Commentary: U.S. immigration policy straight out of ‘Handmaid’s Tale’

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, pictured in 2017.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, pictured in 2017.


By Barbara Franz

Control. Dehumanization. Cruelty. Ruling through fear.

Perhaps you recognize these features of Gileadian society from Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, or from the series it has inspired on Hulu.

Why do these themes feel so familiar?

In a ballroom at the Scottsdale Resort at McCormick Ranch, Attorney General Jeff Sessions explained the newest maneuver of the Trump administration’s fight on undocumented immigration.

He spoke there on May 7, 2018, to mostly police personnel of the Association of State Criminal Investigative Agencies.

“This is the Trump Era,” he explained, and “we know which side we’re on…the side of law and order.”

He emphasized that “we the American people want to see an end to this lawlessness. We’re going to fight it as best we can.”

Barbara Franz
Barbara Franz

In his comments, Sessions introduced new “zero tolerance” immigration measures, including a policy aimed at separating children from their parents if they are caught crossing the border illegally.

This policy has been in place since October, and the New York Times claims that more than 700 children have been taken from their parents since then, about 100 of them toddlers under the age of 4.

The zero-tolerance policy changes the legal practice under which anybody entering the country illegally can be prosecuted. Historically, in most cases first-time offenders simply have been put into civil deportation proceedings.

Under the new practice, in addition to repeat offenders, federal prosecutors will bring criminal charges against first-time crossers.

Prosecutors will file charges in as many cases as possible “until we get to 100 percent,” Sessions declared. Deterrence is the name of the game!

The administration believes unwanted immigrants can be deterred from entering the country, if not with a wall and the National Guard at the border, then with family separation policies.

Philip Bump of the Washington Post showed that the recent surge in apprehensions included an increase in the number of “family units” arrested trying to cross the border.

In February, 5,475 families were apprehended; in March, the number climbed to 8,873 and in April, to 9,647. The government stepped up prosecutions as well.

According to Miriam Jordon and Ron Nixon of the New York Times, citing data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research group at Syracuse University, during the first six months of fiscal year 2018, there were 35,787 criminal prosecutions for immigration violations.

This deterrent is intentional—if you don’t want to be separated from your children do not enter this country! Trump wants the number of crossings reduced. Thus, the number of apprehensions and prosecutions needs to go up.

This policy is meant to target parents in a direct and powerful way: Use the fear of separation from their children to deter them from immigrating.

This reliance on controlling people through fear is commonly found in oppressive regimes. While the United States is not a totalitarian regime like North Korea, or a theocratic regime like Iran, policies and practices like family separations have fostered terror and anxiety in the American immigrant population.

Just as in a Handmaid’s Tale, the American government seems to be cultivating such terror and fear. Traditionally, autocratic regimes have implemented such policies to control segments of their population. But the GOP administration also seems to use such policies to cater to its voter base.

For whatever reason, it is clear that what has been emerging here is a sociopolitical system where cruelty and power are used as a means of authority.

Control and dehumanization are key features in Gileadian society, where handmaids, often referred to as vessels or containers, are valued only for their ability to reproduce, and are restricted in everything from the clothes they may wear to the partners with whom they may have sexual relations.

Dehumanization and control are also featured in the GOP administration. Trump attempts to dehumanize immigrants, recently calling them “animals.”

The federal government has embarked on an unprecedented escalation of immigration enforcement and control. Federal legislation has dramatically altered the scale and scope of immigration enforcement—creating a system that, in the words of Catalonia Amuedo-Donates of San Diego State University, “relies heavily on state and local law enforcement to identify, arrest, detain, and deport non-citizens.”

Amuedo-Donates emphasizes that new federal laws introduced an era of immigration control, in which state and local criminal justice systems began to play a major role in the enforcement of federal immigration law, significantly scaling up the detainment and deportation of immigrants.

Programs such as 287(g) and Secure Communities deputized local law enforcement agencies to enforce federal immigration law, and associations between local police and immigration enforcement grew.

Thus, through restrictionist laws and a hierarchy that reaches from federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement to local police and sheriff offices, all aspects of immigrants’ lives, from their work, to their residences to their children’s schools, are surveilled.

Social control is almost omnipresent for these individuals in the United States, nearly as ubiquitous as in Gilead. The GOP administration’s most recent scheme, that of separating immigrant children from their parents, is reminiscent of the state’s taking Ofred’s 5-year-old daughter from her.

Do we really want to be a country that separates infants from their parents in order to spread fear?

Barbara Franz, Ph.D., is a political science professor at Rider University, and a Morristown resident.


Editor’s note: The opinions expressed above are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.

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  1. Since this article was written, our own attorney general has used the bible to defend taking immigrant children from their parents and stuffing 1,500 of them into an abandoned WalMart secured by armed guards. I guess the only thing “A Handmaid’s Tale” got wrong was the violent revolution they thought was necessary for us to get here.

  2. It’s a ridiculous notion that criminals should be able to avoid prosecution if doing so would “separate children from their parents”. The prisons are full of parents who have been separated from their children as a direct result of their illegal activities. Should we also extend this novel criminal defense strategy to rapists, murderers, drug dealers and child molesters?