So today I would like to talk about émigrés, immigrants, migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers—people who don’t have a home. I am speaking primarily as a journalist, though I am also an immigrant and even, technically, a refugee.
I had a very humane, what the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova would probably have called “vegetarian,” experience of migration. It involved planes and trains—the actual compartments of passenger trains—and not grueling walking and riding on the roofs of trains. It involved only a few days’ detention. It had a clearly charted legal path and a soft landing in a community of people who wanted to help my family and had the money to do so. I am describing my family’s immigration to the United States in 1981. It gave me barely a taste of complete voicelessness and total uncertainty, but it is a taste I will probably never forget. Nor will I forget the waiting, a defining condition of powerlessness in the modern world.
Read: What the waiting list for legal residency actually looks like
More than half a century ago, Hannah Arendt described the state of being a refugee, both as an experience and as a political predicament. In her essay “We Refugees” she wrote: “We lost our home, which means the familiarity of daily life. We lost our occupation, which means the confidence that we are of some use in this world. We lost our language, which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expression of feelings.”
In The Origins of Totalitarianism she wrote:
Something much more fundamental than freedom and justice, which are rights of citizens, is at stake when belonging to the community into which one is born is no longer a matter of course and not belonging no longer a matter of choice, or when one is placed in a situation where, unless he commits a crime, his treatment by others does not depend on what he does or does not do. This extremity, and nothing else, is the situation of people deprived of human rights. They are deprived, not of the right to freedom, but of the right to action; not of the right to think whatever they please, but of the right to opinion. Privileges in some cases, injustices in most, blessings and doom are meted out to them according to accident and without any relation whatsoever to what they do, did, or may do.
This predicament, she wrote, makes us aware of the existence of “the right to have rights”—we may say that human rights belong to all of us because we are human, but in reality only those humans who are also citizens can claim their rights. If human rights are an attribute of being human, then we must consider the fact that tens of millions of displaced people around the world have been rendered less than human.
Why am I talking about this here and now? Sometimes I feel like I can’t talk about anything else. But also, because of this. In April 2016, The Boston Globe published a mock front page with the banner headline “Deportations to Begin.” This was an illustration to an editorial calling on the Republican Party to stop Donald Trump’s march to the nomination. Other items on this front page, which the editors called an exercise in taking Trump at his word, imagined a trade war and a war on the media, among other acts of aggression. The particulars may have been off, but the spirit of Trumpian politics was imagined well. But what strikes me about the page is what I can’t imagine now: I can’t imagine deportations, even a vast unprecedented deportation effort, warranting a banner headline across the entire front page of a daily newspaper—the news wouldn’t be striking enough for that.