Monday, March 27, 2017

ICE--a Latter Day Gestapo?

Under the previous administration ICE (the immigration and customs enforcement agency of the US government) arrested undocumented immigrants if they committed serious crimes. Now ICE will arrest undocumented immigrants even if they have not committed any crimes. This expanded use of government enforcement powers has produced a great deal of criticism and protest.
This opposition to government enforcement practices is supported by stories like that of Roberto Beristain which was recently in the news. In 1998 Roberto came from Mexico to visit his aunt and decided to remain in the US, outstaying his visa and becoming an undocumented immigrant. Roberto moved to South Bend, Indiana where he married and had several children and recently bought a restaurant which he had been managing for a number of years. Roberto became a member in good standing of the local business community. He was a good citizen; he was well-liked. He did not have as much as a traffic ticket against him.
Now ICE has detained him. He is in line to be deported back to Mexico. He has not faced a court. He has not been able to defend himself. Many criminal cases are settled not by the defendant going to trial but through negotiations between the defendant's lawyers and the prosecuting attorneys. Roberto has not had an opportunity to negotiate any settlement of his case. He has not been able to present to a judge his situation as a husband and father to American citizens, as a businessman who employs 20 other Americans, as a respected member of his American community.
It is difficult to resist comparisons between ICE and the secret police in authoritarian countries which arrests people for no other reason than that the government does not want them to be free and able to live ordinary lives. What ICE does to people from Mexico or Central or South America looks a great deal like what the Russian government or the government in Egypt and in many other authoritarian countries does to political protesters. If they get a chance in court at all, they are liable to get a rigged mass trial which has but the thinnest veneer of legality.
But, of course, Roberto was undocumented. In outstaying his visa in 1998 he had broken the law. ICE is enforcing a real law; it is not arresting unpopular persons under the pretext that they are have been broken the law. On the other hand, it is difficult to forget the President's racist comments about Mexicans a few months ago, characterizing all of them as drug dealers, murderers and rapists. One cannot resist the thought that the change between the practice of the previous administration and the present one is a response to the President's racist generalizations about Mexicans. Roberto, after all, came from Mexico.
There are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands cases like Roberto's. (His case attracted attention because his wife admitted to having voted for Donald Trump – a choice she now regrets bitterly.)
In addition there are the cases of somewhere between 500,000 and 700,000 undocumented farmworkers whose employers are now extremely anxious. If their workers are arrested by ICE their farm will have to shut down because there is a shortage of farmworkers--American or immigrant farmworkers with visas. If these farms shut down other economic consequences will ensue. The now bankrupt farmers will spend less money than before. That will have an impact on local economies and will either result in serious poverty for some people or a rise in the cost of social services for people without jobs. The products of these farms will no longer be offered in the marketplace and that may raise the cost of milk or fruit or other farm products. It is not in anyone's interest to arrest undocumented farmworkers.
The new practices of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement people are in some faint sense legal. Undocumented immigrants are doing something the law does not permit. But enforcing immigration statutes as harshly as they are being pushed today results in breaking up American families, depriving American children of their father or mother. It proves that being a good citizen and a well-liked member of a local community, is not valued by our government. In the past, ICE made allowances for that. Undocumented immigrants like Roberto, who led exemplary lives, checked in with ICE once a year and were allowed to continue living as before if they had not run into legal troubles. But this year, when Roberto reported to ICE, expecting the visit to be a mere formality, ICE detained him instead. He has not seen his wife and children since. ICE will no longer make any allowances for his positive contributions to his adopted country. Nor will it make any allowances for undocumented farmworkers who are performing an essential economic service such as doing farm work for which no other employees are available.
Deporting undocumented Mexicans (or Jamaicans) is more important to our government than rewarding good citizenship and doing essential work. It is difficult not to see the actual application of immigration law as no more than an exercise of blind racial prejudice.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Fighting back-peacefully

These are hard times; they are angry times. Different groups feel done to, neglected and under fire from other groups. Our leaders are boastful, indifferent to truth. The terrain of politics has become a vast battlefield where everyone wants to win without caring much about how they win.
At this moment, a story of people acting as human beings rather than like robots in a shooter video-game comes to us as a reminder of our better selves.
In a quiet, middle-class and practically all white town, west of Boston, between Interstate 495 and 128, a neighborhood was disturbed when one of the houses began to fly a Confederate flag. That flag has become a symbol of white racism, representing the values of the antebellum South. The neighbors were appalled.
When they first started noticing the flag, they began talking to each other. They finally decided to write a letter to the home owner, explaining to him what the Confederate flag meant to them and wondering whether they could sit down and talk.
They received no reply. A few weeks after sending the letter, on a Sunday afternoon, a local minister and a neighbor, who was a native of the South, knocked on the door of the house with the flag. They expected to be yelled at, to be insulted and perhaps threatened with violence. The person who opened the door spoke quietly and said he did not want to talk about the flag.
One of the visitors saw a Red Sox flag and, being herself an ardent Red Sox fan, they started talking baseball. They talked some about the Confederate flag and also of all sorts of other things, that neighbors might talk about on a sunny Fall afternoon. He flew the flag, the man said, to honor his mother who was born down South and recently moved away to Florida. I suppose he missed her.
No agreement was reached and after a while the visitors left.
A few weeks later the flag disappeared and has not been flown again since last Fall.
The article in the Boston Globe that told this story also recounted similar events in a neighboring town where a calm, if not anxious, neighbor talked to a home owner flying a Confederate flag and in that house too the flag disappeared after a short interval.
The Confederate flag is a symbol of race hatred. It is often flown by persons animated by anger and sharp hostility. Protests against the flag are also often resentful. Before long everyone is shouting, insulting the other and threatening them with harm. Such confrontations are, obviously, useless if not worse. They further foreclose the possibility of calmly discussing disagreements in order to ascertain what the disagreement, in any given case, is and how serious it is. The difference becomes truly profound as soon as everybody starts shouting.
Stories like the two above are not unheard of. But they are sufficiently rare for us to notice them and to want to tell them to our friends.
These stories are also often thought to show that if only we could stop being angry at each other, and could talk to each other calmly and in the spirit of good neighbors, we could avoid most of the anger and shouting and resentment and name-calling and false accusations that masquerade as political discourse these days.
But that is unfortunately not true. The two neighbors who knocked on the door of the house with the Confederate flag, met a very quiet, very private man who did not particularly want to talk to them until the topic of baseball came up. These two brave neighbors were fortunate. They could've encountered a brutal, half drunk man who would have roundly abused them and threatened them with the police for standing on his front porch uninvited. Had that been their neighbor, their calm demeanor would only have inflamed his passion.
Being open-minded and open to good relations between neighbors is not always the best strategy for resolving political or other disagreements. Where one party is bitter and looking for someone to vent their anger on, the goodwill of the other party may not only be wasted but also inappropriate. Could Donald Trump, Steve Bannon or Secretary Sessions be induced to change their policies, or their behaviors by persons who spoke to them quietly and with good nature? Some people feel so embattled that only firm resistance can force them to alter their ways.
A neighbor who flies the Confederate flag knowing full well the pain it will cause among the surrounding homes and the families who live in them, should be spoken to calmly to see whether he is willing to hear his neighbors and to talk with them. But if he responds with anger and insult, with self-pity, imagining himself to be victimized by his "politically correct" neighbors, must we not state clearly that he is in the wrong and will not be tolerated?
Our stories of calm neighborliness, of giving neighbors who offend us the benefit of the doubt, end up confronting us with a difficult dilemma. When is it best to speak quietly, communicating a willingness to accept the others in spite of their behavior? When do we need to unambiguously identify behavior that is nothing but destructive and hateful and therefore unacceptable, and make clear that it will lead to exclusion from our society?
When will we signal our willingness to go to great lengths to keep the peace and when will we take the others’ behavior as a declaration of war which we are willing to join?
This dilemma will confront us again and again in the months and years to come. A great deal depends on us making the correct choice every time we face this conflict.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Teaching the Hungry to Fish

Many good people in America are willing to share what they have with others who are less fortunate than they. A very large number of nonprofits work to make life easier for persons in Africa and Asia as well as in South America. Others are trying to help out undocumented immigrants in the US whose persecution is even more violent today than under the previous president. There are many projects to save children—often children of color or Native American-- that are at risk of ending up as addicts or as prisoners.
The many millions of people who support these different nonprofits, often challenging and ingenious projects, deserve great praise for their dedication to the well-being of everyone on this globe.
It is a favorite cliché among members and supporters of nonprofits that it is better to teach people how to fish than to give them fish to eat. The handy sayings suggests that rather than giving suffering people direct support, we should enable them to improve their own situation by overcoming the causes of their suffering. But they must know them if they are to remove the causes of their suffering,. (They often do.) And so must we if we are going to help them.
While talk about teaching people how to fish is popular, few people who are generous in their support of people suffering around the globe are interested in the causes of that suffering. The reason for that is clear. The United States, as the most powerful country in the world, is involved in the condition of almost all people in the world and frequently contributes to their misery.
Recent newspaper stories report hundreds of Libyans drowning in their panicked flight from their country. A few years ago they were ruled by a bloodthirsty dictator. We decided to unseat him with a harsh bombing campaign. Now they have several governments; parts of the country are controlled but not really governed by militias. The standard of living is deplorable. The number of civilians killed is rising. The flights and the drownings are in part the result of our intervening in their country. The United States is complicit in the misery of Libya.
The same is true in Syria where we have meddled in situations we did not understand. We have supported different oppositional groups, not having learned our lesson in Libya that overthrowing a bloodthirsty dictator rarely improves the lives of the people. We have contributed to an unbelievably destructive Civil War and to the hundreds of thousands of refugees all over Europe. We had taken in about 10,000 of those by the time Pres. Trump closed our borders to all of them. He does not understand about complicity or taking responsibility.
Our government has always believed that one of its major foreign policy objectives should be to ease the entry of American corporations into foreign countries. For instance through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) we have opened Mexico to importation of American corn, subsidized by the US government, and produced on huge farms more cheaply than Mexican farmers could produce their corn. We put small Mexican farmers out of business and they moved to the city where life was really harsh. They came to the US, undocumented, to earn some money for their families.
Our government accuses them of breaking our immigration laws and sends them back. They don’t ask why these immigrants are trying to find their way through the hot desert, leaving their families behind. Why would anybody do that?
Washington has always supported big business, right-wing interests and authoritarian governments in Latin America. For the common people there was no hope and so they joined the long, hard and dangerous road to North America only to find as did many previous generations of immigrants that our streets are not paved with gold. (They only have a lot of potholes.)
Many children in communities of color exist under very difficult conditions. We tend to blame the black family structure or other mythologies. We – white people – do not look at ourselves in the mirror and see the people who keep perpetuating racial injustice and oppression and who are therefore complicit in the hard lives of many children. In similar ways we—white people-- are responsible for the problems of children in Native American families.
We cannot remove the causes of misery around the world and in our own cities and rural areas without taking responsibility for the damage we do to people in many different places and working hard to end our destructive policies. Giving aid, being generous in giving fish to hungry people is not good enough. We need to be aware of the damage we have done for centuries, are still doing and stop doing it.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

 A Moment of Truth for America

Racially motivated attacks have increased significantly since Donald Trump became a serious contender for the presidency and was then elected and installed as our 45th president. He has widely been blamed for this increase in racial attacks. There is no question that he bears some responsibility for encouraging white supremacist racism, blatant anti-Semitism, attacks on Muslims and recently on immigrants from India. By appointing arch racists like Jeff Sessions and Steve Bannon to important policy making positions in his government, Trump has let it be known that he is not troubled by white racism. Similarly other forms of divisiveness have recently become normal and acceptable.
But, of course, the blame does not rest only with him. We may blame Trump for creating a climate in which it is acceptable to be very openly racist or anti-Semitic. It is now allowed to express racist emotions, attitudes and beliefs which before one needed to hide. Trump is in part to blame for that change. We may not hold him responsible, however, for the emotions, attitudes, and beliefs that are being expressed so openly now.
Trump is not to blame for this huge, until now underground, reservoir of racial hatred, of drawing passionate lines between "them" and "us." Many people have thought that the turmoil of the 1960s was resolved when Congress passed the Civil Rights and the Voting Rights Acts. The official story has since been that we have taken major steps to overcome our history of racial divides. While the struggle against racism and sexism has not been completed, there is progress being made every day and things are getting better as we speak.
This cheery story, we can now see, was mere self deception and ever since white people finally learned that young black men are ready targets for police shootings, that optimistic story has lost persuasiveness. The Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s made certain racial actions illegal but it did not change the mindset of the people who thought that their white skin made them superior and allowed them to oppress persons of colour by any means necessary, including lynchings.
We need to remember that racial differences, particularly in the form of slavery, have been an unmet challenge of our American Republic from its inception. When they wrote the Constitution, the Founders disagreed sharply about slavery. They never resolved the issue.
The outcome of the Civil War was to force the South to give up its slave way of life. But very soon whites in the South and North came to various understandings which always meant increased suffering for the former slaves. Slavery was replaced by the Jim Crow system. The passage of the civil war amendments to the Constitution put an end to slavery but it did not put an end to the anti-black racism of many Americans both in the South and the North. To give just one example: the Social Security legislation that was passed during the New Deal was made acceptable to Southern senators by excluding agricultural and domestic workers – occupations largely staffed by African-Americans. No social security for them. The secret agreement remained that it was perfectly alright to exploit African Americans.
But it is futile to believe that you can force people not to be prejudiced, not to feel victimized, or under attack. Once it becomes illegal to be racist in one particular form, white supremacy and anti-Semitism and all its other variants simply take less obvious forms. The "Whites Only” signs are taken down but deeply ingrained attitudes change little.
America has never been willing to take on the divides between white and black, between native born and immigrant. Neither has it been willing to confront other basic divisions such as between classes, between professional elites and the common people. The "One Nation Indivisible" slogan we make our children repeat every morning they are in school only serves to conceal our unwillingness to confront boldly the many divisions that exist in our nation.
It is clearly important to address the more egregious manifestations of pervasive racism – discrimination in the job market, redlining in real estate, and the continued war on young black men by various police forces. But these ways of forcing various groups not to act out their racist view of the world, does not change those views. It only forces a different expression of those views.
I wrote about this problem in a recent blog. There is no question that overcoming these divisions is increasingly difficult, if not impossible. Little is to be gained by having Whites and Blacks discuss their different views of the world. But it would be important for opposing groups to find common projects. We may not be able to agree on fundamental positions. But we could learn to work together and thereby create unity in action where unity in beliefs is unattainable.
We we face two tasks, not only one. We need to resist all injustices perpetrated by private individuals and the government. But we must also be aware that victories in those efforts only displace racist attitudes. We must, therefore, also try to create a climate where there is more willingness to cooperate, more willingness to seek projects that unify and allow the different fragments of our nation, if not to agree and unify around beliefs, at least to try to work together for the common good.
One method that has a venerable history is for white people to take the side of African-Americans, to support them in what ever way they believe they need to be supported. This was the practice – not always perfect – of the abolitionists, it was the practice of the young men and women who went into the South in 1963 and 1964 to show solidarity with African-American struggles for equality. It is the goal today of groups like SURJ (“Show up for Racial Justice”) to support movements like "Black Lives Matter."
Another way is to support Muslims and immigrants and to make sure that they are safe. Speak out quietly and calmly where persons are openly racist. Support all women in their struggle for equality. Support the victims of random arrests by ICE. ( US Immigration and Customs Enforcement).
There are ways of working towards unity in America. Making shows of disunity illegal is important but will not, by itself, create unity.