José Guzman is my neighbor. He works with my friends and lives around the corner from my father’s house; he was arrested along my sister’s route to school. Guzman was detained on Tuesday by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency. That morning, his membership in our community did not matter. His contributions and connections, all the constitutive elements of personhood in society, meant nothing when he was taken by an unmarked van. That his city wanted him here was unimportant — Ithaca’s sanctuary status meant very little as well. Yet while Guzman’s arrest is disturbing, it is by no means unique. ICE acts with impunity, and its sole constituency is a president who sees less humanity in some than in others. For those of us at Cornell who have been shielded by geography from this frightening reality, this week is a reminder that our politics of reactive outrage are often insufficient.
The proper context for the week’s events is urgent and troubling. To be sure, President Obama’s record on immigration was harsh as well, but the Trump administration has engaged in a concentrated and distinct effort to undermine the rights and conditions of non-native born American residents. ICE has arrested over 21,000 people since January, which is a sizeable increase over the same period in either of the two previous years. Strikingly, the number of immigrants arrested with no criminal record has doubled. Through executive action, the President has removed many of the restrictions that had previously protected millions of undocumented residents from sudden and capricious arrest.
The immediate effects of these policies are appalling. Immigration detention centers are often dehumanizing and dangerous, and a backlogged court system can leave the accused sitting in a cell for extraordinarily long periods of time. Even just the threat of arrest has driven many undocumented communities to avoid law enforcement altogether, sometimes to devastating effects. Recent data has shown a drop in reports of domestic violence by undocumented people since Trump took office. Taking the administration at its very best, it is difficult to see a benefit to the President’s policies that could justify this damage.
Perhaps more troubling, though, is the broader effort that the administration is making to undermine the legitimacy of all immigrants. Last week the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case regarding the circumstances in which the government could revoke a person’s naturalization status. The administration’s lawyers argued that any lie told during the naturalization process could be legitimate grounds for the revocation of citizenship, even decades after the process has ended. Pressed on this point, the lawyer conceded that this would, in theory, include such minor omissions as the failure to disclose a speeding ticket. This is characteristic of this President, who has previously suggested revoking citizenship for those who burn the American flag. The intent, clearly, is to inch toward a world in which the state fully owns a person’s right to be considered a citizen.
And surely, the rhetoric of the Trump administration has worked to vandalize the perception of people of immigrant populations as well. The politics of fear and blame labels a person’s entire existence as at odds with the best interests of other Americans. Trump has heightened these politics with the introduction of a hotline for “criminal aliens.” Taken in sum, this narrative exacerbates social divides and makes it easier for Americans to permit the unjust treatment that undocumented people often face.
None of this information is particularly novel, but in writing it down I have felt quite a bit of guilt. Within days of Guzman’s arrest, hundreds had gathered in protest, and thousands of dollars had been collected to support him. It’s a reminder of how visceral, and powerful, community really is. However, it should also be a reminder of how limited our solidarity can often be.
There is a certain kind of deficient politics that college students are prone to practice, and it is borne mostly of privilege and isolation. Universities, often quite intentionally, construct a world that allows attendees to fully immerse themselves in the business being a student. Naturally, this kind of isolation has the effect of making students hyper aware of their own world and somewhat blind to the real one. This is not to say that students aren’t aware of the world — I think we really are — but the way college life is constructed makes this knowledge lose a lot of its bite. The human cost of immigration policy is an academic matter, and not one that generates the level of emotive response that we can muster for a disappointing Slope Day performance. Thus, when a case like Guzman’s flares up in our proximity, we are ready to act. Sustained organization is otherwise rare.
The deficiency in our politics has two damaging effects. The first is that we are woefully reactive. Tragically, it may be too late to return Guzman to his community. I truly hope to be wrong, and fundraising for his cause should continue, but affecting ICE proceedings will be incredibly difficult and it is unclear that our efforts will be successful. The second effect is that widespread organizing is quite short-lived. When we are so preoccupied by what it proximate to us, it is much easier to overlook the scope of the problem we are up against. What is needed, instead, is an level of organization equal to what we have seen this week but instead spread over many months, aimed at generating constant political pressure for reform. To be absolutely clear, there are countless people across the campus and the country who work tirelessly on this issue and many more. Yet for many more, myself included, the politics of immigration fit neatly into the many issues by which the campus left are outraged but unmoved to change. If you felt that Guzman’s arrest was justified, I encourage your feedback in the comments section. For those of us that were troubled, this week is a reminder of how strong a force a community can be. We should aim to be that way more often.
Rubin Danberg Biggs is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Common Table runs every other Friday this semester.