Language and the Honduran Caravan

With the 2018 midterm elections just a few days away, you’re probably being bombarded with all kinds of information:  appeals for your votes or money, warnings about candidates or ballot measures, and news stories filled with analyses, apprehensions, or alarms. Most of this is ephemera:  fodder for the “delete” button or recycle basket.

Occasionally, though, a piece of more enduring value will come through, and I’d like to recommend such a piece to you today.  It appeared in my e-mail a little over two weeks ago, and it points to how language can widen our political and moral imaginations.

When news about the Honduran caravans began to appear in the American media, news rife with accounts of Donald Trump’s inflammatory and racist responses, an interfaith organization based in Oakland, California published a statement entitled, “U.S. Faith Leaders Call for Protection & Safe Passage for the Honduran Caravans.”   The organization, called the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, affirmed in its statement the right of the caravans “to travel safely and seek protection.”  In two key sentences, it showed how language choice can reflect far more than issues of style; it can compress an entire world view.  Here are the two sentences:

“It is our faith traditions that call us to welcome the migrant and to treat them not as the ‘other’ but the face of God.  We are also called to take co-responsibility for our brothers and sisters as so many faith communities and shelters in Guatemala and Mexico are doing as we speak.”

From the words “brothers and sisters” so much flows.

At a time when our common discourse about migrants (“undocumented,” “criminal aliens”) dehumanizes in countless ways, the phrase “brothers and sisters” takes readers to a different place.  Affirming our shared humanity with the men, women, and children walking northward, it calls on us to assume responsibility for understanding the reasons motivating their flight, and it calls on us as well to support both foreign and domestic policies that uphold human rights and human dignity.

Equally important, the phrase moves us far beyond consideration of immigration as a discrete policy area (as in our “broken immigration system”) to an understanding of its place in a much bigger picture:  a vision, however dimly grasped today, of what a truly just society might be.


Trump, Immigration, and the Midterm Elections

Donald Trump is confident that the issue of immigration will help Republicans win in the midterm elections this November.  As he said at a recent ceremony honoring immigration agency employees, “I think we’re going to have much more of a red wave than what you’re going to see as a phony blue wave.  Blue wave means crime, it means open borders. Not good.”  He criticized Democrats as “extremists” seeking “to abolish America’s borders.”

Trump has some reason to be confident.  The immigration issue, as he has framed it since his candidacy for president, helped fire up a base of passionate followers who’ve responded to his message that immigrants, particularly those who are undocumented, threaten American’s safety and economic security.  As he has articulated that message in rallies around the country, he has seen it reflected back at him in the excitement it has unfailingly aroused in his crowds.

But there are reasons why Trump’s confidence may well be misplaced.  Witnessing the cruel fruits of his immigration initiatives, millions of Americans have seen pictures of migrant children warehoused in cages because of his “zero tolerance” border policy.  They have seen Dreamers (young people brought here as children) used by Trump as negotiating pawns in a crisis that he manufactured when he rescinded a well-received Obama-era program last fall.

But there is another factor that will certainly cast shadows over Trump’s “build-the-wall” aspirations and those of the candidates aligned with him:  a growing awareness of the white supremacist ideology driving his immigration rhetoric and associated policies.  Sometimes the ideology is coded in law-and-order terms, as when Attorney General Jeff Sessions justified the “zero tolerance” border policy as a “commitment to public safety, national security, and the rule of law.”   But often the racism is readily apparent.  Americans are familiar with candidate Trump’s references to Mexicans as criminals, rapists, and “people that have lots of problems,” and many may recall his reference last year to undocumented immigrants as “animals” who are responsible for “drugs, the gangs, the cartels, the crisis of smuggling and trafficking, MS 13.”

This racially charged discourse was cited last year in lawsuits opposing Trump’s rescission of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), and it was acknowledged in legal rulings that temporarily blocked the administration’s move.

What is significant about these suits and rulings is how the dots have already been connected in the legal arena.  Racialism has been identified and factored into far-reaching legal judgments.  What remains to be seen in the coming weeks is how these dots will continue to be connected in electoral politics as well.






Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee”

Sometimes it takes a poet to remind us of the power of a name:  its stake in memory and human dignity.

Seventy years ago, the 35-year-old folksinger, songwriter, and author Woody Guthrie heard a radio account of a plane crash near Fresno, California that killed all 32 people on board.

Radio and print accounts of the crash identified by name only the two crew members, the flight attendant, and a U.S. immigration official on board.  The other 28 people who perished were Mexican citizens who had been working in the U.S. as braceros, or contract agricultural laborers, and they were bound for home either because their contracts had ended, or because they had been hired illegally.  None of the workers were identified by name.  They were listed in the news reports only as “deportees,” and they were buried without names in a mass grave in Fresno.

The headstone read, “28 Mexican Citizens Who Died In An Airplane Accident Near Coalinga, California on January 28, 1948. R.I.P.”

Outraged by this treatment, Guthrie wrote the poem, “Deportee,” including such stanzas as the following:

The sky plane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon,

A fireball of lightning, and shook all our hills,

Who are all these friends, all scattered like dry leaves?

The radio says, “They are just deportees”

Guthrie’s friend Martin Hoffman set the poem to music and sent it to folksinger Pete Seeger, who performed and helped popularize it.  Later, other singers and songwriters, including Joan Baez, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and Bruce Springsteen performed and recorded their own versions. Here is a version recorded by Guthrie’s son, Arlo:  “Deportee.”

Many years later, poet and novelist Tim Z. Hernandez painstakingly tracked down all the names and many of the stories of the Mexican men and women who died on that flight, publishing his account in 2017 in his book, All They Will Call You.  Because of the work of Hernandez and the families of the deceased, a new headstone listing all 28 names was unveiled in 2013, and all the names were read at a special commemoration in the California State Legislature this past January on the 70th anniversary of the crash.

Thus human beings were restored to their names in the difficult work of redeeming public memory and affirming a common humanity.

Immigration Detention: How Did We Get Here?

As the chaotic and painful effects of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” border policy continue to be felt (children and parents traumatized, families still separated), we are also seeing the workings of a major player in the unfolding human drama:  the American immigration detention system.  For a map and visualization of the system that was recently developed by a team of scholars, see Torn Apart/Separados.

The system now houses anywhere from 34,000 to 40,000 individuals at any particular time, but this was not always the case.  In fact, from the time that Ellis Island closed in as a port of entry for immigrants (1954) up until the early 1980’s, very few individuals coming to the U.S. as immigrants or refugees were held in detention.  Even during the 1980’s, the number of people held in detention at any one time varied from as low as 30 to 3000.

Fast growth:  how and why?

 How and why, then, did the detention system grow so large and so fast?  Some of the changes involved political responses to specific migrations.  For example, President Ronald Reagan opened up a facility in Puerto Rico in 1981 to detain Haitian refugees fleeing political chaos and repression in that country, and other detention facilities were opened up soon after in response to migrations of people fleeing political upheaval in Central America.

But other major factors were involved, including legislation that vastly expanded the range of legal grounds for detaining immigrants.  Two pieces were signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996:  the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA) and the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA). These bills made it possible for an immigrant already in the country to be detained and deported for a much broader range of crimes than previously, including minor illegal drug possession and shoplifting.  Thus the growth of immigration detention is linked to the vast expansion of mass incarceration in the 1990’s and beyond.

Profiting from detention

Another major factor contributing to the expansion of immigration detention has been the growth of for-profit corporations that operate detention facilities, and these companies now account for 73% of all detentions in the U.S.  Corporations such as CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America) and the Geo Group have engaged in massive legislative lobbying over the years to expand their share of the detention “business.”

Immigration detention is classified by the U.S. as a form of civil, administrative confinement, but for all intents and purposes it is incarceration, and many detention facilities, particularly those managed by private companies, have been cited numerous times for various kinds of human rights abuse, including sexual and physical assault and medical neglect.

The human suffering associated with the administration’s zero tolerance policy continues to be widely documented in story after story.  At the same time, these stories are drawing into greater scrutiny the system that is deeply implicated in that suffering.  The stories are raising deeper questions about the system itself:  How?  Why?  And how long must it endure?

Outlawing Immigration Detention

Like a series of earthquakes that gradually lift portions of the earth while exposing underlying strata beneath, the continuing changes in immigration policy since Donald Trump’s inauguration have not only jolted American society; they’ve also exposed a growing number of Americans to long-standing human rights abuses generated by our immigration and detention system.

For example, two physicians serving as medical consultants to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties recently reported to the U.S. Senate’s Whistleblower Protection Caucus that the housing of migrant children in detention facilities, even with their families, posed a “high risk of harm,” and that such harm was indicated by a series of ten investigations that went back four years (2014-2107), including the period of the Obama administration.

In one reported case, a 16-month-old baby in a detention facility lost a third of his body weight because of untreated diarrhea, and another child suffered bleeding of the brain that had gone undiagnosed for five days, resulting in a seizure.  These cases were just two of many reported by the physicians.

In yet another arena now receiving widespread coverage, the Justice Department has acknowledged that it has summoned at least 70 infants to immigration court for their own deportation hearings since October 1, and that a total of 1500 “unaccompanied minors,” from newborns to three-year-olds, have been summoned to court since October 1, 2015.  About three-quarters are represented by attorneys, and a number became “unaccompanied” because of the family separation policy put in place by the Trump administration in early May.

Because of these and other abuses, an increasing number of Americans have become receptive to alternative ways of thinking about immigration, rejecting superficial “band-aid” reforms in favor of more fundamental changes, including the abolition of detention itself.  California, for example, has passed legislation prohibiting local governments from entering into new contracts with for-profit prison companies, and from expanding the number of beds in existing facilities.

Immigration rights groups that promoted the passage of this legislation see it as an opening to the abolition of detention altogether – and as a shift to humane policies, such as community accompaniment programs, that support migrants seeking asylum, seeking a place in American society.  (For further information about such programs, see the website for the organization, “Freedom for Immigrants“).