Sunday, July 1, 2018

Marching and migration

Yesterday I went to a big pro-immigrant rally in Daley Plaza in downtown Chicago.  It was a wonderful experience, a great way for me to greet Chicago and the summer.  98 degrees and humid, but people out there without complaint.  A real Chicago mix of stoicism and social commitment.  Actually, it didn't smell as bad as you might expect 15 thousand people sweating to be.  The crowd was a lot whiter and more Asian than I expected.  This may seem like a bad thing if you buy into the caricatures of white big-city Liberals coming out to be seen and to signal their virtue.  But after thinking about it, I was proud of the white folks there.  They had come from all over the metro area, many of them probably from areas with few Latinos, but their conviction that it is wrong to tear up or imprison families seeking asylum led them to make their voice heard.  If the crowd had been mainly Latino, that would have been understandable, but I would have worried that many of us in the US aren't concerned with bad things that target other groups.  A crowd as white or whiter than the overall population of the Chicago metro area says to me that people are concerned with child detention, regardless of whether or not it affects their racial group.

In particular there was a huge turnout from Jewish groups and from Japanese-American groups.  In their banners and their discourse it was clear that dehumanization and detention are themes that touch a still-very-raw chord for these communities.  Though the overall crowd wasn't heavily black, there was great representation from a few organized groups like the Church and some unions.  Father Pfleger of St. Sabina's Church gave a brief but riveting speech.

So I felt good about the event, especially because the organizers reminded us that feeling good and marching isn't enough, that we need to keep following up with actions.  Specifically, they referred us to the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR), as well as urging us to call our Senators and Representatives to urge them not to make any deals for legislation that would in any way continue to violate human rights.  It was interesting that the ICIRR, given our location inland, doesn't deal as much with people detained at the border, but rather with immigrants, documented, asylum-seeking, or otherwise, in need of legal, economic, or social support.  In Chicago, separation of families doesn't usually happen through detention, but rather through deportation of one or multiple family members, leaving behind the others that have legal residence or citizenship.

On the train ride to the march, I happened to sit down near a woman with a banner (for the march) who was being lambasted by a stranger.  The banner woman was trying to be polite and engaging and actually have an intelligent conversation, but the other woman was just ranting on and on about how cynical and lazy and rotten Latino immigrants are.  Her diatribe ranged from anchor babies, to comparing people's children to the child bombers used by terrorist groups, to how black youth are unjustly profiled (so why care about a few crying Latino babies), to how Haitians were denied asylum in the 90s (so Latinos should be today).  She even somehow got onto respectability politics and how Bill Cosby was right about sagging pants being the undoing of the black community, and those women who accused him of rape were ugly, washed-up sluts anyway!  It was sort of an illustration of where the Hotep philosophy converges with the white far-right.  Most of her points were invalid, though she did touch on the disturbing lack of sympathy in the US public for the plight of black folks stuck in intolerable situations.  I didn't want to butt into the conversation, but I wish I could have just whispered to the lady with the banner, "Just ask her how any of these points relate to the rightness or wrongness of locking up children."  Ultimately that's what the march was about, and that's the only relevant thing to be debating at this particular juncture.  Just as the question of whether Trayvon or Michael Brown or Laquon or Philando might or might have been swell guys or assholes is totally irrelevant to whether or not it is acceptable for our cops to be shooting unarmed people, it doesn't matter whether the people seeking asylum at our border are nice or cynical or lazy or what.  The question is, "Is it acceptable for the US government to separate refugee families or to imprison them together?"

I think most people understand that there are many flaws in the current legal framework for immigration and asylum-seeking in the US.  Hell, in most countries of the world; various UN agreements and declarations to which the US is party declare that "Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution", but, as this Atlantic article points out, the richer countries of the world have never freely accepted unlimited numbers of refugees, instead financing their stay in poorer countries adjacent to the source country.  It's always seemed odd to me that the world demands that lower-income countries like Uganda and Turkey and Bangladesh be more hospitable and accepting of refugees than the wealthier countries, and now it's come to a head because refugees are bypassing these intermediate "holding countries" and going directly to places like Europe or the US.

The bottom line is that there is certainly room for debate about how best to reform the US's migration laws (though that said, for those who are concerned about an uncontrolled inflow of migrants, they should know that the number of people coming over the southern US border has gone down pretty substantively over the past decade or two, so it's not accurate to act as if the system for keeping out migrants hasn't been effective).  Between the common-sense recognition that all people are equal, so it is incoherent to limit people's movement from one country to another as they desire, and the other common-sense consideration that, coherent or not, every country has a prerogative to manage how many people enter or leave it permanently, there are many nuanced discussions and compromises that can occur.

But spitting out flawed Fox News talking points, false dichotomies, and absurd assertions based on your own anecdotal experience, won't get at any of these nuances.  As with many things, I think it would do us all a lot of good if, whenever we are on a screed about stuff that pisses us off, we try to think of and focus in on, "What exactly am I proposing?  What should be done?  How can I and others contribute to this vision?"  This is just a first step, but it would at least avoid the silly spectacle of so much of our reality-TV-style political "debate", where a conversation about practical measures to separate legitimate asylum-seekers from economic migrants can somehow veer into discussions about Bill Cosby, Sandy Hook, or Hillary's email server.  None of these lead to practical solutions; they only feed an inchoate sense of grievance and resentment.

It's okay to reduce your focus to a very specific facet of a given problem; you don't need to choose between having the grand solution to everything or simply shutting up.  You have a right to decry something that's wrong, as long as you are proposing a course of action that you feel would right the wrong, even if that course of action is as simple as saying, "Just stop doing that thing that's wrong."  The "Yeah, but"s may follow, and that's fair, but not having an answer to every follow-on question doesn't take away your right to point out what's wrong and propose what would be better.

The second step, if you've gotten as far as thinking about a specific, real problem (no, we're not going to talk about the war on Christmas, or how Obama is trying to take away our guns, because those things don't exist) and a specific, real solution you are proposing, is to analyze whether your solution would actually address the problem, without violating any other principles we hold dear.  So that means that you can't propose more prayer as a way of fixing gun violence or racism, because that doesn't actually address the problem, which is the first condition for a solution to be viable.  As for the second condition, you can't propose preemptive incarceration for bad people or something like that, since (aside from the difficulty in distinguishing bad people from good), this would violate a number of principles of the US Constitution, international law, and common human decency and morality.

Let's see how this pans out by analyzing my own thinking around the current migration debate.  The problem I am identifying is that the US government, as of some two-plus months ago, declared out of the blue that it would be separating children from their asylum-seeking parents.  After public outcry, President Trump signed an executive order that would replace separation of families with joint, indefinite incarceration of families with their children.  This is a problem, because in both cases you are denying the right to seek asylum (which is guaranteed in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed by the US).  More viscerally as relates specifically to children, you are either denying them their families or denying them their freedom, neither of which is acceptable (and both of which, incidentally, also violate the Universal Declaration).  My proposed solution is that you do away with both of these policies.  This would mean either reverting to the pre-April 2018 status quo of leaving families in freedom as their asylum claims are processed, or eventually thinking of a better way to handle these claims.  But whatever the long-term solution to the larger, more holistic question, which is certainly a valid one, there is a simple, short answer to how to deal with any new policy that violates basic principles of human rights, especially for children.  Get rid of it.

"So you're saying that everything was fine before Trump and Sessions embarked on these new policies?"  No, but even the flawed status quo was much better than the new, post-April situation.

But what about people who try to game the system, for example by seeking asylum when they are really just economic migrants?  What about migrants who want to have their baby in the US so they can get social welfare benefits?  What about that Lebanese guy who runs a liquor store in my neighborhood that sells junk food and addictive substances?  What about my Latino coworkers who don't like to talk to me?

My short answer is that I don't know the answer to any of these questions, and I don't need to have an answer to the larger question of how best to reform a system in order for me to be able to say that something is wrong and needs to be undone.  None of the above questions have to do with the rightness (or wrongness, in this case), of locking up children or separating them from their families.  Some of the points in the prior paragraph are valid (actually, just the first question; the rest are either bogeymen or personal grudges not germane to a migration policy debate), and there are many other questions and issues that have arisen or will arise in any serious debate about how, if at all, we should reform the US migration system.  At the march on Saturday, I saw signs and heard many people proposing a wide array of larger solutions to the shortcomings of the system, everything from abolishing ICE (which seems radical until you consider that ICE is only a 21st-century reordering of immigration enforcement), to impeaching Mr. Trump, to stronger labor unions, to naming Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, to abolishing the bail-bond system, to improving living conditions in origin countries of asylum-seekers.  I may sympathize more or less with any given one of these or other proposed solutions, and there is a time for honest debate about them on their merits.  But everyone at the march, and I would hope a majority of the US population, would agree that it is illegal and inhumane to punish asylum seekers and abuse their children. 

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