Language is another form of violence. Euphemisms are one of the ways through which language exerts violence. In his essay, Wittgenstein’s Dictionary, John Willinsky wrote, “the schooled representation of meaning sets language in the hands of those who hold the proper definitions.” Language is not innocent, it´s used for certain political purposes. In the case of the names given to the places where immigrants are locked up before deportation, language imitates a mask that covers reality to make it softer, more bearable. Hidden behind it lays the world as it is, protected by a layer resistant to the world that could be.
Detention centers in the southern border of the US have been a major focal point of national and international media the past four weeks. There are contradictory numbers: while the Department of Homeland Security said that a total of 1,995 children were separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, alternative sources like the Washington Examiner state that almost 2,000 children are reportedly already being held.
Over the past few weeks, I´ve seen hundreds of pictures of children locked up in cells/cages, of buses transporting adults to the centers. Looking at the images is startling, but only involves one of the senses. Within the metropolitan area of Madrid, where I was born and lived until three years ago, these centers also exist, but most of the population is unaware of their existence because they are hidden within the urban landscape. I’ve been inside them, I know how they smell, what kind of noises come out of the cells, how the iron bars feel under the fingers. Being inside requires the complete use of the five senses, the five senses superimposing and completing each other, creating the scene in its entirety. It’s terror over terror over terror. It’s the landscape of horror.
In 2013, I spent three months doing an internship in a law firm that worked with, among other things, Immigration Law. I made a few visits to the Aluche center to represent several detainees. “Express deportations” had just been introduced this very same year. I quote one of the policemen who worked there: “we catch them in the streets. No papers. We arrest them, detain them and in less than 72 hours they are sent back to their countries”. These express deportations have been brought to the European Court of Human Rights by several organizations. On countless occasions, the detainee isn´t given the possibility to collect her or his belongings, and sometimes even she or he isn´t allowed to tell her or his family that she or he is being deported. In Spain -for the time being- children are not locked up, but they are separated from their families: migrants are deported even when they are the only family member residing in the country and have minor children depending on them.
In the United States, they are called “detention camps”, almost the same term we use in Spain: Centros de Internamiento de Extranjeros (CIEs). The reasons for the arrest and detention of these migrants are broadly similar: foreigners admitted to the CIES aren´t in a regular situation in the Spanish territory, in accordance with the laws of my country. According to Article 53.1a of the Organic Law 4/2000, the reasons for this irregularity may be due to the fact that the foreigner person doesn´t have an extension of stay, doesn´t have a residence permit or has had his residence permit expired more than three months ago. The purpose of admission to the center, according to the Law, is to prevent the alien from not appearing while the corresponding expulsion proceedings are being processed. It is here where the first major problem of the CIEs´ functioning (and of its very existence) arises, where germinates the unequal and unconstitutional treatment to which these persons are subjected: internment in the CIE is a measure that deprives people of preventive liberty, carried out within the framework of an administrative sanctioning procedure. Let us move from abstraction to the concrete: the situation, legally, is equivalent to being stopped by the police for speeding, having the corresponding record opened, and being put in jail until we finally see if one is punished.
On numerous occasions, International Amnesty has criticized the treatment of inmates in the Spanish CIEs. It has also launched the “Stop Racism, Not the People” campaign, which denounces the increasing police practice of making people prove their identity based solely on racial or ethnic characteristics, and several unlawful behaviors during the transfer of a person to and while in detention in a CIE. These two denounced realities are undeniably linked. The police officers responsible for carrying out these “racist raids” (as they are commonly known) have, in many cases, been ordered by their superiors to carry out a certain number of identity checks on persons who appear to be foreigners (obviously based only on their physical appearance), in order to correctly comply with the “detention quotas”. In many cases, these raids end with the transfer of one or more of the identified ones to a CIE. The situation is similar in the United States.
In the USA, they are called “detention camps”, almost the same term we use in Spain: Centros de Internamiento de Extranjeros. Both names are too long, a waste of characters that serves one ultimate purpose: to avoid using the word “prison”. Both Spanish and U.S. law requires a series of specific judicial procedures for a person to be placed in prison, procedures that aren´t followed in the case of the imprisonment of these migrants. The rhetoric Trump’s cabinet has been using for the past few months serves a twofold goal: it takes a legal detour and sweetens reality.
A similar movement arises when it comes to detainees. Numbers are given, they are referred to as “immigrants” or they are grouped into broad categories (Mexicans, Central Americans, Latin Americans). That´s why we need first names first. First names before adjectives, before numbers. A story, a body and a name. Marco Antonio Muñoz committed suicide in his cell two weeks ago, less than 24 hours after being separated from his wife and three-year-old son by the Border Patrol. Marco Antonio Muñoz. Not a Honduran, not a Honduran immigrant, not a Honduran ilegal immigrant. Marco Antonio Muñoz. And, like him, so many others. The multiplication of stories, bodies, names.
So, we’ve got the numbers. But a number doesn’t drag with it a face, a body, a story. Statistics are useful for covering this terror, but numbers don´t individualize us. That’s why we need to repeat the names. In times like these, to call a spade a spade is an act of resistance: they are not centers, they are prisons. They are not immigrants, they are human beings. Language is a double-edged sword that can play a fundamental role in the status quo´s persistence, but precisely because of its ambivalent nature we are allowed to mutate it, change it and turn it into the weapon that destroys all the previous rhetoric that masks reality. We have the power to see the horror, to name it and then to (re)build the architecture of the world.
Helena García Mariño is an author and she is currently studying her PhD in creative writing.
© Literal Publishing.