The Migrant Subject in Pandemic Times: Against the Construction of an “Enemy,” Towards Humanism and Solidarity*

The violent discourses put forth by the Chilean government since migrants began arriving in the country have been on the uptick in recent years. During the COVID-19 pandemic, there is little doubt that these have been intensified and reinforced by the media, which regularly produces discriminatory discourses with racist content. 

Let’s review what happened during several days in April, before the bill for new Immigration and Alien Status Law (Ley de Migración y Extranjería) was presented for discussion in the Senate. On April 7th, the daily newspaper La Segunda published a photograph of an Afro-descent woman on its cover, noting that “infections have stabilized and quarantines will be relaxed.” Three days later, on April 10th, the President of the Republic warned that “through illegal immigration, [we] could be bringing contamination or infection with the virus that is attacking us into our country.” On the 16th, at a branch of the Unemployment Fund Administration, a Haitian citizen was beaten by a guard and humiliated on camera by a mob who alleged that he was a carrier of the virus. The following day, the Minister of Health warned: “We have a huge problem in those communities, which are not a few people, with many illegal immigrants…” On the 22nd, an outbreak of COVID-19 was confirmed in the district of Quilicura, which specifically accused Haitian migrants of not complying with the sanitary protocols. Claims like these, which deploy the equivocal term “illegal” to describe the condition of undocumented persons, are ongoing and continue to be repeated throughout the country, making and naturalizing the false claim that migrants are responsible for arrival or the spread of the virus in Chile.

With Covid-19 looming, and with the government seeking to lay blame for its failures in managing this pandemic, the figure of the migrant—already fashioned from negative stereotypes that relegate him or her to a position of inferiority in relation Chileans—is brought into play. The migrant subject produces greater distrust and rejection because of a national sentiment that is tied to a political and economic strategy, which needs a body to exploit and subject to hate. The migrant is “the enemy,” a designation that employs the language of war, a war broadly declared, to persecute, expel, or “hunt” migrants with the aim of assuaging fears of the virus. In the context of this uncertainty, which has led to so much injustice and punishment, I wish to offer some reflections on migration and racism during this pandemic, which is changing people’s lives in unequal and disproportionate ways. Given the constant presence of death, it appears as if it were necessary and urgent to seek out a migrant, an “enemy,” someone already labeled as an Other, to blame—this time for spreading a virus.

But this is not an innocent process; these discourses do not say anything about the ways in which migrants contribute to national production and culture, about their living conditions in this country, the precariousness of their existence, about human trafficking that subjects their bodies to different forms of suffering, about the levels of job insecurity, the grief of women who are sexualized and insulted, and the daily realities faced by their sons and daughters. Nor do they account for the endless ways in which they struggle to regularize their stay in Chile, thwarted by the absurd decisions of authorities, denounced by the State for living in overpriced, crowded spaces, and for the illegal rentals created “just for them,” for migrants, simply because they are undocumented. 

The racist violence that already exists in Chilean society only intensifies during the pandemic, during which the migrant—as a permanent suspect—is accused as responsible for it or irresponsible in the face of it

Today, strangely enough, the instances of social suffering that became visible in mass expulsions, differentiated visas, arbitrary detentions, and other cruel governmental actions directed at migrants, are taken as a “new development” by those same authorities who did not see it or did not want to see it. The same is the case with the crowded, substandard housing, with life in tenements and shantytowns. Before the pandemic, the migrants were visible, but not their condition of existence, enabling their exploitation in precarious working conditions or their persecution for political purposes. In addition, the State has denied them documentation, and with it the ability to claim rights, in order to keep them in a permanent state of abandonment and destitution.

Beginning in the 1990s, when immigration became an important phenomenon in Chile, our society began to disrespect those who came here to work and live. Over time, Chileans forged their perceptions and attitudes based on myths and stereotypes that accused migrants of being responsible for unemployment, illness, crime, and prostitution. Nothing was said about the origins of these political and historically inflected dispositions that today affect immigrants predominantly from seven countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. We are thus facing a process of growing stigmatization, organized by country of origin, nationality, economic status and, above all, the notion that particular cultural and physical characteristics render migrants hierarchically inferior to “we” Chileans. This “we” is built upon and recognizes itself as white, civilized, and modern, in stark contrast to an “other”—the migrant—seen for his or her skin color, physical features, or nationality, justifying diverse forms of violence, contempt, intolerance, humiliation, and exploitation that have become codified as “second nature.”

Toward the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, in a context of a social crisis and increasing public visibility of the lower and middle classes, a new “we” was needed and sought after—a new version of national identity that would incorporate these sectors into the figure of the “Chilean race” in order to consolidate the myth of national homogeneity. In this configuration of Chilean identity, migration played an important role in the construction of both a desired subject—as was the case of European migrants in the 19th century, when the State welcomed German migrants to settle territories in the South in order to “improve the race”—as well as an undesirable subject, or migrant subject, to be considered a “problem” that wreaked havoc on the routines of national life. This is how the “recognition of difference” was secured, opening the door to a process of identity in which the migrant, when seen as an Other, becomes the dehumanized and desubjectified reflection that gives rise to the construction of race. This construction, owing to historical, economic, social, cultural, and symbolic factors, makes recognition possible among Chileans, as a “we,” and so authorizes the activation of all other signifiers of difference. 

What is taking place in Chile today, in relation to migration, is the persecution of the migrant body by those who have determined, a priori, that their place is on the outside. The racialization process consequently produces a separation between “we” and the Other, which allows and authorizes Chileans to permanently abuse immigrant people.

Racism is not just a powerful ideology. It is also a system that gives way to actions and discourses that cause profound harm to others. If we follow Albert Memmi, who defines racism as “a generalized and definitive valorization of difference, real or imagined, for the purpose of justifying aggression, which benefits the accuser and causes harm to the victim,” then in Chile we are facing a form of racism that is used to legitimize aggression and colonial privilege and that essentializes and naturalizes so-called “cultural differences.” There is a moral disqualification of these differences and, along with it, the theorization and production of an “exceptional body” or “enemy” that is situated within fully formalized social conventions. In this framework, the figure of the migrant acquires dense significations that systematically exclude and, at the same time, enable racism to emerge in its multiple dimensions. 

The racist violence that already exists in Chilean society only intensifies during the pandemic, during which the migrant—as a permanent suspect—is accused as responsible for it or irresponsible in the face of it, always caught in a dead-end. Or rather, as has been the case with migrants who can neither leave Chile nor re-enter their own countries, they are stuck without exit and without entry. And even as they actively participate in national life and labor, they are not considered on equal terms, and even less so in these pandemic times. Racism, like other forms of separation between human beings, should be meaningless when it is life itself that is at stake, and even more so when death is the not result of immediate political decisions, but instead of a virus that we do not yet know, which hits us destroys us across borders and continents. 

But fear may be more powerful. Facing the fear of a frightened society, it appears that migrants cannot even not get sick, because all it takes is for one group to test positive for the virus for an entire community to become the scapegoat of the fearful, due to the accused presence of that Other “enemy ” that the authorities and the media have already designated as guilty. 

Then we will have to work to deconstruct what has been forged from history, politics or science, and dismantle the myths that have enabled so much hate. Perhaps this exercise will contribute to thinking about the power of humanism in the face of a pandemic that is, in many ways, a mirror of humanity. 

Por ahora, a lo único que podemos acudir es a la solidaridad. Y en un marco solidario, humanista, que supone que la persona humana y su emancipación están por encima de cualquier otro valor, el sujeto migrante no es un “enemigo”, sino que forma parte de ese mismo “nosotros” del cual tanto se le busca apartar.

For now, solidarity is our only recourse. In a framework guided by solidarity and humanism, in which the human person and his or her emancipation are above any other value, immigrants are not an “enemy,” but in fact part of that same “we” from which so much is done to exclude them.

—Santiago de Chile, May 3, 2020

Translated by Marcial Godoy-Anativia

*The text is part of my work with Proyecto Anillos PIASOC180008, “Migraciones contemporáneas en Chile: Desafíos para la democracia, la ciudadanía global y el acceso a los derechos para la no discriminación,”  which I currently direct. 

María Emilia Tijoux, PhD in Sociology, University of Paris 8, is a Professor of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the School of Sociology at the University of Chile, and Coordinator of Racisms and Contemporary Migrations of the Office of the Vice President for Extension and Communications. Among her publications is: Racism in Chile: the skin as a brand of immigration, published by Editorial Universitaria (2016). Dr. Tijoux delivered the inaugural keynote lecture at the Hemispheric Institute’s 10th Encuentro, held at the University of Chile in June 2016.

Marcial Godoy-Anativia is Managing Director of the Hemispheric Institute at New York University.


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