The Language of Vote Suppression

There are many ways to suppress a vote.  If you’ve followed elections in various states over the past two years, you’ll recognize such strategies as the purging of voting rolls, the elimination of same-day voting, and the shortening of early voting periods.  There’s the requirement of government issued photo ID’s, and the disqualification of any voter registrations that lack an “exact match” among government documents required for identification. Then there’s the consolidation of polling places in certain districts, the last-minute switching of polling places to confuse voters, and the long lines resulting from these measures and from such other problems as faulty equipment and inadequate staffing and training. There’s also, of course, the disenfranchisement of voters who have criminal records.

And this is just a partial list.

What’s often missing, though, from any inventory of voter suppression techniques is mention of an essential ingredient:  language.  It is language, a specific kind of narrative framing, that’s needed to justify these methods and to cover up the racism that motivates their use.

The language of vote suppression has played a crucial role since emancipation placed the issue of suffrage, the suffrage of a newly emancipated people, at the forefront of public debate.   During Reconstruction and in the decades following the withdrawal of federal troops from the South, opposition to black voting was couched in the rawest of racist terms, accompanying terrorism, murder, poll taxes, and other forms of suppression to roll back the enfranchisement gained during Reconstruction.  By 1901, when Jim Crow segregation had consolidated its grip on the South, an influential Columbia University historian and political scientist like William A. Dunning could write in the The Atlantic that during Reconstruction, “negroes exercised an influence in political affairs out of all relation to their intelligence or property,” and that, “the ultimate root of the trouble in the South had been, not the institution of slavery, but the coexistence of two races so distinct in characteristics as to render coalescence impossible.”

The language Dunning used help provide the kind of narrative framing that sustained for decades the apartheid system and the massive disenfranchisement of black citizens that went along with it.  Not until the mid-1960’s, when the enormous sacrifices made by civil rights workers began to awaken the nation, did such blatantly racist language begin to lose its currency, at least across much of the nation.  With the passage of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in 1965, a broad re-enfranchisement of black voters began throughout the South, accompanied by a substantial growth in the number of black elected officials.

Yet if an explicitly racist language could no longer acceptably justify the suppression of black votes, there were other ways to accomplish the same end.  Presidents like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, who both embraced a “southern strategy” to secure electoral success, could pay lip service to the VRA while dragging their feet on enforcement. When Reagan was president, for example, his Justice Department approved a discriminatory, gerrymandered redistricting plan for New Orleans, only to receive the distinction, or ignominy, in 1983 of having the first approval by the DOJ overturned by court action (Major v Treen).  It took a court to do the job that the administration was charged by the VRA to do.

In the past few decades, a new narrative evolved as a cover for vote suppression.  Developed by conservative writers, it labeled any efforts to counter racial gerrymandering as racial “quotas” or electoral “affirmative action,” terms that eventually morphed into the phrase, “perpetuation of racial entitlements.”  This latter phrase was introduced by Justice Antonin Scalia into oral arguments during the landmark Shelby County v Holder case (2013), in which the Supreme Court’s conservative majority gutted the government’s enforcement powers authorized by the VRA.

In presenting the majority opinion in that case, Chief Justice John Roberts made a claim that constitutes a second major feature of the new narrative:  that enough racial progress has been made to eliminate the need for the VRA’s legal remedies.  The claim is anything but true.  A recent Brennan Center analysis shows that counties with histories of discrimination have continued to purge voting roles at elevated rates.  Other kinds of widespread abuses continue to take place at the state level, e.g. the withholding in the 2018 general election of 53,000 voter registrations by then Georgia Secretary of State (now Governor) Brian Kemp.  While black citizens constitute approximately 32% of Georgia’s population, about 70% of the withheld registrations were of black voters.

Such practices have been justified by the third key component of the vote suppression narrative:  the claim of widespread voter fraud.  This claim, too, is fallacious, as many voting experts will attest.  As Kenneth R. Mayer, a voting expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison declared, “The continued insistence that there are material levels of intentional voter fraud is itself a form of fraud.”

The injustices in our electoral system present an enormous, continuing task:  to challenge the lies, the racism, and the specific practices of vote suppression – while still motivating voters, particularly young voters, to cast their ballots and secure full representation as citizens of their communities and of the nation.

This article was distributed and published by on July 6, 2020

The Four Horsemen of This Apocalypse

Recently, while taking a virtual tour of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, I came across an image of Albrecht Durer’s 1498 woodcut, “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”  This woodcut was one of fifteen that Durer produced for a book illustrating the Bible’s “Revelation to John,” and the image powerfully represents scripture’s Four Horsemen:  conquest, war and violence, famine, and death.  Earlier artists tended to represent each horseman separately, but Durer chose to present them together, galloping fiercely across a visual field.

Durer created the image over 500 years ago, yet it continues to startle, displaying the horsemen’s combined energies, and inspiring thought about the collective energies of our own apocalyptic horsemen:  economic oppression, racism, militarism, and environmental injustice.

Helping us imagine the horseman of economic oppression, Durer (and the author of the Book of Revelation) lends a symbol to our present day.    His horseman representing famine carries a scale indicating exorbitant food costs and economic breakdown.  Today’s horseman of economic oppression trails clouds of suffering, images of desperation:  food insecurity increasing dramatically since the onset of the pandemic, long lines of people waiting at food banks, and mothers with children reporting that their kids don’t have enough to eat (one in five mothers today, according to recent surveys).  We see millions of people with no health insurance in the midst of a pandemic (up to 27 million losing employer-based insurance, with about 6 million of those people expected to be ineligible for subsidized backup insurance).

The horseman’s demeanor evinces stone-like indifference and intransigence.  We see these qualities exuded by an administration resisting efforts to provide long-term expansion of a successful food stamp program, portraying it as a backdoor opening to the welfare state.  Those same stone-like qualities permeate continuing efforts to rule the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional, as well as to prevent the extension of unemployment benefits (“over our dead bodies,” according to one congressional ally of the president).

Meanwhile, one recalls the massive 2017 tax cuts for the wealthy and for corporations – while occasionally catching glimpses of financial dealings of the ultra-rich (e.g. multimillion dollar homes still being sold and bought in the wealthy enclaves of Los Angeles).  The horseman of economic injustice did not originate with this administration, but he helped bring it into being, and he now rides ever more emboldened by it.

The second rider, the horseman of racism, has also been around a long time, multiplying the effects of economic oppression and drawing strength from that oppression.  In his wake, the wake of the current pandemic, one sees the gaps and biases of our health care system, gaps and biases bringing grief to thousands of African-American families and other people of color across the country.

This horseman has a particular power.  He rides with the time-tested strategy of the race-divider’s playbook, using fear and scapegoating to weaken resistance to economic oppression.  The current administration channels this energy in a particular way, estranging and criminalizing the migrant, linking him to disease, caging him in for-profit prisons that leave few or no exits from infection and death.

The third rider, the horseman of environmental injustice, links up with his fellow riders by discerning and exploiting places of vulnerability:  poor communities and communities of color that endure pollution from chemical plants, port facilities, refineries, mines, and highways.  He becomes increasingly visible as the dots are connected between pollution and susceptibility to the coronavirus – the dots connecting to asthma, heart and lung disease, and cancer.

This horseman, too, is channeled by special interests.  These are the interests, the corporations and their front institutes, that equate environmental regulations with infringements on “rights” and “liberty.”  The horseman’s weapon is propaganda and the money that sustains it.

Finally, there is the horseman of militarism.  He rides along the pathways and channels linking the sectors of the military-industrial-complex:  the corporations, the lobbyists, the government agencies.  Questions about him are being voiced with increasing intensity, e.g. what kind of “national security” are we buying with a $750 billion defense budget as the nation’s death toll rises above that of the last several wars?  But amidst the questioning, the lobbyists still keep their busy pace, touting new weapons and systems of destruction.

There are traditions of interpretation that represent scripture’s four horsemen as portending final judgment and the end of days.  There are people today who view the global pandemic and our environmental crises in just such terms.  But the current four horsemen can also be seen in another light:  as figures looming on a horizon of change.  Despite the chaos, destruction, and death they sow, they are not invincible.  They can be named, and naming is one form of power over them.  They can be described precisely in their relations to one another and that, too, is a form of power.  As one era transitions uncertainly to another, these figures can be faced with courage and creativity – the creativity of artists, activists, and visionaries.

This article was distributed by the op-ed syndicate on May 22, 2020

Racial Fault Lines and the Coronavirus

Along with millions of other Southern Californians, my family and I have been learning to live with the probability in our lifetimes of a mega-quake, a massive earthquake generated not only by sudden movement in the southern sector of the 800-mile long San Andreas Fault, but also possibly triggered and magnified by the countless other faults that crisscross our region.

In many respects, the coronavirus pandemic has been a mega-quake rippling throughout the world, debilitating and killing tens of thousands, inflicting untold damage on economic life and the social fabric of nations, and exposing deep fissures of inequality and injustice across America and throughout the world.  In the U.S., the pandemic has underscored the pervasiveness of racism in our society, manifesting like trigger faults in myriad ways and posing formidable barriers to recovery and to the achievement of any semblance of democratic life and culture.  All the measures necessary to contain and control the virus must go forward, but they must be guided by an understanding of the racial fractures that pose continuing danger to democracy and to social well-being.  Failure to do so will hobble full recovery for many years to come.

With almost 2.3 million people behind bars, the U.S. continues to have the highest number of prisoners in the world, a legacy of several decades of racially propelled policies of harsh sentencing and rapid prison building.   We confine this population in what one prison official called “petri dishes” of incubation and infection:  sites that lack adequate sanitation, health care, and means of social distancing.  It’s no surprise, therefore, that prisons are seeing rapidly increasing rates of infection.  Over 14,000 cases and 218 deaths had been reported among individuals incarcerated in state and federal prisons as I was writing this article, and the numbers have undoubtedly grown quickly since then.  And in those populations are disproportionate numbers of people of color (African-Americans, for example, are incarcerated in state prisons at five times the rate of whites).

Similar issues face immigration detention facilities, where the vast majority of detained individuals are from Mexico and Central America. Considering these developments in prisons and detention facilities, one notes the insight shared by historian Kelly Lytle Hernandez:  “immigration control and mass incarceration emerged as the systems of social control that frame alienated citizens and criminalized immigrants as a racialized caste of outsiders in the United States today.” As the pandemic continues to rage, these systems of social control accentuate the vulnerabilities of the millions of individuals so defined and so framed.

Hernandez and other scholars have commented on the impacts of these systems not only on incarcerated individuals, but also on tens of millions of other people (probationers, parolees, family members, correctional employees, and residents living near prisons), and racism has been a major driver of these impacts.  Writing about prisons over a decade ago, scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore defined racism as, “the state-sanctioned and/or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.”

Today, Gilmore’s definition also speaks unerringly to the catastrophic and disproportionate impacts of the coronavirus.  According to data current as of April 13, Africans constitute 6% of the population in Wisconsin but have accounted for 39% of the deaths from the coronavirus.  They make up 32% of the population in Louisiana but almost 60% of the fatalities from the disease.  Similar disparities exist in many other states.

Conservative commentators, including Surgeon General Jerome Adams, have sought to put the onus on African-Americans themselves (the Surgeon General recently advised black people to stay clear of alcohol, tobacco, and drugs), stressing individual responsibility rather than the complex of social and environmental factors affecting communities of color.  By contrast, a substantial body of authoritative medical and public health research underscores not only the disproportionate effects of environmental injustice (e.g. greater exposure to pollution) on these communities but also the adverse health effects of documented racial bias.  A 2003 National Academy of Sciences report, “Unequal Treatment:  Confronting Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Care,” found racially biased treatment to be pervasive in the American health care system.  Subsequent studies continue to affirm the presence of this bias and document its negative medical effects, including what one researcher called the “accelerated aging” associated with stresses generated by racism.

This past January, before the pandemic shut down much of America, scholar Michelle Alexander published a New York Times op-ed that, among other things, examined racial injustice since the publication ten years ago of her landmark book, The New Jim Crow:  Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.   Alexander critiqued the continuing pattern of reform, retrenchment, and re-formation of racial castes that has characterized social and political change since emancipation almost 160 years ago.  And she assailed the profound denial that continues to thwart genuine racial progress in America.   Her title?  “The Injustice of This Moment is Not an ‘Aberration’.”

Several months later, with a pandemic raging and a national election just six months away, the urgency of casting out the white nationalist regime in power is more urgent than ever.   But such a victory, if it transpires, will be hollow if unaccompanied by a deep, sustained grappling with injustices that have cast their shadows over this country for achingly too long.

This article was distributed May 7, 2020 by

Incarceration, Detention, and Covid-19

Recently I sat in on a livestreamed town hall sponsored by the school of public health at a large university in my state.  The town hall’s purpose was to answer viewers’ questions about Covid-19:  how to understand the pandemic, what to expect, how to stay healthy and safe.  At the end, the moderator, the dean of the school, asked his fellow participants (epidemiologists, biostatisticians, infectious disease specialists) what they wanted viewers to take away from the program, and two or three referred to Covid-19 as a “wake-up call,” an alarm bell calling attention to the long-term defunding of public health systems in America, and the profound lack of preparedness for a catastrophic public health emergency of this kind.

The town hall succeeded in getting these points across, but a wake-up call like this should also alert us to other issues, particularly the deep-seated forms of social dysfunction that have long plagued America.  The pandemic, for example, has sharpened the focus on systemic injustices underlying our criminal justice system, our prisons, and our immigration system.  America has the largest number of incarcerated people in the world, and even before the pandemic, many of these 2.3 million individuals were confined in facilities notoriously detrimental to physical and mental health.  As Covid-19 finds its way behind prison walls, they are now particularly vulnerable to the spread of the disease.  Without sufficient physical distance, restricted in many cases from using sanitizers, and lacking adequate access to soap and water, incarcerated people are living in facilities that are incubators and amplifiers of infection – what the president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners called “petri dishes.”

Hundreds of cases of Covid-19 have now been confirmed in jails and prisons across the country, and both inmates and employees have been infected.  According to a New York Times report, the Rikers Island Jail complex in New York City alone had 167 reported cases as of March 23.  As a result of the rapid spread of the disease, many jail and prison systems are attempting to reduce their incarcerated populations with early releases (particularly for nonviolent crimes), and many prosecutors are reconsidering low-level cases that would otherwise land individuals in jail and subject them to exposure.

Similarly, calls for the release of people confined in immigration detention facilities have intensified.  Judges in several states have ordered the release of small numbers of immigrants because these individuals have been particularly at risk for infection by Covid-19.  In California, federal judge Dolly M. Gee ordered the government to “make continuous efforts” to release thousands of migrant children held in detention.  Judge Gee’s order came on the heels of a report that four migrant children held in a facility in New York tested positive for the virus.

What’s significant is that the initiatives to release both prisoners and immigrants from incarceration are intensifying simultaneously, often at the behest of the same groups.  There has been a growing recognition, certainly in a state like California, which has the second-largest prison system in the country, that mass incarceration and immigration detention have impacted individuals and communities in devastating ways – and this recognition has long preceded the outbreak of the pandemic.

In recent years, activists and legislators in California have worked to slowly reverse the powerful forces leading to incarceration and detention.  Last August, for example, the LA County Board of Supervisors, which oversees the largest jail system in the country, cancelled a $1.7 billion contract to replace the Men’s Central Jail facility.  Activists had long pushed for this action, arguing that funds should go instead to community resources and services.  Two months later, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill mandating a phase-out of the for-profit detention centers in the state.

These were significant and hopeful indicators of the state’s shift to decarceration, but resistance, particularly from the Trump administration, has remained tenacious.  The administration, for example, found a technical loophole in the state’s phase-out of the for-profit detention facilities and now has the capacity to renew the contracts for those facilities for up to 15 years.  Meanwhile, despite the pandemic, ICE agents have continued to sow fear by conducting raids in immigrant communities.

The pandemic is indeed a wake-up call on many levels, but it would be a mistake not to acknowledge the stark choices it is placing before us with ever-greater clarity.  Will we continue addressing our social and economic problems with resources poured into militarized policing, surveillance, and incarceration, or can we rise to a renewed and reimagined sense of community?  Can we envision governance intended not for social control and social exclusion but rather for the benefit of well-being for all?

This article was published and distributed by on April 1, 2020.

Immigration and the Prison Industrial Complex

In the past year, the struggle over immigration rights continued along a broad array of fronts.  There were significant setbacks, such as the implementation of the “Remain in Mexico” policy that made asylum nearly impossible to attain.  But there were also victories, such as a federal judge’s ruling in November that required the government to provide health services to thousands of parents and children traumatized by the family separations carried out in accordance with the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy.

As we head into a new decade, it is useful to map the ongoing struggles in order to see the broader landscape of conflict, and there is one concept, that of the prison industrial complex (or PIC), that can help provide such a map.  The concept of PIC was developed by scholars and activists associated with the prison abolition movement, and the abolitionist organization Critical Resistance offers this clear definition:  “the prison industrial complex is a term we use to describe the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social, and political problems.”

If we look over some of the major battlefields involved in immigration, the concept of the PIC can help pinpoint major areas where corporate interests and government overlap. These include detention, surveillance, consulting services, and border wall construction.

With respect to detention, it’s important to note that 52,000 people are currently incarcerated in America’s detention facilities, and that about two-thirds of them are kept in for-profit facilities run by corporations like the GEO Group and CoreCivic.  The business in for-profit detention runs to about $3 billion a year, and the companies involved have made substantial campaign contributions ($1.7 million in 2016, $1.9 million in 2018).  They have also actively lobbied both federal and local officials for years.  The private detention facilities have been cited in numerous grievances and a number of reports for a wide range of abuses, including medical negligence, inedible food, and sexual assault and abuse.  Reports have continued to surface about deaths in detention of both migrant adults and children.

With regard to surveillance, there has been a growing awareness in the past year-and-a-half of the role that tech companies have played in identifying and tracking immigrants.  Particular attention has focused on the software company Palantir, which has a $38 million contract with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) to provide data analytics and data case management.  It’s likely that these kinds of data services were employed in the kind of workplace raids carried out by ICE last August at companies in Mississippi.  Moreover, it should be noted that Palantir’s programs are hosted by Amazon’s web services subsidiary, and the ICE connections of both companies have been targeted for protest by both employees and activists.  Other tech companies, such as the software developer Github, have also been targeted for protests for their connections to ICE, and it’s likely that such protests will continue into the coming year.

Yet another corporate area continuing to exert influence over the implementation of immigration policy involves consulting services.  Major companies like Booz Allen Hamilton, Deloitte Consulting, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and McKinsey & Company have contracted with ICE, and it is the latter which has gained the most notoriety for its connections.  McKinsey concluded a $20 million contract with ICE in July, 2018 amidst intense controversy over the family separations and other abuses associated with the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy.  McKinsey consultants, it turned out, had recommended significant cuts in detention facilities for food services, medical care, and staffing.   It currently has contracts with Customs and Border Protection.

Finally, with many asylum seekers trapped in unsafe conditions in Mexico under the “Remain in Mexico” policy, it’s appropriate to include the construction of Donald Trump’s border wall as part of immigration’s prison industrial complex.  Of particular relevance is the recent decision by the Pentagon’s Inspector General to investigate the awarding of a $400 million contract to a North Dakota Company, Fisher Sand and Gravel, that Trump had personally lobbied for, despite the fact that it had never been awarded a construction contract before, and despite the fact that military officials had raised objections about the company’s standards.

Certainly, immigration’s prison industrial complex predates the Trump administration.  For-profit detention facilities date back to the early 1980’s, and surveillance and the fortification of the border have been going on for years.  But Trump has pushed government/industry relations more sharply into an anti-immigrant direction, using racist messaging to criminalize migrants and shrink asylum and immigration to new lows.

As resistance to his policies continues, it will be helpful to invoke the concept of the prison industrial complex as a way of seeing the big picture.  The PIC offers a lens for seeing how any particular protest is related to a broader struggle on behalf of certain values and understandings:  that immigration is essential to the continued vitality of the nation, and that inclusion, enfranchisement, and human rights – not fear and criminalization – are keys to a democratic future.

This article was distributed by and first published in the LA Progressive.

Raising the Stakes in the Struggle Over Immigration Detention

As the struggle for immigrant rights continues to be fought across America, new battlegrounds may come into view, then fade from public attention.  For many months, our border drew intense scrutiny, as family separations shocked and horrified millions.  Recently, the fate of DACA and 700,000 Dreamers moved back briefly into headlines, as the Supreme Court took up arguments over the Trump administration’s efforts to terminate the program.

What hasn’t yet come to full attention, however, is the struggle over the future of immigration detention itself, a conflict whose outcome may have far-reaching consequences for immigration reform in years to come.

Last month, Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill prohibiting California from entering into, or renewing, contracts authorizing companies to run private, for-profit detention centers in the state.   Currently three companies (the GEO Group, CoreCivic, and the Management & Training Corporation) run four different facilities that, collectively, house up to 4000 people, or about 8 percent of the approximately 49,000 people in immigration detention nationwide.  The California bill will take effect on January 1, 2020, forcing the closure of the four facilities whose contracts will expire over the course of that year.

For immigration activists, the closures will represent the beginning of the end of a tragic, violent period in our immigration history.  They cite numerous reports on abuse and neglect perpetrated by the for-profit operators of these facilities, including a 2019 Inspector General report that cited thousands of deficiencies nationwide, deficiencies “that jeopardize the health and safety of detainees,” including failure to notify ICE about sexual assaults.  Adelanto, the largest facility in California, has been cited numerous times for medical neglect, and has been the site of several deaths in recent years.

To prevent people currently detained from being transferred to remote locations outside the state, immigrant rights groups are working strenuously to raise bond funds that would allow them to pursue their asylum cases outside of detention.  This approach is consonant with a broader goal of eliminating immigrant detention entirely and replacing it with community accompaniment programs that help asylum seekers advance their cases while living and working productively in communities.  Activists describe the overarching theme of this strategy as “community, not cages.”

Companies operating the for-profit facilities maintain that legal obstacles will block the implementation of the new California measure.  A company spokesperson for the GEO Group, for example, declared that the bill should face a successful legal challenge because it violates the Constitution’s supremacy clause (Article VI) that gives federal law precedence over state lawmaking.  But constitutional experts supporting the measure argue that California has the authority to take this step, saying that the state has the power to regulate private companies; it isn’t trying to regulate the federal government.

ICE, meanwhile, has taken matters into its own hands.  Five days after Governor Newsom signed the new legislation on October 11, ICE began soliciting contracts for new for-profit detention facilities, contracts that would be approved prior to the January 1, 2020 date that California’s new measure would take effect.  The contracts are for facilities in the same geographical areas as the existing four detention centers, and would run for five years, with the option to renew for two additional five year terms.

California officials and immigration activists maintain that ICE’s move violates federal procurement protocols by narrowing the bidding process to favor the existing companies and facilities.  They argue that by attempting to rush the contracts before the January 1 deadline, ICE is making a blatant attempt to circumvent California law.   At this point, it’s unclear how the conflict will play out legally in the near future.

Nevertheless, California immigrant rights activists remain undeterred, seeing their state’s legislative actions as part of a bigger national reform movement.  They cite Illinois’ recent ban on private immigration detention as well as proposed national legislation that would place a moratorium on the expansion and construction of detention facilities, while increasing oversight over existing facilities.

It remains to be seen exactly where and how the coming battles over detention will be fought.  Much may happen in the courts, but for many activists the key issue will remain one of visibility:  making continually clear to the public what it means to criminalize and incarcerate asylum seekers – and to run profitable, multi-billion dollar businesses in so doing.


Whether or not Donald Trump continues in office in the near future, he has already contributed to a language of immigration that’s both larger than him and that will outlast him.  The language is spoken by members of the Trump administration and its allies in the media and in restrictionist think tanks.  Grounded in a narrative of threat from within and without, it’s a language that sanctions and rationalizes violence against immigrants.  For convenience’s sake, I’ll call it “immigrationspeak.”

Immigrationspeak ranges in register from the inflammatory to the cool.  Inflammatory language has been central to Donald Trump’s rhetoric since the day he announced his candidacy, declaring that Mexico is “. . . sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”  Since then he has continued to frame an incendiary narrative of menace, tweeting on several occasions that caravans of Central American migrants constituted “invasions” of the U.S. border.

Trump isn’t the only one to contribute significantly to a narrative of menace.  Often in the cooler language of policy analysis, think tanks like the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and NumbersUSA have been depicting a wide range of threats – to the environment, to Americans’ jobs and safety, to the economy in general – that can only be countered by substantial restrictions on immigration.

By itself, a narrative of threat won’t advance an immigration agenda as ambitious as this administration’s.  Immigrationspeak requires a veneer of legality, a vocabulary of criminalization, to move its agenda forward.  Within five days of Trump’s inauguration, the White House issued an executive order, “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States,” that rescinded Obama-era enforcement priorities focusing principally on undocumented persons who committed violent crimes.  By removing these priorities, the Trump administration widened the net of potential enforcement to all of the 10.7 million people living in the U.S. without documentation.  How to label these persons?  “Removable aliens.”

Lest there was any ambiguity about the change, the then-Acting Director of ICE, Thomas D. Homan, stated at a hearing in Washington, “If you’re in this country illegally, and you committed a crime by entering this country, you should be uncomfortable.  You should look over your shoulder.”  Soon after the issuance of the executive order, the administration began sweeping people up in ICE raids:  a restaurant worker and father of four, an evangelical Guatemalan minister, a student activist.  These were people I knew, or came to know, in my own community in Los Angeles.  Similar apprehensions were occurring all over the country.

But interior enforcement is just one part of a vast picture, and legalistic language just one instrument in the immigrationspeak toolbox.  Falsehood, denial, and a faux humanitarianism play significant roles too, particularly in advancing a policy of aggressive deterrence at the border.  When the administration provoked outrage last year by separating migrant children from their parents, by incarcerating children in cages, and by denying them basic necessities like soap, toothbrushes, or beds, administrative spokespersons like former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen argued that the children were being used by smugglers and traffickers to get into the country illegally.  As she attempted to explain, “we are trying to protect the children, which is why I’m asking Congress to act.  We are a country of compassion.  We are a country of heart.”

As these tools haven’t succeeded in quelling outrage, the administration has turned to other devices.  Silence and secrecy also play their role, as when journalists and other observers are denied access to the new “tent courts” set up at the border to expedite hearings for asylum seekers stuck in Mexico under the administration’s controversial “Remain in Mexico” policy.  Fences, locked gates, and barbed wire constitute a language all their own.

One can only assume that the current administration would like to see immigrationspeak become a lingua franca:  a common way of speaking, thinking, and writing about immigration.  But America remains a stubbornly multilingual nation.  Dialects of defiance and resistance haven’t been suppressed.  I recently attended an immigration rights rally in Los Angeles, where a young woman, one of the organizers of the event, got up and said:  “I may not be able to vote, but that won’t stop me from getting out the vote.  I am undocumented, but that won’t stop me from continuing to speak out and organize.”

This article was first published by

The Many Faces of Immigration Resistance

For the most part, major news organizations like the New York Times, CNN, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times have provided comprehensive, accurate coverage of major immigration-related developments.  Significant policy changes and their impacts on people have been presented with careful regard for both detail and larger issues.  This is as it should be.  Nevertheless, coverage often falls short in underplaying a critical dimension of unfolding events:  the extraordinary depth and breadth of resistance to the Trump administration’s policies.

One reason for the shortcoming has to do with patterns of reporting.  Media outlets may typically cover a Trump administration initiative followed by reactions from courts, state or local governments, or activist groups.  This was the pattern when the Trump administration recently issued new regulations overturning the Flores agreement, the consent decree limiting the number of days that migrant children could be kept in detention.  Prominent coverage was given to the Trump initiative and, subsequently, to the lawsuit filed against it by 19 states and the District of Columbia.

High-profile resistance needs to be reported, but resistance also manifests widely in the everyday actions of ordinary citizens.  This past July, for example, when President Trump announced that ICE raids would take place in cities throughout the country, activists stepped up efforts to counsel people on their rights, including the right not to answer the door when ICE knocked.  As the raids played out in cities like Houston, Chicago, Atlanta, and Los Angeles, neighbors posted photos and other information on social media about ICE sightings, and, in some cases, documented specific arrests or attempts to arrest.  The raids, collectively called “Operation Border Resolve” were intended to apprehend 2105 undocumented immigrants, but community efforts help limit the arrests to a total of 35 individuals, 18 of whom were identified as “collateral apprehensions” (i.e. individuals who had not been originally targeted).

These recent actions represent only a fraction of ongoing activities undertaken by many people involved in assisting immigrants:  visiting individuals held in detention, raising bond funds and finding legal assistance for detainees, finding shelter and employment for people released from detention. and engaging in political advocacy for immigrants’ rights, to name just a few.

But it would misrepresent these efforts to suggest that pro-immigrant attitudes and actions are limited to border states or blue states with high immigrant populations.  As Alan Cross, a Southern Baptist minister, recently reported in the New York Times (“Alabama is More Pro-Immigrant Than You Think,” May 1), Alabama has seen a significant influx of Central American immigrants in the past two decades, and many Alabamans have come to welcome the newcomers, often on the basis of religious beliefs that foster a welcoming of the stranger.  Interviewing a conservative columnist for one of the state’s newspapers, a columnist who wrote last year in support of DACA, Cross asked her why she took that position.  She told him, “We had so commingled our faith with our politics that our faith had become politicized.   I had to become thoughtful about disentangling those things, to treat the precepts of my faith as primary and let our politics flow out of that.”  As another Alabaman explained, “Once people get to know them [immigrants], their hearts change.  The perception that people have against them mostly comes from the news.”

It would be untrue to suggest that the resistance to Trump’s immigration policies is cohesive, networked, or self-aware in any kind of collective fashion.  But it would also be misleading to to characterize the struggles over immigration simply as matters of policy:  choosing, say, asylum policy X over policy Y.  These issues are entangled with deep cultural attitudes, attitudes having to do with values of human dignity, human rights, and truth itself:  bearing witness to needless human suffering and the lies that sustain it.

It would not be wasted time or effort for any serious observer to call out and elucidate the connections that say, “resist!”  These are the connections that still uphold and maintain a civil society.

This article was originally published by

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.