Category Archives: U.S. Immigration and Refugee Policies

Cellist Yo Yo Ma on “Open Borders”

Cellist Yo Yo Ma will play 36 solo concerts on 6 continents to "explore how culture connects us" in his Bach Project.

One of 36 solo concerts by cellist Yo Yo Ma took place at the southern Chile observatory, the most powerful in the world. With his two year Bach Project the musician declares, “We are all cultural beings – let’s explore how culture connects us and can help build a better future.”

In April of this year, world renowned cellist Yo Yo Ma played a Bach suite for solo cello in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico at the border crossing to the U.S. For an audience filled with persons who daily cross the border to the U.S., the Chinese-American musician noted how his own personal life and his art have been about crossing borders. “I’ve lived my life at the borders between cultures, between disciplines, between musics, between generations.”

Ma had planned to play the concert on the bridge linking the U.S. and Mexico but the U.S. Customs and Border Protection would not approve it. In a Laredo interview he responded to a recent statement by the U.S. President that the country was already “full”.  Ma asserted,“A country is not a hotel and it is not full”.

Designated by the United Nations as one of its “Messengers for Peace”, Ma will play the Bach six suites for solo cello in 36 locations on 6 continents over a two year period. His web site describes the mission of what he calls The Bach Project, “The shared understanding that culture generates in these divisive times can bind us together as one world and can guide us to political and economic decisions that benefit the entire species.”

Watch an excerpt here of the Nuevo Laredo, Mexico performance filmed and commented on by Texas Public Radio:

Atomic Scientists on “Open Borders”

The 1946 book One World or None was reissued in 2007 by The New Press

Many of the leading atomic scientists contributed essays to this 1946 best selling book and assisted in production of a documentary film of the same name.

“If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world, or to the arsenals of nations preparing for war, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and Hiroshima. The people must unite, or they will perish.” J.Robert Oppenheimer spoke these words soon after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The chief of the Los Alamos team that produced the first nuclear weapons joined many other atomic scientists in calling for international oversight of future development of atomic weapons and atomic energy.

The scientists’ anguish over the cataclysmic potential of nuclear bombs led to the creation of the Federation of Atomic Scientists of Los Alamos. Their December 1945 newsletter editorialized, “the preservation of…secrecy on a purely national basis would represent the defeat of any adequate program of international control.”

At the same time, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was founded in 1945 by Los Alamos and Manhattan Project team members who “could not remain aloof to the consequences of their work.” Several of them also contributed essays to the best selling book of 1946 titled One World or None: A Report to the Public on the Full Meaning of the Atomic Bomb.

Oppenheimer continued to call for international control of atomic weapons in the 1960’s. At a series of lectures at Oxford in 1962 he declared, “[…] We think of this as our contribution to the making of a world which is varied and cherishes variety, which is free and cherishes freedom, and which is freely
changing to adapt to the inevitable needs of change in the twentieth century and all centuries to come, but a world which, with all its variety, freedom, and change, is without nation states armed for war and above all, a world without war.”

Bulletin of Atomic Scientists advanced the “doomsday clock” in 2018 thirty seconds explaining, “In 2017, world leaders failed to respond effectively to the looming threats of nuclear war and climate change, making the world security situation more dangerous than it was a year ago—and as dangerous as it has been since World War II.”

Albert Einstein was among the leading scientists who hoped the United Nations would provide the institutional framework for control of atomic weapons and atomic energy. He began his appeal to the Second General Assembly of the UN in 1947 lamenting: “Since the victory over the Axis powers – no appreciable progress has been made either toward the prevention of war or toward agreement in specific fields such as control of atomic energy”. Anticipating the argument that the U.S. or any other nation’s hegemony in nuclear weapons would guarantee security and peace, Einstein declared, “However, strong national armaments may be they do not create military security for any nation nor do they guarantee the maintenance of peace.”

Einstein’s appeal to the U.N. warned against the idolatry of national sovereignty as hampering progress toward international peace and security. “There can never be complete agreement on international control and the administration of atomic energy or on general disarmament until there is a modification of the traditional concept of national sovereignty…. Security is indivisible. It can be reached only when necessary guarantees of law and enforcement obtain everywhere, so that military security is no longer the problem of any single state.”

The hope for a world order without armed forces and weapons deployed by individual nation states soon gave way to the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The 1946 founding of the United Nations represented for Einstein and many others a departure from and repudiation of the logic of nationalism and national sovereignty. Expectations that progress in creating a world system of law and order would follow soon gave way to a new scramble to maintain control of the resources in the former colonies of Europe. It is the devotion to the defense of national sovereignty, a conception of world order most developed in the 19th Century, that drives opposition to “open borders” today.

Our “national sovereignty” is referred to as threatened by immigration to the U.S. Migrants today constitute an “invasion” of the country. Such language leads to further militarization of the 1,933 mile southern border of the U.S. Building a wall to ensure long term security ignores ample evidence that what hasn’t worked in the past won’t work in our time. The push for building a wall contributes to the hysteria surrounding immigration without contributing to the defense of the nation or clearing a path for progress in immigration reform.

Responding to increases in the number of migrants by building a wall does illuminate for us the dangers of clinging to outmoded, archaic thinking behind public policies based on defense of “national sovereignty”. Defense of our people in this nation from the potential consequences of atomic warfare, of global climate change and of mass migration from impoverished regions most affected requires the U.S. to rethink its posture and politics of “America First”. What must happen before we commit to international cooperation and control in this “one world or none”? What degree of catastrophe in the U.S. must occur before we open our minds to “open borders”?

Astronauts on “Open Borders”

Moon Landing Module  0722-Apollo-11

Apollo 11 Moon Landing Module Leaves the Moon in July 1969 with Earth in the Background. Photo by NASA/Reuters

A friend recently asked me, “Our immigration system is a mess but are you really for ‘open borders’?” The last serious discussion about immigration reform in the U.S. Congress got nowhere largely because Tea Party members and other Republicans loudly voiced opposition to any form of “amnesty” for immigrants who had lived in the U.S. for years without legal immigration status documentation. Now the tactic of anti-immigration reform activists seems to be to attack any reform-minded politician by accusing them of being for “open borders”.

This is an appropriate time then to consider what those have said who have looked at our earth and its conflicts from the perspective of outer space. So in this year of the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, l respond to my friend’s inquiring if I am for “open borders” with the following comments from those who have looked at earth and our controversies from space.

“Now I know why I’m here. Not for a closer look at the moon, but to look back at our home the Earth.”
– Alfred Worden,
Apollo 15, 1971, USA

“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’” — Edgar Mitchell, Apollo 14 astronaut

“The first day or so we all pointed to our countries. The third or fourth day we were pointing to our continents. By the fifth day we were aware of only one Earth.”
– Sultan Bin Salman al-Saud,
Discovery 5, Saudi Arabia

“From space I saw Earth – indescribably beautiful with the scars of national boundaries gone.”
– Muhammad Amhad Faris,
Soyuz TM-3, Syria

“The Earth reminded us of a Christmas tree ornament hanging in the blackness of space. As we got farther and farther away it diminished in size. Finally it shrank to the size of a marble, the most beautiful marble you can imagine. That beautiful, warm living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart. Seeing this has to change a man, has to make a man appreciate the creation of God and the love of God.”
– James Irwin,
Apollo 15, USA

The scientist who is most widely known for his contributions to U.S. advances in space travel, Carl Sagan, wrote in his 1980 best seller Cosmos ,

“National boundaries are not evident when we view the Earth from space. Fanatical ethnic or religious or national chauvinisms are a little difficult to maintain when we see our planet as a fragile blue crescent fading to become an inconspicuous point of light against the bastion and citadel of the stars.”

Carl Sagan quote on the Pale Blue Dot photo from Voyager 1

Carl Sagan in his book Pale Blue Dot wrote, “In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”

Based on the wisdom gained by those who have experienced space travel, proponents of immigration reform might say we need not fear to join the rest of the universe in advocating for “open borders” on our planet. Our science has enabled us to overcome human ignorance about the extraordinary nature of human beings and our earth in the cosmos but our ethics and our politics have bound us to human weakness and error in managing our responsibilities on earth.

A Mexican-American Family Responds to Nativists (Like the U.S. President)

The novel’s De la Cruz family as imagined by Marta Monteiro. From the NY Times.

The House of Broken Angels is a novel that seems destined to further build Mexican-American writer Luis Alberto Urrea’s international reputation and readership.  Published in 2018, Urrea’s novel was glowingly reviewed by the Vietnamese-American novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen in the New York Times and is the Times-PBS “Now Read This” July Book of the Month selection.

Urrea was born in Tijuana to a Mexican father and an American mother and went to college in San Diego.  Though identified as a “border writer” his website quotes him saying, “I am more interested in bridges than borders”.  Like the filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón with the Academy Award winning “Roma”, Urrea’s work represents a clear window through which Mexican culture and family life can be viewed and a “bridge” is built between the U.S. and Mexico.  It was inspired by the death of his older brother from cancer.  He says on the Times book review podcast that his family threw a 70th birthday party for his brother, “his last birthday party on earth”, as the de la Cruz family does for the family patriarch in the book.

Another strong motivation in writing the book was political –  particularly the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Trump 2016 campaign.  “The subtitle of the book should be ‘Go to Hell, Donald,’” the author told an interviewer.   He went on to say, “I couldn’t any longer take all the rhetoric, I couldn’t any longer take all the ‘build-the-wall’ propaganda or the ‘bad hombres’ and all of the damage and harm and heartbreak this course in American politics is taking in people’s lives on a daily basis.”     It is the author’s humor and love for all kinds of people that stand out and stay with Urrea’s readers.  He says that after his public readings from the book, “I’m hugging a lot of people. Every night, my jacket smells like 14 perfumes and seven after-shaves. People want hugs.”

Relevant links:

New York Times review in March 2018 of The House of Broken Angels  :

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/26/books/review/house-of-broken-angels-luis-alberto-urrea.html

“Now Read This” NYTimes-PBS Facebook group discussion of The House of Broken Angels :

https://www.facebook.com/groups/NowReadThisBookClub/search/?query=house%20of%20broken%20angels&epa=SEARCH_BOX

Urrea talks about why he wrote the book with Pamela Paul on the New York Times Book Review podcast:

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/30/books/review/house-of-broken-angels-luis-alberto-urrea-interview.html

 

 

Mexico Feeds the U.S.

Speaking of higher tariffs on Mexican imports and the wisdom of closing the border with our neighbor to the south, I want to share a favorite piece of Mexican folk music. “Ya viene el tren de Durango” sings a Mexican migrant farm laborer who leaves his home in rural Mexixo to work in the fields of “el norte”, across the U.S. border. The song was inspired by the experience of migrant “bracero” farm laborers in the U.S. fields of the early 1940’s to the early 1960’s.

These primarily Mexican farmworkers replaced the labor force conscripted for WW II and, with the increase in U.S. population and demand, now provide most of the cultivators, weeders and pickers of U.S. crops. To call essential migrant farmworkers “illegal” is one of the many grotesque consequences of the lack of a comprehensive update of U.S. immigration laws since the Reagan administration.

You may listen to the song “Ya Viene el Tren de Durango” as sung by folk musicians of Northern Mexico, including Jose Ignacio Cardenas Alvarado, the song’s composer. Its lovely melody, simplicity of language, and the singer’s clear enunciation make it ideal for Spanish language learning.

English translation:

“Here comes the train from Durango,
I must say good bye now, here in the Goma station,
to seek my future.

From Torreon to the City of Juarez
I’ll take yet another train
and then cross the border
so I don’t know when I’ll return.

REFRAIN 2X:

I know how to make the cuts on alfalfa
I know how to pick cotton
I know how to grow tomatoes, watermelon and squash.

But I leave as a poor fellow
and the money I take isn’t enough
when I’m on the other side
and run out of dough.

So look my pretty old lady
the dollars we told our children
I’d bring with me
let’s not mention again.

REFRAIN 2X

Now is also a good time to remember how the U.S. has for years depended on fruit and vegetables from Mexico to feed its families. Mexico supplied 29 % of the tomatoes eaten in the U.S. in 2016. In that same year, Mexico produced 91 % of the avocadoes consumed in “el norte”.

The effect of increased tariffs on prices of Mexican food imports to the U.S. would of course be dramatic and onerous for millions. Prices of produce would rise from 20 to 40 % an April 3, 2019 Time Magazine article estimated. The same article noted that many large U.S. agriculture firms, Driscoll’s berries is one, now produce food in Mexico with Mexican labor.

Congolese-American Defends Immigrants’ Right to Asylum

Patricia Okoumou protests U.S. treatment of families seeking asylum by climbing to base of Statue of Liberty last July 4. Photo by Abagond at wordpress.com

In a dramatic defense of the right of migrants to seek asylum when fleeing persecution and threats to their life, a Congolese-American U.S. citizen climbed the Statue of Liberty on 2018. U.S. Independence Day 2018. This year Patricia Okoumo continued her protest of the official U.S. response to migrants at the southern border by scaling the Austin, TX Southwest Key immigrant detention facility last month. Southwest Key is contracted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.) to detain and/or keep tabs on migrants who have fled their violence-plagued homelands.

In interviews following her climb to the base of the Liberty statue, Okoumou highlighted the plight of hundreds of migrant families separated by ICE detention. Despite prior pledges to reunite the families, ICE reported there were still up to 3000 children who remained in children-only detention when the climb at the Statue took place. In one interview the 44 year old protestor stated, “I felt peaceful, that I was with those children in spirit. I could feel their isolation and their cries being answered only by four walls.” Buffeted by high winds for three hours before her arrest and descent from the Statue, Okoumou said, “I was thinking of Lady Liberty above me, you are so huge, you have always been a symbol of welcome to people arriving in America and right now, for me under this sandal, she is a shelter.”

Surrounded by fellow Rise and Resist members, Patricia Okoumou spoke to the press at her December hearing. Photo by Jeenah Moon (Reuters)

For a decade now, both the Obama and Trump administrations have sought to discourage Central Americans seeking refuge in the U.S. from their countries’ rampant violence. Although El Salvador and Honduras both rank among the five most violent countries in the world today, the Trump administration has drastically reduced the number of asylum applicants admitted to this country. For the fiscal year 2018, there was a cap set of 45,000 asylees, but only 22,491 people were eventually accepted. Further discouraging migrants who might willfully submit to the U.S. immigration process, as of July 2018 the average wait time for an immigration hearing was 721 days. While funding of ICE apprehension and detention of migrants increased substantially during the Obama years and has continued to rise under Trump, allocations for hiring more immigration judges has not kept up.

Under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees signed by the U.S. and more than 140 other countries, “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution”. A study by the UN High Commission for Refugees found that 80 per cent of the women from Central America and Mexico applying for asylum at the U.S. southern border were found to have a significant possibility of establishing eligibility for asylum or protection under the Convention against Torture.” In practice, the U.S. denied 89 per cent of the asylum applications in 2016. Among those deported to their countries of origin, there are well documented cases of asylum seekers being attacked and killed on their return.

Rise and Resist activists called for abolition of ICE at the December court hearing. Photo by NYDailyNews

The right to seek refuge from potential persecution and violence in one’s home country is a well established principle of internationally recognized human rights. The UN Declaration of Human Rights upheld the right which dates back at least to the time of Ancient Greece. More recently, the U.S. joined 145 other countries in ratifying the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees in 1967.

Following her arrest in Texas, the New York City court ordered Patricia Okoumou to wear an ankle bracelet to enable monitoring of her movements until her sentencing on March 19. Meanwhile, the group Rise and Resist, to which she belongs, calls for the abolition of ICE by the U.S. “We stand on the right side of history,” Okoumou said after she was found guilty by the judge in New York. “I am not … discouraged” she continued. “Today our laws sometimes lack morality and this is a perfect example of that.” In summing up the motives for her dramatic protests she declared while choking up, “I wanted to send a strong statement that children do not belong in cages”.

We Are All Aliens

The “Waldseemuller map” of 1509 was the first to apply the name “America” to the “New World” – and printed it where Brazil is today

“For I am your passing guest, an alien, like all my forebears.” Ps 39:12b

We in the United States today are battling over what it means to be an American. The battle and the divide is taking place in many settings: in Congress, in the nation’s courts, at the airports, in the streets and most heatedly at our national borders. The conflict has been going on for many years but today with a President insisting on a narrow, exclusionary understanding of “American” the battle has intensified.

We lament the suffering of individuals and families caused by the current Administration’s aggressive pursuit of the “undocumented” while deploring his Republican Party’s standing in the way of comprehensive reform of the nation’s immigration laws for over 30 years. In effect, their stonewalling has made millions living and working in the country for many years “illegal” by their definition of “American”. Immigrants living in this country for twenty years and more have been barred from a pathway to U.S. citizenship.

In a time of unprecedented migration of refugees worldwide, some politicians may reap short term gains from their position on immigration; the anti-immigrant sentiment has swept Europe and undoubtedly contributed to the Trump electoral victory. His party blocks the path to citizenship for immigrants while engaged in a nationwide campaign to restrict and suppress the right to vote of persons of color who are U.S. citizens. This is a short sighted political strategy doomed to fail because it ignores, disrespects and ultimately devalues the nation’s highest ideals.

There is no denying that the U.S. is a nation of immigrants from all over the world. Except for the natives the immigrants displaced, all citizens of this country are descendants of people bringing to this land hopes and dreams forged on the anvil of oppression elsewhere. Whether one lives in the Middle East, Central America or West Africa, yearning to breathe free of violent oppression is not just the story of persons immigrating to the U.S. It is the human story and is a component of the DNA of the human species.

We citizens today of these United States are descendants of Jews fleeing persecution and death in Germany, Irish survivors of spreading famine, Mexicans and Central Americans escaping violence and feudalistic exploitation, English, Scots and Irish seeking religious freedom. So for two hundred forty two years the U.S. has been living a national experiment to remain true to its identity, its self image as a refuge for those storm tossed and “yearning to be free”. As a result of earth’s inhabitants finding safe harbor over decades in this country, the name “America” took on sacred levels of meaning for the country’s citizenry. The origins of the name, however, remains another cause for dispute.

Whether or not the name “America” derives from the name of the explorer Amerigo Vespucci, it is indisputable that the name originally applied to both North and South America. Vespucci himself never set foot on North American soil. A recent writer on the origins of the name “America” notes that the name came to apply solely to the United States after so many nationalities settled in the country and referred to the country in their language as their homeland. Jonathan Cohen writes, “to hear the African in the Mayan iq’ amaq’el; to hear the Scandinavian Ommerike, as well as Amteric, and the Algonquin Em-erika; to hear Saint Emeric of Hungary; to hear Amalrich, the Gothic lord of the work ethic; to hear Armorica, the ancient Gaulish name meaning place by the sea; and to hear the English official, Amerike — to hear such echoes in the name of our hemisphere is to hear ourselves”.

To hear the name one also hears echoes of the leaders who have shaped the values and self-image of this nation. Ted Widmer in a 2012 opinion piece titled “Last Best Hope” tells us it was Thomas Jefferson, drafter of our Declaration of Independence, who described America as the “world’s best hope”. Widmer then notes that “Like Jefferson (as Western as he was Southern), Lincoln believed that America’s ample interior spaces would invite millions of immigrants from around the world.”

Arizona Christians praying at the Nogales border wall early this year


For Lincoln, according to Widmer, the fact that immigrants continued to pour into the country during our Civil War, with many enlisting in the Federal Army, served as validation for Lincoln’s belief “that America, for all her problems, was still worth fighting for”. Lincoln concluded his first State of the Union message with words that link the freedom of the slave to the freedom sought by U.S. refugees and also speak to what is at stake for the country in his times – and in our own: “In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free — honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth.”

So in our national debate over immigration in these times we are not involved in just a policy discussion. For many of us seeking to defend the right of persons fleeing oppression by extreme economic exploitation and autocratic rulers we seek to defend the best of what this country has offered. We seek to preserve the essence of what enables its description as “a great nation”. We seek to preserve the country’s soul.

Extreme economic inequality, attacks on Muslims, imprisoning and deporting refugees, suppressing the right to vote of U.S. citizens, I could go on but we all recognize multiple ways the “American dream” is fading away in our time. For many of our citizens, there is doubt the dream for them and most others will ever be restored. In acting on behalf of refugees’ rights today, we are reminded and bolstered by the realization that it is not just an “American” dream to live free of persecution and exploitation. It is a human dream. And it is a dream that makes the U.S.A. – and any other people struggling for human freedom – “the last best hope on earth”.