This month, hundreds of migrants from Central America and Africa have assembled outside Tijuana’s El Chaparral border office, in hopes of being granted asylum in the US. Yet given new rules announced by the Trump administration last week, the scene they’ve found upon arrival has been one of charged uncertainty. Under the new guidelines, asylum seekers must apply for protection in at least one country they’ve traveled through before asking for sanctuary in the US. On Tuesday, a San Francisco judge issued a preliminary injunction against the administration’s mandate, halting a move that would’ve all but barred entry to migrants in need of refuge.
One tragic, unfortunate configuration of American custom is the natural instinct to cannibalize what it doesn’t understand. Under Trump, this reality has taken on an even more strict tone. White nationalism is corroding the center of democracy, unforgiving of anyone who challenges its mission of maintaining conservative values. The proposed asylum mandate—essentially a wholesale ban—is entirely symbolic of Trump’s exclusionary gospel; in fact, he thrives on this kind of cultural division. For now, thanks to the reasoning of one judge, the mandate is in a state of purgatory, but its primary message rang loud and clear: Asylum seekers don’t belong in the US.
Although it is very easy to brand this particular time as graceless, even hell-teetering—just days before the ban was announced, chants of “Send her back!” were lobbed at Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota at a North Carolina rally for Trump—Omar Martinez’s photo teems with grace and difficult beauty. Difficult because of what the photo intones—a persecuted people in search of a new home that may not want them—but beautiful in the way it tells their story.
The image, texturally abundant, is full of illusion and fact. It’s all hypnosis, really. Martinez freezes, just for a minute, the fleeting, unpredictable in-between realms of migration: After departure and before arrival all there is is the rupture of the moment, the choice to either rise from it or descend into its grab.
Still, like many migration stories, this one is not without its own set of obvious and unseen dangers. There’s a depth to the image that lends the scene a carnivorous intent. It looks as if many of the people are waiting to be swallowed, pulled under by the high white walls. There’s the spell-binding symmetry of partially seen bodies—their impermanence, how perhaps they register to us, those who look on in awe, unfastened to time or region. The eyes also lock onto a kind of conveyor-belt spookiness that the image spotlights—the people before us look as if they are being ushered to some indeterminate place.
That’s really the most gutting aspect of this image: the realization of that fact. The paradox of the American promise is that perhaps they are.
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