Category: Immigration

How To Not Be Brave

By Jackie Orr, Activist and Member of the Jackson Heights Immigrant Solidarity Network

 

"I am not there to ‘aid.’ I stand in solidarity. We do not need medals. We do not need authorities deciding about who is a ‘hero’ and who is ‘illegal’ …. What we need are freedom and rights."
—Pia Klemp, captain of migrant rescue ship, arrested by Italian authorities in August 2017

The man, hands cuffed behind his back, was taken off the train platform by three uniformed border patrol agents wearing guns and bulletproof vests, and accompanied by a German Shepherd straining at the leash. The man’s encounter with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) was just beginning. I stood watching in the doorway of the Amtrak train car where the man had been a passenger; my own encounter with US Border Patrol was ending. The man is now being pressed through the US deportation machine. I am now sitting safely in my home writing you a story about what it might mean today to be a US citizen, watching non-citizens being detained, incarcerated, and cued up for deportation. What will we do besides watch?

My encounter with CBP began on the sidewalk outside the Amtrak station. A uniformed man approached me as I stood next to my luggage. With a friendly smile, he asked, “Are you a citizen of this country?” The sun was shining, and I was a white, middle class , fiftysomething, US citizen who had never before been asked this question by an official bulked out in militarized gear, smiling. For a moment I was speechless. Then a mental rerun began of several videos I had watched this summer, posted by people driving through border patrol checkpoints in the Southwest and exercising their rights. I said, “By what legal authority are you asking me that question?” The agent looked bemused and said he wasn’t in the mood to have that conversation. I said, “I refuse to answer your question.” He smirked and said, “You already did.” And walked away.

I followed him. Because I had watched those videos. Because the ghosts started dancing, ghosts of fascism and trains and uniformed men demanding identity papers. Because the smirk made me angry. Because he looked like a cold threat on a warm, sunny day. The agent entered the train station, and I kept following—and now saw two more uniformed CBP agents awkwardly standing around. I approached all three of them, again asking by what legal authority they posed their ‘citizenship’ question. In the 10-minute conversation that ensued, I learned some useful things. That US immigration agents since 1952 are allowed to  “search for aliens” on railway cars, ships, and other transport vehicles within a “reasonable distance” from the US border. That questions about citizenship status are a ‘consensual interaction,’ and the immigration agent is not permitted to in any way coerce a response. That three men with guns enjoy mocking a white woman citizen (no weapon) who asks questions.

My train was pulling into the station, and I went up to the platform. I was surprised to see one of the CBP agents boarding a train car ahead of me. I followed him. He was asking some people, not others, the question: ‘Are you a citizen of this country?’ When he entered the next train car, I followed him and said in a loud voice (I hoped no one could hear my voice shaking), “You are not required to answer the questions you are about to be asked. And if you are a US citizen, it may be useful to non-US citizens around you to refuse to answer this question.” The CBP agent then said, equally loudly, “If you are an alien and you do not answer my questions, you can be arrested.” My head spun with the illogic of what he was saying—how would anyone know you were undocumented if you remained silent and didn’t answer the question, which is the right of citizens and non-citizens alike? I stopped following him when I saw him exit the train car. And I thought everything was over.

It wasn’t over. A few minutes later, as the train was still held in the station, I entered another train car looking for a seat and saw a man, hands behind his back, being led down the aisle by a border patrol agent. My heart died. He was being taken off the train. “Is there a phone number you want me to call, to tell someone what has happened?” I cried out. Dying again inside because I could only speak English, not Spanish. The man looked at me with an extraordinary calmness, and shook his head. He was taken off the train and the two other CBP agents quickly appeared, one with a German Shepherd, and walked the detained man down the platform ramp, disappearing.

What happened in the next hours on that train? Two passengers passed me small folded written notes, thanking me for my “courage.” One of them, a Canadian citizen, wrote that she was shocked by what she had just witnessed, and that the man detained had two children, both of them still on the train and sitting a few seats back. Conversations with the two teenage children, shocked and red-eyed, now returning home on a train without their father. Google searches for more information on the legality of border patrol operations and stories of citizens’ resistance. Wait in line for the bathroom where a young woman, a recently naturalized citizen, tells me that when the border agents asked her if she was a citizen, it was the first time that her heart didn’t race, and she told them ‘Yes.’ But then she saw how they moved through the train car and arrested the man. And so she had spent the last 4 hours posting to friends, and searching Google about Amtrak trains and border patrol searches, and preparing herself to say something different next time. She says, “You were badass.” I say, “I was scared, I didn’t feel badass at all … I was angry and scared but I’d watched these videos that gave me ideas about what else to do.” Phone call to my partner, weeping, to say that nothing that I did made any difference; this man’s life was changed by being detained, while his children watched. Learning that a local immigration and refugee defense network had immediately sent volunteers to that train station—where five people had been detained before 12 noon. Weeping again, with an intimate gratitude, for all the people trying to resist.

“I am listening to what fear teaches. I will never be gone. I am a scar, a report from the frontlines, a talisman, a resurrection. A rough place on the chin of complacency,” writes Audre Lorde in 1988. Thirty years later, her words reverberate across this landscape of deportation terrors and immigration raids. How to create, individually and together, a ‘rough place on the chin of complacency’?  How to use fear’s lessons to mobilize the security and privilege of US citizenship in the name of immigrant freedom and rights? I write you this story from the safety of my home, in the shadow of a stranger’s detention and the haunting memory of his calm demeanor, performed in part for his children seeing him being handcuffed and taken away. I write you with the honest question, what can you do besides watch? Bravery is not required. You don’t need to be a hero. Find what you need to act. You can cry or tremble inside later … many of us do. But don’t think you are not needed. You are. We are. The time is here. To do everything that we can.


 

Some Facts about Immigrants in NYC

  • NYC is home to 3.2 million immigrants (foreign-born people), the largest number in city history.
  • Immigrants make up over 37% of the city’s population. There are more households that include immigrants than there are households without any immigrants.
  • Over a million children (under 18) live in a household with at least one foreign-born family member. This represents almost 60% of all NYC children.
  • About 56% of immigrant New Yorkers are naturalized US citizens. Almost half of those naturalized citizens have lived in the US for 20 years or more.
  • An estimated 660,000 legal residents of New York (green card holders and others) are potentially eligible to naturalize in the future under current law.
  • 5.3% of New Yorkers are undocumented immigrants. This is roughly 477,000 people. Mixed-status households, which include at least one undocumented family member, make up 12.7% of households in the city.
  • The undocumented population of the city has been going down since 2008, nationally and locally. The decline has been attributed to the weak economy after the 2008 housing crash, improved economic conditions in Mexico, and increased enforcement at the border.
  • 16.6% of Queens residents are undocumented immigrants—roughly 184,000 people. This is far more undocumented immigrants than live in any other borough.
  • 67% of undocumented immigrants in New York have at least a high school diploma. Over 21% have a college degree, including advanced degrees.
  • 65% of all New Yorkers over age 16 are in the labor force. But 77.4% of undocumented immigrants in the city over age 16 are in the labor force. Their median earnings are 35% lower than those of citizens.

Source: “State of Our Immigrant City, MOIA Annual Report for Calendar Year 2018”

Resources for Individuals and their Families Facing Detention or at Risk of Deportation

Freedom for Immigrants has posted resources for individuals and their families facing detention or at risk of deportation, including:

  1. ICE Detainee Locator – To locate a person currently in ICE custody or who was released from ICE custody within the last 60 days
  2. A phone number to find out a loved one’s U.S. Immigration court date
  3. Directory to find a U.S. Immigration Attorney
  4. Information that describes what a U.S. Immigration Bond is
  5. What to do if you’ve been granted asylum in the United States
  6. What to do if you or a loved one has been wrongfully deported
  7. How to find a host or sponsor for someone in ICE detention
  8. What are the rights of people with disabilities in immigration detention
  9. How to find people detained anywhere in the world

Click here for further information.

Petition to Keep Border Patrols off Greyhound Buses

BUSES ARE NO PLACE FOR BORDER PATROL

Sign the Petition HERE.

From the ACLU:

Throughout the country, people rely on Greyhound to get to work, visit family, or to simply travel freely. But Greyhound has been letting Border Patrol board its buses to question and arrest passengers without a warrant or any suspicion of wrongdoing. The company is throwing its loyal customers under the bus.

For more than a year, we’ve been urging Greyhound to stop letting Border Patrol board its buses, but the company is refusing to issue a policy protecting its customers. So now we’re taking our fight to the next level.

Greyhound is owned by FirstGroup plc, a multi-national transport group based in the UK, whose own Code of Ethics and Corporate Responsibility contradicts what its subsidiary has been doing to passengers.

“We are committed to recognising human rights on a global basis. We have a zero-tolerance approach to any violations within our company or by business partners.”

Greyhound’s complicity in the Trump deportation machine is a clear violation of the human rights values that FirstGroup professes to uphold. We must raise our voices: Sign the petition to demand that FirstGroup direct Greyhound to comply with its code of ethics. Greyhound must stop throwing customers under the bus.

Sign the ACLU’s petition to FirstGroup plc, the parent company of Greyhound, to demand that they comply with their code of ethics and stop allowing Border Patrol to board and search its buses without probable cause or warrant.

Sign the Petition HERE.

In Praise of Migrants—And Jackson Heights

(A Review: This Land is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto, Suketu Mehta)

Suketu Mehta is an immigrant. And he’s not apologizing for it.

These days, a great many people in the rich countries complain loudly about migration from the poor ones. But as the migrants see it, the game was rigged: First, the rich countries colonized us and stole our treasure and prevented us from building our industries. After plundering us for centuries, they left, having drawn up maps in ways that ensured permanent strife between our communities….

Having built up their economies with our raw materials and our labor, they asked us to go back and were surprised when we did not. They stole our minerals and corrupted our governments so that their corporations could continue stealing our resources; they fouled the air above us and the waters around us, making our farms barren, our oceans lifeless; and they were aghast when the poorest among us arrived at their borders, not to steal but to work, to clean their shit, and to fuck their men.

Still, they needed us. They needed us to fix their computers and heal their sick and teach their kids, so they took our best and brightest, those who had been educated at the greatest expense of the struggling states they came from, and seduced us again to work for them. Now, again, they ask us not to come, desperate and starving though they have rendered us, because the richest among them need a scapegoat. This is how the game is rigged today.

Mehta’s book is a clear, engaging explanation of the global, national and personal dynamics of immigration. It’s based on his own experience, and that of his family, which has migrated all over the world. But it’s also grounded in research, informed by righteous indignation, and fueled by a desire for justice for migrants, especially those less fortunate than himself. As the author puts it, “This book is being written in sorrow and rage—as well as hope.”

This Land isn’t a “movement” book. It doesn’t delve into the various strands of the immigrant rights struggle, analyze immigration legislation or lay out a strategy for defeating Donald Trump. But nevertheless, it’s definitely a political book. What Mehta does is to try and change the popular discourse about immigration, using facts, experiences and exhilaratingly blunt arguments. He approaches migration in various contexts and from various angles, always reinforcing the value, humanity and dignity of migrants.

Mehta, who lived in Jackson Heights as a young immigrant, combines pithy arguments with devastating real-life examples. One of his most memorable examples is an extended description of a “friendship park” between San Diego and Tijuana. For many years, this was “the only place on the two-thousand-mile U.S. Mexican  border where you could meet your family face to face…a small patch of land adjoining the Pacific Ocean.” Mehta describes in agonizing detail how this tiny park, where families were once allowed to mingle freely, was suddenly fenced in, then double-fenced, so that people could barely touch pinkies. Today only ten people at a time are allowed in from the U.S. side. They are forbidden to take photos or videos, or even record the voices of their loved ones. Mehta spent two days at the park, absorbing the poignant and tragic stories of separated families, who travel for hours and days to see their loved ones across the border fences. Meanwhile, Border Patrol officers he interviewed exhibited open disdain for the park’s visitors.

Some of Mehta’s most potent writing is dedicated to exposing the realities of imperialism. He doesn’t pull any punches:

Before you ask other people to respect the borders of the West, ask yourself if the West has ever respected anybody else’s border. How often has the United States gone over the southern border or into the Caribbean or Southeast Asia? How often does it keep doing so, going over the borders of Iraq or Afghanistan? The United States has not acted lawfully with other nations, including the Native American nations on its soil, through most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. How can it now expect the human victims of that enormous illegality to obey the laws of the United States and stay home or wait thirty years for a visa to rejoin their families?

Mehta makes it clear that this imperial hypocrisy doesn’t just apply to the U.S., but to all the colonial powers. For instance, he spends some time examining the history of British imperialism in his original homeland of India. He also describes how brutal French colonialism in the Caribbean and North Africa has resulted in massive migration.

In recent decades, as Mehta explains, colonialism has taken new forms. Many former colonies have gained legal independence. Now it is primarily multinational corporations and global banks that control the world economy, not Western governments. But the effects on ordinary people are largely the same. As he puts it,

They looted us for centuries, and they took whatever was worth taking, and they continued taking after we became ‘independent’—of their governments, but not of their corporations.” Trillions of dollars in wealth is still being transferred from the poor countries to the rich countries….

This has a direct bearing on the ethics of immigration. Between 1970 and 2010, Mexico lost $872 billion in illicit financial outflows, and most of the money ended up in American banks. Around this time—from 1965 to 2015—16 million Mexicans immigrated to the United States. They weren’t doing anything wrong; they were just following the money. Their money.

Besides the economic injustice of imperialism, Mehta discusses how imperialist wars trigger mass migration. He discusses not only classic armed conflicts, such as proxy civil wars and invasions, but also the phony “war on drugs,” which destroys nations while fattening the wallets of Western bankers. Together, all of these wars generate refugees by the millions.

Another major source of migration discussed in This Land is climate change. More and more nations are experiencing droughts, floods, and severe weather of all kinds. Crops are dying; heat-related deaths are skyrocketing. And so people are leaving their homes.

And where should they move to? To their former colonizers, or to the country most responsible for the heating of the planet? Americans are only 4 percent of the world’s population but are responsible for one-third of the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Next comes the European Union, which put another quarter of the existing CO2 in the atmosphere. America creates a third of the world’s solid waste and consumes a fifth of the world’s energy. The average American uses as much energy as 35 Indians, or 185 Ethiopians, and consumes as many goods and services as 53 Chinese. But America was the first and only country to walk away from a global attempt at a solution: the Paris Agreement. The Trump administration is an existential threat to life on the planet today. The most damning indictment against Americans: we ruined the planet and then elected a government that will stop any last chance we have of saving it.

Mehta emphasizes that anti-immigrant sentiment, especially in the U.S., is closely tied to racism. White citizens often feel a sense of entitlement, coupled now with the feeling that they are losing privileges that used to be automatic. White citizens also, at times, feel jealous. Many immigrants are better educated than white U.S. citizens, and make more money after arriving here. (For instance, the median income for Indian Americans was over $110,000 in 2016.) Donald Trump, of course,has amplified false white nationalist narratives about crime and about immigrants draining resources from the U.S. His open appeal to white grievance and betrayal has helped increase and intensify an onslaught of racist attacks on immigrants. As Mehta says, “the conversation about immigrants in America…is approaching incitement to genocide.”

Mehta makes it clear that this racism isn’t random or disorganized. It’s actively encouraged by wealthy capitalists. The billionaire class and giant corporations have profited from globalist outsourcing,while simultaneously disinvesting from the U.S. Now the capitalists are eager to redirect outraged white resentment away from themselves and onto scapegoated immigrants.

One of Mehta’s most controversial assertions is that immigration should be understood as a form of reparations for the sins of colonialism. This is an attention-grabbing argument, but it turns out to be one of his less rigorous ones. After all, as Mehta argues at length, immigration has been good for countries like the U.S. Not just good: indispensable. It seems like an odd kind of “reparations” that comes free of cost to the offenders. This Land struggles with the contradiction, finally concluding that: “A huge bill is coming due to the West. And it is one that the West is not only morally obligated to pay, but one that it should also look forward to paying.”

This part of Mehta’s analysis, while it may be somewhat confusing, is also pretty thought-provoking. Mehta is putting his finger on a sensitive spot. Doesn’t the U.S. in fact owe reparations to the countries and peoples it has undermined and ripped off? Isn’t migration a human right, whether it helps the receiving country’s economy or not? These are some of the most important questions in front of us today.

This Land is full of revealing data. For instance, did you know that there are now 9 million U.S. citizens—migrants—living abroad, up from 4 million in 1999? Or that Turkey took in more than a million refugees in 2014, while the has U.S. allowed in just 50,000 refugees per year for decades? (Trump wants to reduce that to 30,000.) Mehta’s book is not only interesting and easy to read, but it’s also chock full of ammunition for immigrant rights fighters and supporters.

This Land includes many heartbreaking and hopeful stories of migrants—those who he calls “everyday heroes”—in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world. They are people who often end up doing the hardest work in our societies, after risking their safety and freedom to migrate because they are driven to help their families or are fighting to escape intolerable situations. In many cases the migrants Mehta profiles show tremendous insight, courage and initiative.

Ultimately, This Land is a cautiously hopeful book. Bringing things right home, Mehta upholds Jackson Heights as an example of the advantages of migration and multiculturalism. Mehta is aware of the divisions here. And in fact, he argues that multiculturalism doesn’t depend on everybody instantly loving each other. It’s more of a process. He remembers that, in his youth, Jackson Heights had to cope with some deeply rooted ethnic antagonisms, which had migrated right along with people.

My neighbors were Indians and Pakistanis, Jews and Muslims, Haitians and Dominicans; the building was owned by a Turkish man but the super was Greek. Many of them had been killing each other just before they got on the plane….

But we were in a new country now, making a new life. And we could live side by side and interact in certain demarcated ways. We could exchange food; our kids could play together; they could go to school together. We discovered that we are more alike than different. South Asians in the West, for instance: Indians and Pakistanis and Bangladeshis who have been warring at home discover, in Jackson Heights, that they are “desi,” and share a love of samosas and Bollywood. If we still didn’t like our neighbors, we would not burn and riot as we might at home; we would suffer them…. Because no one ethnicity dominates, no one community gets blamed if the economy goes south.

And now, diversity has become a point of attraction for all kinds of people, from all kinds of backgrounds. As Mehta puts it, “Creative people want to live in the kind of city where they can hear many languages spoken on the street, and have a choice between pupusas and parathas for dinner.”

Mehta is inspired by Jackson Heights, and by New York in general. He notes that the city has been thriving because of the huge waves of immigration that arrived in recent decades. The author’s moving hope is that New York can serve as an example to the world.

But as Mehta knows only too well, there’s plenty of racism and inequality in New York. And there’s a vicious anti-immigrant storm raging all around us. Many residents of Jackson Heights are living in fear, while ICE thugs swagger around like modern-day Brownshirts.

Woven together with his sadness and rage, This Land’s moral clarity and expansive vision do give us cause for long-term hope. Mehta’s manifesto is important for that reason, among many others. But it’s pretty obvious that the author’s optimistic view of Jackson Heights isn’t something we can take for granted. On the contrary, it’s something we’re going to have to fight like hell to live up to, and to defend.

 

 

AOC Town Hall in Queens

Thank you to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for the Immigration Town Hall, held on Saturday, July 20th, in Corona. Thanks, also, to Amaha Kassa, Jennifer Sun, Roksana Mun, Yatziri Tovar, Lupito Romero and everyone else who contributed to this amazing event.