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Liberation/Immigration

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There’s plenty to unpack in Trump’s likening of ICE raids to “liberating towns” with military force. Certainly, it aligns with other moments of exclusion and militarization.

Me, I’m reminded of the experiences of a couple of suburban French cities in the 1960s—probably because I wrote my first academic journal article about how one of them insisted on calling its urban renovation projects a form of “liberation.”

France in the late 1950s and early 60s got very concerned with the “bidonvilles” or shantytowns emerging in many urban areas, which often housed large numbers of migrants. While many of those migrants were Spanish and Portuguese—and while many bidonvilles also housed poor French folks—much of the discussion about the bidonvilles revolved around their North African (mostly Algerian) inhabitants. A 1954 police memo warned that “at the very gates of Paris, veritable ‘Bidonvilles’ have been constituted and progressively this pacific invasion, coming closer and closer, has conquered the near totality of the Parisian agglomeration.”

In the midst of all this, two of Paris’s suburbs, Asnières-sur-Seine and Saint-Denis, embarked on different paths to fixing their bidonville problems:

Asnières’s urban renovations were billed as a project to “liberate” the bidonvilles, to reclaim the land the city had lost to the North African migrant masses. Officials in Saint-Denis spoke instead of “absorbing,” with a focus on eliminating human suffering and public health hazards. These attitudes found expression in the cities’ re-housing strategies: Saint-Denis officials demanded expanded public housing facilities for all workers, while Asnières’s leaders outlined separate relocation schemes for North African and “French” families.

Whereas the Asniérois municipality viewed North African bidonville occupants as an impediment, officials in Saint-Denis highlighted the difficulties North Africans themselves faced, described their residence in slums and bidonvilles as a last resort, and emphasized the need to improve these migrants’ social situation in order to overcome the bidonville problem. From the outset, the resorption of Saint-Denis’s bidonvilles was billed as a humanitarian project more than a land reclamation process. Though the Asniérois debates over the bidonvilles made frequent use of the term “liberation,” this word rarely appeared in similar discussions in Saint-Denis. Dionysien officials were no less concerned with getting rid of the bidonvilles, speaking of “making them disappear” or “liquidating” them. However, they typically described a process of “absorption” or “resorption.” The land and people of the bidonvilles were to be brought into—or even brought back into—the local or national body in a manner that did not imply re-conquest so much as reintegration.

Not only did Asnières’s “liberation” efforts show a marked disregard for the actual effects on human lives, but it also coincided with other moves towards militarizing migration policy. Asnières’s deputy-mayor in charge of housing was dubbed the “chef d’état-major of the anti-bidonville army” and talked about the need to “fight with” bidonville residents. A map used by the Police Prefecture to illustrate the movement of North African migrants throughout France bore a strong resemblance to military invasion plans: a thick arrow crossed the Mediterranean to the port at Marseille, divided into two main prongs—one striking straight for Paris, then over through the Nord department, the other ran through the Rhône industrial region—before the two finally converged at a point marked “Ardennes” (the weak link of national defense exploited by the German invasion of 1940). These portrayals of invading North Africans, of course, were heavily influenced the Algerian War for Independence (1954-62) and the fact that Algerians living in France were seen as an important stake in that conflict.

Given the emphasis that “liberation” proponents put on the value of property—prioritizing construction progress over people’s lives and well-being—it’s not all that surprising that Trump, as a former real estate developer, would gravitate to this sort of thinking.

But the military overtones are even more pronounced—particularly as the Defense Department has been tasked with housing tens of thousands of detained migrant children and families. This latest rhetoric is just another drop in the flood of bellicose, fear-mongering, and baseless statements about migrants, violence, and crime. The historical precedents, though, remind us that this sort of language can further discriminatory and segregationist policies whose damaging consequences can take decades to undo.

Fortunately, as I’ve written here before, this history also gives us some models for building inclusive community and for opposing the logic and rhetoric our administration is imposing on migrants.

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