Posts Tagged ‘immigration’

Coming to America

December 9, 2018

Olga Porterfield, a friend of mine, gave a talk to the Capital District Humanist Society, about Jewish refugees exiting the Soviet Union. She was one of them, at age 20, in 1979.

She began with a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. — “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”

Olga Zemitskaya was born in Moscow in 1959. Jewish identity was submerged; in fact, she said, growing up she had no idea what “Jewish” meant. Her Jewish consciousness was awakened when her father brought her to a synagogue for a Simchat Torah celebration. This was actually a subversive thing to do in the atheistic USSR. Also subversive was the family’s “anti-Soviet” attitude; as a teenager she was reading “samizdat” — underground literature passed secretly from hand to hand. Being doubly such a rebel was heady stuff, especially when she fell in love with a boy with the same proclivities. But he was planning to leave for America.

Anti-semitism has a long and dreadful history in that part of the world. Russian anti-semitism went into overdrive in the wake of Israel’s 1967 Six-Day War victory. The situation was aggravated by the 1970 “Airplane affair” when a group of Jews tried to hijack a small plane to escape the USSR.

You couldn’t just pick up and leave. The authorities had to grant permission — and just requesting it marked you as a pariah, you were persecuted for it. Quite a few Jews nevertheless got permission, and went to either the U.S. or Israel. But there were also a great many “refuseniks” — Jews whose exit visas were refused. This became a focus of international condemnation toward the USSR. In 1975, America in response enacted the Jackson-Vanik amendment, punishing the Soviets on trade terms.

To illustrate the issue’s prominence, Olga showed Saturday Night Live’s Gilda Radner babbling on about “Saving Soviet Jewelry.” When informed that the issue was actually “jewry,” she responded with her standard line, “Never mind.”

Shcharansky

A leading refusenik agitator was Anatoly Shcharansky. I remember first seeing him, interviewed in Russia around 1976, and being flabbergasted by the courage of his outspoken criticism of the Soviet regime. In 1977, he was arrested, falsely charged as a spy, and sent to a Siberian ordeal. In 1986, finally, America got him out — exchanged for real spies. Today, as Natan Sharansky, he is an Israeli government minister.

Also mentioned by Olga was Andrei Sakharov, the nuclear physicist who became a vocal dissident, and his Jewish wife, Elena Bonner. Sakharov was immured in internal exile in Gorki.

Sakharov

But as the dictatorship began to crumble, Sakharov actually became a member of parliament, called the nation’s conscience. He died the month after the Berlin Wall fell.

But for Olga her greatest hero was her mother, for whom Olga’s emigration was a deep personal loss; yet she actively supported her daughter in this.

In 1979, the USSR invaded Afghanistan, becoming even more of an international pariah. In a piqued response to the criticism, the Russian regime slammed shut the door on emigration. But luckily for Olga, she had rejected her family’s pleas to hold off and wait until they all could go; she had applied for her exit visa; and got it before the door shut. Her parents were subsequently refused. (They finally reached America in the Gorbachev era.)

Soviet exit visa

Olga showed on the screen that most precious document — her official permission to leave the Soviet Union — forever.

She travelled first to Vienna, then to Rome, to wait for documents to come to America. She loved the weeks she spent in Rome. People were all smiling, she said; “nobody smiled in Moscow.” The workers’ paradise.

Olga arrived in the United States of America on June 21, 1979. When we still welcomed immigrants.

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Concentration camps. In 2018. In America. For children.

June 16, 2018

“First they came for the Jews . . . “

Eighty years ago, on the deck of ship passing the Statue of Liberty, stood my mother, a refugee from the Nazis.

Two days ago I stood, for a second time, in a protest about children taken away from parents at the border. The night before, watching a program including something about Auschwitz, I heard the line, “upon arrival, children ripped from their mothers’ arms.”

That was a Nazi crime. Now it’s America ripping children from mothers’ arms. And, literally, putting them in concentration camps.* Some in cages there. I used to loathe America-haters accusing my beloved country of crimes. Now it brought tears to my eyes to be standing there myself protesting a crime against humanity by America.

(Times-Union photo)

It’s not just “illegal immigrants” who are victims of this atrocity. Also asylum seekers, who do not arrive illegally. Their right to come here to apply for asylum is clear under international law supposedly subscribed to by America. There was a time when the U.S. respected — even promoted — international human rights norms. Trump’s border policy blatantly violates them.

Now Attorney General Sessions furthermore says we will no longer recognize claims for asylum based on domestic or gang violence, abrogating longstanding principles relating to asylum. And no other country separates children from parents at their border. None. 

For most of these migrants, the journey is extremely hard and dangerous even before reaching the border. Anyone who brings their children through such peril must be trying to escape some truly horrific conditions. They are human beings who have already suffered greatly and deserve, at the very least, compassion and charity. Instead we treat them as criminals, indeed meting out the harshest punishment imaginable. Taking away their children. Many of these parents will never again see children disappearing into the bureaucratic chaos of America’s overwhelmed concentration camp system (and foster care system). This vile crime, against innocent children as well as their parents, is an indelible black stain upon this country and upon every government functionary guilty of participating in it.

That includes Jeff Sessions, John Kelly, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who continue trying to defend this monstrous policy. And it mainly includes the occupant of the desk where the buck stops. Who weaseled that it’s because of a “horrible law” allegedly passed by Democrats. That is nonsense. The law in question was passed in the George W. Bush administration — and does not require child separation. It was never so interpreted before. Trump is doubly criminal: presiding over this cruel travesty, and lying to blame political opponents for it.

These shameless creeps dare to call themselves Christians and even, to defend their inhumanity, invoke the Bible. What would Jesus do?

Trump fantasizes going to Stockholm for a Nobel Prize. Instead it should be the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

How low America has sunk. The words engraved on the Statue of Liberty — the high ideals of a great and good nation — have been made a cruel mockery. I had actually long feared America was heading for decline. But I never imagined the bottom falling out with such a swift bang.

* Some are falsely told their children are being taken for baths — an eerie echo of Auschwitz victims told they were going to showers, not gas chambers.

America’s war on refugees

April 5, 2018

Way back in 2015 (a different epoch), when I wrote here comparing America unfavorably with Germany regarding refugees, my daughter (working in the Middle East for a refugee aid organization) chided me that we’ve actually taken in more refugees than any other Western nation.

That was then.

My lawn sign

Our annual refugee quota had averaged 95,000. Now it’s been slashed to 45,000, and actual admissions will likely be far lower. Our infrastructure of charities helping refugees is crumbling because the pipeline is running dry. Partly it’s because Trump has put additional restrictions on intake from 11 countries on a secret list, said to include South Sudan, Syria, and Iraq. In other words, many of the people most desperately in need of refuge.

This panders to Trump’s most rabid nativist fans, and reflects his own personal vileness.

He’s also trying to build a wall, impose a Muslim travel ban, kick out dreamers and millions of other undocumented residents, and even to cut traditional legal immigration almost in half. He’s already ordered out tens of thousands of Haitian, Salvadoran, Liberian, and other refugees, many of whom have lived here legally for decades under a special program.

A lot of them are now heading north to Canada: refugees FROM America!

All these policies are not only cruel, but harm our own country. We should welcome immigrants and refugees not just because it’s the right thing to do, the humane thing, but because they’re good for America, making it stronger and better. (As it does for Canada.)

Trump’s saying other countries “send” us their worst people is a moronic lie. Migrants are not sent, they’re self-selected, and those with the courage and grit to leave behind everything familiar and start fresh in a new country are the best people. Certainly better than those creeps who revile them.

It’s a lie that migrants cost us money. To the contrary, their productive efforts and talents add to our national prosperity. In fact, with an aging population (collecting ever more benefits) and declining workforce participation rates, we desperately need the new blood of immigrants to refresh our employment pool. It’s a major reason why America’s economy is fizzier than in other countries even less receptive to immigration.

And it’s a lie that immigrants and refugees cause crime or threaten terrorism. In fact their crime rate is lower than for the native-born. None of the three million refugees we accepted since 1980 has ever been involved in a fatal terrorist attack.

All these lying arguments against immigrants and refugees are fig leaves to cover up the naked truth. This is racism. The people being kept out and kicked out mainly have brown skins. That, plain and simple, is the animus behind Trump’s actions.

He also lies in blaming Democrats for lack of a DACA solution. He himself was responsible for creating the problem in the first place; he lied when he said he wanted a legislative fix; he did his utmost to torpedo every effort. And he blames Democrats. What a sicko.

From The Economist

The Economist’s Lexington columnist (who covers America) wrote recently about a South Sudanese teenager he’d met in an African refugee camp in 2000. Read his great article. That refugee now lives in Michigan in a four bedroom house with two cars; he’s so far contributed over $100,000 in taxes. Lexington tells this success story not because it’s exceptional but because it’s typical. And the goodness doesn’t shine just in America. Most migrants doing well here send money back to home-country relatives, uplifting those people and places too.*

Finally, immigrants and refugees understand and uphold, far better than most natives, what America is all about, the ideals and values it stands for (or used to). Everything Trump turns his back on. He’s un-American.

America was great because it was good. Now it’s breaking my heart.

* I wrote here a poem in 2016 inspired by a Somali refugee. I sent him a check; he told me he sent the money to his mother in Africa.

The ICE man cometh

March 4, 2017

unknownThis title was unavoidable. ICE stands for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. I have long referred to it as our Gestapo. And that was before Trump. Under Obama, 2.7 million were deported, and horror stories abounded. But at least there were some restraints. Now ICE is totally out of control.

As in the case of law enforcement generally, ICE has an unfortunate tendency to attract the wrong sort — who get their jollies abusing people. And it’s reported that “morale” in ICE ranks has soared under Trump, with the “shackles” now off. When his travel order came out, ICE men were emboldened to enforce it with sickening excess. Many victims legally entitled to be here were treated brutally and denied entry by ICE pricks.* (“And some, I assume, are good people.”)

poster420x415f8f8f8-pad420x460f8f8f8-u1Now the administration has issued new deportation guidelines. The idea of deporting all undocumented residents was always considered, well, crazy, at least if you have brains and human decency. Alas, those are not hallmarks of the Trump administration. The new guidelines target not only those having committed crimes, but even minor traffic offenses. And — get this — people merely “SUSPECTED” of offenses. (By who? On what basis?) How can that square with the 14th amendment, which says all “persons” (not just citizens) are entitled to due process of law. A noble assertion of what used to be America’s fundamental values.

imagesBut in practice, ICE men now seem free to seek out and grab not just “bad hombres” but anybody. Like Ramiro Martinez-Chacon of Hudson, (formerly from violence-wracked El Salvador), in the U.S. since 2002, minding his own business at home on February 7 when some ICE men came, handcuffed him, and dragged him away, in front of his children, who are U.S. citizens. His sole transgression was being here. This story is being repeated all over the country.

unknownI get it that undocumented residents don’t have a legal right to be here. But many of them were brought as children and have lived their whole lives here. And many have minor children who are citizens. Don’t those kids have a basic human right to live with their parents? Deporting those parents is an extremely cruel, stupid, shamefully pointless policy that harms American children!

And the great majority of these people make a positive contribution to our country. It’s actually only thanks to them that our population and workforce isn’t shrinking. Not only do they do a lot of needed jobs, but by spending money in our economy, they actually support a lot of other jobs held by citizens. It’s been estimated that spending by undocumented residents comprises 5% of our economy. They also contribute taxes (while not being entitled to many benefits). Booting them out makes America and its citizens worse off.

But economics or rationality have nothing to do with Trump’s policy. He’s simply pandering to those who just hate living beside people who don’t look or talk like them. And he’s furthermore whipped up those prejudices by harping on crimes by undocumented people. When in fact studies show they commit fewer crimes on average than U.S. citizens. As should be expected, since the potential penalty (deportation) is more severe.

My lawn sign, before it was vandalized

My lawn sign, before it was vandalized

It’s also ridiculous to say other countries are exporting undesirables to America. To the contrary, anyone undertaking all the risks, difficulties, and challenges of such migration must possess the kinds of personal qualities that make them an asset to whatever community they join. I want them here.

Better than ignorant, hate-filled Trump supporters.

* And not just Muslims. Click here.

Syrian refugees at the golden door

November 19, 2015

UnknownWhile Europe is taking in around a million Syrian refugees, the U.S. has signed up for 10,000. But even that’s being challenged unless our government can guarantee no terrorists will sneak in.

This might seem reasonable prudence; one presidential hopeful has labeled the alternative “insane.” Though in fact, the U.S. is already exceedingly cautious in screening refugees. Over-cautious one might say. Not only is the process long and tortuous, but no bureaucrat wants responsibility for approving someone who later does something bad, with Muslims in particular considered suspect. (I’ve written of the shameful consequent stonewalling toward Iraqi asylum-seekers.)

Is it plausible a would-be terrorist might hide among refugees? In France, maybe; but here, he’d likely flunk that extremely difficult acceptance process – while there are quicker and easier ways to get into America – as the 9/11 hijackers did. And have we forgotten the eleven million people already here illegally? Considering that, worry over the bona fides of a few thousand Syrians (who will be thoroughly vetted) is absurd.

But can we guarantee no terrorists will get in? No – but the quest for 100% safety is, as ever, a fool’s errand. Everything has risks, which we balance against rewards – as with automobiles. Except when, irrationally, we don’t – as with Syrian refugees (or fracking). You’re literally a thousand times likelier to die in a car accident than from terrorism. Yet we drive.

These Syrians are not terrorists but victims of terror. Which leads to the overriding point: we should welcome them because it’s the right thing to do, the humane thing, the compassionate thing. We are a big and rich country, caviling at a few thousand bedraggled refugees? Have we also forgotten the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty?images-1

But admitting refugees is not a sacrifice. Studies repeatedly show immigrants contribute more to a country’s economy than they cost. They work harder, on average, start more businesses, and commit fewer crimes, than the native born. They enlarge the economic pie. These Syrians will enrich America. It’s such a wonderful country, I want as many people as possible to enjoy it as I do. This is worth the remote risk of one doing harm.

During WWII, our golden door was mostly closed toward Jews trying to flee the Holocaust. (My mother’s family was lucky, having a U.S. relative to sponsor them; though a grandmother didn’t make it.)

imagesWe fortunate cosseted Americans can scarcely even relate to the nightmare these people endure. Syria’s horror might seem far away, and its victims unlike us. But all human beings are far more alike than different. Syrians feel pain just like you or me; suffer anguish and fear just as you would; love their children just as much.

“Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, senses, affections, passions? If you prick us, do we not bleed?”

The Two Americas: Which is Exceptional?

June 9, 2014

images“The Two Americas” was the refrain of a past presidential candidate, contrasting U.S. affluence with its lack; certainly a familiar theme lately. But I have a different point, prompted by something in a recent issue of The Economist that I felt hit the bullseye.

It was in a review of The Triple Package: What Really Determines Success, by Amy Chua (of “Tiger Mother” fame) and Jed Rubenfeld. The “package,” they say, characterizes ethnic groups that excel in business: a sense of superiority, yet also insecurity, and a great capacity for impulse control, especially the ability to persevere in the face of obstacles.

America, the reviewer said, “was once the quintessential triple package nation” – convinced of its exceptional destiny, yet prodded by insecurity (from Eurosnobbery), and with a strong work ethic. But lately, “insecurity and the will to work have all but vanished. What is left is essentially the swagger, complacency and entitlement of a perverted sense of exceptionalism.” (My emphasis)

So true! But not of America’s entirety; though a large part of America unfortunately fits that indictment. This “America 1” does thoughtlessly feel a sense of complacent exceptionalist entitlement: that our workers should earn pay much higher than Chinese or Indians, regardless of whether those can do the same work far more cheaply. images-2Indeed, as though there’s something wrong about their doing it. As though we can somehow protect ourselves against this economic reality by stopping businesses from “shipping jobs overseas.” As though Americans do have some sort of God-bestowed entitlement to these jobs and their high pay, and Bangladeshis do not. As though raising minimum wages and decreeing other employee benefits can magically boost our incomes regardless of global market forces. As though we can moreover have an ever smaller percentage of people actually working and paying taxes while an ever larger contingent collects pensions, unemployment, Social Security, Disability, welfare, Medicare, etc. As though we can continue this while our educational attainment erodes, and our infrastructure degrades from underinvestment, relative to other nations. As though we can have our cake and eat it too.

It’s ironic that the right knocks President Obama for insufficient devotion to American exceptionalism, when he in fact epitomizes some of the wrong-headed exceptionalism I’ve described, so toxic for our future. America was not ordained by God to be the greatest of nations. What we achieved resulted from the kind of people we were, and the things we did. Fail to keep that up and we’ll suffer the consequences. America 1 is rushing obliviously down that path.

images-1But there are still plenty of Americans who, though (like me) considering this a great (even exceptional) nation, don’t feel the world owes them a living in consequence. In this “America 2,” there is still plenty of go-get-’em industriousness, a willingness to take on great challenges, by one’s own mettle, undeterred by obstacles and setbacks.

This America 2 is the one I love. It’s a cliché that immigrants built this country. But in fact America 2 is heavily populated by recent immigrants. images-3Anyone with the moxie to leave behind everything familiar and strike out for a new land, often at great physical risk, makes the best kind of American. It’s these people who can save America from the syndrome described in that Economist review.

But sadly, America 1, mired in complacency and entitlement, doesn’t see it. America 1 actually hates America 2 and literally wants to build a wall against America 2. I wish we could swap out a big chunk of America 1 for more of America 2.

 

 

 

 

George F. Kennan: Grumpy Old Man

January 31, 2014

UnknownGeorge F. Kennan (1905-2006) was considered one of our great wise men. A diplomat, he was a key architect of the cold war “containment policy” toward the Soviet Union. Because of his godlike repute, I picked up his 1993 book, Around the Cragged Hill, not a memoir but a volume of reflections. It was disappointing.

It’s written in an arch, portentous style, which perhaps he felt flattered his stature. It’s the style of “why use two words if four will do?”

And Kennan was the quintessential curmudgeon. I was reminded of one of my first blog posts, reviewing a book by Daniel Boorstin. images-1Like Boorstin, Kennan seemed to hate virtually everything about modern life – round up the usual suspects – the television, the car, urbanization. He hated the car for promoting suburban sprawl, yet he also hated so many people living in cities, and actually advocated trying to move them back to farms – even if that reduced farm efficiency. (We can feed ourselves with less than 2% of the population in agriculture). Unknown-1Kennan romanticized the farm life, but was himself a citified intellectual who wouldn’t want to live it. (You know the type.)

The basic problem is a failure to see the larger picture. Yes, everything about modernity has drawbacks, but also compensations. Life is all about trade-offs. I keep pointing to a 30,000 annual U.S. highway death toll – which, bizarrely, Kennan’s anti-car diatribe failed to mention! Yet we as a society evidently consider this a price worth paying for cars’ huge benefits. That’s not completely crazy.

Similarly myopic was Kennan’s view of automation as a job killer plain and simple. He opposed boosting productivity by replacing human labor with robots, etc., because, after all, people gotta have jobs. imagesSuch Luddism is again blind to the bigger picture, imagining a world full of factories spewing out products without employing anyone, so everyone starves. The absurdity, of course, is who would buy the products? It never plays out this way. Just as improved agricultural productivity freed the masses from farm drudgery, so they could be employed producing other things, thereby enriching everybody, improved industrial productivity likewise frees people to fill other needs, again multiplying societal wealth. That’s why global living standards rose five-fold in the last century.

Kennan was also down on immigration. His argument: poverty among nations, like water, will find an equilibrium level, so absent restriction, poor countries will export poverty to richer ones until all have equal poverty. images-2What’s wrong with that argument? Simply that there are reasons why Americans are richer than Haitians; America has a societal culture and infrastructure much more conducive to people being productive and thereby able to achieve higher living standards. Immigrants from Haiti don’t bring America down to Haitian levels; they raise themselves to American levels. More people being more productive in America, ceteris paribus, spreads wealth, not poverty.

The book ends with a run-down of America’s problems, proposing a “State Council” of distinguished Americans to make recommendations. As if that could actually solve anything. The proposal followed some lamentations that wise old-timers like him don’t get listened to enough. Which — judging from the content of this book — may be a good thing.

But there was at least one point in the book I agreed with. That will be a separate post, soon.

This is Who I Want Here

April 18, 2013

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Immaculee Ilibagiza, survivor of the 1994 Rwanda genocide and author of a best-selling book about it, pledging allegiance at her U.S. citizenship ceremony Wednesday in New York. (Photos by Bebeto Matthews, Associated Press)

Welcome to America, Immaculee.