Seeing Refugees Through American Blinders

Photo by Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa USA via AP

On the afternoon of August 6, I received an email informing me that one of my sources had died. His name was Jimmy Aldaoud, age forty-one. Two months earlier, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement had nabbed him from the streets of a Detroit suburb and deported him to Iraq.

When word of Aldaoud’s death became public, it made national headlines, as his story presented a damning portrait of ice. Though he was an Iraqi national, Aldaoud was born to refugee parents in Greece and he moved to Michigan as a baby; he had never set foot in Iraq, had no known family there, and spoke no Arabic. He was also severely mentally ill, chronically homeless, and diabetic—this last condition being the apparent cause of his untimely passing.

As Aldaoud’s story spread, US news consumers came to learn that his deportation was part of a two-year ice crackdown on Iraqi immigrants—many of whom, like Aldaoud, were members of a Christian minority who came to the US as refugees decades ago, and who feared persecution if forced to return to their native country.

Public outcry ensued. Even though it was illness that ultimately killed Aldaoud, his death called attention to the violence other Iraqis could face if deported. Lawyers and advocates for prospective Iraqi deportees, hoping to compel Congress and the White House to intervene, gave quotes to media playing up the dangers. In turn, news outlets further highlighted the victimization of Iraqi Christians—to the point where press reports (including, to an extent, my own) limited context about Iraq to a set of keywords: “persecution,” “violence,” “tortured,” “death.” Iraq, in all its complexity, was reduced to the projections of those who feared it.

Given ice’s history of careless deportations, the media’s portrayals of Iraq as a threat to deportees were warranted. Many parts of Iraq are hazardous for religious minorities—since 2003, as many as four-fifths of Iraqi Christians have fled or been killed—and it’s newsworthy that ice is zealous enough to deport people to such conditions. Yet the press’s facile depictions of Iraq—as socially backward and beset by relentless sectarian violence—rang eerily close to some of the most pernicious stereotypes of Arab and Muslim societies.

The Aldaoud episode highlighted a concern common to refugee journalism, especially in the United States: When illustrating the very real dangers that refugees, asylum seekers, and other forced migrants have faced, how do journalists avoid propagating racist caricatures of the places from which they’ve fled?

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At hand is a question of scope: since journalists have limited word counts and airtime when telling refugee stories, they must abridge context about refugees’ and asylum seekers’ countries of origin. The American press—reporting from a safe, stable global hegemon, and a refugee destination—tends to reduce the idea of refuge and asylum to little more than a conundrum of domestic policy: How do we deal with the huddled masses knocking at the gates of our shining city upon a hill?

To frame refuge as a matter of wonkish intrigue, however, is to ignore a crucial part of the story: the path that led to refugees’ arrival in the US. And that background matters—not least because US actions are often the root cause of refugees’ flight. As Aura Bogado, an immigration reporter for Reveal, tells me, “A lot of times people wind up in the United States because they’re fleeing a horror in which the United States has played a part—either in very recent times, or maybe a generation ago, from which a new generation is still reeling.”

In other words, the history of refugee crises in the US is also a history of foreign policy. In Iraq—once, in the words of Columbia professor Hamid Dabashi, a “thriving cosmopolitan culture”—the United States’ propping up Saddam Hussein; the First Gulf War; sanctions in the 1990s; and the 2003 invasion did more to drive the country into widespread sectarian violence than had anything prior. Instability in Central America’s Northern Triangle—the source of the most visible refugee crisis in the US today—also has its roots in US intervention: the Guatemalan coup in 1954, support for the right-wing government in El Salvador’s “dirty war” in the 1980s, repeated meddling in Honduras throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

When reporters and editors ignore this history in their coverage of migration, they leave space for readers to insert their own assumptions about why refugee-producing countries became so inhospitable in the first place—assumptions that usually involve racism. “Just stopping at the present when describing what an asylum seeker might be going through would be doing a disservice to the historical trajectory that we’re looking at,” says Ryan Devereaux, an investigative reporter covering immigration enforcement for The Intercept. In much of his writing, Devereaux tries to “add the few extra grafs” necessary to highlight relevant history, he explains. “If publications can do it, they should definitely make space to tell these stories the way that they should be told.”

Some argue that journalists covering refugees for the mainstream US press are obligated to fill contextual voids, since American outlets helped establish racist stereotypes in the first place. As Edward Said observed in his seminal work Orientalism (1978), the US press played a heavy role in pushing “menacing” and “violent” depictions of Arabs and Muslims during the 1970s—when regional war and tensions over oil challenged US control over the Middle East. These caricatures became all the more ingrained after September 11, 2001, and they continue to shape perceptions of Arab and Muslim refugee crises. And, as Juan González outlined in his book Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America (2000), in the second half of the twentieth century, US media reinforced negative images of Latin America that lent legitimacy to US imperialism in the region. In the 1970s and ’80s, González writes, reporters “perpetuated the image of El Jefe, the swarthy, ruthless dictator with slick black hair…and sadistic personality, who ruled by fiat over a banana republic.” Such characterizations not only helped to validate the half dozen US-sponsored coups and direct military interventions in Latin America that took place in those two decades, but have also “reinforced white folklore” about Latin American societies supposedly being unable to govern themselves.

“There are places in the world right now where things are really, really bad—and journalists want to emphasize that,” says Jack Herrera, a freelance journalist who frequently reports from the US-Mexico border. But “the semiotics [US readers] are working with—their understanding of the different countries—often stem from years of nativist tropes and flattening stereotypes.”

 

It’s not just history that journalists must consider when reporting on refugees. In the present, the US immigration system actively perpetuates racist stereotypes—and thus entraps reporters and editors into doing the same.

Most people seeking refuge or asylum in the US are required to prove that the persecution they experienced qualifies them for it; the law stipulates that the dangers from which they’ve fled must fit into one of five categories—“race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” But those categories, as most immigration lawyers and reporters are quick to explain, are outdated. “Created in the immediate wake of World War II to protect people escaping persecution at the hands of their own government, the legal definition of refugee didn’t imagine the sorts of reasons people would become refugees in the 21st century,” Herrera wrote this summer in Pacific Standard. People merely fleeing the chaos of societies crumbling under the weight of their imperial pasts need not apply.

The existing framework artificially typifies refugee experience for the sake of navigating the law. “In virtually every case involving defense against deportation,” Jawziya Zaman, a former immigration attorney, wrote in Dissent in 2017, “the law insisted that I reinforce tired stereotypes about the global South and force clients to undergo a ritual flagellation before they could be granted the privilege of remaining in the country.” She continued, “Over time, the names of our clients’ countries become sounds that call forth a series of images unanchored from political context and history—images of gang violence, hungry children, and oppressed women.”

For the US press, it’s all too easy to adopt this legal framework for the sake of narrative. Consider, for instance, refugees fleeing anti-LGBTQ persecution. The success of their applications to stay in the US hinges, to an extent, on how colorfully they can articulate the violent bigotry of their home countries. So the US press follows suit—and what results are misleading contrasts between the supposedly tolerant and civilized US and the supposedly backward Global South.

It’s a dynamic that follows the “othering” formula famously posed in Said’s Orientalism: The law establishes a framework that juxtaposes the US against all the countries from which people come to it seeking refuge. The press then follows up on that framework, first by representing refugee-producing countries solely in terms of horrific anecdotes, later by portraying refuge as a purely domestic concern. Each step reinforces American supremacism.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Journalists can step back and report on the dangers refugees face without falling into the traps set by US cultural history and the immigration system. To do anything less, in fact, is to miss the story.

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Chris Gelardi is a New York City-based journalist. Follow him on Twitter @chrisgelardi.