No Country for Brown Sinners

No Country for Brown Sinners

I come from a lineage of bad hombres. My bisabuelo was one of the bad ones—not one of the model Mexicans you’re supposed to care about, the ones whose stories some people cherry-pick to tug at your heartstrings.

Antonio Valenzuela went to prison in 1929 after assaulting a fellow mine laborer with a razor blade when he was drunk. His mug shot shows his hair swept back elegantly with pomade, but lopsided, with some stray strands sticking up. He was deported with a million other Mexicans scapegoated for the Great Depression in the 1930s.

“Get rid of the Mexicans!” cried Americans then. Decades later, in 2015, a reality TV star said Mexico was sending “rapists” and “criminals” to the United States. “We have some bad hombres here and we’re going to get them out,” Donald Trump declared, and I knew he meant men like my great grandfather.

Our country has a long history of deporting, detaining, demonizing and deterring immigrants with death. It didn’t begin with Trump, and it will continue under the Biden administration unless he and the rest of Americans reckon with how the stories of “bad hombres” like Antonio have for decades been weaponized to punish entire immigrant communities. By contrasting “bad hombres” with “good” immigrants who work unnaturally hard and never break any rules, political leaders and media figures reduce immigrant lives to caricatures that can be exploited and expelled.

Antonio Valenzuela’s mugshot, courtesy the author Image:California State Archives/California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

For example, the Obama administration backed mass deportations of what he called “felons, not families.” Unlike Trump’s family separations, which targeted people asking for refuge at the border, Obama focused on immigrants in the U.S., allegedly serious criminals disembodied from relatives. But all of them had families, and a majority had committed only immigration offenses. Obama deported three million people—a record—and in the process, separated hundreds of thousands of families. During this time, I interviewed deported fathers in the storm drains of northern Mexico as they wept for their lost children, jobs, and homes. Some of those I spoke with used heroin and crack cocaine to cope with the trauma of separation. Many lived in homeless encampments and underground near the border in Tijuana, clinging to the dream of returning to the U.S.

These men were rejected by Americans and Mexicans alike. They belonged nowhere. Some reminded me of my father, an immigrant who struggled with addiction and hallucinations and who I wrote about in my memoir, Crux. I documented their skeletons in desert-smuggling routes and waded through pools of their blood in the morgue. My reports and those of other Latinx journalists, and the situation in general, stirred rage among many progressives and Latinos. But there was no cavalcade of national headlines calling it “torture,” “child abuse,” or a “crime against humanity.” Most Americans simply went on with their lives; the deportees disappeared from their minds. I wondered what it would take to get people to object to the violence of immigration enforcement, which I had been thinking about since reading Luis Alberto Urrea’s The Devil’s Highway in 2004 as a high school student. A white editor suggested I find more “relatable” sources.

Finally, in 2018, Americans of all backgrounds began to express horror at the violence of our immigration system. What had changed was not the violence but the general profile of its victims. Rather than flawed men literally ejected from this country—out of sight, out of mind—the victims were parents and children fleeing for their lives and requesting asylum at the Southwest border. Progressive media outlets blasted the sounds and images of crying children and terrified parents across the country. These were clearly not “bad hombres.”

Jacob Soboroff, NBC reporter and author of the national bestseller Separated, became the face of the movement objecting to Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy. He helped spark national outrage about family separations by reporting on innocent children “in cages.” He was late to the story, but he was effective. Within weeks, Trump said he was ending his policy; he “didn’t like the sight or the feeling of families being separated.”

By contrasting “bad hombres” with “good” immigrants who work unnaturally hard and never break any rules, media figures reduce immigrant lives to caricatures that can be exploited and expelled

It is not a coincidence that it was Soboroff who managed to capture Americans’ attention and calibrate their moral compass on immigrant rights. Historically, white people have wanted racialized people’s stories translated and filtered for them through tales about white heroes. Myriam Gurba recently sparked a national conversation about the white gaze in publishing and media, and Rafia Zakaria has written extensively about how the dehumanization of brown and Black lives becomes a “notable” and “prize-worthy” truth mostly when it comes from white men. “White and Western men, even when reporting on the absolute depravity of other white and Western men, can continue to be heroes, untouched by the taint of others like them,” she writes.

Soboroff’s book is a first-person narrative about covering the border, woven with the stories of a Guatemalan father and son who were, as he carefully describes, “well-off compared to many of their neighbors because Juan worked hard to make it so.” The book includes strong reporting about some career officials’ efforts to stop the crisis, and he repeatedly credits the work of other journalists on the beat. But the protagonist is Soboroff.

He takes readers on a tour of the border, from on-air appearance to on-air appearance—inside a drug tunnel where he became “dizzy,” a morgue where he and colleagues “literally held our noses,” the shores of the Rio Grande where he “couldn’t help but laugh” at the “peaceful setting” given all the death at the border, and finally, to the jails, where he reports on the conditions and later notices his Twitter following growing by “tens of thousands overnight.” He zooms in on his notebook, which makes his “heart race” as he thinks about how “the reporting inside, by President Trump’s own admission, contributed to his ending systematic family separations.”

Ultimately, his Separated is less about systemic violence against immigrants than about the heroism of the outraged observer. At the end of the book, the U.S. becomes what Juan and his son had “hoped it would be.” Soboroff offers his readers a sense of absolution–the idea that through his and their outrage, they have stopped Trump and his racist policies, and the nightmare is now over.

Another book by the same name was written by William D. Lopez, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. It was released nearly a year before Soboroff’s, and received far less attention. (Lopez has written publicly about his feelings about the duplicated title). Lopez’s Separated situates itself within the ongoing legacy of American violence against brown and Black lives, forcing us to remember the nightmare before Trump and to empathize with the complex people whose lives were destroyed.

One of Lopez’s sources, Santiago, was deported in 2013 after officers raided his home looking for drugs. They didn’t find any. But he’d been previously deported and reportedly found with “three .22 caliber rifles and ammunition” and “several crossbows and swords.” Lopez does not minimize Santiago’s alleged crimes, but he doesn’t fixate on them either. (It is easy to fall into our culture’s trap of fetishizing antiheroes). Instead, Lopez shows us that tearing an alleged criminal from his family can have devastating consequences for his community.

Lopez shows us that tearing an alleged criminal from his family can have devastating consequences for his community

Lopez examines the aftermath of a raid: struggling single mother homes, paralyzed businesses, neighbors with hypervigilance—hearts thumping, eyes fixed on rearview mirrors on drives to the store or dropping children off at school. Calls to abolish ICE echo calls to defund the police because both terrorize brown and Black men. “It is the everyday potential for catastrophic violence that allows for the coercion of entire marginalized communities,” Lopez writes.

His style is revolutionary. He demonstrates that an alleged criminal can be a complex human with complex human connections. Santiago is not an “animal.” He is a member of a community marked for violence, where “every day has the potential to be life-altering and financially ruinous, leaving one’s children motherless or fatherless.” Lopez’s book short circuits narratives at the root of racist policies—about good vs. bad immigrants, legal vs. illegal people—by honoring the complex web around the sinners. When brown sinners are outlawed, their loved ones become prey, too.

He contemplates a raid’s impact on a mother’s breast milk. “Se me fue la leche,” Fernanda tells him. The milk left me. “Raids are, by design, swift, surprising, and terrifying,” Lopez writes. “Even in the absence of literal violence, such as death or injury, it is the capacity of agents to kill and maim that allows raids to function smoothly.” He points out that her experience fits the diagnostic definition of a traumatic event; the American Psychological Association, which famously told Congress that Trump’s separations could have “severe consequences in a child’s developmental processes,” previously reported that Obama’s deportations could trigger “serious mental health deterioration and trauma in children.” The trauma of the Obama raid—in which officials kicked in Fernanda’s door, pointed weapons at everyone and took the men—cut off her body from her child.

Obama’s mantra of “felons, not families” ignored the bodies of Fernanda, her children, and friends who were swept up in the raid and deported as well, despite their lack of criminal records. Lopez’s book subverts the false dichotomy between immigrants who have a right to exist in this country and those who do not by exposing that the boundary between them is not real.

Unlike Soboroff’s book, Lopez’s does not offer readers a catharsis. Instead, it urges us to reflect on our complicity. He acknowledges his privilege as a lighter-skinned Latino who does not have to live in fear that he might be killed or deported. Implicit in his book’s failure to capture as much media attention as Soboroff is the question: Why do so many of us who are horrified by Trump’s family separations turn a blind eye to Obama’s? While many Americans call for Biden to immediately reunify families separated by Trump, the family of Lucía Quiej, an undocumented Guatemalan mother whose five children were separated from their father under Obama, has been forgotten.

At a Democratic debate on March 9, 2016, Quiej appeared on national television, standing before Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton as she asked what they would do to reunify her family and others separated by Obama. “I will do everything that I can to unite your family,” Sanders promised. Clinton replied, “I will do everything I can to pass laws that would bring families back together.”

In 2020, as Biden prepares for inauguration day, the national conversation around reunifying families is laser-focused on those separated by Trump. But what about relief for Quiej, whose family remains separated? When I contacted her at her home in Homestead, Florida, she told me she is still struggling to keep a roof over her children’s heads; her 17-year-old daughter Angelica broke into tears as she remembered her father cutting her birthday cake when she was a little girl. They still dream of being whole again; Angelica feels dismembered by his deportation. When she hears about Biden’s plans to reunify families that were separated by Trump, she thinks, “Why can’t they help us as well?” It seems most Americans oppose violent immigration enforcement only when they can use it to blame a person they revile, or when the abuse singles out people they see as innocent or exceptional.

The beating heart of white supremacy is not in law enforcement, but in the stories we consume and value. We grow up on tales that center white people, mostly white men, because of the lack of diversity in publishing, media, and entertainment. We’re cultured to relate to and even delight in white male anti-heroes like Breaking Bad’s Walter White, Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, or Trump, once described by Publisher’s Weekly as “boastful, boyishly disarming, thoroughly engaging.” Meanwhile, we are conditioned to see imperfect Black or brown men as “animals.”

we are contributing to the illogic of white supremacy that destroys people’s lives

Many journalists and activists attempt to counter the demonization of immigrants by elevating the tales of successful ones: Ivy League graduates, CEOs, the unusually hard-working father in Soboroff’s book. But until our national narratives afford immigrants the same license to err as white people, they will be dehumanized by our institutions.

Stephen Miller—the architect of Trump’s cruelest policies—grew up idolizing white anti-heroes like Martin Scorcese’s mobsters, as I wrote in my book Hatemonger. Meanwhile, he read about brown and Black refugees described as “monsters,” “beasts,” and “teeming ants.”

His agenda is the natural outcome of a culture that glorifies bad white men and dehumanizes others. As long as the only non-white humanity we recognize is the kind that makes white men heroes, we are contributing to the illogic of white supremacy that destroys people’s lives. Neither Trump nor Miller is an aberration. They reflect the biases that have been built into us by history, and which we cannot break except by actively bending the arc of our consciences.

Jean Guerrero is an investigative journalist and the author of Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump and the White Nationalist Agenda and Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir.

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