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Archive for the ‘Social Justice’ Category

I read an article today in Oprah magazine by Allison Glock from February called “Hiding in Plain Sight” that made me break down and cry.  It had the most succinct and poignant summation of why people are willing to risk their lives and break our laws to live in the US:

“For immigrants, heaven is minimum wage.  Heaven is clean water.  Heaven is an end to the constant threat of violence….the heaven bar is pretty darn low, which is why so many immigrants embrace the thankless jobs most native-born Americans refuse to consider.  If you can find paradise working in a meatpacking plant or emptying bedpans, imagine what your hell must have looked like.  Now imagine raising your children there.  What would you do to escape?  What wouldn’t you do?”

Seriously.  What wouldn’t you do?

Water bottles left in the Arizon desert

That’s a picture of water bottles left by activists for those who cross the border in Arizona.  The Border Patrol empties those water bottles into the dirt when they find them.

In 2009 alone, the Border Patrol deported the members of 869 families separately, which means that parents were split up from their children.  Almost 200 teenagers and 94 children were “repatriated” after dark, which means they were dropped off alone at night, in areas where they probably knew no one.  Some of these children had been in the US for almost their entire lives and did not speak Spanish.  Between January and June of 2011, the Obama administration deported more than 46,000 parents of children who are U.S. citizens.  Some of those children were sent to foster care.

Why don’t these immigrants just fill out their forms and wait in line?  By one estimate, it would take some Mexicans 131 years to get to the front of the line.  I’ve said it before, but this bears repeating: the majority of illegal immigrant workers pay property and sales tax; they pay social security and other payroll taxes.  Studies like those done by the Pew Hispanic Research Center in 2006 have found no relationship between the employment rate of native-born Americans and the number of immigrants living among them.

So many illegal immigrants in this country hide in plain sight, going about their lives quietly despite the unrelenting worry they live with every day.  As Glock says, “To live the life of an undocumented immigrant is to master the art of compartmentalization.  You go to work, you grocery shop, you take your child to soccer. You carpool and pick up batteries and forget to buy milk.  You do exactly what every other American family is doing.  Only you do it in a fog of fear.”

I remember that fear.  Now that it’s been almost 8 months since my husband was granted a green card, sometimes I forget what it was like to live like that, and then I read something like this article and it’s like being punched in the stomach.  I remember the panic and the desperation suddenly, the tension that you hide from other people and the way it never stops.  I’d like to leave you with a visual of the lengths these people will go to in order to come to this country:

Crosses representing those who die trying to cross in the US

What did I do to deserve being born here?

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This weekend my husband’s family had a “pollada,” which is a chicken-fundraiser.  For instance, at one pollada I’ve been to they raised money for my husband’s uncle’s cancer treatments.  The family sell plates of food and drinks (lots of beer).  The point is to try to sell delicious food that doesn’t cost much, so chicken plus some combination of rice/potatoes/corn/salad is pretty typical.  The family that hosts the pollada deducts the costs of the food (although nothing for their time and effort) and then gives the rest of the money to the needy party.  This is one way that Peruvian communities operate without much of a formal welfare system in place.  While many of these families don’t qualify for government assistance, their relatives and friends take responsibility for helping them out when they are in a difficult situation.

I like to sleep in on the weekends, but on Saturday morning I woke up at 9 AM to go help my husband’s family prepare for the pollada.  They had actually done a lot of the prepation the day before.  When I arrived at their house, the salad was already made and the potatoes had been boiled.  The chicken had been marinating overnight and the salad dressing, red chili sauce, and green salsa de huacatai were already prepared.  When I arrived, my father-in-law and my brother-in-law (who is only seven) went outside to set up the fire for the chicken, the tables for the customers, and a tarp in the back yard since it looked like rain.  I stayed inside with my mother-in-law and peeled mountains of potatoes and washed dishes.  (Peruvians don’t generally eat potato skins – they cook potatoes with the skins on and peel them afterward.)

After peeling potatoes, it was time to carry the food outside.  When I got to the backyard, I saw a giant pot on top of several bricks.  Beneath the bricks there was firewood heating up the oil, marinade, and chicken.

My father-in-law watched the pot of chicken while I stayed at the table with the food and spent the next few hours dishing out plates and handing people beer and soda.

Periodically I had to holler at whatever group of children was playing soccer at the time to stay away from the fire.  Most of their parents seemed unconcerned, but I was nervous by how many times the soccer ball ended up right next to the fire.  Some of the kids spoke English, and some of them only spoke Spanish.  I noticed that when something startles me (like a small child stumbling precariously near an open flame) that I automatically holler in English, then have to pause and remember to speak in Spanish.  Emergencies make it really obvious what your native language is.

My in-laws put on music and a steady stream of people trickled in, ate, and then left all day.  Around 5 PM I went to the English mass for palm Sunday vigil, came back, and found the party still in full swing.  We ended up leaving around 10 PM (which was early) and I was pretty wiped out after 12 hours, but when I spoke to my husband’s family today, they said people were there until 4 AM.  That’s a party!  I don’t know exactly how much money they raised, but I would guess around $800 or $1000 after deducting the expenses of the chicken and beer.

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Many people have forgotten about the draconian anti-immirgrant laws in Arizon that prompted so much controversy last year.  As a nation, we should not be so quick to move on from these injustices.  It’s important that we remember them and witness their impact on the those with no voice here in the US.  Since the laws that were initially passed in Arizona, several states have passed similar measure.  Arizon’a legislation came out when my husband was still in this country illegally.

Driving to work and listening to NPR one morning, I heard a story that made me pull the car over and cry.  It was about the fear that many illegal immigrants in Arizon felt knowing that the police were required to determine their legal residency even during a routine traffic stop.  Many immigrants were packing up and leaving the state.  One woman interviewed reported that she had given away the majority of her possessions because, “If we were going to have a lot of luggage in our car, it was going to look like we were escaping from Arizona,” which would make them suspicious to police.  She took her 18 year old son, 16 year old daughter, and 6 year old son to Colorada.  The drive to Denver took 19 hours and she was afraid to stop, so she put a disposable diaper on her youngest son.

When I got to work and people asked me why I had been crying, I said my allergies were acting up.  I don’t have allergies, but it didn’t feel safe to talk about these immigration laws.  I was worried I would somehow reveal something about my husband’s immigration status by appearing too upset.  Maybe I would blurt something out in a moment of fury. The type of fear that would cause a family to get rid of most of their possessions overnight and flee a state without even stopping to take bathroom breaks should not exist in the US.  I love this country, but when I read about states like Arizona and Georgia and Virginia, I don’t even recognize this country.  It’s sad to me how quickly we’ve moved on as a nation to other issues.

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I read an article recently about Pat Conroy, one of my favorite depressed Southern authors.  I jotted down this quote he gave about growing up as a child in a military household: “We spent our entire childhoods in the service of our country, and no one even knew we were there.”

My father was a Marine, so I moved a lot as a child.  I was perpetually the “new kid” so I had to learn to land on my feet again and again and again.  I mastered how to quickly assess the dynamics in a room – who has power?  Who is a pariah?  Who should be avoided and who needs to be befriended?  I became good at making friends, although not very adept at staying in touch with them for the long haul.  There was a rhythm to our lives that involved moving in May and starting a new school in September.  Except when we had to move and start a new school in October or April during the middle of a school year.

I don’t like it when people ask me where I’m from.  I’m not from anywhere.  I don’t like it when people say it must have been “such a great experience” to see so much of the world as a child and I must be so “outgoing.”  That’s like saying that being poor must have really taught you to be resourceful about finding enough to eat – what a blessing!

The Marine Corps was the source of a lot of tension in my family, and my nomadic childhood was just collateral damage.  My parents made choices for me that I would not have made for myself.  They volunteered me to make sacrifices that I would not require of my own  children.  For instance, I would not ask my children to attend 6 different schools in 4 years in a row during middle school, which everyone knows is like Lord of the Flies under the best of circumstances.

My brother joined the Marine Corps when I was in college during the war in Iraq.  I had known about the sacrifices that powerless children make when their parents serve their country.  During those years I learned about the sacrifices that adults make when their loved ones go to war.  I learned about a different kind of helplessness, and that love can hold you hostage to the choices another person makes every bit as much as childhood does.  Being an adult is still better.

I don’t know what it is to be a Marine, but I see those invisible children who have been drafted into serving their country, and I won’t do that to my children.

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I had a really nice post scheduled for today, but I’m going to interrupt our regular programming to provide my readers with an important public service announcement:

If you talk on your cell phone while you are in the bathroom using the facilities, I.will.judge.you.  If you talk on your cell phone while I am in the bathroom and using the facilities, I will spend the entire time thinking of ways to embarrass you.  If I have to flush the toilet 3 times in a row and listen to you repeatedly say, “Hello?  One sec.  Hang on, I can’t hear you,” I will do that until you leave.

You are probably one of those people who posts inane facebook status updates because you mistakenly think that the whole world cares about your life.  This is probably news for you since you are so privacy-challenged, but I don’t want whatever stranger that you are talking to listening to me pee.   Hang up your phone!  I am categorizing this post under “social justice” because it is my right to pee in privacy.

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I finished the book When Helping Hurts and have been thinking about how Americans so often  swoop into a third world country or a poor neighborhood and try to “fix” things according to our own standards, which undermines the talents and drive of the people who live there and reinforces our own mistaken sense of superiority.  We should try to partner with local resources and listen to what people actually need.  We should try to make lasting changes that our motivated from within the community rather than imposing quick changes from outside the community that probably won’t last.  We should remember that being poor involves so much more than just lacking the basics that a human needs to survive – it involves feelings of powerlessness and shame and fatalism.  We can’t just throw money at those in poverty and expect things to improve.  Often there are systemic factors like racism that contribute to poverty.  This book emphasizes respecting local culture and working in partnership with the poor in a way that affirms their own skills and brings about long-lasting and organic change.

Even though the ideas in When Helping Hurts are profound, it was difficult to read to the end because of the dry writing style.  I persevered and have since been thinking about the difference between helping people and enabling people.  The way I enable certain people is similar to the way many people mistakenly try to alleviate poverty, and reading about guidelines for dealing with the poor made me think about applying these ideas to my own relationships.  (It sounds like maybe I should’ve read a self-help book this week instead of a book on the poor, but at least I learned something!)  The authors provide 3 guidelines when someone comes to you with a crisis:

(1) Determine if there is an authentic crisis at hand.  “If you fail to provide immediate help, will there really be serious, negative consequences?”

(2) To what extent is the person responsible for their crisis?  If you help them, will they miss out on the chance to learn from the consequences of their actions?  (They note that you should pay attention to systemic factors that can cause crisis and not be punitive.)

(3) Can the person help themselves?  If they can help themselves, doing it for them would undermine their confidence in their agency.  “Avoid paternalism.  Do not do things for people that they can do for themselves.”

I am often bossy.  I take charge of situations and make things happen, but that means that I sometimes steamroll over people and don’t give them the chance to develop important skills.  I needed to hear someone tell me to avoid paternalism this week, because that’s a character flaw that I struggle with.  At work, my instinct is to avoid taking the time to train someone for a new task when it’s faster for me to do it myself.  Instead this year I have been making an effort to mentor other people (those 2.5 people who have less experience than I do…) even when it takes time, because it’s the right thing to do and it’s actually more efficient for me in the long term.  At home, I have consciously been including my husband* more in the process of dealing with our bank, because it’s important that both spouses be partners about finances.

I had begun this process of stepping back and letting other people learn how to fish rather than just fishing for them sometime last year, but reading this book gave me words to describe what I am doing.  I am avoiding paternalism; I am affirming the agency of other people.

*I am grateful that my husband has not decided to make me demonstrate more agency in processes like emissions inspections because it is important for both spouses to be conversant about  car maintenance.  Luckily, he has not read When Helping Hurts and probably never will.

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I just read the best article on immigration and the welfare state: http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2012/02/griswold_on_imm.html.

The point that immigrants work hard and contribute to our economy absolutely resonates with the illegal immigrants that I know personally:  The typical foreign-born adult resident of the United States today is more likely to participate in the work force than the typical native-born American. According to the U.S. Department of Labor (2011), the labor-force participation rate of the foreign-born in 2010 was 67.9 percent, compared to the native-born rate of 64.1 percent. The gap was especially high among men. The labor-force participation rate of foreign-born men in 2010 was 80.1 percent, a full 10 percentage points higher than the rate among native-born men.  Labor-force participation rates were highest of all among unauthorized male immigrants in the United States. According to estimates by Jeffrey Passell (2006) of the Pew Hispanic Center*, 94 percent of illegal immigrant men were in the labor force in the mid-2000s.

Also, a higher proportion of immigrants is not actually associated with larger welfare expenditures:  The 10 states with the largest percentage increase in foreign-born population between 2000 and 2009 spent far less on public assistance per capita in 2009 compared to the 10 states with the slowest-growing foreign-born populations–$35 vs. $166 (see Table 1). In the 10 states with the lowest per capita spending on public assistance, the immigrant population grew 31 percent between 2000 and 2009; in the 10 states with the highest per capita spending on public assistance, the foreign-born population grew 13 percent (U.S.
Census 2011, NASBO 2010: 33).

My husband was in the US illegally for 10 years before his status was “adjusted” and he received a green card.  In that time, he paid taxes using a tax ID number consistently.  Many people believe that illegal immigrants don’t pay taxes, but in fact if they want to have their status adjusted in the future they need to prove that they paid taxes consistently for years.  Other people believe that illegal immigrants cannot pay taxes, but the IRS will issue a tax ID number to anyone without them needing to prove legal residency. Once the person files their taxes with this number, the social security administration sends them a letter saying, “We don’t have this number on record and cannot apply the earnings that you made to your social security account….”    There is no follow-up to these letters because it is understood that the IRS has given someone without a social security number a way to pay their taxes and that this revenue is good for the government.  These social security earnings are paid by an immigrant who may never be able to claim them when they retire if their status is not adjusted, and the immigrants do it anyway on the chance that someday they may be able to live here legally.

During the years that my husband was in this country illegally, he built a business that employed several people during the economic downturn.  Not only did he provide full-time employment to other people who do contracting, but he also purchased materials and gave work to other small business that were involved in the jobs that he completed.   He mentored other young men who came to America seeking to better their fortunes.  He taught them skills so they could become contractors, walked them through the process of getting a tax ID number, and introduced them to clients.  His community has strong social ties that help keep people off of welfare and that support young people until they learn a skill and can stand on their own two feet.  His efforts to guide these young men are not unique since his culture values family and community so strongly.

The people I know that are here illegally are some of the hardest working people that I know.  They make their communities a better place to live by providing job opportunities and mentoring those who are less fortunate.  They don’t turn to welfare to get by – many of them are not even eligible to receive welfare.  They contribute to our economy and they pay taxes!

*I would love to work for the Pew Hispanic Center.  Love, love, love.

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I’ve been reading a very interesting book called When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty without Hurting the Poor that is about how our efforts to help the poor often make situations worse rather than helping them to escape poverty.  This book focuses on the debilitating impact of many short term mission trips that churches undertake and many ministries that churches provide to the poor, as well as misconceptions about what it is to be poor and what causes poverty.

Reading this book is causing me to re-think many beliefs that I’ve never questioned.  For instance, if a homeless person on the street asks me for money, almost 100% of the time I give them something.  I do this because several verses in the bible make it clear that we should share with those who don’t have much when we do have enough, like:

1 John 3:7 If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?

Matthew 5:42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

Proberbs 3:28  Do not say to your neighbor,
   “Come back tomorrow and I’ll give it to you”—
   when you already have it with you.

There are a lot more verses like this in the bible and a lot of people will immediately ask if I’ve also literally sold all my possession and given them to the needy as Jesus mentions in Luke 12:33.  I have not, but I think it’s a very common condition (affliction?) for Christians to pick and choose which bible verses they will interpret literally and which were dependent on the context or perhaps mistranslated over time.

I believe when I die that I will see Jesus and we will talk about my life.  I want him to say that I did a good job, and I don’t want to have to answer to him for the times that I turned away from someone in need.  When my friends argue that these homeless people are just going to buy drugs or alcohol, I always comment that if I were homeless I might want to do that, and that it’s really not my business what they buy with it.  It’s only my business whether I turned away from someone who was hungry, and ultimately I’ll answer for that someday.

This book is making me think about whether my responsibility to the poor involves something different than giving them cash and turning away when they may be stuck in situations where money isn’t really what they need.  As Americans, we often throw money at problems we don’t understand.  I’m not sure yet how my interactions with the homeless are going to change, and in the meantime I am still giving them cash, but I’ll update you when I finish the book.

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Today, Mark Krikorian, the executive direct of the Center for Immigration Studies, had an op-ed piece* published in the New York Times in which he stated that, “Some might argue that simply asking about legal status is tantamount to barring illegal aliens from the schools, since no one will want to confess to being an illegal alien. With illegal aliens filing tax returns and lobbying Congress, such a claim is not borne out by the facts. Living in the shadows? What shadows?”

I have so many things that I want to say about illegal immigration and especially about the draconian measures that have become law in Alabama, but I’m going to start with what I bring to this discussion that is different from all of the other people shouting to be heard.  It is not my expertise in economics or foreign policy or moral reasoning; it is my voice as a privileged American who was given a taste of the fear that undocumented immigrants live with each day when they get out of bed, when they drop their children off at school, when they drive to work.

I did not grow up around people who are afraid every single day that they will be deported; I did not internalize that fear as part of quotidian life.  I came of age as a member of a racial majority from a firmly upper-middle class family.  I attended a prestigious university and checked off all of the “right” boxes to have a successful life as an American who would never experience the hardships that these families face.  And yet, I fell in love with an illegal immigrant and married into his family, and as a result I married into his fear of being arrested and forcibly removed from this country.

That fear lived with us for five years like an ominous shadow that colored the way we viewed every situation we faced as a young couple.  I asked my husband what he feared the most in that time and he said, “That they would grab me and deport me and strip from me the life and the opportunities that I have here.”  The words “grab” and “strip” give a poignant description of the violence that we feared.  My deepest fear was that one day he would just not come home.  I had heard many stories of people being deported without even a phone call (since they don’t have the right to one).  I lived every day with the knowledge that the husband that I kissed before I left for work might disappear without warning.  I prayed obsessively each morning, “Keep him safe from watchful eyes and harm.  Bring him home safely tonight.”

I remember the second time we consulted with an attorney about my husband’s situation.  I told her how afraid I was that one day my husband would not come home and I will never, ever forget what she said to me.  “They usually don’t come for families in the night.  If you make it home safely, you’re probably safe until the morning.”  I wept when she said that, and I still cry each time I tell that story.  How many Americans fear people “coming for them” like we live in Nazi Germany?  How many Americans only feel relief from unrelenting panic when their family members are safely in the house for the night?

I remember when we had a big snowstorm in 2011 and many roads closed because of car accidents and the cell phone reception was bad.  I couldn’t reach my husband on the phone and I worried that he could have a car accident and be picked up as an illegal immigrant, since I live in a state where the police can legally demand to see proof of legal residency at any routine traffic stop.  I spent that night repeating the rosary again and again with the nuns on some TV program even though I am not a Catholic because somehow the rhythm made it easier to breathe.  I did that until he arrived home after midnight, having been waylaid by a tree that fell across the road.

When I think back to our life in the shadows, I remember the time that my husband’s boss refused to pay him for 2 months of work (more than $6000) and my husband was scared to take him to court because he didn’t want his (il)legal status to come to light.  We never recovered those two months of wages.

I think about my husband’s little brother, and the year that he was six.  I see him sitting at the kitchen table with his small feet kicking his chair.  We had forgotten he was there, and he was listening to his family talk (in Spanish) about new laws that were cracking down on illegal immigration.  The women were talking about how afraid they were while the men were making reassuring noises about the likelihood that these laws would be enacted.  My small brother-in-law squeezed my hand and asked me quietly (in English) why we have to be so afraid.  I hugged him to me and told him not to be afraid.  I explained that he was born in the US and everything would be okay, while I hoped that he was too little to notice what I was not saying about his brother.  Namely, that he were not born in the US, and that he should be afraid.

I remember fearing that I would lose the security clearance that lets me work in my field because my husband was here illegally, and being told that for my career advancement, I needed to attend a conference in Arizona during the boycott.  I remember the way my protests fell on deaf ears when I explained that I felt wrong about going to any conference that took place in a state where some scholars would feel uncomfortable coming to present their research since they might be stopped and harassed for looking “like an immigrant” (read: hispanic).

More than the panic attacks when I couldn’t reach my husband on the phone, more than the injustice and feeling of impotence when employers cheated my husband, more than the creeping certainty that I was teaching the children in our family to be afraid, more than the anxiety that my husband’s status would rob me of a job, I resented the ignorant comments that people made.  I burned when they spoke of illegal immigrants who taxed our economy and unfairly jumped the line.  I raged inside every time a co-worker or a neighbor or a family member made some stupid comment about immigrants like they were engaging me in an academic debate with no faces in it, no real people.  I wanted to snap back, “You are talking about my husband!  You are talking about my family!”  I felt like I could never scream loud enough so that they would shut up and stop talking about something that they know nothing of, that they will never understand.  More than anything, I want to scream until the whole world hears the voice of these people who are nameless and faceless to the majority of Americans.

*http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2011/10/04/should-alabama-schools-help-catch-illegal-immigrants/defining-good-immigration-policy

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If you have ever stayed silent while someone said something prejudiced about illegal immigrants because you are afraid of drawing attention to someone you love, you are not alone.

If you have researched other countries that you could live in because it seems like you will not be permitted to stay in the country that you were born into and that you love, you are not alone.

If you have woken up early and stayed up late, slept little, visited every specialist under the sun, and paid for the privilege of being given more impossible tasks to complete while they condescend to you about how little hardship you would endure if separated from someone you love, you are not alone.

If you have risked everything including your job and the respect of people you care about to keep someone you love safe, you are not alone.

If you have ever knelt by your bed to pray that someone be safe, that someone be granted clemency, and found yourself flat on your face pleading with God for mercy, you are not alone.

If you have ever cried until you threw up because you worried that your life would never be okay again, you are not alone.

If you have put every part of yourself into a quest like this, your sweat and your blood and your flesh and your tears, you are not alone.

I was married to an illegal immigrant.  We were together for 5 years before the US government granted him legal permanent residency.  I wish that someone had told me that I was not alone.

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