Mexican rapists coming for your women.
Bad hombres in drug gangs joining hordes of faceless migrants in caravans invading the borders.
People likely to be a public charge seeking to burden a country already full.
Kids in cages.
Tear gas fired at asylum seekers.
Water left for migrants in the desert poured out.
People rounded up at gun point by vigilante militias.
Children dying in detention.
Humans suffering under state (sanctioned) violence.
Two kinds of representations of the migrant figure compete for our attention and seek to shape our perception of the crisis at the southern border. The tropes of racialized, pathologically criminal horde of madmen and the still racialized, but decent and distraught poor migrant mother and child are employed in religious and secular discourse to spur us into action. Yet, both tropes are part of technologies of care/containment that support and depend on the neoliberal and neocolonial nation-state by utilizing disabled/disabling identifiers. How do we account then for bodily interactions at the southern border ethically and theologically beyond these images?
An analysis through a critical disability lens, and employing the terms, concepts, and critical interventions it provides can offer a constructive understanding as to how each image still results in the state controlled and maintained institutionalization of the bodies it captures. Of course, this complex issue deserves nuanced attention, not simply an appropriation of disability discourse mapped onto the multiple dynamics of oppression at the border. Here, I merely want to offer a sketch for how a critical disability lens can frame and respond to the state induced traumatization of people.
The concept of debility is a useful analytical entry point. Debility, as a condition of being incapacitated without a chance of improving, is a technique of empire as well as a product vital to its continuation. Conceptualized initially by Julie Livingston’s global disability analysis, further employed by Jasbir K. Puar and critically investigated by Margrit Shildrick, it can nuance our understanding of bodies impaired, disabled, maimed but purposefully kept alive, susceptible to and in service of domination under the economics of neo-liberal, colonial, racial capitalism. Not only are bodies debilitated as a necessary byproduct of capitalist labor systems, indeed debility itself is profitable (e.g. to the medical industrial complex) and as such is a means and a goal of the neo-liberal state. Debility then has affinities with disability, the term associated with physical, emotional, and cognitive embodied difference and utilized to address categories of social inclusion/exclusion. And debility and disability overlap and interrelate in their embodied dimension (for a brief discussion of models of disability see Retief and Rantoa). Conceptually, one distinctive feature of debility (in relation to disability) is its analysis of imperialism as dynamic that requires maiming (debilitation of bodies) for its continuation.
As people migrate towards and across the border, the white, colonial nation-state and its affiliates employ technologies that classify, contain, and thus make available people groups to injury – in a way that serves its own maintenance and profit. The trauma inflicted at the border on bodies of a particular hue is debilitating and multi-faceted. This is not a fluke effect of a crisis (as if the public pronouncement of “family separation” as official determent strategy leaves any doubt on this matter!) that could be remedied if only proper/humane policies were to be enacted. Actual determent does not seem to be in the larger interest of the US nation-state, as the techniques of containment of people at the border (and their “shipping out” inward into privatized containment facilities) are a biopolitical mechanism that seems essential to the maintenance of the state.
The state technologies witnessed at the border are nothing new. They draw on a long history of deliberate debilitation of people and communities of color. Resisting the colonial state as an indigenous person / person of color has been pathologized and criminalized: From the fugitive enslaved person who seeks liberation and crosses literal and symbolic borders, but is diagnosed with drapetomania; to the person in mental and emotional crisis who disrupts lines of communal belonging within the normatizing mechanisms of the industrial state, and is contained in an insane asylum; to the black urban dweller seeking survival who is undermined in modern economic competition and exploitation, and becomes pathologized as maladapted and emotionally overwhelmed in need of psychiatric services.
Particular kinds of mental and social instability are racialized when particular populations are singled out for physical, emotional, and psychological trauma that continues through subsequent generations. Yet these technologies of debility are concealed behind individualized diagnoses, for example, suicide as personal copying mechanism of Asians in the aftermath of WWII internment camps, or Residential School Syndrome as label for kidnapped indigenous children in boarding school prisons. The debilitated and disabled bodies become racialized and alienated (made to carry racial designations specific to the US and made alien to the nation and its security), and now embody the mental and social instability a nation must control, yet also depends on for its own maintenance. The crisis manifesting at the border today extends this tradition of pathologizing those resisting violence and marginalization: non-consensual drugging to sedate imprisoned children to maintain their bodily compliance in the hands of their wardens; scanty documentation of separated families making their kidnapping permanent; medical debilitation and murder by disregard under dehumanized/ing imprisonment leading to permanent psychological maiming.
These historical and contemporary events deserve analysis in their specificity and distinct form, but my aim in this short piece is to point out that they were/are not failures, but rather the purposeful administration of debilitating technologies of care. Puar demonstrates how imposing lasting physical and psychological trauma is a tool of the state to create and maintain target populations for use. People groups become debilitated through disorientation to time, relationship, and well-being.
Yet even sympathetic political debates and specific actions taken to promote “adequate treatment,” “reforming” immigration law, or “addressing the crisis where it originates” can contribute to (rather than address) these very state technologies of violence and its neo-liberal nationalistic aims. Interventions geared towards individual “well-being” contribute to this oppressive dynamic, as Louise Tam argues. Racism is a connective tissue holding together immigration policy, psychiatry, and criminal justice in a system that marks out non-whiteness for defensive and offensive institutional procedures in ways. The debilitating trauma experienced creates racialized “mad people”: unruly, distressed, unbecoming, disposable in the eyes of the nation-state yet necessary in their precarity and correct-ability as they may benefit the survival of capitalist systems of the security nation-state within an economy that continues to degrade, debilitate, and disable.
Critical interventions in disability rights discourses (Christopher Bell, Jasbir Puar) point out that where systemic changes are sought, the available identity categories employed to critique systems of exclusion and fight to increase access struggle to frame their analysis and strategies intersectionally. Immigrant rights activist language often operates with a well-meaning progressive liberal trope of the hard-working, capable, heroic, suffering immigrant who will make the country better. Yet inclusion and rights frames, in seeking to increase access to procedures based on identity categories, set up competition with other relevant intersecting identities (disability, race, nationality, sexuality, etc.). The embodied experiences of the immigrant subject are complicated by the marking, maiming, debilitating, and disabling trauma that the state inflicts, both actively and passively. Without addressing how permanently traumatized and debilitated bodies are made available for profit (e.g. to medical-pharmaceutical industries), immigrant rights discourses may be indeed complicit in/as technologies of state violence that subsume debilitated bodies by different means of domination. In other words, when activist and politicians aim to cure the pain of border bodies by granting entry status, the healing fix amounts to a rehabilitation by assimilation into domination. Accepting the taxonomy of the state (migrant, immigrant, asylum seeker, refugee, resident alien) means risking participation in the normalization of debility and the state’s aim to incapacitate, punish, contain, debilitate, and disable particular groups to make them profitable and useful.
Narrative tropes may present competing images of criminal aliens or model future citizens, but in the end, both contribute to the placing of bodies accordingly labeled in a neo-liberal, colonial, racial capitalist state that will depend on their debilitation. Analyzing and writing about bodily interactions at the border from a disability perspective can account for the intersectional, physical, emotional, and generational debilitation that borders technologies inflict. And it creates space to foreground the embodied complexity and intersectional trauma experienced in response to social and state forces crisscrossing bodies and point us to the potential for multiple forms of radical political imagination. For example, claiming migrant madness (akin to Simi Linton claiming disability) to give epistemological preference to the meaning created in the behavioral, functional, cognitive, sensory, and emotional variations resulting from migrant debilitation. Or thinking through alienship as desirable (akin to Robert McRuer’s desiring disability and critical disabled citizenship) to expose the paradigms of identity and subjectivity enforced by white supremacy, ableism, sanism, and settler colonialism and decenter current immigrant policies. What is possible when debilitated bodies interacting in arbitrarily created border spaces take up critical positions as residents, with full participation in various communities not contingent on being able of body, mind, emotions? What experiences of unconditional friendliness are possible when opportunities are created where bodies debilitated by the racist, colonial, capitalist nation-state claim space in the public sphere as critically mad and in pain?
Disability culture offers disability and debility as creative and productive forces. If beauty, dignity, and the divine indeed are creatively dwelling in the lives of those disabled, debilitated, and maimed, as Sharon Betcher argues, then a disability lens can produce a specific politics; one that can do significant liberatory work with a theology of suffering in the complex embodied realities of trauma and madness produced by the sovereign nation state. The existing social justice activism grounded in intersectional disability communities (shared by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha) shows how collective care work models the strategies possible and necessary when we wrestle with black and brown trauma in its multiple layers and offers constructive imagination of solidarity, relationality, and interdependence that embody alternatives to domination.
The politics of the Disability Rights Movement makes readily available concerns of access and inclusion, representation and de-stigmatization. But disability perspectives can be a critical and collaborative resource to create politics of inclusion and care because they provide generative and critical investigations of the materiality of political and governing bodies, interspecies relations and formations, ecojustice, transnational labor, and more. Thinking through and with disability is a way maintain the complexities of our material realities as they manifest in social structures that direct our embodied experiences of race, gender, nationality, sexuality, and other embodied identity categories. Disability studies provides tools and concepts for analysis that encourage groundedness in intersectional embodiment. Because disability studies invites us to begin with and continuously loop through real and diverse experiences, the analytical task is to keep the political and personal closely together. Disability studies itself is in need of critical interventions (e.g. for its lingering whiteness, its flirtations with neoliberal identity politics), but when and where those interventions take place, and a disability analysis is mobilized from an intersectional space, it does not only provide corrective analytical framing, but offers radical interpretations and creative imaginations of our world.