By Dan Dinello
As I began work on a monograph about Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film Children of Men — anadaptation of the P.D. James’ novel, its critique of racism, nationalism, and xenophobia echoed the rise of an anti-immigrant, right wing in America that culminated in the election of a xenophobic president Donald J. Trump as the global immigration crisis exploded. Topical at the time of its release, the unnervingly prescient film now felt torn from recent headlines. As I developed the book, many appalling parallels emerged between the dystopian nightmare imagined in Cuarón’s science fiction masterpiece and the Trump administration’s efforts to terminate U.S. immigration. As in Children of Men, America’s immigration policies result in death, suffering, humiliation, and destroyed lives as well as a subversion of America’s idealistic image as a welcoming nation of immigrants.
The dystopia depicted in Cuarón’s visionaryfilm, set in 2027, presents a realistic and disturbing portrayal of a white nationalist, apocalyptic future: bigoted rhetoric that denigrates immigrants and fuels hatred of foreigners, a world-wide infertility pandemic, environmental catastrophes, multiple wars, state terror, and ethnic tribalism. In Children of Men, this collapsing world pushes desperate refugees to seek entrance to Great Britain, now a racist police state that is the only surviving society. The film’s refugees are positioned as the scum of society and treated with horrible animosity. The savage government hunts down immigrants and cages them like animals in order to deport them back to the hell they came from. While situated as a work of science fiction, Children of Men is a mirror of a future that has already arrived.
Anticipating Trump’s Muslim ban, Children of Men opens with Britain shutting down its borders. Trump launched his malignant presidency by closing American borders to Muslim immigrants. Initially declared unconstitutional, the third version of the racist Muslim ban was upheld by the Supreme Court, barring entry for almost everybody from several Muslim-majority countries including Yemen, Iran, Libya, Chad, Somalia, and Syria. In January 2020, the administration expanded the ban to target mostly African countries — including Sudan, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Eritrea as well as Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan — all part of Trump’s attacks on people of colorand his ongoing efforts to make America white again.
Presenting an imagined future world, the film’s opening scene also exposes the social and political context of the government’s xenophobic, anti-immigration policies: ‘Britain-first’ nationalism, a citizenry frightened by government propaganda, violent state tyranny, and insurrectionary chaos (‘the Siege of Seattle enters its thousandth day,’ says a TV newscast) — all amidst a global pandemic. Fifteen years prior to today’s events, Cuarón — as a result of in-depth research — perceptively imagined the current state of things in 2020: in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and an ‘America-first’ administration, a mostly peaceful, anti-racist social justice movement arose in the United States in response to the torture and murder of George Floyd and other African Americans. Angry, multi-ethnic crowds of people engaged in massive insurrectionary demonstrations in hundreds of cities, including Seattle. This resulted in chaotic police riots waged against citizens whose crime was daring to criticize police violence and systemic racism. Violent over-reaction by police and military as well as attacks on protesters by vigilante extremists were fueled by the President and the right-wing propaganda machine. A documentary of the future, Children of Men dramatizes police-enforced racism, ethnic hatred, social injustice, extra-legal military violence, and the scapegoating of the vulnerable and the marginalized.
The caging of immigrants in Children of Men seemed like a fictional exaggeration in 2006. Today the U.S. border policy of putting kids in cages is a disgustingly real and deliberately established plan, engineered by Trump’s immigration advisor Stephen Miller. In order to reduce border crossings, Miller pushed the idea of ‘consequences’ — separating children from parents. Exposing the policy as state-sanctioned kidnapping and child abuse, a Homeland Security official said: ‘Miller made clear to us that, if you start to treat children badly enough, you’ll be able to convince other parents to stop trying to come with theirs.’ The policy is so un-American and morally egregious that its brutality has even been expressed in a pop song, ‘Babies in Cages’, by the Southern rock band Drive-By Truckers. A kingdom of cruelty, detention centers have been built in 17 states to house detained children and adults: 12,000 children are held in government facilities right now, according to official figures.
To stress his war on illegal immigration, and using executive powers to rewrite immigration policy with little or no pushback from Congress, the President has tightened asylum rules as well as significantly cutting the number of refugees that could be admitted to the U.S., thus undermining this vital humanitarian program. The right to asylum has been a cornerstone of international immigration law since the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Beyond this, those fleeing violence or persecution have been forced into ramshackle camps in Mexico whose crowded, chaotic conditions resemble the Bexhill internment camp portrayed in Children of Men. The film portrays systemic brutality toward foreigners that reflects the persistent structural injustices and social conflict that exists in our present-day world. Referencing Japanese internment camps and Nazi concentration camps, Cuarón demonstrates that these abused migrants also function as a history of the past that persists into a present-in-the-future hellscape. Bexhill is thus converted into a never-ending, always-was, and forever-shall-be place of oppression, torture, and incarceration. As in Bexhill, the rule of law in 2020’s Mexican camps is displaced by a state of exclusion where people are subject to extra-judicial police violence as well as exploitation by drug cartels and smugglers. The Trump administration executed its ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy early in 2019, forcing asylum-seeking Central Americans to stay in Mexico — for an indefinite amount of time — while their claims are processed, trapping thousands for months or years. These shunned homeless people of no nation must live in vast tent encampments exposed to the elements and the coronavirus without adequate food or water.
In the film, Britain looks to defend its embattled notions of integrity from contagions — real and imagined — that threaten it. One of those contagions is the infertility plague. Blaming this on unhealthy women and foreigners, the government attempts to regulate their suspicious biology with enforced fertility tests: avoiding them is a crime. The barren female body is sick. ‘You people disgust me,’ says a British soldier to the main character Kee, a female migrant. This reflects the view that females and migrants are diseased vermin undermining Britain’s body politic. Immigrants are considered unhealthy infectious others, invading agents who are hated for attacking the organism of the British community. As a result, foreign invaders must be blocked, quarantined or exterminated. The Bexhill internment camp uses armed guards, surveillance, and walls reinforced with barbed wire to imprison ‘toxic’ immigrants for the purpose of creating an immunological fantasy that British citizens are thereby protected from invasive foreign bodies. Just as Children of Men uses the infertility pandemic to tighten its xenophobic immigration laws, the Trump administration now uses the coronavirus pandemic to ratchet up its already harsh regulations. For example, the Department of Homeland Security will bar new asylum-seekers on public health grounds. In addition, U.S. consulates have suspended routine VISA services, and ICE has frozen all refugee resettlement in the U.S. while blocking thousands of guest worker VISAs.
Trump and other white nationalists condemn immigration as an alien invasion. They appeal to fear, nostalgic fantasy, and resentment of elites who they blame for open borders. Presenting themselves as the defenders of Western identity and bastions of freedom, these authoritarians position themselves as the last barrier protecting a besieged Judeo-Christian civilization. Trump’s dictator-coddling America is no longer a countervailing force. ‘If one were to draft a script chronicling fascism’s resurrection,’ says former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, ‘the abdication of America’s moral leadership would make a credible first scene.’ Warning against the rise of fascism, Children of Men proves that a movie made as part of the capitalist entertainment complex can be thematically complex and politically subversive.
But despite the bleakness of its xenophobic portrayal, Children of Men also inspires with a story of hope and political resistance. But, in our fraught moment, public outrage over immigration policy has dissipated as news coverage has declined in the face of the pandemic. While the social justice movement offers resistance to racist policies, its focus is internal. The federal courts — especially the Supreme Court — are upholding the Administration’s repressive policies toward asylum-seekers. An extreme right-wing immigration policy now rules the U.S. — a policy aimed at rolling back the pluralistic foundation of the country while creating an atmosphere of nativism and fear that affects everybody. Reflecting the white nationalist agenda depicted in Children of Men and producing a dark stain on American history, Trump’s immigration crackdown reproduces the dreadful vision of dystopian fiction. Of course, the lives that are jeopardized by these harsh policies are real people who have little influence over the policies that control them. With overt political resistance waning, hope for them lies in the upcoming election and the defeat of the ‘America-first’, white supremacist president.
Dan Dinello is the author of Technophobia! Science Fiction Visions of the Posthuman Future. Professor emeritus at Columbia College Chicago, he has contributed chapters to numerous books including Westworld and Philosophy, Avatar and Philosophy: Learning to See, and The Ultimate Star Trek and Philosophy as well as pop culture stories for The Chicago Tribune and political articles for the Website Informed Comment.