Treating Prisoners as Well as Farm Animals

The legislature in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is now considering passing Bill S.2232. Officially entitled, “An Act to ensure continued humane animal care in Massachusetts,” this commendable bill is designed to prevent cruelty and ill-treatment to farm animals. Here are some key excerpts:

The purpose of this section, subject to exceptions, is to prohibit the confinement of farm animals in a manner that does not allow them to turn around freely, lie down, stand up, and fully extend their limbs.

(b) Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a person is guilty of unlawful confinement of a covered farm animal if the person is a farm owner or operator who knowingly tethers or confines any covered animal, on a farm, for all or the majority of any day, in a manner that prevents such animal from:

(1) Lying down, standing up, and fully extending his or her limbs; and

(2) Turning around freely.


(d) For the purposes of this section:


(3) “Enclosure” means any cage, crate, or other structure (including what is commonly described as a “gestation crate” for pigs; or a “veal crate” for calves used to confine a covered animal).

(6)”Fully extending his or her limbs” means fully extending all limbs without touching the side of an enclosure
(7) “Person” means any individual, firm, partnership, joint venture, association, limited liability company, corporation, estate, trust, receiver, or syndicate.

(9) “Turning around freely” means turning in a complete circle without any impediment, including a tether, and without touching the side of an enclosure.
(e) Any person who violates any of the provisions of this chapter is guilty of a misdemeanor, and upon conviction thereof shall be punished by a fine not to exceed one thousand dollars ($1,000).

This simple, yet precise bill raises the standards for the ethical treatment of animals that will, eventually, be slaughtered for food. Thus, while it is clear that the animals in question will most likely meet their demise intentionally, according to this bill, they should be treated humanely.

Perhaps I should say, “better-than-humanely” or “animal-humanely,” since as we know some tens of thousands of human beings, if not more, are currently confined and shackled in small cells, which certainly impede their ability to “fully extend their limbs without touching the side of an enclosure,” or to “turn around freely without any impediment, including a tether.” As we know, even when we choose to ignore it, our well-deserved sympathy for farm animals or house pets, or many other animals, often does not extend—even as a matter of federal policy—to human beings considered undesirable: imprisoned Black men and women, undocumented migrants or children, and mostly Muslim men who were casualties of American fear in the endless War on Terror—namely those who have been or still reside in Guantanamo.

Some significant portion of these prisoners are in solitary confinement in US prisons. The numbers, as the organization Solitary Watch (SW) states, are difficult to determine. Official numbers do not appear to include those who are undocumented and in “detention facilities”—including thousands of child migrants. None of these prisoners are likely to be granted the same range of unshackled movement, or even the same level of “animal-humane” treatment from their captors or guards. As a recent story by Katie Pavlich demonstrated, child migrants are expected to live inside caged facilities while the US government considers how to process them. The photos obtained on show multiple children stuffed into chain-link cages with hardly any room to turn around “without impediment.” The slideshow at a CBS news website shows similar crowding and cages.

There are too many stories are out there about the subhuman treatment of pregnant prisoners who give birth while chained, with prison officials by their side. While there is a federal prison policy, passed in 2007, that prohibits shackling pregnant women, there are only a few similar prohibitions against state prison facilities, pertaining only to about 20 states. To its infinite credit, Massachusetts is among the most recent of states to pass such a policy. S.2063 was passed earlier this year, although its standards are lower than the humane animal care bill under consideration.

While S.2232, the humane-animal care bill, mandates unconditional freedom of movement for farm animals, Massachusetts’ prohibition against tethering pregnant prisoners onlymandates “the opportunity for a minimum of 1 hour of ambulatory movement each day.” Also, unlike a similar bill passed in California, the Massachusetts bill does not pertain to undocumented women. Plenty of other states have no such restrictions, as seen in this horrific recounting from the documentary Checkpoint Nation, of Maria, a woman who was taunted by an ICE official by her side in Tucson, Arizona, while giving birth.

Similarly, the stories of men locked up in tiny cubicles for years at a time proliferate without limit. Listen to these comments by Anthony Graves, wrongly convicted and sentenced to death row. Graves spent 18 years imprisoned, 16 of them in solitary confinement. He has also likened his 8 x 10 cell to a cage fit for animals, prompting prison officials to taunt him like an animal. In similarly dehumanizing fashion, Khalif Brauder was held in solitary confinement, without adequate nutrition, in Rikers as a teenager for fraudulent reasons. Mahmud Abouhalima is imprisoned in a Supermax prison where he has been shackled and forced to live for years in a cage no bigger than 8 feet wide. Yet others tell of being imprisoned in cells that are even smaller, as in these answers to the question of how large a prison cell.

There are countless stories of men who have been beaten and tortured so badly their spines have been broken.

But every single story that is published about these sub-human standards of treatment—in light of S.2232, perhaps we should call them “sub-animalistic” standards—is met with contempt or indifference. Others cheer that these men and women (and children) are being met with appropriate, well-deserved or justifiable treatment. And this Old Testament attitude persists despite the countless—yes, countless—cases of wrongful convictions or, in our post-9/11 legal world, the normalization of the complete absence of proof.

Back in 1997, political philosophers Robert Goodin, Carole Pateman and Roy Pateman published a scholarly article entitled, “Simian Sovereignty.” In it, they argued that simians—apes, orangutans, chimps and others of that species closely resembled human beings, and thus should be able to live and co-exist side by side with human beings. Goodin et al. cited several philosophers from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries who argued for the close resemblance between human beings and simians. For example, they cite Lord Monboddo, as being “optimistic” that “the Orang Outang is, if not in the beginning, at least in one of the first stages of society, and in the progress towards a more civilized state.”

The premise of Goodin et al’s article was that simians most closely resemble human beings and therefore deserve to be treated in a superior fashion (as presumably human beings are). When I first read their article in 1997, I was rather skeptical of the comparison, because I wasn’t convinced of their premise. Today, I am still rather skeptical of the comparison, but for obverse reasons: the superior standards that they argue be extended to simians have not yet been extended to many who are supposed to fit into the category of”human”— particularly those who are undesirable, vilified or marginalized.

We are accustomed to thinking of human beings as autonomous, of being individuated, of—through long periods of Kantian story-telling—according them a certain level of respect, of ascribing them a certain dignified status, and by extension, a certain level of protection. In the Kantian story, humans exist between angels and animals, with their intellectual faculties rescuing them from the status of the latter. Their faculties are utilized to govern and restrain their material sides and impulses. Kant’s story continues to be a predominant linchpin in organizing our understanding of the world. In French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s posthumously published book, The Animal That I therefore Am, he points to Adorno’s stance that an idealist insults man by referring to the animal in him. It is certainly true that for many centuries to be understood as merely an animal was an insult. It was a condemnation of all that was unreflective, irrational, morally uncontrolled by one’s intellectual faculty.

There is a documented history that demonstrates how sympathy for animals is elicited much more prolifically and easily than is sympathy for others who suffer similar conditions to caged animals. We see it in this story, from 1994, about how orphaned mountain lion cubs elicited two and 1/3 times more donations ($21,000) than did the children ($9,000) orphaned after their mother was attacked by the cubs’ mother. Today, all 50 states have felony penalties for cruelty to animals.

Notably, in February 2006, a 38-year old man in Columbus, Ohio, was arrested for dog fighting, after officials found twenty-six wounded pit bulls confined in wooden crates. As the chief deputy sheriff reported then: “These dogs were kept in these things with no windows…It is still a phenomenon to me that people enjoy watching these animals suffer like this. It’s just so brutal.” I point to a case that is nearly 8 years old, because the sympathy (rightfully) expressed for the dogs—caged in crates with no windows–is still withheld from men and women and children  who are imprisoned in similar conditions: in Supermax prisons or in Guantanamo Bay or in immigration detention facilities.

We seem to have arrived at a moment when the term “animal” no longer refers as accurately to the non-human animal. If anything, as we have seen over the last few decades, non-human animals are seen to resemble human animals more and more: dolphins can think and sing and feel; chimpanzees can communicate. Octopi have been discovered to wield and implement tools. These facts shatter the foundation of Karl Marx’s celebration of the singularity of human potential.

Yet, there seems to be an inverse disparity between our unadulterated love for animals and our shame and moral outrage in the face of mistreatment and cruelty and the relative lack of concern for human beings facing similar conditions. What are we to make of the seeming fact that certain human beings will not be recognized as having the same kind of protections afforded to animals? How do we understand both their status and their continued misery—a misery that continues and hears fewer objections, less outrage?

The strongest argument in favor of cruel treatment to prisoners is that they have been convicted of heinous actions, and as such, they merit such treatment. But that argument is easily undermined in the face of the fact that so many prisoners who are caged have never seen the inside of a courtroom for their supposed crimes. Most detainees in immigration facilities or in Guantanamo have neither been tried nor convicted, as we well know.

A more cynical reading would suggest that S.2232, pending in the Massachusetts legislature, only offers super-humane treatment to animals that will eventually be slaughtered and eaten, and as such, is not a real fix. But shouldn’t treatment of human beings who are vilified approximate the treatment of farm animals?  It is not too cynical to say that if we had a federal, uniform standard of treatment for imprisoned men, women and children matching the standards of S.2232, that would mark some level of progress in a world in which the US government professes to believe in human rights.


A version of this piece was published on today.


150 Years Since Emancipation: We’ve (Hardly) Come a Long Way, Baby

Saturday, Sept. 22 marked the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s early emancipation of slaves from Confederate States which were still rebelling against Union authority by the beginning of 1863.  The official Emancipation Proclamation would be signed into law on January 1, 1863.  But slavery wasn’t constitutionally abolished until December 18, 1865, when the 13th Amendment was passed. Perhaps because it was the preliminary announcement, there was very little fanfare, save for several NYT pieces. One was a column on Lincon’s Great Gamble, and the other an editorial that traced the beginning of the Laws of War to that event.

Still, some things that come to mind:

  1. The Republicans, in spite of their supposed zeal to appeal to African Americans and other minority voters, missed an opportunity to trumpet the fact that it was a Republican President whose actions would eventually free several million black men and women. There’s still time to commemorate the actual anniversary of the Lincoln’s signing of the EP on Jan. 1, 2013—well after the election. It could mark a change in long-term strategy. Will they?
  2. As Angela Davis (philosopher, Black Panther, and ex-prisoner), Cornel West, and Michelle Alexander have been arguing, the abolition of slavery did not lead to the freedom of black men and women, but rather to the continuation of slavery by other “legal” means.  Other means included Jim Crow (apartheid and indentured servitude); more recently, we see the continuation of apartheid and slavery through the massive imprisonment, voter suppression and abrogation of other rights of convicted African Americans and other minority populations for non-violent offenses.
  3. Innumerable Black men, such as Mumia Abu-Jamal are in prison due to shoddy representation, improper trials, or other irregular procedures.
  4. Populations of color make up 30% of the US population, but 60% of the prison population.
  5. 1 in 3 Black men in the U.S. can expect to go to prison in their lifetimes. 1 in 10 Black men is in prison or jail in the U.S.
  6. Plea bargains—agreeing to concede guilt in exchange for a shorter sentence—account for 95% of all felony convictions in the U.S.  90% of all criminal convictions are the result of plea bargains. Plea bargains save the courts time and money by bypassing trials; and save prisoners potentially lengthier jail sentences.
  7. Plea bargains also require the arrested to waive three rights guaranteed by the 5thand 6th (right against self-incrimination, right to confront hostile witnesses, and the right to a jury trial).  They also enable the waiving of the right to appeal a conviction.  By extension, plea bargains do not guarantee that the “convicted” are in fact guilty.
  8. Latinos represent the largest percentage of the 400,000 migrants detained annually in centers across the United States (97%).  There are huge profits to be netted in the private management of these facilities. It is one of the most successful jobs program, expanded if not created, by the Obama Administration.
  9. Migrants who are arrested or detained for “unlawful” entry into the United States are at the mercy of the whims of USCIS officers. They are not entitled to lawyers. Nor to judicial review. That means they have no access to judges to review their cases and the accuracy of the charges against them—or of any other facts.
  10. The CIA has decided to offer some transparency by announcing the names of 55 out of 84 prisoners in Guantanamo Bay Detention facilities who have been cleared for released by the United States (court system?). Why not the other 19 men, too?
  11. Adnan Latif, a Yemeni who had been imprisoned without charges in Guantanamo since October 2002, had been cleared for release multiple times over the first 8 years of his unlawful imprisonment; his release was challenged by the Obama Administration and ultimately overturned by the Supreme Court 3 months ago because of “security concerns.”
  12. U.S. citizens Fahad Hashmi and Tarek Mehanna represent only 2 of many Muslim men who were arrested on suspicion of terrorism, confined without charges, and after many years, convicted of material support to terrorism. There is no public documentation of these charges. Public evidence of their “criminal tendencies,” point to their vocal religious and political dissent against U.S. foreign policies and empathies for states that were subject to the war on terror (both are technically protected under the U.S. Constitution’s 1st amendment).
  13. SAM’s—Special Administrative Measures–can be issued by an Attorney General against prisoners for any sort of minute infraction, and not be subject to judicial review after someone is “convicted.”  SAM’s can include solitary confinement for years at a time, revoking visiting privileges with one’s mother, refusing to allow a prisoner out of his solitary confinement for even his daily 1 hour allotment for exercise.  They can be issued for infractions that don’t need to be known to prisoners or their lawyers. If they are promulgated publicly, the reason for the SAM is because the prisoner is acting in a way that is deemed to incite riots or violence. I mean how else would one view the act of praying, or god-forbid, shadowboxing in solitary confinement?
  14. The NDAA 2011 gave the POTUS the unlimited authority to detain suspected terrorists anytime, anywhere—until a lawsuit against Section 1021 launched by journalist Chris Hedges and other journalists was won in May, and its enforcement stopped with a temporary injunction. A permanent injunction was instituted last week.
  15. The permanent injunction has been challenged by the Obama Administration as of last week.
  16. “Homeland,” a cable show (Showtime) that features a CIA agent who tracks a CIA agent/white U.S. citizen/former prisoner of Al-Qaeda as a potential enemy of the United States, won a 2012 Emmy last night for Best Drama.  Isn’t Clare Danes gorgeous as a CIA agent?  Just saying.

Julián Castro’s Grandmother’s American Dream

On Tuesday night at the Democratic National Convention, San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro gave a moving speech about how his family achieved the American Dream. His grandmother, an orphan, moved at age 6 from Mexico to San Antonio in 1920 to live with relatives. Though she spent her life working at low-wage jobs, cleaning houses and babysitting, to help her family, her move eventually allowed for Julian’s mother to grow up and go to college. Eventually came Julian and his twin brother Joaquin, who grew up to go to Stanford University and then to Harvard Law School.  Notably, they followed in the footsteps of the current President.

What Castro omitted to mention last night or on other occasions where he has insisted that President Obama’s actions have benefited Latinos tremendously is that the American Dream was much more plausible for Mexican migrants in the 1920’s than it is today. There isn’t much information about the circumstances of Julian Castro’s grandmother’s migration, but according to historian Harvey Levenstein, by the 1920’s,“…half a million Mexicans were counted legally crossing the southern border. The number of Mexicans who did not bother with the immigration formalities was not known, but it was certainly not insignificant.”

Whether or not Julian Castro’s grandmother was a legal migrant, her family didn’t have to worry about her “legality,” because it hadn’t yet become an issue. It was only beginning in the 1920’s that there was an increasing drive to restrict migration from Mexico, driven in large part by the labor union AFL, headed by Samuel Gompers. Gompers and other AFL leaders, had been trying since 1919 to restrict immigration from Asia, Europe, and Mexico.  They were unsuccessful until 1924, when they reluctantly included Canada along with Mexico in the immigration bill that passed.

In fact, during the same period that tens of thousands of Mexicans were migrating at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, U.S. hostilities had been directed against Asian migrants for some time.  Chinese immigrants, brought in the mid 1800’s to work on the Trans-Pacific railroad, had outlived their usefulness for the American state. Worried that they would now compete with white American workers for jobs, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, deporting all Chinese immigrants unless they were merchants. In 1907, the US made an agreement with Japan to restrict Japanese migration. Due to many factors, including Indian agitation against the British colonial government for self-rule in the 1910’s, severe restrictions on Asian immigration were placed on East Indian and other Asian immigrants in 1917.  With the passage of the Asia Barred Zone Act—its name reveals all–migrants from India, Afghanistan, the Middle East, and the Pacific were prohibited from entering the US, unless they were students, merchants, or diplomats.  The 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, along with the beginnings of restrictions on Mexican immigrants, restricted Asian immigration to 2% of the recorded Asian population in the United States at any given time.

But another forgotten fact: the southern border between the U.S and Mexico had been under contestation even after the 1848 Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo, when the U.S. had successfully annexed large swaths of Mexican territory, including California, Texas, “New” Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and Utah.  The U.S., in an ever increasing game of “drawing lines in the sand,” had given Mexican nationals residing in those areas three years to decide whether they would become U.S. citizens (along with promises that they would be able to keep their ranches and farmlands).  During those three years, and even after, despite the promises of the Treaty, there were many challenges to the ownership of rancheros’ lands, which went all the way up to the Supreme Court. The Court almost uniformly took land away from Mexicans even when they had changed their allegiances. The controversies over Mexican migration were perhaps diluted because the annexation of Mexican land—along with many broken promises–were fresh in the minds of American politicians and judges. But given the barring of Asian immigration, the US had also quietly looked to Mexico for its cheap labor, which quieted the hostilities against Mexican immigrants until the late 1920’s.

That was when deportation became an enforceable practice.  In her book, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America, historian Mae Ngai points out that a miniscule number of people–about 2000 annually–were deported between 1908-1920, mostly from hospitals, asylums, and jails.  By 1924, Congress had imposed much more restrictive immigration laws, along with a newly created Border Patrol.  For the first time, “illegal entry” came with potential imprisonment and fines.  Mexican immigration became increasingly scrutinized and restricted, even as the Mexican population grew. According to Ngai, the population of South Texas doubled in size between 1920 and 1930, to 322,000, and the “ethnic Mexican population” grew to nearly 1.5 million by 1930. As well, she points out, more than 400,00 Mexicans and Mexican Americans were “repatriated” in the 1930’s. Mexicans who remained in the U.S. in the 1930’s despite the increasing restrictions were able to become a significant economic presence, and in 1943, the story changed: Mexican immigration was channeled through the “Migrant Labor Agreement,” between the U.S. and Mexico to provide cheap labor for U.S. farms, more commonly known as the Bracero program.

This is a rather broad sketch of the rich, dynamic and vibrant history of migration—and especially Mexican migration—to this country.  Clearly there is much more to this history, as well as to the moving—but selective–history that Julian Castro told last night.  Americans, including the Convention-goers have appeared to have forgotten the history of the last century. But they have also forgotten a more recent history: one in which the current Democratic Administration has deported over 1.2 million undocumented migrants during the previous four years—many more so than its Republican predecessor.

It is true that the Obama Administration has recently reversed its position on the deportation of undocumented migrants, if they fit certain requirements, like being under 30 and having migrated with their parents before they were 16. But the reversal, which occurred less than 5 months before the November election, is not an executive order—it’s a provisional suspension of the policies of Department of Homeland Security. As such, the durability of this reversal is in serious question, along with its timing. It occurred near the end of a term in which the war on migrants was harsh and unrelenting, and “defers action” for 2 years for approved applicants on the matter of deportation. Will it last after a potential re-election of the President?

If Julian Castro’s grandmother had been orphaned in Mexico today, would she have been able to immigrate to the United States to live with her relatives? And if, by some miracle, she had migrated but without papers, would she have been able to stay? Would she have been able to be proud of her Ivy League-educated twin grandsons?  To say the least, her status would have been affected by the vicissitudes of the President’s inclinations and re-election prospects—not to mention her age, whom she arrived with, and a host of other uncontrollable circumstances. One wonders whether the American Dream would be possible for Grandmother Castro today. I suspect not.

The unspoken lesson that we can draw from Julian Castro’s story is that the American Dream was in reach for his family—not only because they worked hard—this is true of many families—but because their ability to migrate wasn’t in question. But the American Dream has already been unrelentingly prohibited for the many families deported and broken apart under the Obama Administration. Maybe we should take a long hard look at that history and ask ourselves whether the President will prohibit the Dream again, if elected for another term.

Fear and Loathing of and by Brown People: Let’s Remember Our Histories

Yesterday, I received this message on a list of family friends and relatives who would self-identify as Indian. The email, which was in 24 point font, replete with a (different) picture of Julia Gillard, the Australian Prime Minister, who supposedly said these things, and an emblem of the United States flag, waving, at the bottom of the missive.


W O W ! She Did It Again!!!Australia says NO — This will be the second Time Julia Gillard has done this!

She sure isn’t backing down on her hard line stance and one has to appreciate her belief in the rights of her native countrymen.

A breath of fresh air to see someone lead. Australian Prime Minister does it again!!

The whole world needs a leader like this!

Prime Minister Julia Gillard – Australia

Muslims who want to live under Islamic Sharia law were told on Wednesday to get out of Australia, as the government targeted radicals in a bid to head off potential terror attacks.

Separately, Gillard angered some Australian Muslims on Wednesday by saying she supported spy agencies monitoring the nation’s mosques. Quote: ‘IMMIGRANTS, NOT AUSTRALIANS, MUST ADAPT… Take It Or Leave It. I am tired of this nation worrying about whether we are offending some individual or their culture. Since the terrorist attacks on Bali , we have experienced a surge in patriotism by the majority of Australians.’

‘This culture has been developed over two centuries of struggles, trials and victories by millions of men and women who have sought freedom.’

‘We speak mainly ENGLISH, not Spanish, Lebanese, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, or any other language. Therefore, if you wish to become part of our society, learn the language!’

‘Most Australians believe in God. This is not some Christian, right wing, political push, but a fact, because Christian men and women, on Christian principles, founded this nation, and this is clearly documented. It is certainly appropriate to display it on the walls of our schools. If God offends you, then I suggest you consider another part of the world as your new home, because God is part of our culture.’

‘We will accept your beliefs, and will not question why. All we ask is that you accept ours, and live in harmony and peaceful enjoyment with us.’

‘This is OUR COUNTRY, OUR LAND, and OUR LIFESTYLE, and we will allow you every opportunity to enjoy all this. But once you are done complaining, whining, and griping about Our Flag, Our Pledge, Our Christian beliefs, or Our Way of Life, I highly encourage you take advantage of one other great Australian freedom, ‘THE RIGHT TO LEAVE’.’

‘If you aren’t happy here then LEAVE. We didn’t force you to come here. You asked to be here. So accept the country YOU accepted.’

IF we circulate this amongst ourselves in Canada & USA , WE will find the courage to start speaking and voicing the same truths.

If you agree please SEND THIS ON
and ON, to as many people as you know…

I have received many of these emails before, but for the sake of keeping peace, I have ignored them. But in the last 11 days, there have been eight (8) attacks on religious centers: 1 on the gurdwara in Oak Creek and 7 on mosques around the United States. I am unable to ignore this email.

I am reminded of the admonition made by Rinku Sen in the aftermath of the Oak Creek gurdwara shootings. Sen urged her white friends to “make a fuss, cause a family crisis, become unpopular, speak up” in the face of such statements about foreigners. And even though Sen addressed this to her white friends, I think the same message applies to folks like myself. And like Samita Mukhopadhyay, whose poignant column about her mother’s response to the Oak Creek shootings, I hope we can find the right response.

I grew up in this country surrounded mostly by whites, and very few South Asians. Maybe it explains something, maybe nothing. But it means that I often see the world through the eyes of someone who was bullied and teased mercilessly—for what? At the time, I thought it was because I was so ugly, with my long coconut-oiled hair, thick-framed glasses, unfashionable Sears polo shirts and ill-fitting purple pants—because that’s what they made fun of. I thought it was because my mother didn’t know better than to wear a sari and dot on her forehead, and a nose ring in public—because that’s what they made fun of. I thought it was because my mother refused to let me go to classmates’ houses after school until first coming home so that she could see that I was safe. I thought it was because I deserved it.

It wasn’t until a decade later, when recounting these stories to a grad-school roommate who tilted her head and looked at me quizzically and asked, “You do realize that you were the target of racism, right?” that I realized those stories for what they were.

The above speech can not be attributed to Julia Gillard. It is a chain letter that has been circulating for two years. Whether she harbors similar sentiments, even under the Labor Party, I’ll write about in a future post. But let’s pretend, for a short moment, that there really was someone, akin to the Australian Prime Minister—we’ll call her the Ghost Minister–who said this:

This culture has been developed over two centuries of struggles, trials and victories by millions of men and women who have sought freedom.

Which culture might the Ghost Minister be referring to? Would it be the culture of prisoners and convicts who were sent to Australia to live out their penance far away from the “civilized shores of England?” Would it be the culture that assumed that Australia was “terra nullius,” an empty land, even though it was inhabited by many indigenous tribes, who were conquered and quarantined by the whites who were shunned by their own English countrymen?

Muslims who want to live under Islamic Sharia law were told on Wednesday to get out of Australia

Does the Ghost Minister know what Sharia Law is? It is not the fundamentalist law publicized by the fear-mongering media and Christian fundamentalists (who would like their own fundamentalist laws imposed upon all of us, Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs). As Yale professor of Religious Studies Eliyahu Stern tells us in the New York Times that the efforts to outlaw Sharia Law in the United States

would curtail Muslims from settling disputes over dietary laws and marriage through religious arbitration, while others would go even further in stigmatizing Islamic life.

South Asian Hindus have long understood what it means to have a foreign state authority curtail their practices, since they remember when British colonial authorities imposed restrictions on whether women could wear saris without blouses in public, or which religious practices are acceptable.

Similarly, Sharia law reflects precepts that have to do with daily life. How would vegetarian Hindus understand a mandate that they MUST eat meat to supplement the protein in their diets–except as a disciplining and show of state power (and as I write this, I’m reminded of NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s restrictions on sodas larger than 16 ounces)?

In France, several months ago, Marine Le Pen, the right-wing candidate for President, started a huge public furor by charging that French public schools, which served lunch daily, were serving Halal meat! Egads! Halal meat is meat that has been produced under Islamic dietary strictures that symbolize hygiene and purity.

Then President Sarko, in a fight to keep his seat, initially refused to be baited, but ultimately rose to Le Pen’s challenge by vowing to look into the matter and ridding the schools of Halal meat. Let us suppose the charge was true (it was never proven to be so). Why, then, did the French state—or at least scions of authority such as LePen and Sarko care? Were they concerned that ingesting halal meat would suddenly produce hordes of young white French Muslims spouting the Qu’ran? Hardly. Perhaps as animal rights activists have suggested, it is a crueler method of slaughtering animals for meat, since it bans the stunning of animals before slaughter, and it bothered Sarko and Le Pen. Sarkozy and Le Pen: Animal-rights activists? I think not.

Rather, it was because Muslim-baiting has become a popular pastime in France, along with virulent xenophobia and anti-immigration jousting. And Sarko lost anyway (only to be succeeded by Francois Hollande, the Socialist Party candidate and a supposedly kinder, lefter guy who’s turning out to be pretty authoritarian himself). Let that be a lesson to…the American voter.

Why would it be acceptable to impose dietary or marriage restrictions on Muslims’ religious laws? These are private matters every bit as much as Hindu religious law is. Unlike the misperception in the bill passed in the Tennessee General Assembly, Sharia law is not something that Muslims want to impose on the larger public. Nor is Sharia Law “a set of rules that promote ‘the destruction of the national existence of the United States,’” as Stern states. He continues:

This is exactly wrong. The crusade against Shariah undermines American democracy, ignores our country’s successful history of religious tolerance and assimilation, and creates a dangerous divide between America and its fastest-growing religious minority.
The suggestion that Shariah threatens American security is disturbingly reminiscent of the accusation, in 19th-century Europe, that Jewish religious law was seditious. In 1807, Napoleon convened an assembly of rabbinic authorities to address the question of whether Jewish law prevented Jews from being loyal citizens of the republic. (They said that it did not.)

To be fair, the misperception of Sharia Law is widespread. At dinner some months ago with otherwise erudite white American friends, I found myself having to rebuff their kneejerk scorn of Sharia by sharing a story that I heard at a philosophy conference some years ago. It was told by a young white Canadian lawyer who represented a Muslim woman in her divorce proceedings. As the lawyer pointed out Canadian courts, like American courts, only recognize written contracts. This fact made it difficult for her client to obtain compensation as promised by her ex-husband’s family, because it was an oral promise cemented by an imam, and therefore unenforceable in a Canadian court. By convincing the Canadian court to recognize Sharia, her client was able to obtain what was due her.

Sadakat Kadri, author of a book that explores both the hard-line and more flexible interpretations of Sharia, speculates upon the mad fear of Sharia Law in the United States:

It’s crazy, basically. It’s this idea that Shariah is some kind of movement to take over the United States or a conspiracy to overturn American freedoms. That isn’t what Shariah is. There are certainly hard-line interpretations of Islamic law. But these measures don’t even claim to restrict themselves to that. They claim to prevent the courts from taking any account at all of the Shariah, which potentially means that a court can’t, for example, take account of someone’s will. If someone says they want to be buried according to Muslim rituals laid down in the Shariah, a court would theoretically not be able to take account of that. And, of course, it’s possible to say, ‘That’s not what the law’s aimed at. The law’s aimed at something very different.’ But as everyone should know by now, liberties begin to erode when you have laws that are too widely drawn.

According to Dwight Garner, who has a review of Kadri’s book in this past Sunday’s New York Times:

In [Kadri’s] reading of the Shariah, he finds rationality and flexibility. His argument is with recent hard-liners who, he writes, “have turned Islamic penal history on its head.”
He is furious that fundamentalists “have associated the Shariah in many people’s minds with some of the deadliest legal systems on the planet.” He calls them traditionalists who ignore tradition. He is disgusted that warped opinions “are mouthed today to validate murder after murder in Islam’s name.

It is the misperceptions of Muslims, Sharia, and the outrageous framing of all Muslims as reflecting zealotry and fundamentalism that lead to events like seven mosque attacks in the United States in last 10 days– in the immediate aftermath of the shootings at the gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.

To my fellow Indians: Does any of this remind you about the stories of British colonialism in India? Do you remember your mothers’ and grandmothers’ stories of how the British whipped, mutilated, and maimed Indians for not obeying their orders? Does anyone remember the Lahore Lynchings of 1915, a mass spectacle designed by the British colonial authority to warn Indians against further thought of self-rule? Although 24 Indians were scheduled to hang that day, the sentences of 17 were commuted— 7 men were still killed as a warning to others who wanted self-rule.

You must remember the mass hatred incited by India’s political elites, pitting Muslims against Hindus and Hindus against Muslims—I’m sure—because through my mother’s stories and the histories I’ve read—I do, and I wasn’t even there.

I remember my mother’s stories of being turned away from job interviews in the United States because she wore a sari thinking it was the most formal outfit she could wear for such a serious occasion. I remember her pink polyester suit, bought for subsequent interviews, because she felt it would be disrespectful to show her legs at work.

I remember my mother’s humiliation at having insults hurled at her in the 1980’s by ignorant young and old white men who proudly called themselves “Dotbusters.” These racist men told her to “go back to her country,” even though she had lived faithfully by the laws of the United States for twenty-five years.

Don’t you remember similar stories of hate directed against your mothers, sisters, grandmothers and aunts? The British, the Australians, the Americans, The French—and many others engaged in similar acts of savagery condoned by their own governments. Did our mothers and fathers and families deserve this? Certainly mine did not.

Many whites may not see Muslims as deserving of respect and civility. But you can bet that they don’t see me or my family (or yours) as deserving respect and civility either. They don’t care whether you are Muslim or not. They see you, a Hindu, and “them” (Muslims) as one and the same: a brown person who doesn’t speak English (even if you do), or who speaks English with an accent (if you don’t).

I know the stories of Sikhs men who immigrated to California in the early 1900’s. They were harassed, beaten, arrested, and deported, because they were subject to hatred by whites and fear that they were taking away jobs and lowering wages. I have been told of the harassment that Indians were subject to by the British for wanting Self-rule. And I know that the hate-filled curses that were directed against Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims had little to do with whether they “deserved” it, and everything to do with the American and British fear and loathing of Indians.

The Ghost Minister wants everyone to speak English, and not “Spanish, Lebanese, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, or any other language.” This message has been delivered before, and there is plenty of literature out there to refute it, so I won’t do it here. Suffice it to say that not speaking the language of the land inconveniences no one—except perhaps, the migrant. But it engenders hostility aplenty for reasons that have little to do with the difficulties of language: because it reminds the speaker that he too is merely a traveler on this land, which was taken away from the indigenous, from others, so that he too could grow up on this soil and profess his anger at those who want to live alongside him without succumbing to his norms, his religion, his practices—without succumbing to his demands.

Joining whites in a campaign of racism against Muslims will not garner us, as South Asians, as Indians, as Hindus, respect by those same whites. What I know is that that hatred against Muslims is not warranted. Every single religious group, whether Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, or Jews, has a wing of believers who are militant or radical. But the few don’t speak for the rest of their group, the many who are peace-loving and moderate. By joining in the hatred against another minority group, we betray the innocent, and increase the general hostility towards all minority groups, including our own.

It’s time to stand up to the ignorant bullies, whether American, British, or Australian, or French, or German. It turns out that the above remarks cannot be attributed to Julia Gillard. Still, I don’t doubt that they have been uttered aloud in many places in the world by whites, whose ancestors have been in that country for fewer than 200 years. And I don’t doubt that they will be used again—if not against Muslims, then against you and against me. Isn’t it time to stop standing with racists to harass others who, but for their turbans, beards, hijabs–but for their background—are just like us?

Illegality and Idiocy: Only One Can Be Solved for Sure

Yesterday, the New York Times published a roundtable “Room for Debate” on whether it is wise for undocumented persons should “come out.” Now, I thought that it was the NYT who decided to apply the term “coming out” to undocumented persons, and was prepared to lambast their self-serving idiocy yet again. But, apparently that honor goes to some law faculty who used the term. Still, one wonders why the NYT would load the decks against undocumented migrants by associating with them a term that symbolizes the singular moment when LGBT folks publicly registered their sexuality. “Coming out” to others about being gay, or bi, or trans is a unique moment, and to “borrow” it for another charged issue sets up the field against undocumented migrants. This is not a neutral way to introduce the issue.

So why does the messy vitriol and rich, creamy idiocy of Americans continue to surprise me? Probably because I’m an overwhelming optimist and think that if people are given information that counters what they think they know, they will somehow change their minds. First mistake of the day, and I haven’t had my coffee yet.

I try never to read the comments sections of incendiary issues like these, but it’s a bit like finding porn on the tube: so lurid, and yet so hard to stop watching. The comments section attached to this roundtable read as if they were written by the gay (and straight) and liberal (if their self-identification is to be believed) Daughters of the American Revolution and the Minutemen:

(I’m paraphrasing) I’m gay, but I’m against illegals…I’m gay, but there was nothing I could do to change that. Illegals, on the other hand, could….the children of illegals know they’re doing something wrongThe Constitution is…get ready, wait for it…for CITIZENS. WTF?

So…umm, Black Slaves were doing something wrong by being slaves? Women who wanted the right to vote were evil beings, because the Constitution didn’t count them as citizens? Even the very same GLBT (again, if their self-id is correct) folks railing about “illegals” on the pages of our very own version of Pravda have so conveniently forgotten that their very presence was considered criminal until—well even now, in some states, their sexuality is STILL criminal.

Really, watching so-called liberals who have been the target of legal persecution now cloak themselves in self-serving double-standards is like watching Wolf Blitzer pretend to be a hard-hitting investigative reporter: grotesque and fascinating all at once. I keep forgetting that being liberal is not even closely connected to being progressive. Mistake #2. And let’s stop pretending shall we? Gay, lesbian, trans, or straight, these commenters are not just railing about undocumented migrants, they are simply anti-immigrant. No, just stop protesting. Let’s engage in a thought experiment, shall we?

They should stop cutting in line. They should apply legally, like the millions of others who did. Please. Suppose, by some miracle, the gods magically turned the members of Congress into un-selfserving, moral beings, and that they passed a law that opened up the borders to all migrants who wanted to enter, you’d stop bitching? Really? You’d suddenly turn around and say…”Well, I’m so glad that Latinos can now migrate here legally. It’s wonderful to see the rich additions of so many Mexican migrants to our country.” Please, just stop hiding behind the veil of legality; just say it: By passing the buck to Congress, you’re indicating that you’re pretty happy with the status quo.

I keep forgetting that being a target of persecution doesn’t make one free of hypocrisy. Mistake #3. Just look at Israel’s policies toward occupied Palestine, or genocidal tendencies of the religious dissenters who founded the American colonies toward the Native Americans. Gay and straight liberal denizens who object to “illegals” (sure, we’ll pretend that it’s just about undocumented migrants for a minute), could use some history lessons, not to mention lessons in conceptual logic. To paraphrase that famous moral thinker, Forrest Gump, legal is as legal does.

Here are some interesting facts about legality:

Laws are made by human beings (originally this meant white men with power; now men and women– white or otherwise, straight or gay–with power). That means laws are based on the (unreliable and varying) emotions of men and women in power (In philosophy, we like to pretend that this is called “rational thinking). And that means laws are almost always self-serving, designed to protect those with privilege (and that includes you, my LGBT anti-immigrant neighbors). Recall

The Treaty of Guadeloupe Hidalgo, which annexed parts or all of California, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado, and several other states from Mexico.

The Black Codes, which made it illegal for Black Americans to be found without an employer (this is the original anti-loitering law, fyi), among other things. These are some pretty heinous laws criminalizing ex-slaves.

Bowers v. Hardwick, which ruled that a Georgia sodomy law was constitutional). Umm, btw, sodomy is still illegal—if you’re gay—in Kansas, Texas, Montana, and Oklahoma. And illegal for everyone in the rest of these states.

The boundary between legality and illegality changes constantly, as we know. It is true that we’ve had continuous prohibitions against migrants since the mid-1700’s. But those restrictions have ebbed and flowed—often because of the victory of racist fears rather than because of any real danger: The Chinese were the target of exclusion laws in 1882, after the US had finished exploiting them to build the TransPacific railroad. Japanese laborers were excluded in 1906 for similar reasons. In 1901, Samuel Gompers, the president of AFL and still today the hero of many unions, championed the restriction of all Asian migrants in order to strengthen support for white workers. Similar restrictions were applied to other Asian, African, and Hispanic groups throughout the 20th century. No, I’m not putting up links to all of these examples. Read some history, or take an Ethnic Studies class. Unless you’re in Arizona, because ignorance is legally championed out there. Whoo-hoo.

Among the comments from folks self-identifying as gay and opposed to undocumented migrants in this country was a remark about how one can’t help being gay. As we know, this logic has been debated for decades (including by feminists and various celebrities who identify as gay or bi).

Regardless, let’s talk about what is natural, since that’s really what it means to insist that one doesn’t have a choice of being gay or straight. It’s pretty natural for human beings to have a survival instinct, or at least to avoid being killed (do I really need to provide evidence for this? Just watch any Youtube footage of tourists being attacked by sharks.  Or WikiLeaks footage of Iraqi civilians running for cover as bombs are dropped on them). Given the US’s imposition of NAFTA and various nefarious drug interdiction and money-lending policies on Mexico, and the subsequent decimation of its internal safety-net and infrastructure, it seems pretty natural to do whatever is necessary to keep oneself and one’s family alive. Is it any wonder then, that despite the remarkable, ludicrous attempts by the US to build a border, to assign hundreds (thousands?) of Border Patrol agents, to make life insufferable for border-crossers, that Latinos—or folks of any descent who are suffering poverty, persecution, war, drug wars–are willing to risk life and limb in an effort to ensure the survival of themselves and their families, let alone live decently?

Now, I agree that “coming out” is an inappropriate term to appropriate for the question of whether undocumented migrants should publicize their status, but let’s not have that detract us from the question at hand, namely whether taking such a risk will be beneficial, and perhaps, enable people to sympathize with them.  That is a genuine question, but one that needs to be decided by folks who are in the precarious position (and sympathetic lawyers).

In the meantime, let’s stop pretending that because migrants have entered this country at this particular moment, they’re somehow committing a grand moral travesty. They are doing what any of us would want to do, if faced with the choice between certain death or immiseration or an alternative somewhat less worse. “Illegality”—criminalizing people–is a matter of the moral preferences and whims of the privileged, not of human beings trying to survive. So, please stop insulting me with your insistence that we have to abide by the “rule of law.” Laws can be changed. Idiocy, on the other hand—well, I’m not so sure.

Amherst, MA Opts out of ICE’s Secure Communities Program

This post inaugurates my return to the blogosphere.  Many topics to discuss, coming soon: VAWA, the unsung heroes surrounding Chen Guancheng’s achievements, Tarek Mehanna’s conviction.

I spoke at Amherst Town Meeting last night in support of passing Article 29* to the Town Warrant of Amherst, MA. Article 29 resolves not to participate in federal law enforcement programs relating to immigration enforcement, in particular, the Secure Communities program.  S.Comm, as it’s known, is an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) initiative, which directs local and state authorities to run the fingerprints of anyone with whom they come in contact in the course of their duties (to check on a complaint of theft, domestic abuse, a report of strange activity). They are directed to do so in order to check on the visa status of the complainant, the informer, the suspect–and then to inform the FBI, (who will then inform ICE), and to detain them for 48 hours (or long enough for ICE to move and transport them to detention facilities–where the chance to defend, challenge or ask for support is eliminated). ICE claims 2 things in its explanation: 1. “Absent special circumstances or aggravating factors, it is against ICE policy to initiate removal proceedings against an individual known to be the immediate victim or witness to a crime.”  2.  They direct ICE officers to “use discretion.” Discretion, as we know, is a dangerous thing. Discretion can be used to protect, or it can be used to enhance and aggravate an already ambiguous and incendiary circumstance.

As you may know, there is no automatic judicial review for anyone who is perceived to be an “illegal” migrant–nor even for those who are U.S. citizens (3500 citizens have already been deported). This means that any brush with local authorities for yellow, brown, or black people–regardless of citizenship status OR innocence–eliminates the ability to challenge the authorities’ decision to detain, move you to unknown territory, or let your family know, or arrange to have someone care for your children. Among other restrictions.

As of May 15, 2012, despite the explicit refusal of Massachusetts, Illinois, and New York to opt out of S.Comm, the federal government has insisted that S.Comm must be enforced. Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, despite his initial resolution, has conceded to the demands of the Department of Homeland Security.

S.Comm, contrary to the claims of Janet Napolitano and ICE, will not make the Homeland a more secure place. The statistics given by reliable sources suggest that 79% of people deported under Secure Communities had no criminal records or had been picked up for low-level offenses, like traffic violations and juvenile mischief. Of the approximately 47,000 people deported in that period only about 20 percent had been charged with or convicted of serious “Level 1” crimes, like assault and drug dealing. 3500 of the persons deported under S.Comm were US citizens.

The national average of Secure Communities deportees with no criminal records was about 26 percent, but that figure also varied wildly around the country. It was 54 percent in Maricopa County, Ariz., whose sheriff is notorious for staging indiscriminate immigration raids. In Travis County, Tex., it was 82 percent. Here is what Secure Communities program will do: its purpose is to enable a a greater scope of action to arrest, detain, and direct the movements of migrants and non-whites (by holding them for ICE to scoop them up and take them to holding facilities, lose their children in the foster system, leave them without access to lawyers, family, or community). S.Comm enables greater police authority with little, if any, accountability, checks or balances on municipal, state, or federal.authorities when it comes to the treatment of people of color–citizens, residents, migrants:  It is one in which at any moment one is at the mercy of an authority—not because she has done something wrong, but because she is facing an authority.

S.Comm brings the rest of the nation much closer to the racial profiling laws of Alabama and Arizona, contrary to the claims of Eric Holder and Obama Administration in the Supreme Court’s review of SB 1070 several weeks ago.  Here are some features as they pertain to the S.Comm program:

*It does not ask for habeas corpus, or the charges of wrongdoing that are to be leveled against migrants.

*It does not ask for judicial review of the crimes in question before starting, finishing deportation proceedings.

*It does not recognize due process, or human rights protections.

Those 3 things belong to states that are based on political rights, on human rights, on constitutions, but they have been eliminated for folks of color and migrants in Arizona and Alabama racial profiling laws.

As I said last night, S.Comm is not designed to make us feel secure. It is designed to make those of us who are visibly “not of here,” fear any interactions with the law. It is designed to make those of us who appear to be “of here” to mistakenly believe that undocumented migrants are automatically criminals—that not filing paperwork or moving without filing paperwork (an illegal act) is somehow akin to a crime. That driving without a license deserves a cross-check with ICE, rather than just being charged with driving without a license and summoned to court to explain/defend oneself or deal with the traditional penalties that go with such a charge.  S.Comm is designed to deceive citizens into believing that poverty, crime, and unemployment are caused by migrants, undocumented or otherwise, and that by removing those migrants, the Federal Government is doing something about it by forcing local and state police authorities to report and cross-check the suspects—really—the yellow and brown and black suspects whom they’ve arrested.

Amherst Town Meeting voted morally–and nearly unanimously–to insist that Amherst Police Department cooperate minimally if at all “with federal law enforcement programs relating to immigration enforcement…” Here is the last paragraph of the resolution.

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the Town of Amherst and its officials and employees, to the extent permissible by law, shall not participate in federal law enforcement programs relating to immigration enforcement, including but not limited to, Secure Communities, and cooperative agreements with the federal government under which town personnel participate in the enforcement of immigration laws, such as those authorized by Section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act. Should the Commonwealth of Massachusetts enter into an agreement or Memorandum of Agreement regarding Secure Communities, the Town of Amherst shall opt out if legally and practically permissible. To the extent permissible by law, immigration detainer requests will not be honored by the Amherst Police Department. Municipal employees of the Town of Amherst, including law enforcement employees, shall not monitor, stop, detain, question, interrogate, or search a person for the purpose of determining that individual’s immigration status. Officers shall not inquire about the immigration status of any crime victim, witness, or suspect, unless such information is directly relevant to the investigation, nor shall they refer such information to federal immigration enforcement authorities unless that information developed is directly relevant. The use of a criminal investigation or arrest shall not be used as a basis to ascertain information about an individual’s immigration status unless directly relevant to the offenses charged.

Remember that little legal document–the U.S. Constitution–which acknowledges that we human beings—whether people, or police, or judges, or politicians—can be fallible? It does so by establishing a procedure by which charges need to proven procedurally, and rights are accorded in order to safeguard against kneejerk assumptions about guilt and criminality. We can make mistakes and accuse people wrongly of crimes. That’s why rights—protections of the accused, judicial review: a hearing in front of a judge, and constitutional protections—those things that make us feel a little safer from the caprices and arbitrary dislikes of human beings—are so important.

The way to Safer Communities—not Secure Communities—but Safer Communities is to build trust. The way many of us build trust is to communicate, to talk, to know that our neighbors and we all think of our towns as communities, to know that we are on the same side.Trust is established when a migrant knows that by approaching someone to report a crime, or asking for help because some injustice was committed (like a rape, an assault, a theft), she will not be thrown in jail, or put in arbitrary detention where officials can treat her badly as they like with impunity, because there is no accountability, no review, no checks.

S. Comm has been imposed on us by the Department of Homeland Security, urged by the Obama Administration—groups that are supposed to represent us (fyi) and supposedly disagree with AZ’s SB 1070, GA’s HB 87, and AL’s HB 56, even though the intent is similar. It is a program that urges us to turn in neighbors who don’t quite look like us, who seem to be “different”, who seem to be from “away.” It is not a program that represents us. It is a program that urges us to turn on one another so that politicians can capitalize on fear and xenophobia to be continually re-elected to office.  Secure Communities, in fact, will lead to insecure, unsafe, antagonistic, violent, and hostile communities.  They will render them a virtual police state; certainly, this won’t be the case for all of us. However, for migrants, legal and illegal, S.Comm will enhance fear and distrust.

Bravo, Town of Amherst!


*Full text of Article 29, as passed by Amherst Town Meeting on May 21, 2012:

WHEREAS the Town of Amherst has been enriched and built by generations of immigrants; and,
WHEREAS the program called “Secure Communities” (SComm), run by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, harms our communities by mandating the sharing of local law enforcement reporting with the Department of Homeland Security on individuals they detain or arrest, thus involving local law enforcement in federal immigration policy; and,
WHEREAS SComm is an unfunded mandate, meaning that the burden of incarceration, detention, and care for detained people falls upon the budget of local law enforcement and upon the Town of Amherst; and,
WHEREAS SComm rejects a community policing model, which is based upon trust between law enforcement and the population it is meant to protect and serve, and has already been shown to increase distrust and fear of local authorities, making many immigrants afraid to be witnesses and report crimes against themselves and others; and,
WHEREAS SComm violates the Town of Amherst Bylaws, including the Human Rights Bylaw (STM- November 8, 1999, Art. 16), as SComm explicitly promotes discrimination on the basis of nation of origin and implicitly promotes discrimination on the basis of race, color, and socio-economic status; and,
WHEREAS the Code of Federal Regulations, 28 C.F.R. §20.21(c)(3), provides that “[s]tates and local governments will determine the purposes for which dissemination of criminal history record information is authorized by State law, executive order, local ordinance, court rule, decision or order”; then
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the Town of Amherst and its officials and employees, to the extent permissible by law, shall not participate in federal law enforcement programs relating to immigration enforcement, including but not limited to, Secure Communities, and cooperative agreements with the federal government under which town personnel participate in the enforcement of immigration laws, such as those authorized by Section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act. Should the Commonwealth of Massachusetts enter into an agreement or Memorandum of Agreement regarding Secure Communities, the Town of Amherst shall opt out if legally and practically permissible. To the extent permissible by law, immigration detainer requests will not be honored by the Amherst Police Department. Municipal employees of the Town of Amherst, including law enforcement employees, shall not monitor, stop, detain, question, interrogate, or search a person for the purpose of determining that individual’s immigration status. Officers shall not inquire about the immigration status of any crime victim, witness, or suspect, unless such information is directly relevant to the investigation, nor shall they refer such information to federal immigration enforcement authorities unless that information developed is directly relevant. The use of a criminal investigation or arrest shall not be used as a basis to ascertain information about an individual’s immigration status unless directly relevant to the offenses charged.”

Kris Kobach’s War on Muslims and Latinos

Updated below:

Those who have known me for the last decade have heard me insist ad nauseam that the war against undocumented migrants is tightly linked to the war on Muslims as terrorists—and that to fight one effectively, you have to find the parallels and fight both. While writing my post on Homophobic Harassment, Self-Deportation, and Surveillance, I discovered the missing link: Kris Kobach, currently the Secretary of State of Kansas. His bio lists an appointment as a law professor at University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) Law School, but he is not listed on the roster there; it would appear that he is on leave.  Kobach, who eerily enough resembles Aaron Eckhardt (the meanie in In the Company of Men), went to Harvard for his undergraduate degree, Oxford for an MA, and Yale for his JD.  Kobach first came to power as an attorney during the Bush Administration, under the aegis of Attorney General John Ashcroft.  At that time, he engineered the National Security-Entry-Exit-Registration-System (NSEERS), the Special Registration Act that, in 2002 rounded up over 82,000 Muslim men and issued deportation orders against over 13,000 (Also see the AALDEF Special Reg Report). NSEERS was finally suspended last year in May 2011, but it managed to do some serious violence in the intervening decade by facilitating the extended incarceration (without cause) of thousands of innocent Muslim men.

According to his interview with Reporter Jack Hitt on This American Life (#456, Reap What You Sow), he figured out that some 5 of the 19 hijackers on September 11, 2001 were in the US “illegally,” and of those, four had traffic violations, but their immigration status had never been checked.  This led to his idea that domestic identity databases needed to be cross-checked with federal/immigration databases.  NSEERS has its precedent in a number of interesting older internment and profiling laws: President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, which enabled the Feds to round up and incarcerate some tens of thousands of citizens and migrants of Japanese descent after the December 7, 1941 attack at Pearl Harbor. There were also other precedents that made NSEERS possible, such as the Palmer Raids of the 1919-20’s, which targeted suspected anarchists.

Energized by that success, Kobach became the chief legal strategist for Immigration Reform Legal Institute (IRLI) which is the legal branch of Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). FAIR, founded by John Tanton, is one of the foremost anti-immigrant foundations in the US. There Kobach turned his efforts to figuring out how to engineer a number of some of the most devastating (note: I didn’t say “effective”) anti-immigration laws in Pennsylvania, Texas, Missouri, Arizona, and Alabama.  Those bills were ineffective, in part because they were constantly and effectively challenged in the courts. But they also didn’t solve the unemployment or crime problems that were attributed to undocumented migrants.

Kobach’s career is predicated on the creation of destructive obstacles for brown folks—especially for MEMSA’s** and Latinos—regardless of citizenship. Just goes to show you that an overpriced, elite education and a charming spiel does not a more moral person make.  In effect, his answer to the solution of preventing terrorism was to legalize and systematize racial profiling. There are two important ideas embedded in the Arizona and Alabama ant-immigration laws among others: 1. Make it legal to stop anyone at any point, regardless of a whether or not some violation is being committed, to check on the legality of their presence. By extension, 2. require that migration or citizenship papers be carried on one’s person at all times.  Judging from this editorial that he wrote, he’s also figured out how to pre-empt the DREAM Act. He doesn’t mention it in the letter, but he has figured out that any proposal to enable undocumented migrants to pay less for college tuition will, chances are, fast-track their ability to become legal through the DREAM Act, were it to pass one day.

Kobach has figured out how to write legislation that enables a wide-ranging institutional surveillance. He helped the Mayor of Hazelton, PA write legislation that would fine the landlords and employers of undocumented migrants.  The idea behind these ordinances, like that of NSEERS, is to establish that every “foreigner” (read: neither white nor black) must be codified into a taxonomy of membership (citizens, legal resident, H1-B worker, tourist, etc.): Who are you, where do you fit in, what do your papers say, and should we read you as an acceptable interloper (do you have proper papers) or hostile (lack of papers is a criminal offense; therefore you must criminal or terrorist intent).  It is in many ways, a beautifully engineered binary system: Papers = friendly/no papers = criminal. There is no space in this system for multiple contexts or complexity.

You enrolled in university on a student visa, wanted to stay, fell in love, overstayed visa, had children, and now your life is here with your citizen partner and children. Or:  After the World Bank’s loan repayment policies required your home country to decimate its own economy and/or social safety net, your town was economically devastated, and you migrated to try your hand at earning money in jobs that “Americans” (with papers) would never want, in order to help your extended family survive.

Americans, as I’m sure Kris Kobach—a mid-westerner with Ivy League degrees who likes to go turkey-shooting while writing anti-immigrant legislation—will agree, are more complex than computers. Is it so difficult to believe that foreign nationals and migrants have complex narratives as well? Go read some Isabel Allende, Amitav Ghosh, Edwidge Danticat, Junot Diaz, Julia Alvarez, and they’ll set you straight.

As importantly, this form of surveillance is highly inefficient. Go back to the numbers of hijackers who had both a) illegal immigrant status (five) and b) traffic violations (four). Out of 19. That means the other 14 had papers and NO traffic violations. They were inconspicuous. But as importantly, of the hundreds of thousands of Muslims residing in the United States, and of the 82,000 Muslim men arbitrarily imprisoned under NSEERS, not a single person was shown to have committed a terrorist act.

Here’s the other thing: In Alabama, where HB 56 has taken effect, fewer than 4% of the residents are migrants.  In places like Tuscaloosa, where there was a high profile arrest of a German car executive, Detlev Hagar, who was stopped for a traffic violation. Oops. Steven Anderson, the Tuscaloosa Police Chief freely admits that “Hispanics”—migrants–are not the cause of crime. And Alabamians aren’t thrilled with the law either.

So, tracking undocumented migrants for the purposes of enhancing the safety of legal residents—that’s really not what immigration surveillance is about, now, is it?  Rather, the goal of immigration legislation is to move from a space in which we assume that our neighbors are varied and diverse to one where all “newcomers,” “outsiders,” “visually distinctive,” are assumed to be suspicious, dangerous, or otherwise nefarious. And most importantly, the goal of HB 56 and NSEERS, is to legalize racism under the rule of law, and to pave the way for cementing the whiteness of the Homeland.

The War on Terror is intimately linked to the War on Migrants. These are, for folks like Kris Kobach, Mitt Romney, and Rick Santorum—part of the same war. For folks like the current POTUS, under whose administration, nearly 1.2 million migrants have been deported—Muslims and Latinos are part and parcel of the same threat to the Homeland: Brown, unwanted unwelcome. If Kris Kobach is cementing the links between NSEERS and Alabama’s HB 56, Arizona’s SB 1070, and similar laws, isn’t it time for liberals and progressives activists to challenge these together?

**(MEMSA): Muslim, Middle Eastern and South Asian



I should have mentioned that Kobach is an unpaid advisor to MItt Romney, and is responsible for the “self-deportation” concept that Romney endorses. Also, Kobach worked with Samuel Huntington at Harvard. Huntington, you will recall, was a notorious xenophobe and detractor of migration. Among his books, Huntington wrote the infamous Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, which was a harbinger? a prescription? for the War on Muslims. Huntington also wrote “Who Are We,” which was a harbinger of the War on Latinos. Here is a summary of the article-length version of the first book (you can find the entire article as a pdf if you google it), and an article-length version of the second book, entitled, “The Hispanic Challenge.” Both the book and the article are self-contradictory and virulently racist. Kobach, as Huntington’s model protege,  produced a thesis on South African apartheid in which he argued against divestment but rather “engagement” as the way to combat apartheid. That thesis apparently won a Harvard prize for best thesis in 1989, and was later published as a book.

Homophobic Harassment, Self-Deportation, and Surveillance

The New Yorker ran a thoughtful piece by Ian Parker on the suicide of Tyler Clementi, a gay Rutgers University freshman who committed suicide in the fall of 2010, sometime after he discovered that his roommate, Dharun Ravi, had used a webcam to spy, and invite a public-spy-in, on Clementi’s encounter with a male-lover in their shared dorm-room.  The article, relying on electronic records from emails to tweets, suggests that there may be an ambiguous link between Ravi’s spying and Tyler’s suicide.  It is not clear that the spy-in happened, nor how disturbed Tyler was over the news that he was being spied on, but it was clear that he was aware that his roommate spied on him, however briefly.

Ravi stands on trial for, among other things, invasion of privacy (sex crime) and bias intimidation (hate crime). Regardless of whether Ravi’s actions can be closely traced to Clementi’s suicide, Ravi is—even if his own accounts are to be believed—still culpable for harassment and extreme violation of his roommate’s privacy.

Clementi, who had come out as gay to his parents only three days before he began at Rutgers, doesn’t reveal–in his electronic records–a level of emotional devastation  that might be consistent with his decision to commit suicide. But I can’t help but wonder about the psychic devastation that Clementi felt upon discovering that his intimate relationship was subject to surveillance, public spectators, and public mocking.

A few days ago, I was listening to a story on This American Life (#456, Reap What You Sow) about the concerted campaign to induce undocumented migrants across the country, but especially in Alabama, to self-deport. Reporter Jack Hitt discussed the strategies of Secretary of State of Kansas, Kris Koback, to induce “self-deportation.” Koback is considered the “mastermind” of “attrition through enforcement” throughout the country. Kobach is also the proud creator of the National Security Entry-Exit System (NSEERS), which is based on legal precedents that were used to detain and hold citizens and migrants of Japanese descent during the second World War, among other populations. According to a 2004 report on Special Registration by the Asian-American Legal Defense, through NSEERS, the Bush Administration rounded up over 82,000 Muslim men in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks; over 13,000 were put in deportation proceedings.  After that wildly successful anti-immigration maneuver, Koback turned his crafty mind and overpriced education to other issues:  he has helped author the anti-immigrant legislation in Pennsylvania, Missouri, Texas, Arizona, and Alabama’s HB 56. He so modestly describes himself as helping states “restore the rule of law.”

Two things to keep in mind: first, the restoration of the “rule of law” doesn’t involve punishing Goldman Sachs or Lehman Bros. investment bankers for squandering away the pensions of career pipefitters, teachers, and nurses, nor lobbying President Obama to cut off their “bailout” bonuses. Rather, it involves the creation of laws that pivot on the intersection of citizenship and surveillance. Koback’s contribution here is to centralize surveillance through the checkpoints of immigration and citizenship: For example, through Alabama’s HB 56, proof of legal status is required for all children entering public schools; birth certificates are required in every business transaction with the state; any citizen may challenge private business owners’ hiring practices as illegal according to this law. This law has also induced Alabamians–illegally–to take HB 56 into their own hands, refusing to conduct private business transactions without proof of papers in grocery stores. Employees at several Wal-Mart stores across the state refused to allow one migrant to receive a Moneygram from her mother without proof of legal status, even though such proof was neither part of the law nor store policy. Other migrants were told they wouldn’t be paid for work they had already done, or that they would no longer be allowed to rent their apartment, because these acts would be considered engaging in “illegal contracts.”

One migrant’s daughter was enrolled in a Birmingham, AL public school, where there has already been a conversation about what would happen if their parents are picked up by Immigration and citizenship enforcement (ICE): Their teachers have told them that they would be fine because they were American citizens; needless to say, that conversation terrified those kids even more than they already were.  Moreover, we know, according to ColorLinesShattered Families Report that they will NOT be fine. In fact, the undocumented parents of US born children may very well be rounded up during a routine traffic stop, or a routine grocery store purchase, or during an ICE raid conducted in their place of employment, in which case they will be shuttled off to a detention facility and, chances are, deported before they ever have a chance to make arrangements for their children to be cared for by friends or family or to bring them with them, regardless of whether the parents are deported or released. And of course, children without guardians would be considered “abandoned,” and become wards of the state, ready to be shuttled off to a nice white family in need of a child to adopt.

These laws have created a climate where all brown people, regardless of citizenship and national origin, are acutely aware of being monitored: Women have quit their jobs and children have been taken out of school and kept at home, deprived of the chance of a routine life of education, playing with friends and socializing with family and neighbors.  The climate of “self-deportation,” is in fact a climate of self-monitoring, of the acute awareness that one is always being surveyed, that one’s comportment, behavior, existence is always under acute scrutiny. Your own fellowchurchgoers will refuse to shake your hands during the passing of the peace (16:50)  This is what it means to be an outsider. The law prescribes the attitude that “good law-abiding citizens” should take.

As Hannah Arendt points out in 1958,

The administration considers the law to be powerless because it is by definition separated from its application. The decree, on the other hand, does not exist at all except if and when it is applied; it needs no justification except applicability…People ruled by decree never know what rules them because of the impossibility of understanding decrees in themselves and the carefully organized ignorance of specific circumstances and their practical significance in which all administrators keep their subjects. (Origins of Totalitarianism, 244)

[Arendt has another passage that I can’t find on totalitarianism leaves us constantly vulnerable to criminality because offices and the law we are supposed to obey change constantly; a cookie for anyone who can find it].


Before you respond by insisting that “if they don’t want to live like this, they should just go “home,” do remember: those of us who are members of this blighted polity are also subject to the same scrutiny: As Bill Newman and the Mass ACLU have uncovered, the United States is now populated with Fusion Centers. These are local sites which collect, through the marvel of the 2006 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (which your President Obama returned to DC from the campaign trail in August specifically to vote for), yours and my data: collecting your Weight Watchers food diaries online, crossing tollbooths with your EZ pass, pictures of your license plates in cities where you’re not supposed to be at that hour, your encounters on Craigslist and online porn sites, your telephone calls to your best friend and your shrink, your phone sex sessions with your traveling spouse, scrolling through various religious websites for inspirational lectures, online purchases for medications to relieve the symptoms of embarrassing diseases, email interactions with our lefty or radical or….god forbid, Muslim, students.

These Fusion Centers are regional: they collect data locally and then share it with national FBI data centers—this is, indeed, “the rule of law.” It is done legally. And after all, the difference between what is legal and illegal is inscribed through the stroke of a President’s pen on the signature line of a bill. The difference between what is moral and immoral, between privacy and violation of your most sacred thoughts—those too are established through the votes of your Senators and Congresspersons, as well as through the President’s pen. And don’t you worry—it’s a bipartisan effort: Senators Leahy (VT), Boxer (CA), Di-Fi (CA), Pelosi (CA), Gillenbrand (NY), Cantwell (WA), Kerry (MA), Reed (NV), Udall (UT), and the list goes on and one–all voted for the NDAA. The simpler question is, who didn’t vote for it?

The homophobic harassment of Tyler Clementi by Dharun Ravi was a violation of the sacrosanct right to privacy as deployed by an arrogant, young male migrant upon another young, gay, man. Immaturity, narcissism, bias, and youth all appear to be contributing factors in Ravi’s stupid, selfish act. His actions should at least be scrutinized carefully in a court of law, and condemned regardless of the outcome of the trial.  Still, how interesting that the extreme, systematic, violation of a group of vulnerable migrants through the concerted surveillance and coercion of state legislation is not to subjected to the same condemnation. “Self-deportation,” as Mitt Romney describes it, is considered less “messy” and less “expensive” than having officials track down, arrest, detain, deport, and break up families. There are records, evidence, and perhaps culpability in the latter. Self-deportation expresses a similar dislocation and pain, a similar fear, the same kind of harassment, coerciveness, and systematic psychic violence that a sole individual with a webcam does to another single person. Need I extend the argument to Fusion Centers? The difference, of course, is that the psychic violence is much more detrimental when leveled against groups who are already vulnerable, groups who are Muslim, South Asian, Middle-Eastern, brown, angry, dissenting, racially conspicuous.

As worse is the climate in which we have accommodated ourselves to having our everyday habits, routines, foibles, peculiarities, private habits, dislikes, sexuality subject to scrutiny by a state—by 50 states—by The State—that records, organizes, classifies their findings against us, ready to bring out at a potentially threatening moment (threatening to the state) to use against us.

Arendt again (in 1951):

Rule by decree…is superior simply because it ignores all intermediary stages between issuance and application, and because it prevents political reasoning by the people through the withholding of information.

She refers to the totalitarian state as one in which there is no distinction between public and private: both meld into one, and freedom, public as well as private, is an illusion. There is no home to seek refuge in from the public light of day. Even worse, spontaneity—to laugh, love, inquire, explore—becomes even more rare. One’s every move becomes a defensive calculation against potential violence: should I explore this website? Should I speak out? Should I argue with this administrator? He could turn me in—even falsely—and make my life a living hell. Should I go out to buy groceries this morning? Should I let my child out to play? Can I drive to work today? Psychic violence, violations of intimacies, shredding privacy are equally harmful whether done by one or done by a systematic set of laws, officials, networks, warehouses and databases.

I’ll leave with you a last thought by Arendt:

We are not concerned here with the ultimate consequence of rule by terror—namely, that nobody, not even the executors, can ever be free from fear; in our context we are dealing merely with the arbitrariness by which victims are chosen, for this it is decisive that they are objectively innocent, that they are chosen regardless of why they may or may not have done…
In order to establish a totalitarian regime, terror must be present as an instrument for carrying out a specific ideology; and that ideology must have won the adherence of many, and even a majority, before terror can be stabilized…And an ideology which has to persuade and mobilize people cannot choose its victim arbitrarily. (Arendt, OT, 6-7)
%d bloggers like this: