My family and I were undocumented for 16 years while awaiting our lawful residency application results. During these years, we experienced the pain of extreme poverty, constant fear of being separated via deportation and the social humiliation of belonging to a publicly hated and devalued social group.
When Republican governors move humanitarian migrants out of Florida and Texas into democratic-led cities with false promises of work and shelter, I can’t help but see my family’s suffering replicated through these tactics.
Since early 2022, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Taxes Gov. Greg Abbott have been weaponizing immigrants’ suffering to gain political clout. They have used their constituents’ tax dollars to relocate migrants into Democratic-led states. They are using this tactic to gain influence within the Republican party and win future elections.
Let’s be clear, these political stunts are a form of political violence. Vulnerable immigrants must withstand the violence of being deceived, not being given the dignity of informed consent, and public humiliation.
My research with 52 documented and undocumented young adults in Southern California shows that regular people exposed to the dehumanization of immigrants eventually normalize and partake in exploiting and harming their undocumented relatives, friends and acquaintances. When we see political violence as a normal part of life, we cease to see it, prevent it and hold others (even ourselves) accountable.
Sociologists Cecilia Menjívar and Leisy Abrego first explained how anti-immigrant political rhetoric dehumanizes undocumented immigrants and normalizes violence against them. U.S. political leaders have long blamed immigrants for national economic and security problems. They deployed this hostile rhetoric to pass policies that rip families apart due to detention and deportation, forcing immigrants and their U.S. citizen children to endure extreme deprivation, excluding immigrant youth from accessing higher education and many other subtle cruelties.
The current political stunts are following this legacy of normalizing harming immigrants. Relocated migrants feel abandoned and betrayed. Many will face difficulties following attending court hearings in other states.
To be sure, some people will see some positive outcomes from moving migrants out of anti-immigrant states and into sanctuary cities. After all, some immigrants wanted to move to California, and advocates in Los Angeles, Sacramento, and Martha’s Vineyard have welcomed migrants by offering them food, shelter and even legal aid.
However, we must remain vigilant, weary and critical of these new practices. When the violent tactics of political leaders are left unchallenged, these can quickly become reproduced within the most intimate parts of our lives.
Political stunts that overtly humiliate and mock immigrants’ needs, hopes and dreams leave psychological scars on those who lived the experience and those who witnessed it. Even if the violence does not annihilate the targeted persons, and the individuals who experience it can adapt to the new reality, these tactics devalue all immigrants’ lives over time. These cruel acts, unthinkable against some groups, can become taken for granted within our personal lives.
Deisy Del Real, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Southern California, a PD Soros Fellow and Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project. Her award-winning international migration research has been funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities.
Read more stories about politics here.