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Aggressive Deportations Are Bad, But They’re Not Ethnic Cleansing


With the Trump administration carrying out an aggressive immigration policy, restricting access to asylum for Central Americans, militarizing the southwest border, and deporting numerous foreign citizens, some progressives have accused the administration of “a mild form of ethnic cleansing.” It’s worth tackling this accusation because, while it’s false, explaining why the administration’s policy is not a form of ethnic cleansing helps clarify exactly the ways in which these policies are nonetheless stupid and wrong.

It’s useful to start with some definitions. What do we mean when we say “ethnic cleansing”? It turns out to be a very young phrase. Merriam-Webster says the first known usage of the word in its current sense was in 1991, but Google Ngram suggests the late 1980s may be the actual origin.

Regardless, the source of the phrase is not very much in dispute: it was used to refer to the appalling humanitarian situation in the successor states to the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. The United Nations even suggests it may simply be a translation of the Croation “etničko čišćenje.” Thus, the phrase has its origin in the disasters of the Balkans in the 1990s.

How We’ve Used ‘Ethnic Cleansing’ Ever Since

The “Yugoslav Wars” claimed about 140,000 lives, and led to about 4 million people being displaced from their homes: about 1 in 5 of the population of Yugoslavia in 1987. International criminal tribunals handed down guilty verdicts for genocide against several Serbian leaders, who massacred 8,000 residents of the city of Srebrenica.

Since the 1990s, “ethnic cleansing” has been used to refer to other historic events, such as the expulsion of Turks and Greeks from Greece and Turkey, respectively, after World War I, or the expulsion of ethnic Germans from their former East Prussian territories in present-day Poland. Likewise, Iraq’s sectarian violence has sometimes been described as “ethnic cleansing.” There’s a long list of potential cases you can peruse on Wikipedia.

But there’s a problem. According to the United Nations, “As ethnic cleansing has not been recognized as an independent crime under international law, there is no precise definition of this concept or the exact acts to be qualified as ethnic cleansing.” Calling something “ethnic cleansing,” then, is vague and debatable.

On the other hand, one UN report described ethnic cleansing as, “a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.”

They also, cheerily, gave a list of acts that could be described as ethnic cleansing: “murder, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, extrajudicial executions, rape and sexual assaults, severe physical injury to civilians, confinement of civilian population in ghetto areas, forcible removal, displacement and deportation of civilian population, deliberate military attacks or threats of attacks on civilians and civilian areas, use of civilians as human shields, destruction of property, robbery of personal property, attacks on hospitals, medical personnel, and locations with the Red Cross/Red Crescent emblem, among others.”

Synthesizing these, we can conclude that ethnic cleansing generally has three criteria:

  1. It is forcible, accompanied by violence or the threat of violence.
  2. It is targeted at a specific ethnic or religious group or groups.
  3. It aims to remove that group or groups from a given territory.

With these definitions in mind, we can ask whether current U.S. policy constitutes ethnic cleansing.

Is Current U.S. Policy ‘Forcible’?

All government policies are “forcible” to some extent; the law is force, and the threat of force. So in this case, when we think about the “forcibleness” of a given policy, we really want to know if it is unusually forcible. Are there elevated levels of violence or application of force compared to what is normal for the given action? Serving an eviction notice carries with it the force of law, but usually landlords do not show up in Kevlar vests with automatic weapons. Arresting people is always coercive, but sometimes more or less so.

We can draw a few bright lines. For example: is a policy normally undertaken by civilian or military authorities, and has that changed? Normally, immigration policy is undertaken by civilian authorities. But President Trump has militarized the border, deploying the National Guard, a clear escalation of “forcibleness.”

Another common trend in ethnic cleansing is the presence of private paramilitary bodies. Unregulated private soldiers are a common feature of ethnic conflicts, as seen in Syria, Iraq, Bosnia, and elsewhere. These groups often undertake particularly brutal killings in foreign theaters of war, and their presence as part of a government’s strategy for enforcement is a concerning sign with respect to the degree of force being used. Check that box too: American paramilitaries are indeed present and active along the border.

We can also just go through the list given above, and check which ones are happening:

  • Murder (by state security forces): Not to the best of my knowledge.
  • Torture: Again, no reports that I’ve seen indicate the use of torture.
  • Arbitrary Arrest and Detention: Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Holding citizens hostage for years on end, forcing people to carry proof of citizenship (do you carry your passport when you go out?), invading private property without warrants: the evidence of arbitrary arrest and detention is widespread and obvious.
  • Extrajudicial Executions: Nope.
  • Rape and Sexual Assaults: Yes.
  • Severe Physical Injury to Civilians: Nope.
  • Confinement to Ghettoes: Kind of. Detained people are, well, detained. And the numbers of detainees are large. But on the other hand, there is no evident effort to confine the general non-detained population to specific residential areas, so this is mostly no.
  • Forcible Removal: Yes; that’s what deportation is.
  • Deliberate Military Attacks: No.
  • Use of Civilians as Human Shields: No.
  • Destruction of Property: Probably somewhere, but generally no.
  • Robbery of Personal Property: A thousand times YES! Civil asset forfeiture is highway robbery! However, this doesn’t specifically target immigrants; it’s just an awful part of U.S. law.
  • Attacks on Medical Facilities: No.

So overall, on the question of violence, a few bright lines are crossed, like arbitrary detention, militarization, and the use of paramilitary groups. On the other hand, we are not seeing whole Hispanic towns rounded up and detained, there’s no campaign of ghettoization, and we aren’t seeing a campaign of murders, rapes, and maimings against Hispanics.

A violent anti-Hispanic campaign was waged in the early 1900s, so it’s not like such a campaign is totally beyond imagining. But the reality is that for all that mass deportations may be unfairly deporting folks who’ve been working here legally and productively for 20 years who accidentally went 25 miles over the speed limit (and that sort of thing is happening), none of the obvious “Yes, this is violent ethnic cleansing” alarm bells are going off.

What we can say, however, is that everything is in order to do it. The military and paramilitary forces are there. The civilian authorities are ramping up their level of aggression. They are building the camps.

Right now, there’s no ethnic cleansing. But it’s not crazy to think the pieces on the board are aligning in such a way that the violence necessary for genuine ethnic cleansing could soon become possible. The government is becoming less afraid of enacting violence on the people who live in its territory, and more open about deploying the military on our own soil, using them to harass and intimidate not only foreign citizens, but U.S. citizens as well.

Is a Specific Ethnic or Religious Group Being Targeted?

It is undoubtedly the case that a specific group is being targeted: immigrants, particularly foreign citizens who have entered the United States illegally. The question is whether targeting immigrants counts as ethnic cleansing. The answer is no.

Deportees are disproportionately Hispanic, but that’s because immigrants, particularly illegal immigrants, are disproportionately Hispanic. It’s easy to find cases of Arab, African, even European detainees in the current wave. We aren’t seeing a campaign against a specific ethnic or religious group, but against a legal class, which includes members of virtually all racial or ethnic groups.

We aren’t seeing a campaign against a specific ethnic or religious group, but against a legal class, which includes members of virtually all racial or ethnic groups.

It’s an absurdly broad legal class, of course. Deporting long-time legal residents for decades-old misdemeanors is stupid. These people got here legally, use welfare far less than natives, work hard, and contribute to society. It makes sense to deport foreign citizens who have recently committed crimes, especially felonies, and it makes sense to deport foreign citizens who aren’t here legally at all. But folks with decades of clean records and legal residence? Is it really of any benefit to the country to deport these people?

Of course, in the process of rounding up these people, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has to check the citizenship of many people, including many citizens. In other words, because you can’t just look at someone and know whether he or she is a citizen, identifying non-citizens forces ICE to treat many citizens like they are possibly non-citizens. As ICE’s treatment of non-citizens gets more and more aggressive, that means citizens are exposed to more and more tyrannical state-sponsored harassment.

The group the Trump administration has targeted isn’t an ethnic or religious group, so these policies aren’t ethnic cleansing. But “Not quite ethnic cleansing” is a very low bar. Holding citizens in jail for no reason and authorizing federal agents to harass citizens are bad outcomes of a ridiculously over-broad mandate.

Does the Administration Aim to Remove an Ethnic Group?

It’s hard to know intent. Certainly there may be people within the administration who would like to see a 100 percent white America. On the other hand, none of the policies currently being used have a snowball’s chance in hell of creating a “white America,” and that should be obvious to anybody who has taken more than five seconds to review the available demographic data.

None of the policies currently being used have a snowball’s chance in hell of creating a ‘white America.’

Even if every non-citizen in America were deported, non-Hispanic whites would still only be about 65 percent of the population, versus about 62 percent of the population today, according to the 2012-2016 American Community Survey. In other words, the maximum plausible effect of an extremely aggressive deportation policy is that the minority population shrinks by maybe 2 to 5 percentage points of the whole. Current policies, even carried out to an implausible extreme, never get remotely close to a serious demographic re-writing of America.

If this is ethnic cleansing, then it’s got to be one of the most pitiful and half-hearted ethnic cleansing campaigns ever. Without any policy that actually targets minorities as a class, it’s difficult to argue that the aim is the removal of whole ethnic groups.

Asserting that targeting non-citizens implicitly targets a racial or ethnic group is misguided and a bit insulting since, for example, about 80 percent of Hispanics are U.S. citizens, and some have families who have lived in the American southwest for longer than the United States has even been an independent country. Targeting non-citizens still leaves overwhelming majorities of virtually every racial or ethnic group outside of the targeted class.

Now, the fact that these policies are woefully ineffective at changing America’s demographic mix isn’t really a compelling defense of them, but it does suggest that the administration’s aim really actually is not the material elimination of an ethnic group.

Just Because It’s Awful Doesn’t Make It Ethnic Cleansing

It’s fine to deport illegal immigrants and criminals, and a systematic campaign to reduce this population through appropriate legal channels is long-overdue. But, ultimately, the reason to deport illegal immigrants is not to reduce the number of Hispanics, but because illegal residency is an affront to the rule of law.

Unfortunately, this administration’s efforts to uphold the rule of law on that front have been so ham-fisted that they threaten it in entirely new ways, diminishing the rights of citizens and legal residents alike, subjecting huge swathes of the country to something eerily akin to martial law, and damaging American families.

For now, however, the administration hasn’t really met any of the major criteria to call their policies “ethnic cleansing.” Progressives are wrong to toss out that loaded phrase, implying that deporting an MS-13 member is somehow equivalent to the savagery of Srebrenica. No, those things are different: this isn’t ethnic cleansing.

At the same time, what’s happening in America now isn’t normal. When you find yourself constructing tent-camps to detain thousands of children apart from their families, you need to splash some cold water in your face and realize that you are doing something wrong. Stop digging the hole deeper.