To disappear, in common parlance, sounds like a painless, if worrying, evaporation. Steam disappears into the air; a rabbit disappears into the magician’s hat. Then the steam, eventually, will condense into a cloud, and the rabbit, we hope, will hop back onto the stage. In politics, to disappear can become a transitive verb, more harrowing than evanescent: this “disappear,” grammatically speaking, follows the same structure as to hammer, to stab, to garrote, to murder. To be disappeared, as happened to at least fifty thousand people during the Guatemalan Civil War, or to around twenty thousand people during the Sri Lankan Civil War, is to suffer an act of deliberate and terrifying violence at the hands of government forces—often involving the torture or death of the victim and typically leaving family and community members in a state of unbounded grief. To disappear somebody is to open an excruciating and unhealing wound. And, unlike to hammer or to murder, to disappear is not an instantaneous action. As Gabriel Gatti, author of Surviving Forced Disappearance in Argentina and Uruguay, writes, to be disappeared is “to be constantly disappeared.” It is transitive—and torturous—in perpetuity.
Many are familiar with the forced disappearances perpetrated by various state actors throughout South America during Operation Condor (the wave of US-backed state terror from the late ’60s to the late ’80s) or the disappearance of forty-three students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School in 2014 in Mexico, or even the extraordinary renditions executed by the CIA during the early years (and likely continuing today) of the War on Terror. Few, however, are familiar with the disappearances occurring inside the United States nearly every day.
A new report by No More Deaths and Derechos Humanos (two Arizona-based migrant-aid organizations), “Disappeared: How the US Border Enforcement Agencies Are Fueling a Missing Persons Crisis,” introduces an important lexicon into our national immigration discussion. As a member of No More Deaths, and being part of the team that wrote the report, I contemplated why we used the term disappeared and described how the crisis of disappearances in the US borderlands is similar to and different from the widely documented tragedies of disappearance in Chile, Pakistan, and Iraq, to name a few more countries where people have suffered these horrible crimes.
Since the late nineteenth century and the implementation of the explicitly racist Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese immigrants from coming to the US, the US government has known that the southwestern deserts can be turned into deadly terrain—a geography that could supplement the enforcement of immigration policy. It wasn’t until 1994, however, when Border Patrol officials implemented the Prevention through Deterrence policy, that this knowledge was codified, and the magnificently beautiful southwestern landscape became a weapon, an unwitting ally of state-sponsored death and disappearance. The Prevention through Deterrence policy effectively concentrates enforcement, including the construction of walls, fences, surveillance apparatuses, and the deployment of armed agents, into urban areas in order to push migrants into “geographically harsher…[and] more remote and hazardous” terrain. The policy was meant to deter migrants from crossing the border. Doris Meissner, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service in 1994, admitted, “we did believe that geography would be an ally to us. It was our sense that the number of people crossing the border through Arizona would go down to a trickle once people realized what it’s like.”
What it’s like is falling prey to the largest law-enforcement agency in the country—which has a history of murder, excessive use of force, and near total impunity—as well as to racist and heavily armed militia members who are by the Border Patrol. The desert becomes a gauntlet of terror, or, as anthropologist Jason De León describes it, “a remote deathscape where American necropolitics are pecked onto the bones of those we deem excludable.”
Prevention through Deterrence hasn’t succeeded in halting migration. Ongoing violence in many of the sending communities (especially in rural Mexico and the northern triangle of Central America) economic hardship spurred in part by NAFTA (implemented, in chilling contradiction, the same year as Prevention through Deterrence), as well as the draw of family reunification pushes people to continue migrating northwards through increasingly dangerous and remote corridors.
Since 2000, more than six thousand human remains have been recovered in the US border regions. Many more remains have never been found, never counted. In 2000, Derechos Humanos started receiving phone calls from desperate people looking for missing loved ones who had recently crossed the border. More than a decade later, volunteers initiated a twenty-four-hour Missing Migrant Crisis Line, and, within a year, the call volume averaged over a hundred new cases a month from desperate family members. In 2015 alone, the organization opened over twelve hundred cases involving people who, following an attempt to cross the border, were reported missing by friends and family. Of those twelve hundred cases, family members still do not know the whereabouts of more than 460 people. At this point, they must be presumed dead, and yet they remain in the liminal state of having been disappeared. And these 460 are only the cases that we know of. There are likely hundreds—hundreds of people driven into the desert by US policy, dying slow, horrifying deaths, their bodies picked apart by insects, animals, and the elements—hundreds more.
De León, in his book The Land of Open Graves, leans on Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben to describe the “state of exception” that US border-enforcement policy has made of the borderlands—a space in which legal protections for individuals are suspended while “the power of the state” is simultaneously unleashed upon them. This power of the state is different from armed goons who violently abduct, torture, and murder migrants (though Border Patrol agents are known to have done It is the policy itself, Prevention through Deterrence, that is both the muscle and the muzzle, pushing migrants directly toward their death and disappearance.
We write in the report:
We use the language of disappearance because it is the very language repeated by families who call Derechos Humanos’ Missing Migrant Crisis Line, those who declare, “Estoy buscando a una persona desaparecida” (I’m looking for a disappeared person).
We recognize the weight that the language of disappearance holds; we use it to call attention to the fact that disappearance is not a natural or inevitable phenomenon, but rather is a direct consequence of US border-enforcement policies and practices. This deadly process has ripped holes in families and communities that will last for generations.
The 1994 Inter-American Commission on Forced Disappearance stated, the same year that the policy of Prevention through Deterrence was enacted, “The forced disappearance of persons [is] an affront to the conscience of the hemisphere and a grave and abominable offense against the inherent dignity of the human being.”
The commission defined forced disappearance as a crime against humanity, consisting of “depriving a person or persons of his or their freedom, in whatever way, perpetrated by agents of the state.” Disappearances in the US borderlands are not the same as state agents whisking away an individual and taking them on a “death flight” (throwing their bodies from airplanes), as happened to the disappeared in both Algeria and Argentina, yet the report shows that US border enforcement policies are systematically disappearing thousands of people.
In 2006, the United Nations the definition of forced disappearance:
The victims are frequently tortured and in constant fear for their lives. They are well aware that their families do not know what has become of them and that the chances are slim that anyone will come to their aid. Having been removed from the protective precinct of the law and “disappeared” from society, they are in fact deprived of all their rights and are at the mercy of their captors.
Even if death is not the final outcome and the victim is eventually released from the nightmare, the physical and psychological scars of this form of dehumanization and the brutality and torture which often accompany it remain.
If you understand torture as walking for a week or more through a desert wilderness with blisters on your feet, no food in your belly, drinking water out of filthy cow tanks, suffering brutal heat and freezing nights, and existing in constant fear of armed agents; if you recognize that in this landscape (or deathscape) the law hunts you rather than protects you, then the migrants forced from their homes to take the dangerous journey through the desert, many of whom never arrive, are indubitably among the disappeared. Gabriel Gatti writes: “They are dead, and yet they are still in that limbo of the non-dead/nonliving, the place of the disappeared. They are my past and also my present. They are constantly being disappeared: neither dead nor alive.”
Michelle Moyd and Yuliya Komska, recently in the Guardian, describe the linguistic tensions playing out today between the “plain-speaking” right and the “politically correct” left: “Authoritarianism of any shade warps language in lasting ways…. But the irony that fuels [efforts to combat that authoritarian warping,] subversive as it may seem, does little but reproduce the familiar speech bubbles. Worse, it creates a distance, as irony does, where proximity—full language ownership—is urgently needed.” Moyd and Komska call for a vocabulary of resistance; disappeared should be part of that vocabulary.
“Language is distorted” by disappearances, Gatti writes. Part of what the report does is amplify that distortion, bring it into public view. We don’t have an exact count for how many migrants have been disappeared, or even how many have died, or have been terrorized while crossing the border. The policies, and language distortion, push clean figures and coherent discourse into the wilderness. As warped as meaning becomes in state-sponsored death and disappearance, we must expose the policies, and we must acknowledge these open wounds. We must call it what it is:
Trump’s promised hate-policies will exacerbate the murderous immigration praxis already implemented by the Obama administration, which includes mass deportation. The US government is knowingly disappearing tens of thousands of people. Border Patrol actions are a form of state violence targeting a specific ethnic group. US immigration policy continues a legacy of blinding exceptionalism and genocide.
As George Orwell wrote in his essay “Politics and the English Language,” language is best implemented for “expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought.” It’s a deceivingly simple prescription. While Trump’s distaste for political correctness (and general low literacy) collides with the linguistic tiptoeing and self-criticism of some of his detractors, we should be careful and deliberate to speak and write—whether it be delicate or vehement, discreet or comprehensive—toward resistance.