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Cruel Ecologies Against the Common Good

Photo credit: National Education Association


A number of contributors to this September blog series have explored the idea of ‘place’ and relationality. Ann Fisher-Wirth, for example, has posted on place and environmental life writing, Margaret Randall recounted a Colorado road trip, and yesterday, Maria Hamilton Abegunde discussed her experiences of living in Indiana and the Dobbs Report. I feel similarly inspired to write on ‘place’ albeit one informed by the recent events on Martha’s Vineyard. Like many others, I watched in horror as national news media reported on the humanitarian crisis, where approximately fifty migrants—mostly Venezuelan—were transported to the Massachusetts’s island under false pretences. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis claimed credit for this callous political stunt that was no doubt meant to troll progressives and strengthen the governor’s reputation for being ‘presidentially tough’ on illegal immigration. 


What makes this crisis so egregious is its absolute cruelty. In her televised press conference, immigration lawyer Rachel Self noted that the migrants had been fed a “sadistic lie.” Promised jobs and housing, the group had agreed to fly to Massachusetts but were unaware that they were bound for Martha’s Vineyard. Moreover their consent was apparently secured through  official assurances that preyed upon their hopes for a protected life under asylum. While anti-immigration rhetoric places impossible demands for migrants to enter the US “the proper way”—codewords for the deeply complicated immigration process—for precarious populations fleeing religious, racial, ethnic, and sexual persecution, gender-based violence, unstable political regimes, and/or anthropogenic climate change, the illusionary “proper way” with its constructed borders and highly policed entry points are simply irrelevant. Keep in mind that the right to seek asylum is recognised by International and US federal law. As the Universal Declaration of Human Rights clearly states: “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”


I feel that I have to hammer this last point, especially as climate change forces even vulnerable domestic populations to abandon their homes. (The recent floods in Kentucky are a prime example.) I’m often called to explain to both strangers and friends, who are interested in my own journey to permanent residency that there is no such thing as a “proper” way to immigrate. There are no lines for migrants to join, no single path to citizenship. That borders are not natural but racialized and/or identity constructs maintained by judicial, political, and economic systems. That wealth, nationality, and health privileges (or lack thereof) shape responses to the migrant body. During the summer, I painstakingly described to a sceptical retailer, whose shop I was visiting, just how difficult the process to achieve residency was. I explained how my probable success would likely be due to a number of privileged factors, including support from my employer, my whiteness, and national origins. She listened keenly, uttering the occasional “wow” and “I did not know that.” Most of all, she seemed to recognise the affordances of her citizenship. And at the end of our discussion, I thought we had shared an understanding. But as we exchanged departing pleasantries she suddenly smiled. 


“Thank you,” she said, “for doing it the proper way.”


Despite the immediacy of this crisis, I already feel the Martha’s Vineyard story slipping from collective memory. The Massachusetts’s island was a calculated choice that renders legible a cruel ecology. In brief, cruel ecologies are environments that have been mobilised—and I use this term deliberately—to orchestrate harm on an unsuspecting individual or a community. These ecologies are not in themselves toxic or contaminated. There is nothing intrinsically dangerous about them. Instead, these environments have been politicized in such an amplified manner that they concretise dangerous ideologies, belief systems, and/or identities invested in sustaining the systems and structures of White Supremacy. In the process of producing ideological violence, cruel ecologies enact psychic contamination on the people who live on or pass through them. 


In this instance Martha’s Vineyard crystallises a cruel ecology meant to traumatise both the migrants and local residents. The decision to send the migrants there, as I suggested, was a deliberate choice. The island is predominately white with a median household income of $77,370, although the demographics fluctuate during the summer months, and importantly, it has a reputation for leaning liberal. Regardless how accurate this reputation is, on September 14, 2022, Martha’s Vineyard was mobilised to contrast a particular kind of anti-immigration ideology that was intended to produce chaos amongst the local residents. Obviously, the intended effect failed, but the use of the island in this manner served to underscore the tensions between ideas of “home” and “displacement” and mark critical distinctions in public consciousness between those who belong to the nation-state and those who are excluded.  


Moreover, the crisis recalls how easily islands themselves have been historically deployed—and again I used this term deliberately—to quarantine migrant populations. (Ellis Island, Swinburn Island, and Angel Island here come to mind.)  Arguably, it was not only the migrants who were treated as outsiders on the island but also the local community—with their left-leaning politics—who sprung to action to support them. Cruel ecologies—like those created through anti-immigration rhetoric—reject both the common good and community care by enforcing the binaries between “us” and “them”, inside and outside, the “proper” and  the “illegal.” The way to respond to these callous narratives, and the related productions of cruel ecologies, I believe, is not only to utterly reject them but to imagine creatively and generously the “improper ecologies of care.” By improper, I mean the wild and fertile imaginaries that envision empathy as foundational to building and sustaining diverse communities, where care and mutual aid are basic human practices. I know this work will be intergenerational. But for now, supporting organisations who already assist underserved populations, such as RAICES, is a small practical step that individuals can do. 


For myself, I wish I had responded to the retailer in the moment of her utterance. I felt a sense of exhausted hopelessness, and in my cowardice, I had said nothing. It’s one of those moments that I have replayed in my mind since the summer, but I’m also conscious that it’s not always possible to reach the kind of understanding that I had hoped for. Perhaps that’s okay; but generally it’s not enough to settle on the easy resolution. If I could return to that moment, I’m not sure what I would have said. I might have simply replied: 


“Be improper.”




1Amy Simonson, “DeSantis claims credit for sending 2 planes carrying migrants to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts,” CNN, September 15, 2022,

2Bianca Padró Ocasio, ‘Sadistic lie.’ Venezuelans flown to Martha’s Vineyard search for a way off the island,” Miami Herald, September 16, 2022.

3See The Universal Declaration of Human Rights,

4From ACS 2020.