Sunday, December 29, 2013

Are deportations an intentional strategy to destroy the Latino family unit?

File photo from Al Día
We've heard over and over how deportations are intended to target criminal elements of the undocumented population. But the Transactional Records Action Clearinghouse (TRAC) released a report in October of this year that indicated that only 38 percent of those put in deportation proceedings by ICE in the first six months of the year had any record of criminal activity, a definition that encompassed traffic violations by the way.

In a November release, TRAC stated that 2013 was a record year for immigration prosecutions, with 97,384 cases filed against new defendants. It represents a 5.9 percent increase from the 2012 deportation rate, and a 22.6 percent increase in the past five years.

The numbers stand in stark contrast to every public statement the administration (under Janet Napolitano's direction of DHS) has made about narrowing and refining the scope of deportations. (It is hard to predict what Jeh Johnson will do in her stead since he is so recently confirmed to the post.) 

According to the National Day Laborer Organizing Network — which participated in a number of actions to block deportation buses this past year — the enforcement of deportations orders continues to tear families apart. 

It is not the only organization to say so. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has long maintained that the impact of existing immigration policies has been borne by families, and organizations formed by the undocumented themselves — like Dream Activist — regularly make public the stories of families torn asunder by detention and imminent deportation. Many of the family impacted are "mixed" families, with U.S. citizen children and undocumented parents and/or siblings.

The result is utterly devastating to both the individuals involved and to cultural communities built around the importance — primacy, really — of family. We are seeding a generation of children ripped forcibly from their parents' sides by the state. A generation left behind, and lost to themselves and their ancestral culture.  

File photo from Al Día
A 2011 study of the Applied Research Center revealed that, at that time, more than 5,100 children of detained or deported immigrants were in foster care in 22 states. Some, like Encarnation Bail Romero's son or Amelia Reyes Jimenez's four children were adopted away from biological parents deemed to have abandoned them because they were deported or in detention. Others, like Cesia and Ronald Soza Jr., are in foster care after coming home from school to find their single parent detained, and subsequently deported, even though his children say he tried to comply with the requirements imposed by the state that should have permitted him to stay at least until they were of age.

The long-term effects of such forcible separations are not sufficiently studied, but many of the experts speaking about the mental health stressors of immigration at a recent Dart Center Workshop factor the fear of deportation and the effects of separation into their assessments of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorders that can, and do, affect the undocumented in the U.S.

There is some similarity to the forcible separation of Native American children from their families and cultures in our nation's history — though, of course, that was far more widespread and even more virulent and systemic than this. It is a cultural trauma that still impacts many Native American bands, nations and individuals, and it is not too tremendous a stretch to imagine a similarly lasting impact on the generations of young Latinos stranded here without their families and cultural anchors. (Moreover, it is impossible to ignore that the majority of those deported, by ICE's own statistics for 2013, are from four countries — Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — and are likely to include many with indigenous ancestry.)

Family separation is a huge concern for all immigrants. In fact, Asian immigration advocates have taken a strong stand against the switch from a family-reunification-centered visa allocation in the Senate bill in part because of the violence it will do to cultural norms centered on family.  

Still, I have long maintained that the debate about immigration policy took a turn a while ago from focusing primarily on lack of documentation to broader xenophobic "invasion" fears tied to the rapid demographic growth of Latinos — documented and citizen included — across the nation. 

Public excoriation of Latinos performing at sporting events; removal of Mexican American history and literature from Arizona schools; housing discrimination against Latinos; efforts to curtail Latino business and growth within municipalities under the aegis of immigration relief;  efforts to pit Latinos in a zero sum game against African-Americans  (which has only recently started to be counter-disputed with statistics from the 2010 Census) and many other increasingly visible manifestations of anti-Latino proposed public policy and raw sentiment have done nothing to dissuade me from my thinking. 

What better, then, to slow a population growth that is viewed as "undesirable" than to destroy Latino families through unprecedented deportation rates justified by the state's desire to restore order and safeguard sovereignty? 

I know many will bristle at this interpretation, and still I cannot shake it as I consider the deportation rate and the way it has utterly failed —time and again — at distinguishing between criminality and family need, between those who want to imperil security and those whose whole journey has been toward finding security for themselves and their loved ones.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Arguing while American -- E.L. Doctorow, my mother, and arrogance

Last year, as the genocide trial of former General Efraín Rios Montt unfolded in Guatemala, I was glued to the proceedings. I live streamed enough hours of the trial that the witness of the indigenous Ixil and K’iche’ people who testified will be seared in my consciousness probably for the rest of my life. When I wasn’t watching live stream, I was reading analysis of the trial written by observers from across the world; following the tweets about it from the dozens of Guatemalans I followed even before the trial started, and adding another dozen or so Guatemalan tweeple after #sihubogenocidio became my default hashtag search. I reached out to have a Guatemalan journalist write an opinion piece in AL DÍA, and gave one of our staff reporters some contacts of Guatemalans in diaspora, in Philadelphia and nationally, for her to interview for the cover story we ran.

When Rios Montt was found guilty and sentenced to 80 years, I cried. When the trial was retroactively deemed unconstitutional and annulled, I cried again. Different tears, same heart filled with the country I’ve always loved, that I’ve lost and will never be able to fully reclaim again.

I shared much of this with my friends and family on Facebook, as is my wont. One of my cousins, who lives in Guatemala, commented — in a caring way — that I was completely and utterly wrong. About the trial, the witnesses, the meaning I was attributing to actions and counteractions. I argued. She argued. We went back and forth for bit, and then eventually dropped it and went back to sharing photos of our loved ones and updates about the work that we each feel passionately about.

But before I post anything about Guatemala these days, I think about her.

The thing is, I haven’t changed my mind, nor my politics, nor one sentiment or belief about the fundamental injustice, ruthless repression and endemic racism that drove 30+ years of horrific undeclared civil war into an even more unbearable and horrific genocide. But the country that haunts my memories and my dreams and my stories, doesn’t haunt my days — and it hasn’t for almost 40 years now.

My cousin, on the other hand, lives there. Always has. That’s where her children were born, and recently, a grandchild. It’s where her mother and grandmother are buried. Her life is there — during the worst days and the best — in what is still one of the most violent countries of the western hemisphere.

And I live in the country whose policy toward Guatemala historically included deposing a popularly-elected president, shoring up a series of dictators and repressive military governments with arms and counterinsurgency experts that, as documents released through the freedom of information act show, came this close to participation in the genocide. Guatemala’s current violence is in large part the result of narcotraffic and organized crime but grew directly from the history of impunity for crimes our American government facilitated from the mid 1950s through the early 1990s.

No matter how just the cause we Americans espouse when raising our individual voices about international issues these days, we need to keep our arrogance in check. Too often when we have these conversations (informally or formally) we accord ultimate authority to organizations and voices from outside the country in question, instead of those working to draw attention to the matter from within. We too often adopt strategies for activism that seem brave and audacious in our own cultural context but that bulldoze the far more complicated activism of those in whose name we’re presumably advocating. Femen is a good example of this, with their topless marches that insult and trivialize homegrown women’s rights activism in Muslim countries.

It’s not that we don’t do it with the best of intentions, but it is also an aspect of our American exceptionalism (and the European Union equivalent) that we believe we are “ripping the blinders off” those who are actually living through whatever we’re protesting. We need — really need — to understand how arrogant this seems to those who have more than just metaphoric skin in the game.

Years and years ago, at my college graduation, E. L. Doctorow spoke to the commencement crowd about the undeclared civil wars raging at that very moment in El Salvador and Guatemala. I remember being glad he was doing so, because I hated Ronald Reagan and hoped enough people would get riled and vote him out of office before a second term. But as Doctorow’s speech wore on my mother became more and more agitated.

My mother was Guatemalan. She had lost some  friends to the violent armed internal conflict, and seen others turned paraplegic or chased into exile because of it. In truth, she had lost her country to it as well, because it was the rampant, uncontrollable violence of that era that prompted us to leave. She spent much of her time in the United States discussing with other Guatemalans in diaspora what needed to happen for real change to take place in their country. She would, several years after Doctorow’s commencement speech, host a then-candidate for the presidency (the first civilian in 30 years to try to wrest the post away from military strongmen) in our home, and contribute to his campaign, in an effort to do something concrete from here. (That candidate was popularly elected and despite initial efforts to end human rights abuses, ended up in a test of wills against the military that culminated in his becoming a strawman — but that’s the topic for another blog post).

Anyway, back to Doctorow and my mom ... after commencement was over, I remember asking her why she was upset — after all I had heard her go on and on about the brutality of what was happening in Guatemala in much more specific and heartfelt ways than Doctorow had.

“What time would you guess he’s actually spent in Central America?” she asked me, each word hard and clipped even as her eyes glittered with tears. “A week? Two? His speech was pure arrogance.”

And she was right. It was a white savior speech: easier to swallow, certainly, than the white savior propaganda that had “justified” the U.S meddling in Guatemala in the first place, but at heart it was the very same narrative. We — Americans — would fix it. We’d decry and hector and lecture and politic, and because of our focus on it the dysfunction would disappear ... because now we saw it.

Honestly, I don’t intend to stop advocating for human and civil rights anytime soon, but thinking about this has made me realize how readily I — not even really “white” nor wholly American culturally — put on the cape of savior when I write about the world's injustices in tweet, comment section, blog, column, editorial. I realize how often I choose to speak instead of listening to the homegrown voices that are already raised in discussion about it.

Some of those are voices I like hearing, others not. But all of them have earned their opinions by living in their own country, and nothing I say from the outside — no matter how righteous I think it — should carry the same weight.

Time for a little humility.