Monday, December 1, 2014

An Immigration Crisis of Conscience

My previous post on this blog stated a view I very much believe to be true: that the mass deportation of undocumented immigrants is morally equivalent to ethnic cleansing -- and therefore that President Obama's deferrals of these deportations were admirable for the same reasons that any executive action to withdraw the threat of an ethnic cleansing would be admirable. I return to the point in another post today, not because I wish to retract it-- but because I wish to be very clear about what I mean by it. Ours is a polity of such inflated rhetoric and debased references, after all, that one's eyes can easily glaze over on seeing the words "ethnic cleansing." We have cheapened our own moral coin so much that hearing that a given policy is tantamount to a crime against humanity now entirely fails to shock. What I want to make clear in this post is that I use the term "ethnic cleansing" advisedly-- and not just because I was trying to find the loudest and most abrasive synonym for: "policy I happen to disagree with."

Note that I did not say "genocide" or "Holocaust." Our immigration policy has nothing in common with either. The only things in this world that bear legitimate comparison to genocide or the Holocaust are policies that set out to exterminate whole groups of people, and that is something that no one on any side of the aisle is contemplating here -- to make an obvious but essential point. I do, however, think our immigration policy stands comparison with the more limited, but still morally calamitous phenomenon of "ethnic cleansing" -- in the sense of the word as the massive transfer of whole populations out of territorially-bounded units of land, carried out on the basis of their (externally-defined) "nationality." More than just bearing comparison to such a thing, in fact, our immigration policy, if it were actually implemented to the letter, would be an ethnic cleansing. 

I don't mean just to condemn a particular party or set of politicians, to the exclusion of others. We all stand charged here, because we are not just talking about what might or might not happen in the future, or what one administration or another is likely to do someday. This is not just another instance of a liberal blogger declaring that "It Can Happen Here"-- This is me saying that the ethnic cleansing is already upon us, already formally instantiated in our law; and that each of us, of whatever party affiliation, is indicted by this fact, to the extent we participate in some way in crafting and obeying the laws of our society.

Finally, I do not offer this point in a spirit of finger-wagging. I am not in a position to do any such thing. I've spent most of my political life in a state of ignorance about the key policy debates around immigration, and about what was actually at stake in them. I was also offered no shortage of chances to remove this ignorance, which I failed to act upon -- I was the child of two Unitarian Universalist parents, after all, and they had me attending lectures by Maria Hinojosa, and standing in the hot desert night of Phoenix Arizona to protest the policies of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and holding signs in front of city hall in the heart of our Florida town to call for a halt to deportations. I participated, but did not think much more about the issues on my off-hours. (One reason is quite simply that my level of teenage passion about a cause varied inversely to the extent to which my parents supported it.)

I refused these opportunities for educating myself-- which is remarkable, since I've spent most of that same time as a self-declared "radical" of one kind or another. Funny how I could have so delighted in viewing myself as radically opposed to our existing institutions, yet remained innocent of some of the best reasons for that opposition. I think it has to do with some inherent pessimism in my nature. Back when I desperately wanted to think of good reasons to go on being a young radical, I assumed there weren't any. Now that I am an increasingly complacent 24-year-old who is gradually shaping himself to the contours of American life like batter sinking into a mold, I am suddenly finding very good reasons for thinking that our existing institutions are perpetrating an ethnic cleansing, or at least that they contain the implicit threat of doing so. There are two kinds of spirits in which the statement that "our immigration policy is an ethnic cleansing" can be offered-- one is in the self-delighted tone of someone trying to shock. The other is in the grudging tone of someone who very much wishes it were not the case, because it will compel changes in his life. Mine is the second.

The point is that despite my UU upbringing in Florida and the example of my parents, I remained largely uncommitted with regard to "the immigration issue." If I regarded it as important, I did not think of it as a "human rights" problem. The latter title was reserved in my mind for the international arena, which is of course the only place in which things as dire as "ethnic cleanings" could ever occur. Instead I would have thought about it under some tamer appellation, which implied that less fundamental values were at stake: "domestic policy," for example. Nor would I have thought the issues bore comparison to those of the civil rights era, say, or to other times and instances in which the moral stakes had been "much higher" (in my then-judgment).  

And yet every historical period thinks its own stakes are much lower than those of the past-- because every era thinks it is in some sense the last one, that it has arrived at the cumulative achievement of human morality, and that the rest is just a matter of mopping up from the victories already gained. A political awakening begins when one starts to question this judgment -- when it occurs to one that there were also a lot of good, well-intentioned people at the outset of the civil rights era who thought that the activists probably had justice on their side, but that they were being exaggerated in their claims and efforts.

There were also more sincere doubts and qualms on my part. The troubling thought occurred to me, for instance, that perhaps the reason I and people like me were willing to be so clement in our immigration policy is that we do not need to compete for low-wage and low-skill jobs. There is a certain callousness in empathy, and a stinginess in generosity-- especially when one is being "generous" with sacrifices that other people will mostly have to bear. Such matters deserve treatment at greater length, in some future post, but for now all I can say is what now seems plain to me: namely, that the problem with low-wages and bad conditions is never with the laborer, and always with the labor contract. No undocumented person wants or intends to reduce wages or lower standards-- nor is she the one with the agency to do so-- that is done by her employer. To raise those wages and standards again requires organizing all workers, undocumented or otherwise; and this in turn can only happen in a world where migrants don't have to fear deportation or encounters with the law. The presence of an exploitable pool of marginal, illicit laborers may lower wages, but this is plainly a reason to legalize the status of such workers, rather than to penalize them further. This perhaps should have been obvious to me all along. It is certainly a point one wishes were made more often by immigrant rights activists, who can shade into a spurious kind of neoliberalism at times when they are singing the praises of all the wonderful things immigrants "do for our economy."

So it is my own indictment that I am writing here, as much as that of others. I was surrounded by immigration activists, by virtue of my upbringing, long before I started to truly pay attention to what they were trying to say. I have pity on myself in this, but history will not. History is dramatically unmerciful to those who took too long to figure things out. It has no patience at all for the long peregrinations of thinking and questioning and internal argument each of us must go through to arrive at our political destinations. This is so because history can always hurl back at us the same damning and demonstrable fact: "the people being deported didn't need all that time to ponder on its injustice!"; "the people losing fathers or mothers or children didn't need to go through your 'process'!"; "it was pretty clear to them all along that what was happening was wrong." 

And history, frighteningly enough, is right.

But is our current situation really so dire as all that? I sense your skepticism, and even a month ago I would have shared it, before the effort of reviewing a particular book on this blog forced me, rather grudgingly, to reexamine it. I often find that simply having to commit my thoughts to paper pushes them in the direction of uncomfortable clarity. Things one had kept pleasantly occluded in one's mind are suddenly dragged into the open. Chomsky's book did not present the ethnic cleansing argument, but it forced me to think much more radically about immigration as a whole.

Another exercise that tends to shed dazzling and painful light on such matters is that of examining instances in countries other than one's own, and forcing oneself to make the comparison between them and one's own society. It is always easier for me to see what's desperately wrong with a policy when it is carried out by someone else's government (even though I think of myself as someone who has harsher than average words for the actions of his elected representatives).

In that endeavor, let us shift our focus to France. You probably recall (it's not ancient history) Nicholas Sarkozy's 2010 policy of forcibly dismantling Roma settlements and deporting their inhabitants. Few of us could be found to defend such a policy, on moral or any other grounds. Of course, part of the problem with Sarkozy's actions was that they were explicitly racist. The first Ministry of the Interior policy directive to be issued by the French government on the matter made evicting Roma groups in particular a special "priority" of enforcement. This is what landed the French government on such shaky legal grounds and what impugned them most in the judgment of the rest of the EU. Speaking morally, however, rather than just legally, it's hard to say that the character of the French government's enforcements was greatly improved by being expanded to cover illicit settlements in general, rather than solely targeting those of the Roma people -- as they eventually were, to counter the charges of discrimination. (How many illicit camp settlements does France have anyways, that aren't inhabited by Roma people?) The problem with Sarkozy's efforts was not just that they were racially biased, but -- perhaps more importantly-- the simple fact that they removed tremendous numbers of innocent people from the place they were living, at the cost of great suffering to them and their loved ones. 

The French government's actions were "legal," at least once the biased policy directive was formally revoked. The Roma settlements were "illegal." Yet I suspect none of us would want to say that Nicholas Sarkozy was simply "obliged" by law to carry out these evictions and deportations, and that he as an individual had no will or say in the matter. Still less would we be likely to condemn any of his successors, if they tried to reverse these policies. Suppose a new French executive unilaterally declared an end to the dismantling of Roma settlements. Would we decry such actions as "Caesarism" or an abuse of power? Or would we rather see them as a reversal of an ongoing abuse of power; as the abjuring of a practice that was in violation of human rights to start with? I suspect we would choose Door #2, and that we would do so regardless of whether we think there was a cynical political motive behind the unilateral volte-face.

The parallels between France and the U.S. are considerable. In both cases, a right-wing executive carried through a harsh campaign of deportations. In both cases, a left-wing successor came to power in part through the expectation that he would subdue and reverse this campaign. And in both cases, the new executive in fact set new records of deportation, in an attempt to prove his toughness on immigration to political adversaries. The only real distinction between the two cases is one of scale. By which I mean that the French evictions utterly pale by this metric compared to those in the United States. In France, in the first half of 2013, according to Amnesty International, 10,000 Roma people were deported. In the United States, over 400,000 undocumented immigrants were deported that same year-- 40 times the number in France. All these deportations were legal, at least nominally. But were they legitimate?

One may object that "forced evictions" and the deportation of undocumented immigrants are not the same thing. The former may be a human rights abuse, according to the UN, but the latter is simply the enforcement of a law that had always been public knowledge, and which could have been plainly understood by those who violated it. And yet, Amnesty International's definition of forced eviction seems to make short work of any easy distinction between the two: "A forced eviction," they write, "is the removal of people against their will from the homes or land they occupy, without genuine consultation with those affected and the offer of adequate alternative housing, regardless of whether they rent, own, occupy or lease the land or housing in question."

I see no way to read this definition in which it does not necessarily imply that the deportation of undocumented immigrants is an instance of forced eviction. Most of the people targeted in forced evictions around the world -- whether in the slums of Mumbai or on the streets of Beijing-- are not legal residents of the land they occupy, after all. Their moral right to stay where they are, recognized under human rights law, stems largely from the fact that they have an entitlement as human beings to some limited degree of shelter and dignity; and if they are poor and desperate, they must seek these things at times on land they do not own. When their occupancy of such land has been tacitly accepted and tolerated by a government for long stretches of time, their moral right to it becomes all the greater-- for Burkean and common law reasons now, as well as for those of human rights doctrine. Undocumented immigrants would seem to possess the same moral right to remain where they are as other victims of forced eviction. Perhaps even more so, since so many of them actually do possess the deeds to their own property and houses.

If I'm right about this, then much of my previous argument on this blog as to why our existing immigration policy is a violation of human rights was superfluous-- correct, perhaps, but superfluous. If deportation itself is a human rights violation, in the same way that a forced eviction is one, then there are very few logical acrobatics required to demonstrate what is morally and legally objectionable about the status quo.

It was suggested to me in the comment thread of the last post that to argue against the mass deportation of 11 million undocumented immigrants is to chase a red herring, because so few politicians would actually advocate for such an atrocity in the first place. Ethnic cleansing such an action might be, but there are very few voices calling for it.

It is certainly true that a witch hunt on the scale that would be necessary to evict and deport 11 million undocumented people will probably never actually be carried through in this country, or even recommended by any mainstream politicians. Even the most hard-bitten anti-immigrant Tea Partiers might not have the heart or the stomach for it. Yet again, I say, it should alarm us quite sufficiently that these 11 million people are presently vulnerable to deportation, under our current law-- which is to say that the letter of our current law obliges us to commit an ethnic cleansing. 

Meanwhile, the mass deportation of undocumented people from this country is not a matter for dystopian speculations about what might or might not happen if a Tea Partier were to gain the White House. Our current, liberal President, as we saw above, has vastly outpaced his Republican predecessor in the number of deportations his administration has carried out. Any applause for Obama's recent executive deferrals, therefore-- whether from me or from anyone else -- must be seriously tempered by the knowledge that a large part of what he is saving people from is himself. I mentioned the statistic above of 400,000 deportees in 2013 alone, under Obama's watch. That is about 4% of the total undocumented population of the country, deported in a single year -- no small task. Exactly how many hundreds of thousands of people must be transferred across borders before something really is an ethnic cleansing, in itself, and not just a threat of one?

Obama's deportations were a political stratagem, designed as a quid-pro-quo with Republicans so that the latter might be more willing to pass a reform package. To Obama's mind, they were a necessary price to pay for the greater goal of immigration reform, and, as the New York Times reports, he has apparently been incensed to find that immigrant rights activists do not have more patience with such ends-and-means calculations. 

One wishes to remind him of the title of one of Dr. King's books: "why we can't wait." The reason that civil rights never can wait for the meanderings of the political process is not that compromise is intolerable to activists, or that the latter just don't understand "how it works." It is that, for each individual person whose rights have been violated, there has been no real compromise. She has not "gained" anything for what she has lost. For the people banished across the border, there has been no political trade-off, because they stand only to lose from the first half of the "compromise" and to gain nothing from the second half, the promised reform of the future-- because they will not be in this country to see it. Obama is thinking from above-- peering down at these machinations from the vantage point of an immensely powerful person. But at the level of individual lives, being deported or not deported is an all-or-nothing deal.

Of course, many of Obama's deportations have not targeted people in the interior of the country, but rather people apprehended at the border. This does not mean, however, that the people affected by such deportations do not already have close ties to the United States. Human Rights Watch estimates that 100,000 of the people apprehended and deported at the border in 2011 and 2012 were parents of U.S. citizens, whose primary reason for seeking to cross the border at all was to see their own children.

Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that "Many Republicans have accused the administration of using [border apprehensions] to inflate its deportation numbers." This would seem to throw a sizable wrench into the theory that Republican politicians are not actually interested in deporting large numbers of undocumented people. Large portions of the Republican base would certainly like to do so. 35% of respondents to a recent Quinnipiac pole said that undocumented immigrants should be "required to leave," according to the Washington Post. They didn't say that anyone should be "deported," per se, but I don't know how else people can be "required to leave" by the law without being forced out. 

And finally, The New York Times speaks of "what Republican aides call the 'boxcars crowd,' a reference to conservative members [of the House of Representatives] who favor deportation for most of the 11 million." "Boxcars"-- that's a chillingly evocative image. Boxcars and ethnic cleansing often go together in modern history.

It may be that now the moral question has been posed, pundits on both sides of the aisle will be increasingly reluctant to appear openly to favor deportation. This is often the case with moral change-- all it takes is for someone to ask the question, and to compel people to answer, to make them realize they were wrong. It's certainly how I came to be radicalized on this issue-- a particular book, Aviva Chomsky's Undocumented, faced me with the question.

If that movement away from treating deportation as an acceptable policy solution does take place, there will be no thanks given to the immigrant rights activists like Chomsky who brought about this change in moral consciousness. Republicans and right-wing pundits are likely to take up the refrain that they never favored deportation to start with, that no one in their right minds would ever have favored such a thing, and so on. As William James so quotably observed: any new -- and good -- idea is at first "attacked as absurd; then it is admitted to be true, but obvious and insignificant; finally, it is seen to be so important that it's adversaries claim that they themselves discovered it." (I owe the citation to a book by William Schultz). Schopenhauer spoke in a similar vein of "the fate that [...] has always befallen the truth, to which is allotted only a short celebration of victory between the two long periods in which it is condemned as paradoxical and deprecated as trivial." (Aquila/Carus trans.) If it is true, as Ajay informs me, that some right-wing pundits have started saying that they favor methods other than that of deportation to enforce immigration, then we may well be on our way to the second or third stages of this progression already. As irritating as I will find this, it will on the whole be a good thing.

For the present, however, the political will to deport vast numbers of undocumented people (if not all of them, and not all at once) seems very much present. It is coming from the right especially, but also from a Democratic Party that has always been simperingly ready to appease its adversaries and to bend it's own conscience backward to show how "tough" it can be. The ethnic cleansing of 11 million undocumented immigrants is plainly not so entirely far-fetched a scenario. It has been carried out in pieces under at least the last two administrations (representing both of the two major parties). And lest we forget, it is fully sanctioned by the current letter of our law. That alone should frighten us. That fact is the best reason I can think of at present to change our existing law, and to disobey it as much as possible in the meantime.

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