Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘Immigration’ Category

439. Of Damp Squibs and Other Watery Slurs

In Aging, history, Immigration, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on August 20, 2019 at 10:40 pm

A squib is a type of firework, hence damp squib:
something that fails ignominiously to satisfy expectations; an anti-climax.”
—Oxford English Dictionary

In a recent text-message exchange with my friend Anna I found myself using the term “damp squib” to describe an anticipated event that hadn’t come to pass. Quite understandably, she was nonplussed; what was a squib when it was at home, and why was I calling it damp? Also understandably, Anna thought I had meant “squid,” but that didn’t shed any more light on the subject for her. I explained, and followed up with a link to a dictionary definition of the British idiom. Literally, a damp squib is a firework that fails to go off because it has gotten wet; and figuratively, something that fails to come up to expectations.  But this isn’t interesting in itself, except to superannuated language nerds like me; more interesting is how and why we use the language that we do.

Did I even consider, when I used “damp squib” in my message to Anna, that she wouldn’t be familiar with it? Surely I must have known, but in the end, I suppose, just using the term was more enjoyable to me than whether or not it was understood. Perhaps, although I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, I wanted the opportunity to explain something that I thought was important but that many people were letting fall by the wayside, all unawares.

As I get older, I find that my English gets older too. Funnily enough, as I age, it seems to reach farther and farther back before my time, perhaps anticipating my obsolescence by attempting to revive terms that are already obsolete, or at least archaic. Why do I rant impotently at the screen when a film or television series uses anachronisms—especially a British or Indian film using Americanisms (they would never have said that!). Is it the educator in me getting so exercised about this or, as retirement looms, is it my own dread of becoming irrelevant?

Enough of the navel-gazing and back to these terms, and the joy they bring to me when they roll upon the tongue. When I used one of them in conversation with my mother, even when her Alzheimer’s Disease no longer permitted her to speak, she would break into a grin. When I am with someone of my generation, whether they are from England, India, or the United States, I find myself reveling in shared idioms, in knowing that I will be understood, no questions asked. Rather than running through an interminable list of them, let’s just look at a couple more in the same watery vein as “damp squib.”

There’s the wet blanket. Don’t be such a wet blanket, you might say to someone who, in American parlance, is being a party pooper. Their lack of enthusiasm puts a damper on the fun. Then there’s someone who’s so inexperienced that they’re still wet behind the ears, quite the opposite of the cynic who wasn’t born yesterday.

Water is a good thing, isn’t it? We can’t live without it. Furthermore, it prevents explosions (that damp squib again), puts out fires (the wet blanket) and productively controls burning (the damper). Then why is there such a negative connotation to these watery idioms? If fire is associated with manhood (think fiery loins), water can be used as a gender-policing slur. In American English someone deemed weak or wimpy is called a wet noodle; in British English, simply wet. It becomes an abhorrent ethnic slur in the term wetback (referring to a person who has swum across the Rio Grande to enter the U.S. illegally),used to refer to Mexicans. Under Dwight Eisenhower’s 1954 Operation Wetback, in that year alone more than a million Mexicans who had immigrated to the U.S. legally, many of them recruited for cheap labor under the Bracero program, some of them U.S. citizens, were subjected to forcible mass deportation. Sound familiar?

While we need water to survive, we condemn others by pronouncing them wet. It’s downright perverse. Still, water gets its own revenge. As in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, one can be surrounded by precious water and still be ravaged by thirst.

Water, water, everywhere, and all the boards did shrink/ Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.

Let that be a warning to all those who misuse words, water, and their fellow beings, whether on the tongue, on the ground, or on the rolling deep.




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432. Zero-tolerance Policy

In Family, history, Immigration, India, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on May 3, 2019 at 7:49 pm

(Photo: Spencer Platt, Getty Images)

My theme for this year’s Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge is Migrants, Refugees, and Exiles. This is the last entry, for the letter Z.

Although I’ve known from the start that Z had to stand for zero-tolerance policy, now that the time has come I can hardly bear to write it. My very worst nightmare was one I had when my son was a baby, only just able to stand. I was standing, with Nikhil clutching my hand, on the crowded Howrah Station in Calcutta (Kolkata), with two million people boarding 617 trains leaving from 23 platforms to points north, south, and west every single day. I must have been distracted for just a minute, but that’s all it took. Suddenly something was wrong with the universe; those warm, chubby little fingers were no longer gripping mine. I looked down: he was gone. I looked around, wildly: I couldn’t see him anywhere. Everywhere I cast my eye, it seemed, I saw a baby, but none of them was mine.

Utter despair ripped through me as I saw, as if in a movie, the endless train of people of people moving inexorably outward from the high-ceilinged central hall to their designated platforms and thence dispersing themselves throughout India. The odds of finding and recovering my helpless, innocent baby, however many years I combed the subcontinent for him, were several millions to one and I had only myself, my irresponsible, inattentive self, to blame. All the dire warnings our parents used to try to frighten us with as children when we travelled from our quiet university campus to the big City—those lurid tales of unscrupulous men who kidnapped and maimed children to make them more lucrative beggars—now came flooding back to my mind, all too late.

That nightmare held me in its grip for hours. Long after I knew intellectually that it had been a dream, a terrible, terrible dream, I couldn’t shake the guilt and the sense of utter devastation. Imagine, then, the parents who had just made the more-than-one thousand-mile trek from Guatemala to the Mexico-U.S. border, on foot, with children, to seek asylum in the United States. But starting on April 6th, 2018 when they finally reached there, bone-weary after weeks of walking, they were arrested and their children taken from them. This was the administration’s new “zero-tolerance” policy at the border. Under this policy, the Department of Justice started criminally prosecuting all adult “aliens” apprehended crossing the border illegally, with no exceptions for asylum-seekers or those with minor children. Since children cannot be held in federal criminal facilities, after 20 days in a family immigration detention center they are taken into the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) under the Department of Health and Human Services (DHS).

After the U.S. public got wind of this Draconian policy and large-scale protests ensued, on June 20th, 2018 the Trump Administration issued an executive order “claiming to end family separation but without providing instructions on how DHS should reunify more than 2,300 children with their parents” (Congressional Research Service). A week later, on June 26th,2018, a U.S. district court ruled “that children cannot be separated from their parents and [set] a timeline for reunifying children who have already been separated (younger than 5 years within 14 days, all others within 30 days) unless the parent is unfit, presents a danger to the child or declines to be reunited with the child” (Catholic Legal Immigration Network).

Children sit for breakfast after spending the night sleeping on church pews or the floor in a shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, April 25, 2018. (Meghan Dhaliwal/The New York Times)

Unfortunately, as time went on, not only did the DHS fail to meet its court-mandated reunification deadlines, but in January, 2019 it was revealed that thousands more children than initially reported may have been separated from their parents since June 2017, that the government had not kept proper track of where they had been sent, and that many of them could not be located. The Justice Department wanted up to two years to locate the missing children, many of whose parents had been deported without them (Spagat). And on April 28th, 2019, instead of redoubling his efforts to find the missing children, the U.S. President went on the offensive, saying that “ending the practice of separating children from their families at border crossings [had] been ‘a disaster’ that…resulted in a surge of people coming into the country illegally” and that it “had served as an effective ‘disincentive’ for illegal immigration” (The Washington Post). He followed that statement the next day with a quick one-two punch, calling for still-further restrictions on asylum within 90 days, including charging a fee for asylum applications (Horpuch).

(Source: Instagram)

Zero tolerance refers to a policy of “giving the most severe punishment possible to every person who commits a crime or breaks a rule.” The hard-line zero-tolerance policy at the United States’ southern border has criminalized what was formerly a misdemeanor, making the already difficult crossing a nightmare that will haunt many families for life: the loss of one’s children, the very reason one has undertaken the wrenching decision to leave the country of one’s birth in the first place.

As I write this piece, the death of a 16-year-old Guatemalan boy in U.S government custody alone and unaccompanied by parents or family, has been announced, the third such death in the last few months. The first two children, seven-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin and eight-year-old Felipe Gomez Alonso, had been traveling with their parents and then apprehended. In December, 2018, when the news of little Jakelin’s death broke, then-U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan put the blame for the tragedy squarely where he thought it belonged: on the bereaved family: “‘No one should risk injury, or even death, by crossing our border unlawfully,’ said McAleenan. ‘This is why I asked Congress on Tuesday to change our laws so that the United States is not incentivizing families to take this dangerous path’”(NPR). Incidentally, onApril 11th, 2019, President Trump names Kevin AcAleenan as Acting Secretary of U.S Department of Homeland Security, following the resignation of Kirstjen Nielsen. He still holds the position of CBP Commissioner as well.

As refugee children cry themselves to sleep in converted Walmarts, the nightmare continues. When are we going to wake up? Demand zero tolerance for the real criminals, those who have hijacked American democracy and are violating every principle of human decency!

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431. Y is for Youth

In blogs and blogging, Childhood, Education, Immigration, India, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 30, 2019 at 8:43 pm

My theme for this year’s Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge is Migrants, Refugees, and Exiles and today the letter stands for youth.

Youth is an estate from which I would be far removed were it not for my work, which gives me daily contact with undergraduates. As an oldster but a woman, at times I exert less authority than I might like, but most of the time I am grateful for the easy, if somewhat quizzical, familiarity between us.

 first-time voters in Arunachal Pradesh, India’s Easternmost state

But enough of the chit-chat. As I age, along with the world’s population, what role are the youth playing in the current zeitgeist? Where do they stand with respect to immigrants, refugees, and exiles?

It depends, of course, where they stand. Refugees and asylum-seekers are getting younger, with children making up 52% of the world’s refugee population in 2017, according to the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). White supremacist groups and ISIS alike woo alienated youth, hoping to recruit impulsive young people seeking a sense of belonging. As instability and economic crisis increases, youth unemployment and despair rises, and the average age of suicide bombers and child soldiers falls, as groups like Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram forcibly recruit younger and younger children. In the United States, aging Baby Boomers, now in their sixties, decry the apathy of the youth, who are much less likely to engage in electoral politics than their elders. But leaders can rise and fall based on the youth turnout. In India’s 2019 general election, now underway, out of 900 million eligible voters, 84.3 million youth are eligible to cast their ballots for the first time, including 15 million who are 18-19 years old.

While it is easy, as one slides into senescence, to bemoan “the youth of today,” in fact many of these youth are showing us the way forward. In the United States, in contrast with the sensational media images of young men joining white nationalist groups in droves, there is the quieter evidence in opinion polls that on the whole, young people are much more liberal and open-minded than their parents and grandparents. In a heartening January 2019 report from the Pew Research Center, a majority of Americans polled said that immigrants strengthened the country, but while only 44% of the “Silent Generation” (born 1928-1945) agreed, a whopping 75% of Millennials (born 1981-1996) weighed in with a Yes. In a Spring 2016 Global Attitudes Survey also conducted by Pew Research, the young were much less likely than the old to say that birthplace was very important to national identity. In the U.S., only 21% of 18-24 year-olds felt that it was important to have been born in the country to truly belong, as against 40% of those 50 and older. The poll revealed an even greater generational difference when the respondents were asked about the importance of observing national customs and traditions to national belonging. Among the Americans, only 28% of the 18-24 age group thought that “sharing such cultural elements was important to being truly American”, in contrast with 55% of those age 50 and older.

Increasingly, as ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and the Border Patrol (CBP) are ramping up detentions and deportations of children and more aggressively separating children and their parents, as the current administration is attempting to do away with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) making it harder and harder for undocumented immigrant youth to get access to an education or a decent job, the youth are mobilizing to fight back. As evidence and inspiration, I give you SIM, Student Immigrant Movement, the dynamic Massachusetts-based immigrant youth-led organization. Go to their website: it is a happening place.

SIM’s mission: We fight for the liberation of the undocumented community through the development of a network of immigrant youth organizers in high-density immigrant communities. We organize youth, ages 13-30, and provide political education, leadership training, protection, guidance, mentorship, and safe healing spaces.

SIM’s vision: Our vision is that all immigrant students have equal access to higher education, are not discriminated against based on their immigration status, collectively realize their full potential, define their own identity and become fully engaged in every aspect of society that affects their lives.

Join SIM today as a youth (ages 13-26), an ally/supporter, an immigrant or refugee (temporary or permanent, documented or undocumented). You can also become a monthly DREAM sustainer to help immigrant youth protect their communities. Just looking at a group of SIM youth gets my mojo and my metabolism working. When youth are at the leading edge of positive change, the only thing to do is to work with them.

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206. Xenophobia

In history, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, Politics, Stories, storytelling, Words & phrases on April 28, 2019 at 7:26 pm

My theme for this year’s Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge is Migrants, Refugees, and Exiles and today the letter X stands for Xenophobia. As it happens I wrote a post on this very topic back in 2013, the very first year I participated in the Challenge, so I hope you will forgive me for re-blogging it.

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Xenophobia: an undue or irrational fear of foreigners or outsiders

Okay,  some will say, but this is a natural human fight-or-flight response, stemming from the days when outsiders were a threat to one’s very survival; for that matter, they still can be, and are.

Fair enough; but allow me to make just three points.

First, note the “undue” and “irrational” in the definition:  a natural instinct to be a little wary of outsiders at first encounter is understandable; but a paranoia that persists even after the outsiders are a known quantity is unreasonable.

Second, ask yourself if you know who these outsiders are. Do you mean the people who come from outside your community or country or who speak a different language from your own? I submit to you that any of us can feel like or be perceived to be an outsider, even if we share the same…

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429. V is for Vigilante

In blogs and blogging, Books, history, Immigration, Music, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 26, 2019 at 6:59 pm

My theme for this year’s Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge is Migrants, Refugees, and Exiles. Today, the letter stands for vigilante.
Vigilante Man (recorded in 1940) is one of Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl ballads. In it, he bemoans the armed man who lies in wait for hapless migrants, who has hunted, chased, and “herded [them] like cattle,” and killed Preacher Casey, who sought to unite and organize them. Casey’s murder was also mentioned in John Steinbeck’s 1939 Dust Bowl epic, The Grapes of Wrath, in which the Joads were one among many desperate migrant families driven West from their homes in Oklahoma by the climate catastrophe of the Dust Bowl, looking for honest work in the fertile fields and vineyards of California.

 migrant family, 1930s

In this excerpt from the novel, Steinbeck describes the response of local people to the migrants:

The moving, questing people were migrants now…. And the hostility changed them, welded them, united them — hostility that made the little towns group and arm as though to repel an invader, squads with pick handles, clerks and storekeepers with shotguns, guarding the world against their own people.

        In the West there was panic when the migrants multiplied on the highways. Men of property were terrified for their property. Men who had never been hungry saw the eyes of the hungry. Men who had never wanted anything very much saw the flare of want in the eyes of the migrants. And the men of the towns and of the soft suburban country gathered to defend themselves; and they reassured themselves that they were good and the invaders bad, as a man must do before he fights. They said, These goddamned Okies are dirty and ignorant. They’re degenerate, sexual maniacs. These goddamned Okies are thieves. They’ll steal anything. They’ve got no sense of property rights.

         And the latter was true, for how can a man without property know the ache of ownership? And the defending people said, They bring disease, they’re filthy. We can’t have them in the schools. They’re strangers. How’d you like to have your sister go out with one of ’em?

      The local people whipped themselves into a mold of cruelty. Then they formed units, squads, and armed them — armed them with clubs, with gas, with guns. We own the country. We can’t get these Okies get out of hand.

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, Viking Critical Library, 1972, pp. 385-386
(originally published in 1939)

Steinbeck’s migrants were his own countrymen, not migrants from South of the U.S.-Mexico border; but their plights and the reactions of the vigilantes were startlingly similar.

A group of migrants in Sunland Park, New Mexico, where the United Constitutional Patriots, an armed rightwing militia, patrol the US-Mexico border. (Photo: Paul Ratje/Getty Images)

Last week, a story about armed vigilantes made national and international news headlines for a couple of days. Members of a right-wing militia group were caught on video posing as U.S. Border Patrol (CBP) agents to detain migrants and refugees at the New Mexico-Mexico border and then coordinating with the CBP to apprehend them. The Border Patrol could not be reached for comments but sent an email saying, for the record, that it “does not endorse private groups or organizations taking enforcement matters into their own hands.” However, the vigilantes themselves not only seemed to be working closely with the CBP but declared that they were doing their civic duty in the absence of adequate federal law enforcement; and a spokesperson for the city in New Mexico said, “I think they are just out there exercising their constitutional right.” Clearly, the Wild West mentality with civilian posses dispensing “rough justice” extrajudicially, still seems to be alive and well in the Southwestern borderlands. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Mexico has called on the state’s Governor and Attorney General to investigate the “fascist militia,” saying, “we cannot allow racist and armed vigilantes to kidnap and detain people seeking asylum.”

However, even preliminary research into the problem reveals that vigilante violence against people crossing the border has been a reality since the 1970s, something of which locals are very aware, but which has been insulated from the nation as a whole. However, in the past couple of years the groups have grown, organized, formed broad coalitions (joining the Tea Party, for instance), and become much more heavily armed and more closely enmeshed with law enforcement officials. In this February 2019 excerpt by Greg Grandin from his new book, The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America, the author claims that many of the vigilantes are veterans of U.S. wars, with “fortress mentalit[ies]” and post-traumatic stress disorder, or worse:

In the last years of the Obama presidency, as fallout from Iraq worsened and Central American children arrived, vigilantism surged anew in a more aggressive form. Its ranks were filled with younger, angrier men than its earlier version, outfitted with military hardware and desert camouflage, intent on stopping “f***ing beaners”, obsessed equally with Isis, Central American gangs, Mexican cartels and Black Lives Matter. Most have done multiple stints in Afghanistan and Iraq. “For me, it is therapeutic to come down here and join my fellow veterans,” said one veteran, who after four tours in Iraq was left with brain injury and stress disorder.

You can listen to the piece here as a podcast if you don’t want to read it. And you can watch and listen to Ry Cooder’s rendition of Vigilante Man here.

A closing thought: It’s worth remembering that New Mexico was only granted Statehood in 1912, and was part of Mexico until 1848, when it was ceded to the U.S. after the Mexican-American War (New Mexico Joins the Union). Local Native American peoples fought hard against U.S. colonization, but were defeated in 1886, with the surrender of Geronimo. Andrew and I lived in New Mexico for some time in 1978-1979, and it did not feel like the United States; it was a multilingual, multicultural Borderland—Land of Enchantment—with a character all its own. Today, 47% of the state’s population claims Hispanic ancestry, and nearly 10% more are Native American. Additionally, for decades there has been a pattern of circular, seasonal migration between Mexico and the U.S. Southwest, in which Mexicans would migrate north as temporary farm laborers and return home when the season was over. Apparently the recent crackdowns at the Southern border have disrupted this pattern and actually driven up the numbers of Mexican migrants who stay in the United States.

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428. Unalienable Rights

In blogs and blogging, history, Immigration, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 26, 2019 at 1:54 pm

My theme for this year’s Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge is Migrants, Refugees, and Exiles. Today, the letter U stands for unalienable rights.

As far as the Law is concerned, if a person’s papers are not in order they are what they lack:  undocumented, unauthorized. Their character may be unimpeachable, their credentials unassailable, but if they hail from the wrong hemisphere, they will be unwelcome and deemed unassimilable. A single misstep can set them on course for becoming an Orwellian unperson; I won’t elaborate because the details may be unappetizing, especially for those with delicate stomachs.

The inhumanity of the overdeveloped world (thank you, Paul Gilroy) is unfathomable. To the global elite, we are all the Great Unwashed. No matter to them that every last one of us has the awesome gift of living as a human being on this beautiful, damaged planet in all its plenitude and possibility. Collectively we have the power and the responsibility to hold these self-proclaimed Deciders to a higher standard: in the United States, we need look no further than the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Unalienable. Roll that word around on your tongue. There are no aliens here.

Let us remind ourselves that the U.S. Constitution extends almost all its rights and protections to all those living in the country, not solely to citizens. Noncitizens, too, are protected by the Constitution, and they have as much right to demand that it be upheld.

People gather to take part in a protest to protect the investigation led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, in Los Angeles, California, U.S., November 8, 2018. REUTERS/ Kyle Grillot

Let us further reaffirm, that we, the people, are the Deciders, not the unindicted co-conspirator who currently occupies the seat of power. Unhand us, Villain, and prepare to be unceremoniously unseated!

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427. T is for Temporary Status

In blogs and blogging, Books, Immigration, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases, Work on April 25, 2019 at 11:20 pm

My theme for this year’s Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge is Migrants, Refugees, and Exiles. Today, the letter T is for temporary status.

When you have status, you have standing, some kind of place in society. There is so much talk about the 11 million “illegal” immigrants in the United States, who have no status and must keep their heads down at all times, lest the authorities catch up with them. There are those with legal status, 37 million strong, who have papers to show when they are stopped at checkpoints. The administration wishes they hadn’t been let in, but now that they’re here it’s best to keep them on edge, rattled, remind them that they’re here on sufferance, show them what will happen to them if they step out of line. And then there are those people who are neither authorized not unauthorized, but who have some kind of temporary status that may or may not be renewed, depending.

There are 1.42 million temporary foreign workers in the U.S. who do not have immigrant status, under 10 different visa classifications. (In another nasty move recently, the Trump Administration has moved to stop granting work permits for the nearly 100,000 spouses of the more-than-400,000 people who are working in the U.S. on hi-tech H1-B visas, and have applied for Green Card status.) There are some 700,000 young people with DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) status, which means that they do not have legal status or a path to citizenship, but can obtain work authorization, defer deportation proceedings for two years, and then renew their status—at least they could, until September 5, 2017, when President Trump announced the phase-out of the program. Now it’s tied up in the courts—on again, off again.

And then there are the approximately 417,000 people with TPS (Temporary Protected Status), from ten different nations where there have been life-threatening political upheavals or natural disasters. Since September 2017, President Trump has been trying to terminate six of them. (Listen to this podcast by immigrant and union leader Jaime Contreras.) Further, there are between 840 and 3600 Liberians with DED (Deferred Enforced Deportation), a dispensation President Trump announced would expire at the end of March, 2019 but which has now been extended to March 31, 2020, when it is set to terminate once and for all.

That’s more than two and a half million people, many of whom have been living in the United States for decades, who are living in extended limbo, their hearts in their mouths, not knowing whether they are going to be able to stay or whether they will have to go. How does one make plans, living like this? Get a college education, marry, put a downpayment on a house? Everything is on hold, all the time. Status: Unprotected.

This is exactly how this administration wants it for all immigrants and would-be immigrants. None of us must have a chance to settle or start feeling secure. We must think of ourselves as sojourners, living here on borrowed time.

Jaime Contreras (Photo: Darrow Montgomery)

The targets of these policies and their allies and advocates are resisting these high-handed dictats, getting them blocked in the courts, holding them at bay, winning small victories that postpone or push back the expiration dates of their residency status. However, because the current government has made no secret of the fact that its ultimate goal involves a drastic and permanent reduction in the number of immigrants to this country—legal, illegal, or otherwise, these efforts can only be holding operations. Even immigrants with U.S. citizenship cannot rest easy. According to the American Friends Service Committee “a new denaturalization task force has begun working to strip citizenship from naturalized U.S citizens”(Ibe). Until Trump and his cronies are no longer in power, we all have temporary status, never knowing when the knock on the door will come to send us on our final, one-way, journey.

That was a gloomy conclusion! Here’s an alternate one:

At the end of the delightful title story in Gish Jen’s collection, Who’s Irish?an Irish American grandmother befriends and opens her home to a Chinese American grandmother after a falling out with her daughter and son-in-law. After a long, hard working life in the U.S. running a restaurant, the now-widowed Chinese grandmother, also the narrator of the story, still doesn’t feel at home in her adopted country. But for the first time, living with Bess, she starts feeling a sense of belonging. Bess’ deadbeat sons keep asking when she is going home, “but Bess tell them, Get lost.

She’s a permanent resident, say Bess. She isn’t going anywhere.
. . .I don’t know how Bess Shea learn to use her words, but sometimes I hear what she say a long time later.
Permanent resident. Not going anywhere. Over and over I hear it, the voice of Bess.”

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426. S is for Stranger

In blogs and blogging, Books, history, Immigration, India, Inter/Transnational, Music, Stories, storytelling, United States, Words & phrases, writing on April 23, 2019 at 9:38 pm

My theme for this year’s Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge is Migrants, Refugees, and Exiles. Today, the letter is for stranger.

The stranger is said to be the quintessentially, existentially modern figure. So many twentieth-century
works give us that romantic anti-hero, the angry, alienated man (strange, he always seems to be a man), at odds with society, a stranger to himself. But if the modern era is the era of migration, then its quintessential figure is that of the migrant, the refugee, the exile—stranger in a strange land, a long way from home.

It is dead lonely to be a stranger, and not in the least romantic. The newly arrived immigrant is a complete unknown; but unlike in the song, he is not like a rolling stone who keeps movin’ on. Instead, he tries hard to settle and put down roots, but still remains a stranger.

Although the words “stranger” and “outsider” are often used interchangeably, they have distinct meanings. Apparently, a stranger is a person one doesn’t know, while an outsider is someone who is not part of a community or organization. But the modern stranger, the one recognized by immigrants and refugees, is both. In an influential 1908 essay, German sociologist and philosopher Georg Simmel:

James Baldwin (“Stranger in the Village”)

differentiates the stranger both from the “outsider” who has no specific relation to a group and from the “wanderer” who comes today and leaves tomorrow. The stranger, he says, comes today and stays tomorrow. The stranger is a member of the group in which he lives and participates and yet remains distant from other–“native”–members of the group. In comparison to other forms of social distance and difference (such as class, gender, and even ethnicity) the distance of the stranger has to do with his “origins.” The stranger is perceived as extraneous to the group and even though he is in constant relation to other group members; his “distance” is more emphasized than his “nearness.”As one subsequent interpreter of the concept put it, the stranger is perceived as being in the group but not of the group. (The Stranger—sociology)

In the United States, Simmel’s stranger became Chicago school of sociology Robert Ezra Park’s marginal man. First discussed in his 1928 essay, “Human Migration and the Marginal Man” he was a hybrid figure who, like the newly arrived African Americans from the American South, like the pre-WWI wave of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, lived cheek-by-jowl with others in the new society, and yet “was not quite accepted due to racial prejudice” (Goldberg 201). Richard Wright, a migrant to Chicago in 1927, credited Park with having influenced his thinking in his novel Native Son, while Park credited the black writers of the American South with helping him understand how human civilizations advanced (Warren).

How many years does a person have to live in a land, how many generations of his or her kinfolk have to die there, before they are no longer strangers?

Here are three songs that make me feel less of a stranger, and at the same time remind me that strangeness is part of being human.

People are Strange (The Doors)

I Was a Stranger (Doc Watson)

Wayfaring Stranger (Rhiannon Giddens)


I can’t resist one more S word: S is for SAADA, the South Asian American Digital Archive. By collecting the histories of South Asians in the United States, it makes us less strange, our stories more fully a part of the many-stranded history of this country. Of its many initiatives, its First Days Project collects the moving first-person accounts of people’s arrival in the United States, before they found their feet and got over the initial culture shock. Supporting SAADA tells our stories, fights hate and helps to build a more inclusive future where no one is a stranger.

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424. Q is for Quarantine

In blogs and blogging, health, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, Media, Politics, Stories, travel, United States, Words & phrases on April 20, 2019 at 11:12 pm

My theme for this year’s Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge is Migrants, Refugees, and Exiles. Today, the letter Q is for quarantine.

The terrible Ebola outbreak of 2014-2016 primarily affected the countries of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, and spread to seven more countries: Italy, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States. By the end of the outbreak, Ebola had infected 28,600 people and claimed 11,325 lives. Six months after the initial case was reported, the World Health Organization WHO declared “a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), which is designated only for events with a risk of potential international spread or that require a coordinated international response” (CDC).

U.S. quarantine stations

In September 2014, the Obama White House issued a detailed but measured fact sheet on the U.S. Response to the Ebola Epidemic in West Africa. As was right and proper, most of the focus of the response was on treatment and prevention measures in the countries where the outbreak was raging, but there was also a section, “Preparedness at Home,” listing the precautions being taken to prevent the disease’s entry into the United States. They included a link to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Interim Guidance for Monitoring and Movement of Persons with Potential Ebola Virus Exposure, which outlined provisions for isolation, quarantine, and “modified quarantine” for people exposed, infected, or reasonably believed to have been infected, even if they are not yet showing symptoms, so as not to risk infecting the rest of the population.

So far, so good. But what was the reaction to news of the outbreak on the part of the U.S. media and population? Fearbola.  An August, 2015 report in the New England Journal of Medicine reviewed public reactions to the Ebola outbreak, which had been wildly disproportional to the actual threat. A November, 2014 poll had ranked the disease as the third most urgent health issue affecting the United States, despite the fact that there had been only two cases of Ebola transmission inside the United States and both patients had survived. A Huffington Post article on the report noted the fact that members of the public who were polled about Ebola had little trust in the media, but even less trust in their public health officials. This is how it summarized the NEJM report’s conclusions about implications for the future:

Public health officials will do their best but most of the effort will be for naught. Some media organizations will grow concern highlighting only the science that fits their overall goal. Finally, a sense of overwhelming worry for personal and national security will overtake the land causing a new wave of fear.

I remember that wave of fear, fed by opportunistic politicians. I remember demands, circulated and amplified in the mass media, that the U.S. slam a travel ban on all of West Africa. (Many of those who parroted these demands didn’t seem to understand that there are sixteen countries in West Africa, including Ghana and Nigeria.) A February 2015 article by Reena Pattani in the Canadian Medical Association Journal argued that the unsanctioned travel bans from Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone by 30 countries, including Australia and Canada, were medically unjustified, degraded the ability of global public health officials to cope effectively with future epidemics, and harmed “the global social contract.” Pattani noted with concern that a discourse was prevalent that explicitly linked human security and health concerns.Regrettably, the very concept of global health security builds a “threat protection mentality” that risks emphasizing national sovereignty over global solidarity.

REUTERS/Steve Hyman/handout via Reuters

At the height of the public hysteria in the U.S. over the Ebola outbreak, Kaci Hickox, a nurse from Maine working for Doctors Without Borders in Sierra Leone, was forced into quarantine after flying into the Newark, New Jersey airport based on a controversial policy put into place by Governor Chris Christie. Hickox, furious, defied the order and filed a lawsuit again the Governor and state health department officials, claiming that she had been unlawfully detained. Ms. Hickox’s statement read, in part:

“I never had Ebola. I never had symptoms of Ebola. I tested negative for Ebola the first night I stayed in New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s private prison,” Hickox said, according to a statement released by her attorneys. “My liberty, my interests and consequently my civil rights were ignored because some ambitious governors saw an opportunity to use an age-old political tactic: fear.”

Nearly three years later the lawsuit was settled. The American Civil Liberties Union, which represented Hickox, said in a news release: “In exchange for dismissal of the complaint filed in federal court in Newark, Gov. Chris Christie’s administration agreed to new rules that will guarantee quarantine only occurs after exposure to the Ebola virus when medically necessary.”

George Frederick Keller/‘The Wasp’ via The Ohio State University Cartoon Research Library/Wikimedia Commons/Scapegoating Chinese immigrants

That was good news. But in the current climate, another such outbreak is likely to spiral into another viral episode of public hysteria about contagion. Foreigners by definition, carry disease, and it doesn’t take much to get the U.S. public believing that the whole thing is a plot by America’s enemies to destroy Western Civilization. The hysteria in 2018 over the migrant caravan at the Southern border was a case in point. “They are coming in with diseases such as smallpox, leprosy, and TB that are going to infect our people in the United States,” said an ex-ICE agent on Fox News. Fact-checking responses by Vox and several other news outlets determined this to be xenophobic nonsense.

According to Reuters, as of March 7th, 2019, a total of 2,287 detainees at immigration detention centers had been transferred to quarantine facilities around the country, with limited access to attorneys. A civil rights attorney said that court hearings for quarantined immigrants were largely cancelled. A March 12th article in Esquire magazine suggests that Trump’s ICE is using medical quarantine to strip people of their rights. Then-U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan told reporters, We are seeing migrants arrive with illnesses and medical conditions in unprecedented numbers. On April 11th, 2019, appointed by President Trump, Kevin  McAleenan assumed office as Acting U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security. Stay tuned.

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423. P is for Passport

In blogs and blogging, Britain, Family, history, Immigration, India, Inter/Transnational, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 20, 2019 at 7:02 pm

My theme for this year’s Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge is Migrants, Refugees, and Exiles. Today, the letter P is for Passport.

Although my family had been on the move since I was six months old, it was not until I was nearly seventeen, little more than a year after we had immigrated to the United States, that I needed to apply for a passport, since I was taking my first international trip alone. Before then, as a minor, I had travelled on my mother’s British passport. Because I had not yet lived in the U.S. for the five years required to apply for naturalized citizenship, my first passport was a British one. (I learned too late that I would have been eligible to apply for both a British and an Indian passport at that point, and have always regretted that I didn’t.)

my first passport

My father became a naturalized U.S. citizen as soon as he possibly could, because the security of his job depended on it, but my mother kept renewing her British passport for the rest of her life. First she swore that she wouldn’t become a citizen while there was a Republican President in office, then, while there was a Democrat in the White House, she kept missing the window of opportunity to apply—accidentally or on purpose, I never quite knew.

Although for centuries, depending on whose domain they wished to enter, world travelers have had to obtain letters granting them safe passage, the passport as we know it is barely a hundred years old. None of those millions of immigrants from various parts of Europe who travelled by ship across the Atlantic in the late 19th Century had a passport. They were simply held for a time while they were processed and then let loose in the new land. According to the American Immigration Council,

Until the late 19th century, there was very little federal regulation of immigration—there were virtually no laws to break. A growing, increasingly industrialized nation needed workers, and immigration was “encouraged and virtually unfettered.” Immigrants would simply arrive at ports of entry (such as Ellis Island) where they were inspected and allowed into the country …The vast majority of people who arrived at a port of entry were allowed to enter; the Immigration Service excluded only 1 percent of the 25 million immigrants from Europe who arrived at Ellis Island between 1880 and World War I.

Of course, there were categories of people who were excluded from the U.S. even then, because they had contagious diseases, were insane, illiterate, criminal, or political radicals. But many people simply lied about their status and were allowed in. Racially based exclusion was much more rigidly enforced, starting with the exclusion of Chinese immigrants after 1882 and extending to almost all Asians after 1924.

(Courtesy Library of Congress)

As Guilia Pines tells us in The Contentious History of the Passport, it was not until 1920, in the aftermath of the First World War that the League of Nations began talking about the idea of an international passport system. From the outset, it was designed to give freedom of movement to some people, and to control and restrict the free movement of others. Cooked up by a Western-centric organization trying to get a handle on a post-war world, the passport was almost destined to be an object of freedom for the advantaged, and a burden for others. Pines further reveals that critics of the 1920 League of Nations  resolution argued that the purpose of the proposed passport system was “less about creating a more democratic society of world travelers than it was about control, even within a country’s own borders.” And so it proved to be.

Even today, most people in the world have never held a passport. Either they do not have the wherewithal to travel abroad, or they lack the motivation to do so. If one’s family has never moved out of the country in which one was born, unless there are powerful “push” factors at work, such as unemployment, starvation, persecution, or war, it is unlikely that one will attempt to do so either. In the United States very few people held passports until very recently; most Americans didn’t feel the need or the desire to do so. In 1990, only 4% of Americans held passports—an astonishingly low figure; in 2007, only 27%; but by 2017, that percentage had risen to 42 percent. The principal reason for the increase was the change in U.S. law, in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, requiring a passport for travel to Mexico, Canada, South America, the Caribbean, and Bermuda. In Britain, 76% of the population holds a passport. Perhaps this is partly because Britain is such a small island that the British would get stir-crazy without going abroad.

You never miss your water till your well runs dry. You take it for granted if you have never had any trouble obtaining or renewing a passport. But in this world of heavily policed borders, if you have no travel documents at all, you are a refugee or a stateless person; and that is a terrifying condition. The Refugee Convention of 1951 and the Stateless Convention of 1954 gave refugees and stateless persons the right to a Convention Travel Document (named after the Conventions that granted this right) in their State of lawful stay. Nevertheless, it is estimated that only 20% of refugees worldwide have access to Convention Travel Documents. And although stateless people have the same right to such documents as do refugees, while 73 States now issue ICAO-compliant Convention Travel Documents to refugees, only 30 States issue such documents to stateless persons. If a person has no such documentation, they cannot travel outside their country for any reason, even temporarily, whether for work, reuniting with their family, education, or even life-saving medical treatment. This forces them to attempt to do so illegally and puts them at the mercy of human traffickers and smugglers.

Guilia Pines closes her article on the history and politics of the passport by bringing us to the present moment: “As other nations join the new U.S. administration in toying with the idea of closed borders, it is worth meditating once again on the passport’s essential arbitrariness.” We can do so by reminding ourselves how relatively new the concept of the passport is, and how restrictive. The value of Free Trade—free movement of goods and services, free passage across international borders for corporate entities—is continually being touted; but the same people who promote it refuse to consider the free movement of human beings in this world of ours.

Imagine there’s no countriesTo end on a Utopian note, the World Government of World Citizens issues a World Passport. Citing Article 2 of the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, according to which “no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs,” they argue that the passport and visa system violates this clause:

Being exclusive political units, all nations collude in the frontier system, i.e., the division of the planet into separate political units. At the same time, they all agree through the United Nations Charter to “observe and respect fundamental human rights.” Through the national passport and visa system imposed on the world citizenry they deny and thus violate their pledged confirmation of human rights.

The UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, tells us that there are 25.4 million refugees, 3.1 million asylum seekers, and 10 million stateless people in the world today. But if you are eligible for a passport and can afford to apply for one, you are a fortunate person indeed, and I strongly recommend doing so and renewing it promptly before it expires. Why restrict your mobility if you can help it?

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