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AN News: “Detention, Disappearance, and the Power of Language” by Miranda Cady Hallett and Lynnette Arnold

Anthropology News Article

By Miranda Cady Hallett (U of Dayton) and Lynnette Arnold (U Mass-Amherst)

During the 20th century, military dictatorships in Latin America became notorious for kidnapping and torturing their citizens. Because many of those kidnapped never returned, family members began to name and denounce this repression as ‘disappearance,’ coining the term los desaparecidos (the disappeared) to discursively highlight the systematic nature of this form of state violence. We are in a new era of los desaparecidos, this time perpetrated by the US government against the racialized bodies of immigrants.

Immigration law enforcement and deportation in the United States has grown exponentially over the past few decades, ripping people unexpectedly from their families and communities through raids and police encounters and placing them in a labyrinthine detention system. As the human impact of this system has manifested, it has become the target of denunciation and resistance throughout the Americas. One battleground in this contested field is the language used to describe migration: on the one hand, alarmist discourses of threat and securitization help to normalize and justify these oppressive practices; on the other, activists use rhetoric to reframe issues through campaigns such as Migration is Beautiful.  Like Guantánamo Bay, immigrant detention is the locus of some of the most iconic forms of state repression in our contemporary world—detainees occupy conditions of bare life[1] and racialized rightlessness[2]—but also a site of refusal and assertion as the detained, the deportable, and their allies denounce the illegitimacy of this use of state power.

While the detained themselves lead this resistance, anthropologists and other scholars of Latin America can contribute to these activist movements by critiquing and reframing the language used to understand this particular form of mass incarceration. In this engagement, it is crucial to situate immigrant detention and deportation as one of many state-sponsored campaigns of racialized exclusion.  The alarmist political discourses used to dehumanize the targets of state intervention and produce public consent for their repression, whether they be immigrants or other people of color, are strikingly similar. Linguistic and cultural anthropologists are uniquely situated to conduct this kind of comparative critique, and to point out the crucial role of symbolic meaning and language in producing and sustaining inequalities.

Anthropologists have already brought their expertise to bear in analyzing problematic representations of migrants. In Gabriella Sanchez’s 2014 column in Anthropology News, she discusses how pro-immigrant and anti-immigrant discourses tend to cluster around the two symbolic poles of the migrant-as-victim and the migrant-as-threat. By focusing on immigrants themselves, these discourses deflect attention from the state’s role in producing the emergence of a large population of people living under precarious conditions of deportability.

In addition to this sort of discursive critique, anthropologists can articulate new ways to frame what is happening.  In our own work, we have come to see a connection between detention as the sudden removal of immigrants from their families and communities in the US, and the historical practice of disappearance.  Like the families of los desaparecidos, families of detained migrants often have difficulty finding out where their loved ones have been taken.  Like disappearance, detention and deportability instantiates a condition of pervasive fear and insecurity for those at risk.  Ironically, public consent for this form of state repression hinges on securitization discourses and rhetorical claims that these acts will produce greater safety and contribute to the public good.  Conceptualizing immigrant detention as a form of disappearance highlights the role of state power and the terrifying overreach of that sovereignty into the intimate lives of ordinary people. The concept of “disappearance” is analytically rich—not only can it help us understand the legal and discursive sleight-of-hand that produces the erasure of certain persons living in the US today as rights-bearing subjects, it also resonates with the ways that the state displaces its authorship of such violations.

This framework can also help to direct attention to the many ways migrants are mobilizing both within and outside the walls of detention centers, in particular highlighting resonances with the historical activism of the Mothers of the Disappeared in Chile, Argentina, El Salvador, and other places.  Our own long-term ethnographic work with Salvadoran communities has brought us into the orbit of organization and activism among mothers being held in family detention with their children. Over the past few years, the numbers of unaccompanied minors and parents with young children apprehended at the US-Mexico border—most originally from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—has soared. The US rapidly expanded their family detention system to house these new detainees, who in turn organized activist responses, including letter-writing campaigns and hunger strikes, a resistance technique with a long tradition among incarcerated people.

In organizing against their prolonged detention, these women have consistently drawn on and deployed culturally valued discourses of motherhood.  For instance, in a collective statement announcing their hunger strike, they wrote about how their children have suffered in detention and concluded “We know that any mother would do what we are doing for their children.” Faced with a constrained political context, women discursively mobilize the social identity that gives them the greatest cultural capital: their role as mothers with an imperative to care for their children.  Much as with the Mothers of the Disappeared historically, in a context of intense repression, women retrench in the deeply held cultural value of motherhood and find in this stance the resources they need to assert defiant political claims.  Thus, the term “disappeared” resonates not only with the form of state violence, but also with the modes of resistance to that violence.

The problems that compel the northward flight of Central Americans have not been resolved.  Apprehensions of unaccompanied children and family members during the first five months of fiscal year 2016 were almost twice as high as the same timeframe the previous year, according to the Washington Office on Latin America.  In the meantime, a media frenzy around immigration-as-threat has been revived, fueled by racialized and hate-filled discourse promulgated by prominent public figures.  We may be at the cusp of another round of heated public debates around migration, and the critical insights that anthropological voices can bring are badly needed in that discussion.

[1] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: sovereignty and bare life (1998)

[2] Lisa Marie Cacho, Social Death: racialized rightlessness and the criminalization of the unprotected (2012)


Miranda Cady Hallett is an assistant professor of cultural anthropology in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work at the University of Dayton.

Lynnette Arnold is a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

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