I am a criminal. My mother is a criminal. All my relatives and neighbors who fled the war in El Salvador in the 1980s and 1990s, and those who continue to flee the afterlife of war are criminals. Los Angeles, Denver, New York—cities made criminal by our aberrant presence. The “otherness” that we possess makes us criminal, and not even God, the wholly other, was spared this distinguishing mark. The social construction of the criminal other has long served as a justification for subjugation, for the twin evils of slavery and colonialism, and for the ongoing eradication of worth-less bodies that like a cancer, are contained before they metastasize in the healthy-white body politic.
The US government’s containment of children this past summer was but the latest manifestation of the criminal gaze that sears all flesh that “irregularly” crosses the US border, marking it with the stamp of disposability. What is too easily called “separation” of children can be described more accurately as the weaponization of children in a war against a people whose right to life, protection, and basic humanity is not only denied but purposely erased. The political mechanisms at work in such containment aim to conceal their presence, until they are disappeared. Apprehended at the border, snatched from city streets, rounded up in factories, corralled in rural towns, like wild beasts my people are processed into a labyrinthine system from which there is little hope to escape unscathed. Those branded by these United States as unworthy of living lives free of suspicion, and fundamentally, as unworthy of living for theirs is the crime of “irregular” status, are strategically killed by the institutionalized violence of a system that refuses to recognize their humanity.
The forced disappearance of “irregular” persons from our midst is not only a matter of sinful structures but of systemic evil, for evil is made historically manifest whenever the threatened life of an/other disappears without our resistance. It is not enough to speak of the criminalization, containment, and forced disappearance of brown children and their parents as pressing ethical issues, for in a profoundly chilling way, these processes overflow the category of ethics and bring us into the realm of something primordial that is often more easily recognized by the poor and insignificant of this world. Pope Francis has stated that the people of God can smell holiness, and perhaps there is also a greater need for the olfactory discernment of evil in our midst. Despite the risk of too literal an interpretation of this metaphor, it invites a deeper contemplation of how we discern the presence of evil, and of the ways in which evil must be resisted.
The events of this past summer have emphasized how community and nonprofit agencies that otherwise may carry out good work can become easily complicit in their cooperation with systemic evil. In New York City for example, the Cayuga Center’s cooperation with the government’s ill/legal containment measures served to further enact the government’s attempt to invisibilize and eradicate Latin American asylum seekers. In the process, the Cayuga Center made quite a profit from the commercialization of brown lives. When the local community began to systematically question Cayuga Center’s complicity, the government responded by trafficking the children from New York and other cities to a containment camp in Tornillo, Texas. Now in a “tent-city” in the desert wilderness, these irregular lives can be more effectively punished for their crime of existing in the US.
In a society where the government can literally traffic brown bodies and contain them as it wills, organizations who make an option for noncooperation with institutionalized evil become a means for glimpsing fragments of salvation that generate hope for a more human history. For every poster that has been put up in Queens, NY that says, “It is your civic duty to report any and all illegal aliens to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement,” which echoes the days when ads were placed with rewards for hunting down runaway slaves, there is a small but committed community of persons who see no option but continuing to discern ways of resistance. Their presence and accompaniment of those whom the government seeks to disappear becomes an interruption, however small, of an otherwise efficient means of dehumanization. One such organization that is resisting government policy is the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City (NSC).
In a recent community action led by the NSC, I participated in a Jericho walk around the Cayuga Center in Harlem that brought faith leaders and community members together to shine light on the center’s collusion in the ongoing weaponization of children as a deterrent for migration. Mothers of children being held in the Cayuga Center were not allowed to visit with their own children and decisions about the their health and vaccinations were made without the parents’ consent. The government and its subservient organizations have essentially become forced surrogate parents, an echo to the authority structures that marked the formation of slave children who despite having parents, were subject to the whims and desires of their white masters.
Let me emphasize that the events of this summer are not simply about separating children from their parents, but are a strategic means of using children as a weapon of war in the struggle to eradicate whole communities of brown and other colored bodies from an imagined white body politic. The resistance of organizations like the New Sanctuary Coalition, through their multifaceted work of accompaniment and witness make visible and present the lives of those whom we risk forgetting.
The current administration considers the work of the New Sanctuary Coalition and of similar organizations as criminal, for noncooperation with institutionalized evil is a guaranteed way of becoming a target of the state. But perhaps bearing the mark of criminality is a means of entering into a profound communion with persons marked for elimination. To become criminal before the state for the protection of the life of the other is holy work that echoes the Holy Other who sought the liberation of all from the forces of evil. What is at stake for us all is not simply ethics, but salvation. Perhaps we each need to ask if we are willing to bear the mark of a criminal—“Am I?”—“Are you?”