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.
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.

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“).