Asylum as a Human Right

In the past year the Trump administration has been applying increasingly restrictive policies to block asylum seekers from pursuing their claims in the U.S.  The most recent measure, now temporarily barred by a federal judge’s injunction, would have required migrants traveling through another country such as Mexico to show proof that they had applied for, and were denied, asylum in that country.  That policy would most likely have barred almost all migrants from Central America, as well as many Africans, Haitians, and Cubans traveling through Mexico.   This policy comes on top of other restrictive measures, including a practice called “metering,” which limits the number of asylum applications processed each day, as well as “Remain in Mexico,” which requires asylum seekers to stay in Mexico until the day of their hearing.

The results of these policies have forced thousands of people to languish in shelters and camps in Mexico, while thousands who have managed to cross the border are detained in overcrowded, squalid facilities that were cited in a recent report by the Department of Homeland Security’s own Office of Inspector General.  News about these conditions, along with the family separations dominating headlines last year, have brought asylum, the right to safe haven from persecution, to public consciousness in a way that it never has been before.

Yet the importance of asylum to the migration crisis facing our country has not been fully understood for a variety of reasons, including Donald Trump’s constant harping on his political opponents’ advocacy of “open borders.”  This claim, of course, is a canard.  U.S. borders have not been “open” in any meaningful sense for 100 years, nor is it likely that candidates for Trump’s job would advocate such a change, any more than they would advocate eliminating TSA screenings or customs inspections at U.S. airports.

Yet the phrase “open borders” still resonates for many people who fear the influx of thousands of people into the country.  To a large extent, Julian Castro and other Democratic presidential candidates have sought to address these fears by calling for a decriminalization of illegal entry and making such an entry a civil, rather than a criminal, violation.

But this position fails to address the critical significance of asylum itself as the underlying issue in the debates over immigration.  On a practical level, as a number of immigration experts have pointed out, the closing off of access to asylum processing only magnifies people’s motivation to enter the U.S. illegally, increasing the the number of illegal crossings and putting thousands of adults and children at risk of serious injury and death.  As many observers have reported, individuals are willing to take these risks because the alternatives available to them and their children in their home countries – fates involving destitution, violence, or death – have left them little choice.

This is why a human rights perspective, centered on asylum as articulated in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in U.S. federal law, is critical to any discussions of the border and to immigration in general.  Human rights are grounded in a recognition of human dignity – the intrinsic worth of every human being – no matter what his or her background or identity may be.  This recognition, allied closely to empathy and compassion, helps undergird a responsibility to protect the rights of others, not just one’s own.  From a human rights perspective, democracy itself is sustained by understanding our interdependence, our mutual ties to one another:  ties that cross borders and boundaries.

And contrary to Trump’s claims, the U.S. needs immigrants; demographers and economists have pointed to a falling birth rate and to the aging of our population, trends that threaten economic growth and the vitality of our cities and rural areas.   Our economy and our communities need workers, and the communities that have welcomed immigrants have tended to thrive economically.

This is one reason why, if asylum is to be fully recognized along with the other rights we value as Americans, we need to disentangle the asylum process from the institutions and political culture of mass incarceration.  Today people undergo harrowing journeys and present themselves at our border, only to find themselves degraded and dehumanized in prison conditions.  We need to abolish detention altogether and substitute for it community-based, alternative-to-detention programs that are humane and cost-effective.

Making this change will involve many obstacles, but a number of Democratic presidential candidates have made proposals, including the proposal to end for-profit detention facilities, that point in the right direction.  These moves constitute a meaningful start.  But considering the magnitude and urgency of human suffering involved, the larger task ahead will be to foster a rights awareness that will lead to genuine, substantive change in the foreseeable future.

This article was originally published by PeaceVoice.Info.

Listening for Immigration at the Democratic Presidential Debates

If you’ve been repelled by the family separations and other immigration-related cruelties perpetrated by the Trump administration, and if you plan to watch either or both of the upcoming Democratic presidential debates, please listen carefully – not just to what the candidates are saying, but how they’re saying it:  how they frame the issues.  Will they present immigration as a discrete set of concerns (“fixing our broken immigration system”), or will they describe it in relation to broader historical struggles, distinctly American struggles, for human rights?  It’s possible that if any candidates are willing to articulate a broader story, they may find themselves in a stronger position against Trump – and, possibly, on a stronger footing for leading the nation.

Consider, for example, the issue of voting rights and the current conflict over the 2020 census.  For some time, the Trump administration has been trying to add a citizenship question to the census, and recently it was revealed that a Republican strategist, Thomas B. Hofeller, played a significant role in urging this change as a way of giving a “structural electoral advantage” to Republicans and “non-Hispanic whites.”  The Census Bureau’s own experts estimated that up to 6.5 million people, representing households that included noncitizens, would not respond to a census questionnaire that included a question about citizenship.  The result would be significant shifts in electoral representation.

This attempt to skew representation, based on the precarious status of millions of undocumented people in the U.S., is not unconnected to a larger effort to suppress votes, particularly of people of color.  One can look, for example, to the 2013 Supreme Court ruling that states with histories of discriminatory practices would no longer need federal clearance to make changes in voting policies.  Six years later, legal battles continue over Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial election, battles in which allies of defeated Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams cite many practices (voter purges, precinct closures, absentee ballot cancellations) that they claim blocked many African-Americans from voting.  The battle over the census is certainly an immigration battle, but as an electorally related issue, it is not a stand-alone concern.

Or consider the issues of racism and xenophobia.  Though many opponents of Trump’s immigration policies portray the U.S. as “a nation of immigrants,” such portrayals often don’t go very far in accounting for the racism and prejudice that have riven American immigration history since the nation’s founding.  Nor do they acknowledge the work of countless activists who struggled in courts, in print, and in other venues to resist, for example, the racism of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, or the racially based immigration quotas of the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, quotas not overturned until the mid-1960’s.  If candidates are unwilling to acknowledge this history, they’ll be less able to describe the broader pattern of Trump’s statements and actions.  This is a president who, in 2017, described white nationalist protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia as including “some very fine people.”  This is the same individual who declared his candidacy in 2015 by railing against Mexico for sending us “rapists,” drugs, and crime.  The cruel effects of the administration’s policies (deaths in detention, family separation, children in cages) flow from an inexorable, dehumanizing logic of white supremacy.

This is why a bigger picture is needed, and this is why candidates who seek to take on Trump must bear witness both to the dark sides of American immigration history and to ongoing struggles for justice and human dignity.  They must be willing to speak out about the false, invidious binary separating “documented” from “undocumented” human beings – and share stories reminding us that yesterday’s stranger is today’s neighbor and friend.  The young Eritrean woman whom I first met last year in California’s Adelanto ICE Detention Facility, dressed in prison fatigues and incarcerated for no other reason than her quest for asylum, is now out and a family friend – and a recent guest at my daughter’s wedding.

At the debates, the candidates will present their proposals, and I hope that at least some will make the case for abolishing the barbaric system of detention and shifting resources to the humanitarian support of people seeking safety and livelihood.  But as long as any candidate clings to a fragmented perspective and to the worn-out mantra of “fixing our broken immigration system,” he or she will miss a critical opportunity.  It is the opportunity to educate:  to inspire voters to rise to a new understanding of how the American experiment can involve a continuous reinvention and redefinition of human rights and democracy.  And it is an opportunity that the coming election season presents to us all.

This article was originally published by Counterpunch.

Getting it Right on Immigration

As the 2020 presidential campaign intensifies in the coming weeks and months, we’ll see candidates and pundits airing a wide variety of proposals on immigration policy.  We’ll get recommendations on border security, asylum, detention, the status of the Dreamers, the status of the 11 million people living in the U.S. without documentation, and the role of ICE, to name just a few issues.  But will the recommendations be grounded in reality?  Will candidates and commentators represent what’s truly going on?

Author and columnist Thomas L. Friedman’s recent foray into border security issues (“Trump is Wasting Our Border Crisis,” April 23) is worth considering in light of these questions.  Describing himself as “pro-immigration,” Friedman strongly criticizes Donald Trump’s immigration policies, and he makes some suggestions that are reasonable on face value.  But because he fails to present a broader vision of the real issues at stake – issues bearing on the future of our democracy – he ultimately subverts his own argument.  The failure is significant because the kind of argument Friedman offers is one that many people will consider realistic and sensible.

In early April, Friedman visited the San Ysidro Port of Entry at California’s border with Tijuana, Mexico.  Accompanied by Border Patrol agents, he gained a first-hand look at the enormous pressures being placed on our southern border, where 190,000 “family units” were apprehended since this past October, up from 40,000 a year ago.  (A family unit, in the government’s lexicon, consists of a parent or guardian accompanying a child under 18).

As a result of his border experience, Friedman came away “more certain than ever that we have a real immigration crisis and the solution is a “high wall with a big gate – but a smart gate.”  In making this statement, he essentially argued that we should accept immigrants “at a rate at which they can be properly absorbed into our society,” and that we should favor visa seekers who bring skills, knowledge, and talents that benefit the nation.  Being firm and selective in this way, Friedman maintained, will steer us away from the “unstrategic, far-too random, chaotic immigration ‘system’ we have now.”

Friedman argues for foreign aid that will help stabilize imperiled nations, giving greater assurance of safety and livelihood to tens of thousands of people who’d otherwise be motivated to migrate.  And, he says, we should “expand our immigration court system to quickly welcome those who deserve asylum and repatriate those who don’t.”  Above all, he wishes to convey a pro-immigration position that affirms the valuable role that immigration has played, and continues to play, in strengthening the nation.

Certainly a number of Friedman’s ideas are sound, e.g. maintaining aid to imperiled nations like Honduras and Guatemala, and expanding the immigration court system; such ideas should be part of any comprehensive immigration policy.  But by dealing with the border in isolation from other immigration issues, Friedman fails to recognize the big picture:  that Trump’s immigration policies represent a concerted assault on democracy.  The administration’s promotion of a citizenship question on the 2020 census, for example, is expected by the Census Bureau’s own experts to exert a chilling effect on families and households that include a noncitizen.  The Bureau’s experts estimate that about 5.8 percent of these households, representing approximately 6.5 million people, would not respond to a questionnaire that included a question about citizenship.   Such a change would dramatically impact the distribution of power in Congress, shifting representation away from areas with significant immigrant populations and effectively disenfranchising voters and non-voters alike.

This drive to disenfranchise, to isolate and marginalize, is not new for Trump or his allies.  There was, of course, the race-baiting that punctuated his presidential campaign and still colors his pronouncements and actions as president.    There are also the executive orders that appeared early in his presidency, orders that made anyone without documents, not just convicted criminals, subject to raids, detention, and deportation.

The pattern has been clear:  criminalize the migrant.  Normalize a demonic image of migrant men and women, and exclude them from the benefits of American society.  Poison the political atmosphere so as to render exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, pathways to citizenship for millions of people, none of them criminals.

If a good part of democracy means having a place at the table, having a significant say in the co-creation of our collective destiny, then Trump’s game is not only to expel the Other from the table but to throw him or her out of the room.  Only the elites and their base are to remain.

By presenting the issues without reference to other key pieces of immigration policy, Friedman fails to identify the broader threats that Trump’s policies pose to our democracy. In the weeks and months ahead, these threats will need to be called out and answered.

This column was first published by PeaceVoice.

Immigration and the Shock Doctrine

If you look back over the Trump administration’s handling of immigration during the past two-and-a-half years, you’ll see a pattern of chronic tension and dysfunction. Like many people, you may have apprehended the pattern as a series of specific emergencies and dramatic events: the declaration of an “invasion” at our borders; the shutdown, or threatened shutdown, of our government or our southern border; the separation of migrant families crossing the border; the forced resignation of government officials unable to fulfill the president’s demands for ever-harsher measures.

Some of the wild careering of the administration’s behavior can be traced to a particular mix of incompetence, willful ignorance, and toxic narcissism. But a good part of it is explicable if you consider the concept of the “shock doctrine” that author and activist Naomi Klein introduced back in 2007 (The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism). In that book and in subsequent publications, Klein showed how political leaders exploit the disorientation and fear resulting from various kinds of calamities: a sudden economic collapse, a terrorist attack, a natural disaster. Pursuing authoritarian rule, these leaders declare states of emergency and take advantage of the circumstances to ram though measures benefiting economic and political elites.

In the case of Trump’s immigration policies, a number of “emergencies” were simply manufactured or generated by the administration, e.g. the termination of the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program, or the institution of the cruel “zero tolerance” (family separation) policy. While headlines focused on these issues, the administration continued efforts to criminalize migrants and to normalize its emphasis on detention, deportation, and the militarization of our borders. Its ongoing efforts have continued to benefit for-profit prison corporations like the GEO Group ($2.3 billion in 2018 revenues) and CoreCivic ($1.8 billion in 2018) as well as a host of military contractors involved in border security.

Now we’re faced with a genuine, unprecedented border crisis. As New York Times journalists have reported, the number of people (mostly Central American) attempting to cross the border and seek asylum has risen to about 100,000 a month, almost a million in a year. The number of migrant families seeking entry this past February increased five-fold over the same month in 2018, and there are now 800,000 pending cases in immigration courts, with each case requiring an average of 700 days to process. Many families enter the country facing woefully inadequate resources for housing, food, and medical care.

As Naomi Klein has argued, Donald Trump’s actions and policies represent not so much an aberration as a culmination of anti-democratic trends impacting American political culture over many years. Trump’s responses to the most recent crises – his threats to shut down the border, his attempts to make asylum ever-more difficult to attain, and his cutting off of aid to Central American nations – emerge from such trends. And, as can be expected, his responses have exacerbated, not alleviated, problems by encouraging people to migrate sooner rather than later, and by eliminating programs that could help reduce violence in neighboring nations.

The past two-and-a-half years have taken us to a critical juncture. Immigration policy based on incarceration, deportation, and militarization has proven itself to be a disastrous failure, and Trump continues to double down on a course of action that inflicts suffering on countless individuals and families. Enabled by the powers of his office and the support of his anti-immigrant allies, he daily enacts his own shock doctrine to distract and disorient. As the crisis grows, so does the danger and potential for more harm.

Yet as the crisis grows, so does the possibility for positive change. It shouldn’t be too great a leap to see that anti-violence and anti-poverty assistance to other nations represents a far wiser investment than millions spent on drones and other military equipment. Nor, with some degree of awareness, should it be too difficult to perceive the immorality of incarcerating migrants in detention facilities – and the far better (and more cost-effective) alternative of community accompaniment programs that help people integrate into communities. Nor should it be impossible to grasp that lifting the taint of criminalization from millions can help actualize human potential in unimagined ways.

These views may seem alien or even threatening to many people in our current political climate, and it will be difficult and fatiguing to ensure a fair hearing for them amidst the noise of the Trump shock doctrine. But much present suffering hangs in the balance – as does, in the longer term, the promise of a broader and richer vision of human community.

This article was originally published by PeaceVoice.

 

Immigration and the Democratic Hopefuls

To date, Democrats have largely failed to lay out a comprehensive vision of what our immigration policy should be. Some of the announced presidential candidates have, over time, staked out positions on specific issues, such as the status of the Dreamers or the abolition of ICE, but they’ve largely left it to Donald Trump and his allies to set the broader terms of the debate.

If the candidates hope to offer a genuine alternative to the administration’s policies, it’s imperative that they shift the debate from sloganeering about the wall and “open borders” to a consideration of an underlying question: what priorities and values will guide our immigration policy in the coming years? Will we continue along the present path of increased militarization and incarceration, or will we forge policies guided by a vision of a more just society?

No challenger will succeed in this project unless he or she can begin to counter Trump’s greatest political weapon: fear. Right from the start, candidate Trump began stoking people’s anxieties about their job security, their physical safety, and the cohesion of American society itself. Since his election as president, he has used the enormous power of his office to amplify his message, supported by Fox News and other conservative outlets. If Democratic challengers are to succeed, they’ll need to employ facts and narratives skillfully to align the mainstream debates to reality. For the facts, they’ll need to draw on extensive research, including a recent report of the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, that documents the positive overall effects of immigration on U.S. economic growth.

They’ll need to show that Trump is wrong on crime and immigration. A number of recent, large-scale studies of metropolitan areas throughout the U.S. have shown no correlation between crime and the growth of immigrant communities. If anything, crime in those areas has decreased. Moreover, challengers to Trump must show that his repeated characterizations of migrants as constituting a destabilizing “invasion” are dangerously distorted. Although news reports have focused on recent migrations to our southern border of people fleeing violence and destitution in Central America, the greatest percentage of people coming to the U.S. since 2010 is from Asian countries, and many of these immigrants are college educated. The percentage of foreign-born persons in the U.S. – 13.7 percent as of 2017 – is still lower than the peak percentage of around 15 percent at the turn of the twentieth century.

But in addition to neutralizing the weapon of fear, successful challengers to Trump must show in stark terms the tragic failures of the present policies. They must remind voters how Trump’s harsher policies on asylum, prosecution, and detention have failed to deter migrants from coming to our southern border (a record 76,000 came this past February). They must keep before the public mind those images of cruelty that have repelled people of all political persuasions: the separation of migrant children from their parents, the caging of children in make-shift facilities, the teargassing of migrant families by U.S. agents at the border, the deaths of both adults and children in detention.

The challengers must call out the racist discourse animating these policies – and the white supremacist logic that moves inexorably to greater and greater cruelty. They must show their skill in using facts and stories to remind us of our common humanity – not only in the suffering experienced as a result of injustice, but also in the countless gifts and contributions that flow from centuries of immigrant experience.

On my small street in Los Angeles, I greet neighbors who are first-generation immigrants from Thailand, India, France, Myanmar, Korea, Argentina, Israel, and China. While I type this column, construction workers and painters from Mexico and El Salvador are finishing up a remodeling project the next street over, and, in a mini-mall close by, a fitness trainer from Trinidad is helping seniors stay healthy as they age. All of these individuals contribute in countless ways – including taxpaying – to the vitality of my community, and I can only ask whether or not the candidates will sufficiently honor their contributions.

Will the Democratic hopefuls speak forcefully about the choices facing our communities? Will they sufficiently highlight the failures and abuses of the current policies as Trump seeks a record-breaking $51.7 billion for the Department of Homeland Security? Will they speak of spending $2.7 billion on warehousing up to 54,000 people a day in detention facilities (many of them run as for-profit enterprises), when humane and tested alternatives to detention exist? Will they speak of the corruption and tragic waste in such expenditures when so many other human needs are neglected – in restoring our infrastructure and in providing more equitable opportunities in human services, education, and health care?

The challengers wishing to replace Donald Trump in the White House have a tall order if they want to display genuine leadership on the issues of immigration. At the very least, voters deserve a higher standard (i.e. than heretofore employed) on which to evaluate that leadership.

This article was originally published by PeaceVoice.

 

At a Climate Crossroads: Nonviolence or Violence

Sixty-one years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King declared, “Today the choice is no longer between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence.” Emboldened by the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott two years earlier, King saw nonviolence not only as a powerful strategy for achieving social change; he viewed it as a philosophy and way of life that gave the world its only genuine alternative to the doomsday scenarios posed by the cold war arms race. As he said, “In a day when Sputniks and Explorers dash through outer space and guided ballistic missiles are carving highways of death through the stratosphere, nobody can win a war.”

Today, as efforts to control nuclear proliferation appear to be unravelling or failing, and as countries like the U.S. and Russia are engaging in a newly intensified arms race, Dr. King’s words carry new urgency. But there’s another reason for urgency: climate change. Recent scientific reports, including a report issued this past October by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, predict that at the present rate of fossil fuel consumption, the earth will warm up by as much as 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) above pre-industrial levels by 2040, decades earlier than previously predicted. Severe impacts (major coastal flooding, intense droughts, increased levels of poverty around the world) will likely occur within the lifetimes of many people living today.

These developments carry profound implications for human society – and for the issues of war and peace. Many researchers and policy makers acknowledge climate change as a major driver of human migration. Increasing numbers of people, displaced by flooding, decreasing crop productivity, and water shortages, will be forced to leave their homes in search of habitable spaces and viable livelihoods. The World Bank issued a report last March predicting that as many as 150 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and South Asia could be displaced within their home countries by mid-century. The United Nations has issued similar predictions as well.

In the United States, defense analysts and policy-makers, have, however, tended to frame these climate-related issues in conventional terms of national security, i.e. climate change as a “security threat.” This past January, for example, the Director of National Intelligence issued a “Worldwide Threat Assessment” in which climate change, along with other environmental factors, is seen as “likely to fuel competition for resources, economic distress, and social discontent through 2019 and beyond.” Back in 2017, the U.S. Congress included language in a defense policy bill to indicate that climate change “is a direct threat to the national security of the United States and is impacting stability in areas of the world where the United States Armed Forces are operating today, and where strategic implications for future conflict exist.”

The problem with this kind of framing is that it omits any larger considerations of justice. Certainly increasing numbers of people today have expressed outrage at our government’s treatment of people seeking asylum and safety at our borders – and have been appalled by the dehumanizing language used to paint migrants as “criminals” and “terrorists.”

But now climate change, along with the expectation of millions of people being forced to move from their homes, is magnifying the challenges facing us. In the coming decades, environmental disruption will challenge many of us to rethink our ideas about justice, about borders, about our responsibilities to people beyond our borders, and about our interconnections with all human beings. Because of the issues related to migration, climate change also adds to the urgency of the quest for renewable energy.

As Dr. King declared, “true peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.” As I continue to visit detainees at a local immigration detention facility, I can only ask what kind of justice incarcerates an undocumented person for a minor traffic infraction. What kind of justice allows Exxon executives to be amply compensated for conducting disinformation campaigns on climate science while being fully aware of its validity?

Dr. King wisely noted that nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice, not people. It is not about retribution but about so dramatizing the injustices that genuine change can occur. It is a lens for clarifying the values and choices before us – helping us see which paths lead to mutual destruction, and which to human thriving and well-being. We are at that crossroads today.
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This article was originally published by PeaceVoice.

 

Immigration and the Midterm Elections

Last week millions of voters shifted the balance of congressional power, pushing back at the Trump administration’s assault on democratic institutions.  As if in response, Trump raised the stakes of the struggle on many fronts, including immigration.  Within three days of the election, he announced that asylum seekers entering the country at any place other than authorized ports of entry would be denied asylum rights.

Trump did so after weeks and months of other attacks on immigrants, from efforts to terminate the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program to proposing rules that would deny green card holders their status if they applied for public benefits like food stamps.  He has attempted to shut down the TPS (Temporary Protected Status) program that has provided relief for migrants affected by natural disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes, and he recently sent 5,600 American troops to the border in anticipation of migrant caravans coming north.

Trump has used the power of the presidency (issuing executive orders, mobilizing troops, commanding media attention) to exert enormous influence in framing the terms of the debates over immigration.  He has used fear and racist rhetoric to demonize migrants – and to reduce discourse to its lowest common denominator.

That is why, in forwarding any policy proposal (e.g. a pathway to citizenship for the nation’s 11.1 million undocumented people), it’s essential to keep expanding the terms of the debate:  to call out the racial opportunism behind Trump’s scapegoating and to tease out the deeper values at stake.  I, for one, have seen the enormous human and economic toll of detaining immigrants in my visits to people warehoused at California’s Adelanto Detention Center:  people incarcerated for no other reason than that they had been seeking refuge from violence, persecution, or extreme poverty.  I’ve also seen people return to productive lives, or enter new ones, when they’ve had the grace or good fortune to be released into the community.

In her groundbreaking book, Our Declaration:  A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality (2014), Harvard scholar Danielle Allen forcefully argued that the Declaration of Independence called for both freedom and political equality, an equality “entailed in sharing ownership of public life and in co-creating our common world.”  Her argument acknowledged the enormous gaps between that ideal and historical realities – but it also looked to the Declaration as a template for inclusiveness and democratic culture.

In marking a shift of legislative power, the midterm elections have raised hopes that a politics of fear and exclusion can be vigorously countered.  A task ahead is to continue affirming the essential role of immigration and inclusion in maintaining the vibrancy and vitality of the nation’s democratic experiment.