Diversity and Inclusiveness Philosophy in the Contemporary World: Immigration Detention and the Threat of “The...

Philosophy in the Contemporary World: Immigration Detention and the Threat of “The American Dream”

This series, Philosophy in the Contemporary World, is aimed at exploring the various ways philosophy can be used to discuss issues of relevance to our society. There are no methodological, topical, or doctrinal limitations to this series; philosophers of all persuasions are invited to submit posts regarding issues of concern to them.  Please contact us here if you would like to submit a post to this series.

By Morey Williams

In the wake of President Trump’s statements concerning immigration—in particular, his executive order banning people from certain countries from entering the United States and his promise to construct a wall along the 1,600 kilometer U.S.-Mexico Border—many news articles, tweets, Facebook posts, and protest signs have brandished the following words etched in at the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” These lines come from the sonnet, “The New Colossus” which eventually concludes with the promise: “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,/I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The woman who authored these great words—Emma Lazarus—all to frequently remains invisible. An American Jew who came from both Sephardic and Ashkenazi ancestry, Lazarus’s writings included not only poetry but also essays regarding the issue of anti-Semitism and articles in favor of the rights of Russian immigrants.

Unfortunately, people in the United States, if they remember Lazarus at all, remember her simply for the poem etched in bronze at the bottom of the Statue of Liberty. When the history books and American myth-crafters refer to Lazarus, they also have a habit of eschewing what made her “different”—her Jewish ancestry. And the passionate words that Lazarus wrote in the spirit of welcoming immigrants have been dangerously romanticized and used to cover up the quite sordid history of Ellis Island, an immigration checkpoint that not only welcomed European immigrants into the United States but also helped to keep unwanted immigrants from entering the country.

The story of Lazarus is a typical U.S. story, for it is one of erasure. Many people—however well intentioned they might be—have also erased part of our country’s history over the past few weeks when they have proclaimed the United States to be solely “a nation of immigrants.” But, as many academics have been quick to point out, the story that we are a nation of immigrants is just that—a story, a fiction, a myth that erases uncomfortable truths. We are a nation built upon the practice of settler colonialism that stole the homes of this land’s native peoples and then systematically attempted to exterminate them. We are a nation that built itself not on the principles of freedom and equality but rather on the lacerated backs slaves who we stole from their homelands. And both historical practices have helped contribute to the fact that now, in 2017, the United States of America must claim itself as the largest contributor to the prison industrial complex, a complex web of economic and political practices that employ surveillance, policing, imprisonment, and detention for our government to function.

This post has two goals: (1) to highlight the key role that immigration detention plays within the prison industrial complex as it surfaces in the United States of America, and (2) to provide a brief phenomenological response to the practice of immigration detention employing the voices of Emmanuel Levinas, Lisa Guenther, Orlando Patterson, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and the first-hand accounts of detained persons themselves.

In her 2012 essay, “Fecundity and Natal Alienation: Rethinking Kinship with Levinas and Orlando Patterson,” Lisa Guenther discusses Orlando Patterson’s concept of natal alienation alongside Levinas’s 1934 “Lectures on Hitlerism.” As Guenther brings to light, Levinas brings up an essential insight into the seductive nature of Hitlerism. Namely, that Hitlerism makes people feel bound to one’s body, bound to one’s land, and bound to the myth of a shared race and destiny with others of the same “blood” or race. Such a view of humanity depends on the immanence between the materiality of one’s body and a myth about the past. Such an immanent relationship between one’s body, blood, and soil causes the disintegration of the transcendent encounter between the self and others.

The emergence of a myth and political praxis of immanently binding the body to the land and to the myth of a “people” who are “of” this land has always existed in the United States. The myth crafted around the “American Dream” (keeping in mind that the United States does not represent all of the Americas) creates feelings of not simply who deserves to occupy this land but also who doesn’t deserve to occupy it. From a phenomenological point of view, myths that tie our lived bodies to physical entities too strongly are dangerous. They threaten to create a totality between the embodied self and other people in the world, and to remove the realm of the transcendent from human experience, particularly the experience of encountering the other.

We see this immanent binding of one’s body to the “homeland” in the construction of the wall on the U.S. – Mexico border. From a phenomenological point of view, consciousness is always consciousness of something. When we observe the wall in person, or when we see pictures of the wall, we are supposed to feel safe and “caged in,” and we can imagine that those who see the wall from the other side feel unwanted and excluded. Moreover, this immanent binding appears in the other ways we treat immigrants: not only do we desire to keep them “out” using a wall, we also desire to keep them “in” through Immigrant Detention Centers.

The disciplinary practices of Immigration Detention Centers resemble those of prisons, as these Centers are often former prisons. Immigration in the United States has become a crime—specifically the crime of not possessing papers, practicing the wrong religion, or having a mother tongue that is not English. Such crimes carry the sentence of being placed within tortuous carceral conditions for an unspecified amount of time.  Indeed, one reason why the current administration is spending an enormous amount of time and energy highlighting the “crimes” that immigrants have committed is because this makes it easier to then incarcerate these persons within publicly or privately owned Immigration Detention Centers.

Occupants of Immigration Detention Centers often face certain death if they stay within detention centers for too long. This is especially true for women, children, and LGBTQ+ individuals whose existence in Immigration Detention Centers is marked by the reality of physically assault, sexual assault, medical neglect, and other forms of violence. Sulma Franco—a woman who fled from to the United States because she began a target of violence due to her LGBTQ+ activism in her home country of Guatemala—describes her confinement in the T Don Hutto Detention Center in Taylor, Texas, stating: “[The guard and the administration] deprive you of your freedom; you can’t really have much contact with other people. The food is terrible. And there is abuse of power by so-called ‘caretakers’, who should really be called ‘janitors’ because they lack proper training…They were always threatening us that they were going to kill us, that they were going to put us in isolation…if we committed any infractions. Or if we did something they simply didn’t like.” One must also highlight that many stories of the abuse that occurs within these facilities are incredibly difficult to obtain, not only because of oppressive carceral practices and because many detained persons do not speak English or have a significantly lower level of English than native speakers.

In her 2013 book, Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives Guenther presents a critical phenomenological method rooted in the first-person account of experience.  Such a method is largely based on the Emmanuel Levinas’s and Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s respective accounts of otherness. For both phenomenologists, the experience of encountering another human being provides an element of transcendence that break up the immanence of factical situations. But Guenther’s method is also based upon the lived experience of incarcerated persons. This method indicates that it is members of the vulnerable populations who have the best perspective on their own embodied situations.

For Levinas, encountering the other is a transcendent experience which causes me to question my own being. For Merleau-Ponty, the other also shows me the limits of my existence. However, Merleau-Ponty’s describes the experience of otherness in both visceral and transcendental terms. This means that the other touches both my body and my being-in-the-world, and I do the same to the other.

Yet this is where the draw and danger of immigration detention policies arise. A wall will not keep undocumented immigrants out, but it will certainly do a good job of keeping them in. If they are here, we can trap and send them away, although we don’t often pause and think about where that will be. Certainly a wall could make some feel safer, and it provides a visible example of how our immigration policy is tied to our fictive American land. As far as immigration detention practices are concerned, we want others to literally put their hands on certain populations to take them out of the bounds of traditional society.

This touch, however, is not the meaningful touching that Merleau-Ponty describes. It is a way of grasping immigrants as objects. There is no reciprocity and no transcendence. In The Visible and the Invisible, Merleau-Ponty describes Jean-Paul Sartre’s infamous “look” as “the look that kills” because that self-other relationship is one characterized by alienation. Perhaps the United States and its penchant for incarceration and detention is bringing us closer to the notion of a “touch that kills” because it objectifies and separates immigrants from their families. Along these lines, Tessie Borden, an advocate in Los Angeles, describes the escalation of Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids under the Trump administration, stating: “Here’s what happens on the ground: somebody knocks on the door, they ask for a name, the people are very scared,” said Tessie Borden, an advocate in Los Angeles. “Then they round everybody up and say, ‘We’ll sort it out later.’ But sorting it out later may mean separating families and breaking down support systems for these folks.”

It appears as if Lady’s Liberty invitation to migrants entering the United States is correct—upon entering the country, migrants are, indeed, presented with a “golden door,” but this is a trap door that leads into a jail cell from which migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers cannot escape.


Having recently defended her dissertation entitled, “Zones of the Flesh and the Confined Bodies of Women,” Morey Williams currently works as Adjunct Professor in the Department of Philosophy of Villanova University.  In addition to turning her dissertation into a book manuscript, Williams is beginning to work on her next project entitled, “Sin Hogar/Without a Home: The Detention of Latinas in the United States.” Outside of the Academy, Williams has been involved in prison activism for ten years, and has taught English as a Second Language as well as GED Preparation at the Suffolk County House of Corrections in Boston, Massachusetts, and the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton, New Jersey.  You can find out more about her work at her homepage.


  1. Thanks for this blog, and thanks for reminding us of the danger of Trump’s sovereign executive presidency and its spurious attempts to create a false state of emergency and rule by executive diktat, which are clearly bent upon destroying American democracy and inflicting suffering and pain on others. But I’d like to add that I think it’s really not the collapse of a spurious transcendence (…and can we really claim to transcend our physical, mortal bodies without dying?…), but the forgetting of the suffering, mortal physical body that promotes the anti-immigrant, anti-foreigner etc. policies that you rightly criticize, since it is the the privileged, pampered members of the dominant upper castes (…like us?…) who spend all their time on the world-wide web, surfing the internet, or otherwise simply cerebrating (…engaging in purely theoretical philosophy?…), who often forget the suffering and pain caused to others by their promulgation of their self-serving policies, just as, for example, US soldiers recruited into the US drone program forget, when they push a button and launch a drone, that many innocent people suffer and die who just wanted to raise their families and live their lives and have nothing to do with the so-called war on terror…

    And while we’re speaking about forgetting, isn’t the greatest impact of Trump’s policies (…Obama’s policies, Bush’s policies…) really not on Mexican immigrants, who, yes, face prison and deportation, and therefore suffering both physical and emotional, but on the millions of Muslim refugees who had nothing to do with Sept. 11th or Al Qaeda or the Islamic State, whose countries have been bombed into rubble, their schools and hospitals destroyed, and their families and children killed, all under the guise of prosecuting a few thousand suspected terrorists (…now called ‘disease’ and ‘cancer,’ becoming not even human beings…), and thereby supposedly stopping terrorism? And now those Muslim victims of US foreign policy cannot even seek asylum in the US from the fear and terror created, in large part, by US foreign policies, which have certainly not stopped, but spawned terrorism far beyond anything anyone would have believed possible, before the so-called war on terror started.

    And, yes, it’s certainly significant that Emma Lazarus was a Jew, at a time when US anti-Jewish immigration policies were prohibiting Jews escaping anti-Semitism by seeking asylum in the US. But now the Israeli State is a major benefactor of US military aid, while it pursues a blatant policy of anti-Palestinian apartheid and ethnic cleansing explicitly designed “to preserve the Jewish ethnicity of the Israeli State,” while the Israeli State is also the major supporter of the US war on terror and its anti-Muslim policies, along with Christian Zionists and Ultra-Orthodox Jews, who pretend to believe that the Israelis must possess the entirety of ‘Greater Israel’ before the Messiah can come, and therefore are willing to cleanse the entirety of Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Iran, to achieve that delusional goal. Yes, Mexican immigrants are suffering under Trump’s policies, but they are not suffering under constant drone strikes and bombing campaigns like Afghanis or Iraqis have been for the past fifteen (…twenty-five?…) years, and the Syrians have been for the past six years (…450,000 dead now, after Obama’s Arab Spring…), or from Israeli State terrorism (…remember the Haganah? the Irgun? The Stern Gang? the King David Hotel?…) like Palestinians have been since 1948, with no serious attempts to stop the war forthcoming from anybody, least of all Trump.

    I’ve been watching the consequences of US anti-Muslim foreign policy ever since the Persian Gulf War (…remember that?…) and the US blockade of Iraq that blighted a whole generation of Iraqi children, not to mention the Second Gulf War which drove Muslims to terrorism (…remember Haditha?…) and created the Islamic State in US prisons like Abu Ghraib (…another forgotten memory…). And when I think of the suffering that the Iraqis have endured over the past twenty-five years as a consequence of US anti-Muslim policies, I wonder how any of them have resisted being driven to terrorism. Not to mention the many million refugees in Syria… And I admire their courage, as I cannot hypocritically claim to feel their pain.

    But I have to add that despite all that, Trump’s policies (…Obama’s policies, Bush’s policies…) will only be defeated when the US Congress, US Courts, and the American We, the People, stand up and say they will not allow Trump’s (…Obama’s, Bush’s…) sovereign presidency to continue to create a false state of martial law and to rule by diktat, thereby perpetuating this endlessly self-perpetuating war on/of terror, when it is obvious we are really not in a state of emergency, when compared with the emergencies we have created in Muslim nations. (…Should I add Libya too?…) And when we have the courage (…and honesty…) to admit that the pain and suffering we claim to feel are petty, trivial, and insignificant compared with the pain and suffering we are inflicting upon others, and that the danger of terrorism we claim to be suffering from is nothing compared to the terror we are inflicting on others. Especially when we claim to be feeling their pain…


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