation pales in comparison to the ongoing plight of migrants in detention centres. The recent pictures we’ve seen of these centres give a bleak impression of inhumane cruelty, and future migrants cannot be blamed for fearing similar treatment. The general impression is that the authorities have no regard for the pain these people are going through, and have no qualms about rounding them up like cattle.

 

Here we see one of life’s great contradictions; a group that is depicted by some sources as desperate and traumatised is depicted by other sources as being corrupt, even criminal. The former stems from reliable sources- mainstream media and human rights organisations. The latter tends to come from governments’ policies on undocumented immigration, and the rhetoric of certain political groups. When a country’s legal system specifically identifies victims as perpetrators, and treats them as such, it becomes rather hard for some to see the reality of their situation.

 

Journalist Daniel Trilling, writing for The Guardian, introduces an interesting idea. Perhaps the commodification of human beings, through spectatorship, actually contributes to the views held by some regarding immigrants’ innocence;

 

“...the stories we consume are, for the most part, commodities produced by profit-making companies. Like other commodities, their production, value and demand are driven by market forces. This can harm those at the centre of the stories, distort our understanding of a crisis and even contribute to a sense of panic- which, in turn, provokes panicked responses from the authorities.”

Pictures are circulated for the masses which give rise to intense emotions, the spectatorship of these images leading to sentiment in great numbers. While this is often positive for raising awareness of migrants’ torment, sometimes it can lead to haphazard government legislation. Hasty decisions that take away the immediacy of the problem, but give no long-term solutions for the conditions and perception of refugees. In effect, authorities continue detaining migrants and integration remains an unrealistic prospect.

The subjects of these pictures are later abandoned. Initially, they stand alongside the most well-known figures in the spotlight, herded into cages with musical precision while shining choreography blinds us to the full extent of their humanity. The fierce counterargument- “they knew what they were doing, it’s their fault, it was their choice”- can easily be replaced with the cries of over two thousand Hispanic children. The raw recordings of these screaming youths work as an antidote to the perception held by many that undocumented migrants are undeserving of compassion. Eventually, however, they are abandoned and the public turns to another source of aural sustenance.

 

While the public’s attention may shift from one migrant to another, creating a sense of panic and leading to hurried government responses, it’s important to remember that the U.S. authorities’ perception of corruption has a root in the terror the migrants face back home. The voluntary “choice” made to flee their countries was brought about by crime, death and destruction. But the legal system is all too ready to ignore this, and the images in the media, often helpful, occasionally dehumanise them further. This bolsters the masses’ perception of refugees as inhuman, and opinion can sway back to the idea that migrants made a cold, calculating choice in their dash to America.

 

Before this illusion of choice is swept away, integration is going to be very difficult indeed for the migrants crossing the border into the pearly straits of America.

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