The Trump administration has a new term for illegal immigrants: they call them “inadmissibles.” The term is chilling. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the disabled were routinely rejected at Ellis Island and other immigration centers in the United States. In his probative book “Disabled Upon Arrival” Jay Dolmage writes that immigration has never been about immigration: “we can also tie immigration restriction to larger ideologies like racialization, eugenics, and xenophobia.” The inadmissables represent trouble to a racist and ableist body politic. Dolmage: “immigration has been about creating a dominant, normative identity; it has been about translating written and spoken and visual arguments about the value of bodies into physical action, mapping them onto other, bigger ideas like continents; it has been about land, and specifically the theft of it and its justification; it is about laughably bad science and shaky, opportunistic “facts,” working together with the rhetoric that it is impossible to separate from any of these claims.”
I am of course an inadmissable. Disabled upon arrival at the airline counter, at the cab stand, in the intellectual spaces of universities, on the common streets I’m insufficiently normative for customs. All disabled experiences are a kind of Ellis island and there’s no help for it. As the old song goes: I just keep on travelin’ what have I got to lose?” This is the crux: traveling is a fundamental assertion of human rights. Inadmissable means “erased”—rendered inhuman.
American foreign policy has for over a hundred years been disabling the world, creating economic and social circumstances that cannot support dignified life. We’ve disabled vast numbers of civilians from Viet Nam to Iraq, from Honduras to Yemen. Collateral damage is collateral crippling. Destroyed countries are meant to be cultural locations of disablement.
Admissible also means in its first English iteration “allowable” which is of course juridical as much as a question of aesthetics or manners. In order to disallow human beings you must reduce them, dehumanize them, paint them as sinister, threatening, disease ridden, dishonest, and of course having false claims to dignity. I no longer refer to Trump’s White House as an administration. It’s a regime. We’ve concentration camps for children and orphans throughout the Southwest. At least at Ellis Island we could put them back on the ships.
ABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.
(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger