The Damage is Done: Visualizing Immigrant Child Social Death

by Nicole M. Guidotti-Hernández

The damage is done. The number of detention facilities is overwhelming.

The pervasiveness of the detention regime in Texas is particularly stark—we are ground zero for the social death of the immigrant child. These policies are emotionally and socially killing the undocumented immigrant child.

Dehumanizing brown undocumented children runs counter to the historic revered position of children in this nation. This demonstrates how race and nationality distinguish which children will be classified and treated citizen while “others” are treated as alien.

In their trip to a McAllen Shelter, historians Ana Minian and Allyson Hobbs questioned: “How could it be possible for everyday life to remain the same for most of McAllen’s residents amid this humanitarian crisis?” The answer lies in the long-term history of a militarized South Texas border, where detention has become a way of life since the 1999 shift away from Immigration and Naturalization services to Immigration Customs Enforcement. And the normalization of violence against undocumented immigrants seeking a better future in the U.S. is part of that landscape of South Texas now—it is South Texas.

Recently, we’ve seen an even greater shift towards total border enforcement against undocumented bodies at the national level, and a clamp down children in the state of Texas with fervor. But these drastic policy changes, while intensified with the 2016 election and higher detention rates vs. deportation rates, were brewing long before and have come to a head in the most contradictory ways. The number of detention facilities in the U.S. visually and spatially overlap, and the majority of them line the U.S.-Mexico border. They are in almost every state. Almost every state in the union has immigrant detention facilities, most of them are for profit. With Operation Streamline and the new zero tolerance policy, things have only gotten worse. The prevention through deterrence strategy criminalizes all undocumented border crossers, even those seeking asylum. With thousands of people fleeing state-sponsored violence in Central America and Mexico on a daily basis, the historic rhetoric of freedom and a nation of immigrants has now transformed us into an incarceration nation.

Biopower demarcates the will to have power over bodies; it is, according to Foucault, “an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugation of bodies and the control of populations”.1 By naming the violence towards undocumented migrants biopower, we identify just how urgent the conversation is– it’s a matter of life and death.

The “Torn Apart/Separados” Digital Humanities project creates an even greater urgency for our conversations and political action. Visualizing the detention regime puts into sharp relief the ways in which irreparable harm and trauma have been wrought on children and families

You think it’s new but it isn’t. Thousands of migrant children have already been separated in a cruel tactic of punishment to deter migration. Undocumented immigrant children are seen as enemy combatants, full-fledged social actors in violation of the law. During the Indian wars of the nineteenth century, Apache and Yaqui children, especially males, were targeted as enemy combatants because of their role as future warriors that would continue the struggle against U.S. progress and colonization of the west. Incarcerating toddlers in tender age shelters, away from their parents, is no different that the captive system or Indian boarding schools. They are children already marked as enemy combatants despite their already internalized trauma of being uprooted and making the dangerous trek out of Central American and/or Mexico, surviving a journey without food and water, but with their parents at hand.

The comfort of having a parent in the face of violent upheaval cannot be understated, especially for children under the age of three who are so dependent on their caretakers for basic necessities, including forming an understanding of the world and simple forms of love and care that aid in child development. President of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. Colleen Kraft, in observing a child detention facility in April noted that toddlers, normally rambunctious and curiously engaged with their environment were silent and distant, evidencing the “irreversible harm in emotional and brain development” because of separation from their parents by the DHS.

As Forts Bliss and Goodfellow in Texas are prepared to provide the newest carceral spaces for undocumented immigrant families, I cannot help but reflect on the saturation and normalization of the detention regime all along the Texas-Mexico border. To see the number and size of immigrant detention facilities in Texas is to gravely understand the level of cruelty leveled against children.

Since the Obama administration’s carefully calibrated immigration revisions that increased penalties against undocumented border crossers and returning people immediately after detention at the Mexican border, 85% of those removed had crossed in 2016. Children are migrating for family reunification purposes, are in search of new social and economic opportunities or are running away from increasing violence in their country of origin, along with their parents. For these children, the politics of empathy matter greatly. We must create a double political move—to evoke family values and salvation— to use the moral ground of humanitarianism and sentimentality to make undocumented child migrants worthy—they are not a security threat. The enforcement and detention regime may not be killing newly arrived undocumented children, but when separated from their families, you are making them dead on the inside, a social and developmental death that these youngsters will not be able to fully recover from. And the intention of death for undocumented migrant children is ever so clear when individuals like Oregon National Guardsman Gerod Martin publicly state: “They’re lucky we aren’t executing them.” We are in the era of Trump, when sympathy for the undocumented immigrant Latinx child is undermined by the politics of me first and intended death to undocumented migrants.

I ask people to look at the Torn Apart/Separados project, to see the density of the detention experience. We should feel and hear the screams of toddlers asking for mama and papa, to view and listen with empathy and a dose of humanity we are so severely lacking and think of them as our children, not enemy combatants. We need to do something to change this hateful moment we are living in.

Dr. Nicole M. Guidotti-Hernández is Associate Professor of American Studies and Mexican American and Latina/o Studies. She is an expert in Borderlands History after 1846, Transnational Feminist Methodologies, Latinx Studies, and Popular Culture and Immigration.

  1. Michel Foucault. The History of Sexuality Vol. 1: The Will to Knowledge. (London: Penguin, 1998): 140.