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What Appears New is Old - Devaluation is Universal

Updated: Apr 30

Thursday, April 11th, 2024

By: Tom Malcomson


In early December, 2023 the governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, sent 120 illegal immigrants on a plane from Texas to Chicago. Governor Abbot has so far sent at least 50,000 such immigrants to the immigrant sanctuary states of California, Massachusetts, Illinois and New York, and Washington D.C. Illegal immigration is a BIG political issue in the United States and pushing people into so-called sanctuary states, has only fueled the heated rhetoric and emotional response to the issue.


As the southern states faced an increased influx of people illegally entering the United States to build a better life, it seemed like an innovative and shrewd tactic, to put them on buses, or planes and drop them off in the other areas of the country, at times unannounced. These areas were often ill-prepared for these arrivals.


Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516) painted The

Pilgrimage of Life Triptych in 1491 as part of

a church altar and it is now in the Louvre.


Dr. Wolfensberger studied earlier incidences of this tactic, finding it to be that of casting people into negative roles, rejecting them and distancing them.  Sending devalued people away is not new, but instead one of the universal responses to devalued people that Wolfensberger identified. In the Middle Ages cities and towns sent people away who were unable to care for themselves due to physical or mental disability, and those who too often disrupted the social peace. The cities and towns paid sailors to take them aboard their ships and disembark them somewhere else. These ships became known as “ships of fools.” The image of the ship of fools has been portrayed by writers, artists and filmmakers.  Another approach was to have merchants travelling between towns to carry the undesired people along with them and abandon them in the middle ground between urban areas, in the wasteland wilderness. These were dubbed “caravans of fools.”


Most of those sent away were not born in the urban centre that rejected them. Those who were born there and were severely functionally and/or physically impaired in some way and did not have family to tend to their needs, usually received care. But, they were often kept in buildings close to the city gate, from which placement on a ship or in a caravan, if thought necessary, would be easy.


Wolfensberger saw the parallel between the Middle Ages practice and current (though slightly different) forms, as unwanted people being rejected, cast in negative roles and distanced. Examples of more contemporary approaches include floating barges used to house prisoners next to Riker’s Island, off New York City, and in the Netherlands.  Britain later used one of these same barges to house refugee seekers, near Poole, England. In 1980, Cuba sent a flotilla of vessels to Florida with people discharged from its prisons and asylums and others it no longer wanted.


In the 1950s California would send special trains east to New York with non-residents discharged from California’s mental hospitals. The former patients were dropped off in their home states as the train passed through. Wolfensberger named them “Trains of Fools.” New York City did the same, only sending the trains westward.


There is a long history of using ships, buses, trains and planes  to deliver devalued people to somewhere else. This is an act of rejection, subjecting the individuals to physical distantiation. The people crossing into the US illegally have typically experienced great hardship already, which is compounded when they are so called ‘moved along’ to places not prepared for them. We have seen on the news that sending people to places that are ill-prepared to respond to their needs subjects them to further impoverishment and possible  harm.


The illegal immigrants have been imaged as a burden and a menace, a threat to social order and economic stability in the states where they have crossed into the United States. As in the Middle Ages three of these realms (Texas, Arizona and Florida) have decided to move them along to be someone else’s issue. Though the technology is new, the tactic is an old one, that inflicts further wounds on the devalued person.


I don’t know how the American government and society at large can respond helpfully to the people entering their country illegally. That is for others to figure out. However, as indicated by the theory of Social Role Valorization, making the devaluation conscious and describing it accurately is an important step.


To learn more about social role valorization, register for one of our events today.

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