Dignity and Migration at The U.S. Border

By Jeffrey D. Pugh

The cruelty is the point. The U.S. government has adopted the practice, manifested across numerous programs and policies implemented by multiple agencies, of using terror, humiliation and fear to strip dignity, due process, and humanity from asylum seekers and other migrants seeking to enter the United States. These practices are designed to short circuit the legal and ethical obligations toward asylum seekers under international law, domestic legislation, and common decency by preventing access to the channels in which due process can occur. The goal is to try to make life so miserable for asylum seekers that others will be deterred from attempting to make the journey to the United States, even though there is little evidence that it accomplishes this purpose.

The seminal work on dignity is Donna Hicks’s book, Dignity. In it, she argues that people’s dignity—the idea that they matter by virtue of being human and that they are full members of society—must be secure. When dignity is violated through humiliation, isolation, or violation of rights, primal defensive reactions cause people to withdraw from each other; even if they cannot leave because of mutual dependence. Hicks writes in her 2011 work, “the relationship is characterized by hostility, and both people feel justified in demeaning the other. In short, life together is miserable.” Given the 44.5 million immigrants living in the U.S., of whom 11.3 million are living without documentation according to the Migration Policy Institute, the lives of migrants and U.S. citizens are intimately interwoven and unlikely to separate. Building a healthy society in which everyone coexists peacefully will require learning to affirm the dignity of all people living in society.

According to Hicks, there are ten essential elements of dignity, and when these elements are violated, conflict is likely to escalate and social relationships will rupture and decay:

  • Acceptance of identity
  • Inclusion
  • Safety
  • Acknowledgment
  • Recognition
  • Fairness
  • Benefit of the Doubt
  • Understanding
  • Independence
  • Accountability

I would argue that each of these elements has been systematically eroded by the immigration policies and practices of the United States on display at the U.S.-Mexico border. The racialized discourses equating all persons of Latin American origin or Latino ethnicity with illegal immigration and gang violence represent a willful refusal to accept the identity and recognize the legitimate presence of the largest ethnic minority group in the United States. Other policies make it impossible to claim asylum through legal channels at ports of entry by interdicting and returning people in boats or putting asylum seekers in detention centers for indefinite periods of time while separating their families. These actions rob forced migrants of safety, fairness, benefit of the doubt, and inclusion. The administration’s frequent violations of law and human rights, and its eagerness to hide the truth about these violations, undermines accountability.

In my research on the integration of migrants in host communities, I have identified a pattern that I call the invisibility bargain. This term refers to an unwritten, but strongly understood and enforced set of expectations that host countries have toward migrants. The presence of migrants is tolerated in the country and they are not actively persecuted or deported as long as they fulfill three expectations: making an economic or other contribution of value to the host community, and remaining politically and socially invisible. When public figures in the host community accuse migrants of not living up to one or more of these expectations, a backlash against their presence is likely to follow, and xenophobic rhetoric, exclusionary policies, or even violence can take place.

The social invisibility expectation can be seen in the Muslim headscarf bans in France, or social shaming of migrants speaking Spanish in public spaces in the United States who are admonished to speak English. These acts attack the dignity of migrants because they communicate that they cannot exist on their own terms, with the markers of their full identity intact, in the host country. They violate Hicks’s first two elements of inclusion, which would “make others feel that they belong,” and acceptance of identity, which calls on people to “approach people as being neither inferior nor superior to you. Give others the freedom to express their authentic selves without fear of being negatively judged.” It is precisely this freedom that is repressed under the invisibility bargain.

Political invisibility means that migrants are expected to act as grateful guests—they are allowed to be present by the generosity of the hosts, and do not have independent standing to make demands or participate in political decisions that affect their lives. Chris Zepeda-Millán has chronicled the 2006 nationwide protests of Latino activists to demand immigration reform, finding that the aftermath of this very visible political activity led to a significant backlash in increased hate crime, xenophobic rhetoric, and a 600 percent increase in the number of nativist extremist groups in the U.S. He also found that protests faded as many of the activists refocused their energies on more traditional (and less visible) political channels like electoral politics or lobbying because they were afraid of marches fueling resentment and backlash. Some within the U.S. population saw these protests as threatening their dignity because they perceived the focus on protections for and participation by undocumented migrants to be violations of fairness, by which Hicks means “Treat people justly, with equality, and in an evenhanded way according to agreed-on laws and rules.” The political invisibility expectation has been seen more recently in the savage criticism of Rep. Ilhan Omar, a congresswoman from Minnesota who came to the United States as a refugee from Somalia (and who wears a hijab), for her public speech, as political leaders and some in the media have suggested that she should be less vocal, and that she should merely be grateful to be here or “go back” to the country in which she was born. These attempts to silence the political presence of a prominent migrant are the epitome of the political invisibility expectation.

When political actors portray the political participation, cultural expression, or even presence of migrants as a threat, they use “securitizing” language to claim that migration represents a crisis. In the face of this crisis, they argue, those needing protection are U.S. citizens, whereas migrants are the potential threats to be protected against (migrant men and those who are racially distinct from the dominant group in the country are typically viewed thus), and the state is portrayed as needing to take extraordinary measures to offer this protection. These measures may require the suspension of normal rules and the creation of a “state of exception,” to use Carl Schmitt’s phrase developed by Giorgio Agamben. But as this latter theorist argued, states have a tendency to use the discourse of perpetual crisis in order to create a permanent state of exception that justifies stripping those who are targeted of rights, participation, and security as they are forced into a “bare life” without dignity. The barren and lethal geographies of the U.S.-Mexico border and the crowded and filthy cells of private detention centers illustrate the spaces of exception into which the government expels migrants. The lives that exist on the margins of survival in these spaces and those that do not survive this expulsion are treated as collateral damage to the state’s claim to protect “real” citizens against threats to their safety and identity.

One of the ways that advocates and sympathetic policymakers have pushed back on the politics of exclusion and the degradation of dignity for migrants in the U.S. is to emphasize human rights that all people enjoy by virtue of being human. All people, the argument goes, deserve basic protections and should be able to live with dignity regardless of immigration status. The challenge of the human rights discourse, however, is two-fold: which rights should be considered basic enough to be universally protected is contested, and strategically, Voss et al have found that using appeals to migrant rights does little to increase U.S. citizen support for protective policies, and in fact it may in some cases actually reduce such support. Certainly, invoking migrants’ human rights can help push back on restrictive policies by reminding states of the obligations they have committed to under various treaties and the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Ultimately, however, if the invisibility bargain renders migrants silent, and they are trapped by the state into spaces of exception, their very humanity may be denied as a mechanism for accessing rights.

Dignity requires meaningful and reciprocal relationships, a righting of power imbalances, and a commitment to each other’s humanity. When we all invest in these things, peaceful coexistence is possible. Those wishing to exclude and degrade migrants would do well to remember that dignity is a relational phenomenon. Stripping someone else’s dignity also degrades our own, and exacerbates conflict and violence as a result. A systematic overhaul of state practices at the border is needed, but in the meantime, non-state actors can advance competing discourses that rehumanize migrants, promote their political participation using less overt/visible strategies, and bring transparency to dark and violent spaces.


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Entralgo, Rebeka. “Homeland Security Admits It’s Using Abhorrent Conditions at Detention Centers to Deter Migration.” ThinkProgress, July 1, 2019.

Hicks, Donna. Dignity. Yale University Press, 2011.

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Zepeda-Millán, Chris. Latino Mass Mobilization: Immigration, Racialization, and Activism. Cambridge University Press, 2017.



Jeffrey D. Pugh is Assistant Professor of Conflict Resolution in the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston and the Executive Director of the Center for Mediation, Peace, and Resolution of Conflict, based in Quito-Ecuador. His research and practitioner work focuses on grassroots peacebuilding and the power of non-state actors in achieving human security, particularly in migrant-receiving communities of Latin America. Pugh is the co-coordinator of the Summer Institute on Conflict Transformation across Borders at FLACSO Ecuador, and he is the former president of the Middle Atlantic Council of Latin American Studies.