Policing the Boundaries of Historical Time

Helena Zeweri, Anthropology

When I first read the prompt which asks contributors to reflect on inclusion and exclusion, on “bodily rights and limits…assaults, attacks, and protections,” I immediately thought I would write about the latest iteration of Trump’s travel ban as an example of the global tightening of national borders and the unapologetic declaration of national sovereignty—in other words, the way that the boundaries of political citizenship and social belonging are being newly policed and reinforced. Space and geography clearly are one way to think about the question of borders, boundaries, and bodies.

As I dwelt on the full breadth of this prompt, alternative points of departure emerged. What might it mean to explore borders vis-à-vis time and history? This latter question is one about how a common sense develops to mark specific historical moments as different from others. As we grapple with how to situate the travel ban’s systematic violence upon refugees, immigrants, and asylum seekers, it behooves us to consider how this violence is a continuation of a deeply anchored set of mechanisms and apparatuses designed to control belonging and reinforce national sovereignty. However, as some analyses and commentaries have argued, the travel ban is often seen as a stark rupture with previous administrations’ immigration policies. In arguing for the unprecedented nature of the ban, what are the borders and boundaries we create to mark distinct moments in time?

“Unprecedented” is a word that gets used quite a bit in the cacophony of today’s endless political commentaries. While “unprecedented” may be effective in conveying the blatancy and loudness of contemporary nationalistic border policies, it fails to adequately describe the racist logics that undergird them, many of which are not particularly new.

While Trump supporters have also cited past administrations’ travel restrictions so as not to demonize and single out Trump and his policies, in doing so they have created false equivalencies. There are clear differences between the current administration’s policies, including but not limited to its open promotion of xenophobia toward asylum seekers and long-resettled immigrants. But it is important to understand how the ban also does not represent a stark difference in the groups who have been demonized and the bodies who are seen as the would-be terrorist or criminal “Others.” During the Bush years, the mobility of Muslim populations was disproportionately targeted through the National Security Entry-Exit Registry System (NSEERS). Established in 2002, the now discontinued program required male non-citizens and non-permanent residents over the age of 16 traveling to or present in the US who were from 24 Muslim majority countries to register on a national database. This registration required them to enter the US only at designated airports and to check in with immigration officials to be fingerprinted, photographed, and interrogated. Those who did not enroll in the registry were often deported; this included a good portion of the Pakistani community in the US. Of the 83,500 people who complied with the system, 13,700 were made subject to deportation proceedings, creating much fear, fragmentation and anxiety within Muslim diasporic communities.

The immediate post-9/11 environment also saw the temporary suspension of the US’s refugee program and its reinstatement with tighter security protocols and lower admission rates, with 50,000 being the maximum under Bush (compared to 110,000 during Obama). These protocols included multiple interviews, processing biometric information, checking biometric data against different intelligence and enforcement agencies, and sharing this data across international intelligence. The removal of undocumented populations is also a continuation of the Bush and Obama years. While formal deportations were roughly equal between Bush and Obama (at 2 million people), Bush did oversee a massive number of informal returns of undocumented people, estimated to be 8.3 million people. The creation of Secure Communities in 2008 under Obama also effectively assigned local police officers certain immigration agent capacities, requiring them, for example, to share the fingerprints of arrestees with the Department of Homeland Security. This resulted in many detentions of people who were not charged with a criminal offense, protocols that the Trump travel ban certainly reinforces and expands, but did not pioneer.

The rough history outlined points to a larger question—when we create boundaries between historical eras through the concept of the “unprecedented” event, we might do well to ask, how do we judge one set of moments as carrying different moral valences from the next? The Trump administration policies are different in ways that matter, where life and death is at stake for many. We can argue this while also asking the question, what precisely about these temporal moments is, as the definition of unprecedented tells us, “without instance and unexperienced,” and for whom? Articulating our experience of the present as a new time frame puts particular demands on the future. I would submit that calling this moment unprecedented limits what it would look like for our political institutions to transform systemically and for the long-term.