In recent months, a troubling meme has built up around fear of Trump — the repeated suggestion that people should ‘just leave the country.’ It’s a problem for a lot of reasons, but it’s an especially big one for the disability community, and many people may not fully understand the implications of what they are proposing. That’s why I wanted to take some time to go over the issues with ‘just leave the country’ rhetoric aimed at disabled people.
Let’s be clear from the front: There are valid reasons to want to leave the United States right now, and some people are opting to act upon those reasons. However, the ability to act on them is usually a product of immense privilege. Leaving the US isn’t as simple as buying a ticket for anywhere. In order to immigrate, people need to meet certain standards, including providing proof that they can support themselves and/or their families. The same strict standards that govern immigration, whether temporary or permanent, into the US hold true elsewhere. People from the US aren’t welcome anywhere they like just because of their passports, even if they’re white. Those with the financial, social, and political privilege to leave are making a calculated choice that includes abandoning the rest of the country to its fate instead of staying and leveraging their privilege to make the country better for others.
But what are the problems specific to the disability community?
The first is one of the most important: Many countries have a ban on immigration by disabled people, including Canada, our great white neighbour to the north. If you are disabled, you will be denied entry as an immigrant. Period. It isn’t possible for many disabled people to leave the country unless they are willing to settle for a small number of nations, many of which have poor social and governmental supports for disabled people.
Additionally, many disabled people in the United States are low-income. Some are caught in the benefits trap, unable to escape systemic poverty. They’ve been unable to save up money and resources for life here, let alone the huge lump sum needed to move themselves and their households abroad. Others are caught in low-income jobs, thanks to factors like disablism and prejudicial attitudes during hiring, as well as the fact that they’re less likely to have college degrees and professional certifications. It is harder to get the education you need to make money when you are disabled, and it is harder to get jobs when you do have that education. That means many also lack qualifications that could help them establish themselves overseas.
Legal immigration also requires not just a cash infusion, but a high degree of legal and bureaucratic literacy. Not everyone has access to that, especially when it comes to navigating these issues across two nations. Even if you have the money to hire an immigration attorney, and the support of people on both ends, it’s not easy. It’s really hard if you don’t have access to education, or if you have cognitive, intellectual, and developmental disabilities that can make interaction with the legal system challenging. Likewise, if you have a chronic illness or mental health condition that means you have variable levels of energy and function, the demands of processing an immigration application are considerable.
There’s another issue at stake here: Some disabled people like their communities. They are active and engaged participants in society and they like to spend time around people they enjoy. Wrenching people from their communities means missing out on sources of friendship, solidarity, and support. Refinding your community is a real challenge when you’re disabled. It’s harder to build networks and establish relationships. It can take years to find your people. Moving to a foreign country — a far-off country — can totally dismantle years of work.
Furthermore, like some nondisabled people, there are some disabled people who like America. To whom their place in the fabric of society in the US matters. These are people with a patriotic love of country, ranging from the nationalistic to the deeply affectionate and willing to challenge. People want to stay in the US because it is their cultural and emotional home, because they think of it as their country, because they would feel bereft without the surroundings of America. National identity is a real thing, even when your nation is tearing your heart apart — perhaps especially then.
Because, you see, disabled people have a vested interest in America too. And want to help build a better America, to participate in the movement working to help the country recover from this travesty. They’re committed to staying here because America is important. Because they want to look out for the welfare of those who are less able to advocate, and fight. Because they want to work in solidarity with those in groups they don’t belong to — a white wheelchair user doesn’t want to bail on Black Americans fighting for their lives, a blind Latinx immigrant thinks it’s important to stick around for trans people. As part of society, as people who engage with society, disabled people want to protect it.
Saying ‘just leave the country’ implies that disabled people don’t really belong in American society. That our place is so slight and unimportant that no one will really miss us, so if we don’t like it, we should just leave. It also suggests that we have nothing to contribute to the fight to reclaim America, that our voices and work aren’t valued or necessary, that we have nothing offer to other marginalised groups in America that need solidarity to survive.
Image: DAF, Hana Tichá, Flickr