Deportations and the Get-Out-of-Empathy-Free Card

By Rev. Renee Roederer, picture from America Magazine

Right now, after a large scale raid in Detroit, 114 people are awaiting deportation to Iraq.

Because many of them are Chaldean Christians, they have had some advocacy from Christian organizations. These organizations are joining the families in concern that their loved ones might be targeted for violence by ISIS because of their faith.

Alongside this concern, apart from any sort of religious affiliation, this is a human trauma. The mass deportations we are watching in the U.S. (or ceasing watching) and the separations many are supporting (or simply ignoring) are a devastating human trauma for those who are detained and for their families.

Among the Iraqis awaiting deportation is a 46 year old man who grew up in the United States. He has few if any memories of living in Iraq. Deeply concerning, he doesn’t even speak Arabic. How is he supposed to suddenly make a life in Iraq, separated from his family and placed in a nation that is remarkably uncommon to him?

A 41 year old Chaldean woman has lived in the United States since she was 5 years old. She is a mother of three children who are U.S. citizens. In 2003, she was charged with fraud, though the charges were dropped after probation. Is anyone safer because she is forceably removed from her home in Warren, Michigan? Of course not. Her children are robbed of their mother and will lose familial connection, emotional safety, and physical and financial support. The members of this family are now less safe. It is devastating.

And what narrative do we tell ourselves to support these large scale, human traumas?

“They are criminals,” some say and then shrug, as if this is exactly what is deserved, or as if this outcome makes sense, or as if our hands are tied and there is literally nothing else that can be done. (P.S. There is. We can change our policies, procedures, and laws).

“They are criminals,” is the line — the justification — that functions like the Get Out Of Feeling Empathy Free Card. It lets us ‘off the hook’ when we send people straight into violence, often into nations the U.S. has destabilized (that’s why some people sought to leave; they escaped violence we helped create) and always away from crucial relationships, including in many cases, family members who are U.S. citizens.

It is the line we tell ourselves so we don’t have think about any particulars — like the fact that some of these crimes happened decades ago, or that they were nonviolent crimes, or that some were drug possession charges due to addictions (the opioid crisis gets empathy, but not these addictions) or that the criminal justice system is capable of targeting immigrants with criminal charges because they are immigrants.

We don’t want to weigh particulars. We just want to believe that immigrants facing deportations are criminals. It’s not just that they’ve been charged or convicted of crimes, but criminality is an aspect of who they are. No particulars. No empathy. “They are criminals.” It makes all the more sense if they have black or brown skin because we use the same narrative as a Get Out of Empathy Free Card for our own citizens as well. “They are criminals.” This will put the traumas of deportation and forced separation out of our minds. It will help us sleep at night.

It is true that many of these detained Chaldeans have been charged with crimes at various points in their lives. But most have faced accountability in that process and have put those years and those acts behind them. Can we change our narrative? Might we advocate for different outcomes if we said and thoroughly believed, “They are human beings”?

Renee Roederer is the founding organizer of Michigan Nones and Dones, a community for people who are “spiritually curious but institutionally suspicious.” This community in Southeast Michigan includes people who are religiously unaffiliated (the Nones), people who have left established forms of institutional churches (the Dones), and people who remain connected to particular faith traditions but seek new, emerging visions for their expression.

Please visit Smuggling Grace to subscribe to Renee Roederer’s blog. You can also follow her on Twitter: @renee_roederer.

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