“An Exercise in Triage”

The Dispossessed: A Story of Asylum and the US-Mexican Border and Beyond BY John Washington. Brooklyn, NY: Verso. 352 pages. $26.
The cover of The Dispossessed: A Story of Asylum and the US-Mexican Border and Beyond

In 1959 Otto Kirchheimer described the concept of asylum as “situated at the crossroads of national and international law, compassion and self-interest, raison d’état and human capacity for shame.” Nations may have pushed, twisted, and stretched their capacity for shame, but they seem less inclined to test the flexibility of their compassion. One of the principal underlying assumptions for border fortification, for asylum deterrence and denial, is that the survival of the state is threatened by extending the roof, by opening the gates. In Anna Seghers’s novel Transit, the unnamed narrator, a Jew trying to flee occupied France, asks, “And what if some of these poor souls, still bleeding physically and spiritually, had fled to this house, what harm could it do to a giant nation if a few of these saved souls, worthy, half-worthy, or unworthy, were to join them in their country—how could it possibly harm such a big country?”

For asylum seekers, raison d’état—the motivations of the state—impinges upon raison d’être, upon being itself.


The “border” is more than a physical obstruction—more than a wall or a fence—more than a line on a map, more than a political organizing tool. The border produces and maintains extreme levels of inequality—some live, and live comfortably, and some suffer, and suffer miserably. For asylum seekers, the border is the knife-edge of the crisis—the turning point, as Hippocrates defined crisis, toward either recovery or death. Some shall live, is what the border says.


US/Mexico border wall in Arizona. Photo: Flickr/Russ McSpadden
US/Mexico border wall in Arizona. Photo: Flickr/Russ McSpadden

It’s not possible for any one country to extend protection to everybody—a roof is only so large, can only be extended so far until it buckles and falls. But if we continue to organize the world according to nation-states—not by any means a given—we have to reassess refugee and asylum agreements. Otherwise, we have to be willing to consign millions upon millions of people to Untergang—to, in Adam Knowles’s words, the “perdition, downfall, doom, extinction, and ruin” that denied asylum seekers are subjected to. Who are today’s pirates for which we need agreements of asylos? Who is being plundered and dispossessed?

As hundreds of millions are left without homes, we must confront whether or not we are willing to live in an era of global apartheid—a world of comfort and wealth next to a world of fear and a constant clambering at the gates. We must decide if, as some hunker down and defend their privilege, we are willing to see more and more of humanity amassed along border walls into camps of squalor and desperation.


We’re often told that the only long-term approach to stabilizing the modern refugee crises is improving the conditions in sending countries. But, besides curing humanity of our penchant for war and plunder, and ending carbon emissions, we should also be wary of “development.” Honduras stands as a warning against careless injections of cash and arms. What was once pejoratively referred to as “USS Honduras” is, today, a high-crime paradise teetering on the verge of a failed state, annually expulsing tens of thousands of refugees. Injecting a country with US-style “aid” is not vaccinating it against a virus; it is, too often, injecting it with one.

“The extraction and looting of natural resources by war machines,” Achille Mbembe writes, “goes hand in hand with brutal attempts to immobilize and spatially fix whole categories of people.”


Practically, asylum policy is an exercise in triage, that “gentle violence” of deciding who is worthy of protection and who is not. But decisions issued by judges and asylum officers reflect on them as much as on the seekers. Asylum triage, that is, exposes the heart of a nation as much as the individual welcomed or refused. Philosopher Christopher Yates calls these decisions “moments at the doorstep of our identity.”

In their essay “The Truth from the Body: Medical Certificates as Ultimate Evidence for Asylum Seekers,” anthropologists Didier Fassin and Estelle D’Halluin write: “Asylum seekers are expected to unveil themselves, to recount their histories, and to exhibit their wounds.” And they do: that “moment at the doorstep” is a moment of unveiling as much as it is of arrival. But what about us—those doing the weighing, judging, and triaging? It would be naive to think that we remain unrevealed by the encounter. What about our history, our wounds, our veiled motivations?

What we ultimately fear, what we ultimately hate, is, so often, an outward manifestation of our own action or inaction. As Kristeva puts it, “The foreigner lives within us: he is the hidden face of our identity . . . By recognizing him within ourselves, we are spared detesting him in himself.” Dispossessing and denying the stranger or refugee does not keep us safe or in possession. It exposes us.

Before letting him take refuge in Colonus, Theseus asks Oedipus, “What is your worst fear?” Oedipus might have responded: What’s yours?


“It is not we, as hosts, who are masters of the scene,” Yates writes, “but we who are very much in question in a provocative way.” The bravado of bordering is little more than exhibitionism, a manifestation of a nation’s internal conflict or malady. Researcher Nick Megoran, in analyzing the political dispute at the Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan border, writes, “The state border, although physically at the extremities of the polity, can be at the heart of nationalist discourse about the meaning of the nation.” Greg Grandin, channeling Freud, writes that America’s “obsession with fortification against what’s outside is symptomatic of trouble that exists inside.”

Perhaps we can’t extend our roof because the foundation is in shambles.


But how? we must ask—how do we make this world more habitable? How do we invoke and uphold, for everyone, the “right to the earth’s surface,” as Kant once exhorted? Gibney answers that “humanitarianism is a modest, sober, and painstakingly realistic criterion.” Betts and Collier suggest turning refugee camps into “charter cities.” Dana Leigh Marks pushes for an independent immigration court—breaking it out from the Department of Justice. Geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore promotes the paradigm of abolition geography, which “starts from the homely premise that freedom is a place.”

How do we arrive there?


It’s easy to be outraged; it’s hard to act, or even to come up with reasonable actions. Waiting for the government to offer to share its roof, or to implement any positive change, will be waiting too long. Meanwhile, instead of hoping for change or waiting for a radical rethink of refugee policies, we should open our churches, temples, mosques, schools, and homes. We should build communities that are willing and able to receive those in need, not merely incarcerate or expel them. Practically, this means boldly and emphatically resisting federal law. It means building on ICE-out-of-community efforts, and it means taking immediate, active steps toward offering sanctuary, offering love and welcome to people like Hilda and Ivan. It means fighting the transnational capitalists who are despoiling our planet, and building a more just and sustainable world.

The highest virtue, Emerson wrote, is always against the law. The highest virtue may also be impossible. Both should be spurs to action.

Excerpted from The Dispossessed: A Story of Asylum at the US-Mexican Border and Beyond by John Washington, available through Verso Books.