Letter 7

In visiting churches and having the opportunity to speak directly to individuals, I have almost always needed to use my Spanish-speaking abilities. I’ve never had an opportunity like this before, to consistently and frequently use my Spanish outside of the classroom. This is also the first time I’ve used Spanish in my local community, one that is different from my own but faces political pressures that I am familiar with, pressures that are neither Spanish or Latin but distinctly American. I am struck by the contrast between the Spanish I’ve encountered in the Duke University classroom and the Spanish I’ve used in recent weeks. I am even more so surprised by what Spanish has come to signify in the American context, with its increasingly strong linkage to brown skin and brown bodies, and the historical reality of it being a language imposed by white conquerors and later predominantly white leaders and politicians. In Latin America, Spanish has always been a politically fraught language with a history both multifaceted and stark, but in the American context it becomes flattened, merely a symbol of racial otherness.

I’m minoring in Spanish, and I think it’s worth briefly commenting on how my classroom experiences differ from the quotidian reality of speaking the language, particularly in the United States. Frankly, I think the speaking environment of the classroom prepares me little for such a reality. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been forced to take literature and arts classes (I’m taking my third Spanish literature class this semester, and will likely be taking at least one more in the foreseeable future) because all the classes that are presumably more useful for an American non-native Spanish speaker (Spanish in the U.S., Bridging Cultures, Health, Culture, and the Latino Community, etc.) are quickly filled with juniors and seniors. I can’t wait a couple of years to take these courses because it is unadvisable to take a semester or two-long break from a language your trying to attain fluency in. So I bite the bullet, take three 300-level Spanish-language literature courses and two 400-level history or literature courses, and I learn how to speak in college classrooms about literature and art but not how to directly engage with the identity of a community I might end up serving as a potential immigration attorney.

Granted, I do highly value these courses and the knowledge I’ve gained about Latin American history, politics, and culture through the diverse voices of women, mestizo, and indigenous writers. And certainly, learning the history of a people permits you to empathize more with that people, to implicitly endow them with more respect because they share the human commonality of story. Though Duke has been criticized now and then about the lack of an advanced Spanish study abroad program in some country other than Spain, I think it’s worth noting as an aside that one should not conflate the absence of such a program with a discriminatory lack of regard for a continent that is primarily non-white. I’ve appreciated the careful structuring of the curriculums I’ve been exposed to and the implicit desire to elevate and examine marginalized voices. Even my class on 16th and 17th century Spanish literature had a syllabus which quietly asserted that the history of Spain is not the history of a white people, as one might think; the veritable presence of Jews and primarily black Muslims has challenged conceptions of nationhood, ethnicity, race, and religion in a country that has struggled and struggles even today to define itself as a singular entity. History is not only about the people in power, and I appreciate that the Spanish classes I have taken have incorporated this unoriginal statement as a driving force.

But comments on history have little to do with the day-to-day reality of non-white Spanish-speaking immigrants in the US today, a reality that has grown increasingly hostile and flattened within the past year and that fluctuates ever so quickly. Stereotyping, racism, and a simple lack of knowledge have managed to erase the history of Spanish in our country, to make it appear so different from its multi-faceted presence in Latin America. The shared consciousness of the Spanish language is very different in Latin America than it is in the United States. The majority of Spanish-speaking immigrants to the US come from Mexico, El Salvador, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Guatemala. It is worth noting that these countries are 10, 9, 64, 13.5, and 3 percent white, respectively. Mexico accounts for 27% of all US immigrants. Presuming that the racial demographics of these countries matches the racial demographics of the immigrants coming from these countries, we can easily conclude that the vast majority of Spanish-speaking immigrants are not white, but brown and black. Thus Spanish, at least in the American context, is associated very much with being a person of color (this assertion likely does not really apply to Cuban-heavy areas like Miami).

And it is not a stretch whatsoever to say that immigration policy and anti-immigrant sentiment has long been racialized. It’s why Trump says he wants more immigrants from Norway while his administration has restricted immigration from primarily brown and black countries. And before you say that it’s not race, but rather that these immigrants come from poorer countries and will thereby impose a burden on the American people, I give you a counterexample: the Trump administration has cut visas for specialized workers by a third; this type of high-tech, highly educated talent is desperately needed, and coincidentally, the vast majority of it comes from India, a coincidentally “poor” and “brown” country. Immigration isn’t just race, but race is a weighty factor. This means that discrimination against Spanish-speaking immigrants from Mexico, El Salvador, the DR, and the like is wrapped up in a lot of variables, from poverty to language to race to (perceived) legal status. Stereotypes exist for anyone who is not the default, and though they may be flat and two-dimensional, the image is still there, its component parts enfolded into one. This means that, in America, our larger culture links the Spanish language to brownness and thereby otherness via the neuron web of stereotype. So when a chicana or mestiza decides to speak Spanish in public despite the legitimate risks it may pose, she not only reasserts the legitimacy of an “other” language like Spanish but also reaffirms herself and thereby her own “otherness” as a non-white person. Speaking Spanish is a political act because it is about more than language.

And although Spanish may be equally (if not more so) political in Latin America, its roots are much deeper and more longwinded. The history of Spanish in Latin America is lengthy, but it is and always has been linked to classism, racism, and the subjugation of indigenous peoples. Spanish was the language of white conquerors from Spain, and the commonality of Spanish today is a product of that legacy, because even as countries rebelled and struck out on their own, whiteness (particularly Spanish and Portuguese identity) continued to entail (and still does entail) political, economic, and social clout. Unlike the United States, Latin America does not associate Spanish with people of color. You cannot tie it to empowerment as we do in the US. When “Vida”–– a US network TV show set in LA which is ostensibly ‘woke’, queer, and Latinx––decides to not add subtitles when the characters speak in Spanish, it presents an interesting conflict: Spanish is empowering in the American context, where it is a symbol of justice for brown and queer Latinx individuals, yet its very history is also what created and inculcated centuries of marginalization against brown and queer peoples in Latin America.

I acknowledge that I am not Latinx and that my commentary is based on my limited knowledge of Latin American history as well as my own conceptions of how and why immigrants are stigmatized in this country. The details and specific logic should be taken with a grain of salt, but what I believe should be considered is the way in which language’s larger significance is altered––sometimes drastically––as the context in which it is spoken changes. Immigration has the power to alter the way all of us see ourselves and our own history, to make wholly new meanings and new identities out of already existing ones.

Letter 6

In doing this study, I have had the opportunity to reflect on the role and meaning of my project, and what it might mean––presuming it has any momentary significance whatsoever––to the 130 or so individuals who have taken my survey. I’ve occasionally thought about whether how or what I think is appropriate, especially when I enter these safe spaces that are not for me and are not my own. At times I’ve reflected on my attitude: what do I have a right to feel?

I don’t really know what I am permitted to think of myself. I am not doing service work whatsoever, I am in no tangible way helping what is a very vulnerable population, and I feel that that lack of cushioning has given me very little space to maneuver and see myself and my work as a valuable, meaningful contribution. I’ve always thought of charity work as an exchange of sorts: a service, like food or labor, is traded for worldliness and the sense of doing good. This type of transaction is something I’m familiar with, that I’ve participated in throughout my pre-college years. It is a touchstone of Duke’s liberal arts endeavor.

But the study that I’m doing now, this research on psychological effects of legal status, has felt entirely extractive. I give people compensation, yes, but unlike community service, the focal point is not the $10 gift card––the resource of tangible value––but rather the information that I extract. That information, that research ultimately has little value to the people I am studying. If it does benefit them, it is only tangentially. And I’m not even entirely sure what, exactly, that benefit may be. The traditional framing of service is either convoluted or nonexistent in this situation.

This guilt and lack of do-gooder cushioning has forced me to compress myself, to make myself as small as possible when I enter these spaces. I presume it’s a type of “do no harm” mentality. I think it also helps greatly that I’m naturally a bit shy. Occasionally, when people have thanked me for doing the research that I’m doing or for asking them questions that no outsider has asked them before, I’ve tried to overwhelm their well-meaning comments with my own “thank you”s. “Thank you for doing this. Thanks for asking these questions,” said a self-identified DREAMer I’d interviewed a couple of weeks ago. “No, thank you,” I countered, “Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to do this. I really appreciate it. Thanks.” I tally it in my head. 2-3.

I think my sensitivity is somewhat rooted in my acknowledgement of anthropology as a historically racist––and presumptive––field of study. I am studying a community that is not my own, whose experiences I will never share. I know there is great danger in that, and I know that my acknowledgement of that danger does little to temper it. While doing this research, I was reminded of a short story I’d read in a Spanish class on Latin American literature I’d taken my first semester of freshman year. The title of the story, “El don rechazado”, has a double meaning in Spanish: it means both “the rejected gift” and “the rejected gentleman”. It’s about an anthropologist who presumes to know what’s best for a young indigenous mother he saves from a life of turmoil and despair, who later rejects both his advances and his offer of charity. What disturbed me the most about the story is the anthropologist’s apparent self-awareness, which does little to curb his blatant presumptiveness of the woman’s situation and needs. He still takes her life into his hands, cupping and nearly suffocating it. “Se colaran algunos elementos indeseables (some undesirable elements were incorporated [into the field of anthropology]),” he admits, and “ahora, los nuevos, estamos luchando por dar a nuestra Escuela un nivel digno (now, the new ones, we are fighting to give our field of study a dignified status). Yet he still does damage. He still decides how the woman should be treated, what life decisions she should make. His confession does little to save him.

In doing this study, I thought I should go a step further and present myself as a blank slate, to make myself as open and inactive as possible because doing so would preempt any interventionism. I tried to stave off this sense of paternalism by continually reminding myself of the extractive nature of my work. I was not the one to be thanked. Silence was key to the respect that was due.

This happy silence meant that any unseen realities of my own doing would be realized only after what was done had been done. I went to a church one weekend to distribute surveys. The pastor told me that the congregation would be small, so I only brought 12 gift cards. Evidently, the congregation was not small, and I ran out of the gift cards in just 20 minutes. One taller woman promised to me immediately after mass that she’d do a survey as soon as she got done with an errand. When she came 15 minutes later to take the survey from me, another lady stepped beside her. I had to quickly apologize to the latter and tell her that I was sorry, but I had run out of gift cards. The taller woman then turned to me and warmly said that the other mother should do the survey instead of herself. “That’s completely fine,” I said, with no indication of what I was or should have been thinking. I realized then, after having already visited several churches, that some people were doing my surveys not necessarily because they wanted to help me out or because they had nothing better to do, but because they highly valued the compensation, the gift card. I instantly felt guilty, and more so after I had to refuse a couple other people. I felt guilty for unintentionally creating a sort of inequality by not bringing enough gift cards, and I felt guilty because it was though I had taken advantage, and it had taken me too long to realize it. $10 means different things to different people, whether it be myself, the IRB officer reading my application, or a person doing the survey. I am privileged to think that $10 is a fair (if not stingy) exchange for a 30-minute survey (I was initially going to have $20 gift cards). I’ve been asked if the gift card can buy food.

Admission and acknowledgement of one’s own position as an outsider with power does little to stave off the guilt that is ever present. My silence doesn’t get rid of my power or my ignorance, even if it ensures I do not harm through needless intervention. My presence is enough. Blankness, open-mindedness is not a synonym for invisibility. It is simply an illusion of self-protection from guilt.

One aspect of distributing surveys that I failed to take into account was the whole concept of a written survey. During the rare times when people refused to take a survey from me, I always presumed it was because they were cautious or afraid. ICE raids are up, they’ve been up for the past two years, so I thought that any fear or suspicion would be justified even if I wasn’t taking down anyone’s personal information. It wasn’t until I visited several churches, and saw pairs of churchgoers sitting side-by-side with one individual reading the questions out loud for the other, that I realized I was mistaken. When people said no to a survey without giving me a reason and I’d ask them if they were sure, I was presuming to know their situation, their fear. While the literacy rate in Mexico is upwards of 94%, the countries of El Salvador (88%), Guatemala (81.5%), and Honduras (89%) have some of the lowest literacy rates in Latin America. Most of the congregations I’d visited were from this area, which is called The Northern Triangle. So in that moment of realization, I justifiably felt guilty. I had assumed to know someone’s situation, and that is the greatest ignorance of all.

My assumptions, well meaning or not, had fueled my obliviousness. What I thought was open-mindedness and respect was rather a beneficent presumptiveness that still does harm. I am not entirely sure how to write about my ignorance in a way that is not disrespectful to the people of whose situation I am ignorant. Paradoxically, I feel that my ignorance and whatever harm it may have caused is what has made me a better researcher and a better potential immigration lawyer to-be, but I do not know how to objectively weigh these harms and benefits when I’m the one’s who benefiting. And I feel that doing so would be another act of assumption.

Letter 5

When initially formulating this project and outlining a research protocol, I didn’t really know what to expect. I’d never done a formal psychological research study before, let alone any research project that extended beyond my laptop or my high school community. All I knew was that in order for this research project to be a success, I would need to reach a generally inaccessible, hard-to-pin down population: young adult immigrants, some of whom would be undocumented. I was also attempting to conduct a quantitative study, which would be particularly difficult: legal status is a sensitive topic, and respondents can face great danger if their information is disclosed. As a result, little empirical research has been done on undocumented immigrants, with the greatest focus on small-scale, qualitative research in which there is a great degree of trust between the respondent and researcher.

I realized the extent of the dearth of information on undocumented and DACAmented youth while doing a paper on the relationship between legal status and identity formation during first semester of my freshman year. It was exceedingly difficult for me to find quantitative studies with large population sizes, which are considered the gold standard for scientific research and are the backbone of any persuasive argument on immigration. My paper ultimately centered on three innovatory studies, which used various data collection methods: one utilized data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation, which is run by the US Census Bureau; another was a four and a half year study that, although qualitative and interview-focused, managed to get in contact with nearly 250 undocumented youth and as a result could make somewhat broader generalizations; and the final study was a telephone survey that gathered numbers from a pool of individuals that had attended DACA workshops in the Los Angeles area.

Unfortunately, my project does not have access to the same avenues that these other studies did: the data that I wish to assess is not measured by the SIPP program, I do not have a team of researchers nor a four and a half year period to collect data, and my study consists of a 30 minute survey that would take far too long to complete over the phone. When starting this study, I knew I’d have to figure out how to get in contact with undocumented individuals on my own. My first instinct was to work with immigration law firms and nonprofits that provide free legal counsel; I’d worked as a legal assistant in an immigration law firm before, and I knew that a lot of individuals of varying legal statuses came through the office. I started contacting law firms as early as February, and I received a lot of “no’s” and a small handful of “yes’s”. I’d get one yes for approximately every 15 or so firms I contacted, with at least four or five firms directly telling me that they were afraid of putting their clients in danger: they didn’t know if they could trust me. Ultimately, I received the opportunity to work with 9 law firms and nonprofits in total, but as the study went on fewer clients were filling out surveys than I had anticipated. I had less than 30 surveys, and it had already been a month. I would need to reconsider how to get in contact with individuals in my target population.

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine suggested that I expand my definition of nonprofits to include churches. I started contacting churches in the Atlanta area, and I specifically focused on Hispanic communities because my local county as well as several neighboring counties have significantly more Latin American hands, shadowimmigrants than they do any other type of immigrant, and immigrants from Latin America are often Christian and tend to skew Catholic (though an increasing number are Protestant). Additionally, the psychological measure that I am using is somewhat culture specific and has only been verified on white, African American, and Latino youth, so the questions asked in the survey would not necessarily apply to Asians and Africans. Contacting churches soon proved to be a good idea. I got a great response; a number of Hispanic priests and pastors replied to me, saying that they were willing to help me out. It was a marked improvement from what I had been doing before. The number of people attending these churches is much larger than those who go to the law offices I’d been working with, and I now had the opportunity to speak to individuals directly and make my case in person. I also had more potential respondents: churches are important centers for Latin American immigrants. One person I had interviewed noted that her undocumented parents are often sequestered to their home or workplace, and they only went out to places like the grocery store when they absolutely had to. Churches are one of the few places where undocumented immigrants will or can coalesce; they are very much considered a safe space.

Beyond religion, why are churches so important to the immigrant cause? We hear much about sanctuary cities in the United States, but churches have always been the original version. The Church World Service estimates that about 800 churches nationwide have opened their doors to people at risk of deportation and are willing to provide them refuge. A countless number of articles have documented churches that have housed immigrants facing deportation. However, even if one is not seeking sanctuary, churches provide protection in a broader sense by remaining one of the few places were undocumented immigrants may feel at ease. ICE and Customs and Borders Protection usually don’t touch churches; they are considered “sensitive locations,” and guidelines state, “Enforcement actions at or focused on sensitive locations such as schools, places of worship, and hospitals should generally be avoided.” Many churches––including several in the Atlanta area and some of whom I have contacted––also provide support more generally by coordinating child care and offering citizenship workshops and classes on legal rights run by local immigration lawyers. Churches are where undocumented individuals go––not only for religious reasons but also for the help they provide. They serve as community centers, and non-Latino immigrant activists mustn’t overlook them.

When we view religiosity as a conservative trend yet see efforts to help the undocumented as a leftist issue––especially in recent weeks with the rise of the “Abolish ICE” movement, the “Families Belong Together March” and the outpour of funds to organizations like RAICES in the wake of the family separation debacle––we leave out the important work of churches and religious nonprofits that are often the first point of contact for people who are undocumented. Though work by the ACLU and RAICES is important, one must remember that local churches are some of the first places where community support is needed to help undocumented immigrants. I overlooked churches when attempting to reach immigrants, and I’ve realized that a larger push for immigration reform shouldn’t overlook them, too.

Letter 4

Borders first became a “thing” with the Treaty of Westphalia, serving to clarify which polities were under which prince’s rule of law. The prince’s government had complete sovereignty over the people in his territory, which was demarcated by borders. In the tense and warlike environment that was Europe at the time, borders also signified the territories that the prince had a responsibility to protect. Thus, the foundation of borders is intimately tied to the concept of “responsibility” and a state’s duty to prioritize the people in its polity.

Do immigrants infringe on a state’s responsibility to its own people? And what does “responsibility” entail?

I think the first issue is differentiating between financial and protective responsibility. I think neither economics nor a state’s financial responsibility to immigrants entering the country is the foremost issue of immigration, at least in the United States; the financial responsibility that I’m referring to is the responsibility to maintain current levels of financial well-being/the same standard of living. I’m tentatively asserting this because 1) all of the reports I’ve read on immigration have generally found that immigrants have a negligible if not positive impact on the overall economy, especially for skilled workers, even as they may undercut wages for those without a high school degree, and 2) children from poor immigrant families are equally likely to use welfare as those from nonimmigrant families, and undocumented immigrant families in particular contribute much more to state and local governments than they take from them (also, wouldn’t it be easier to restrict welfare rather than immigration overall at the border?). Additionally, a 2017 Gallup poll found that more Americans think immigrants help rather than hurt the economy. So yes, of course elected officials would understandably consider the economic needs of their constituents over those outside their jurisdictions. But when economics is a nonissue for most Americans when it comes to discussions on immigration, I don’t think questions of financial obligation are particularly relevant because, at least economically, the state isn’t obliging anyone who’s entering this country from across the border. Immigrants (even refugees) provide way, way more to the American government in the form of taxes, etc. than they take from it in the form of welfare, immigration and humanitarian services, etc. Maybe they’re obliging us.

It seems to me that security and governance are greater issues for Americans than economics; the precedent of protective responsibility set under the Treaty of Westphalia is still our central concern today in discussions on immigration. In the context of the travel ban and the sharp cuts to legal immigration, I’d certainly assert this case for refugees and asylum seekers, but I’d also argue the same for all immigrants, especially those who are undocumented. Per a 2016 Pew Research poll, just 35% of Trump supporters say undocumented immigrants take jobs U.S. citizens would like to have, and a third say that they are less hard working and honest than citizens. However, 50% think undocumented immigrants in the U.S. “are more likely than American citizens to commit serious crimes.” Fears of what immigrants could pose to national security are particularly heightened in the European context with the Syrian refugee crisis, but I think they’re equally applicable here. Fears of an undermining to our national security and safety are coded in everything from John Kelly’s statement that Mexicans are “overwhelmingly rural people” who would not “easily assimilate into the United States” to the seemingly insensitive accusations raised by the individual I interviewed in my first blog post, who argued that immigrant youth are “have cognitive dissonance and are prone to joining gangs because of it.” 63% of conservatives consider Iranian and Syrian refugees to be a “major threat” to the country. Even economist Nathan Smith, one of the biggest proponents of opening America’s borders, admits that although entirely open borders would result in a doubling of GDP, American culture and society as we know it would disintegrate.Statue of Liberty top, statue

Thus, when we ask questions like, “Is America responsible for letting in refugees?”, the word “responsibility” is loaded with a lot of potential meanings. Is it financial responsibility, i.e. in the form ofwelfare? Or is it some type of vaguer “responsibility” for the problems some believe they could potentially wield against us, like criminality, drugs, or gang violence? I think for many people, i.e. the Trump supporters mentioned above, it is the latter. When considering letting in refugees––and immigrants in general––the ultimatum is whether that person is “safe,” not whether it’s necessarily our obligation or responsibility to “help” them (especially considering that in the long-term, refugees actually benefit us), and I think it is this reasoning that led the attorney I interviewed in my last blog post to argue that we should only be working to keep unsafe people out.

The type of responsibility we’re dealing with is the Westphalian version: the responsibility to protect. So when you ask if it is immoral to argue that we should preference the well being of people within our polity in conversations on immigration, I’d argue that 1) yes, per the historical reasoning of creating borders, one should preference those in their polity, but 2) the only type of well being that should really concern us, especially in the US, is security/safety. This is where I think the reasoning becomes more context dependent, especially as numbers become increasingly unhelpful in determining whether someone is “safe” or “unsafe”. It’s difficult to determine if someone is prone to joining a gang or becoming a terrorist without relying on racial stereotypes because so many psychological factors play into the ultimate decision.

When determining the relationship between security and immigration, I think it’s worthwhile to consider terrorism, extremism, and gang violence separately from generalized crime. This is because the latter is a more apparent nonissue than the former: whether it’s Germany or the United States, immigration is actually linked to decreased crime rates. A 2015 peer-reviewed study from the National Academy of Sciences concludes, “far from immigration increasing crime rates, studies demonstrate that immigrants and immigration are associated inversely with crime.” Nonetheless, crime rates do increase from the first to the second generation, and I will concede there’s little understanding of the role of undocumented immigrants in particular, since state authorities and census workers rely on offenders to self-report their status. Regardless, the overall consensus is that with immigrants comes a reduction in crime, not a boosting of it.

The issue of extremism is a grayer area. In the case of Muslim migration, the question of safety is particularly unclear because it’s really, really difficult to tell if someone is prone to becoming a terrorist. Additionally, the relationship between extremist activity and immigration is difficult to assess because there are so few terrorist attacks in the first place, regardless of whether that migration is from south of the border or from Syria. Looking at the European example only complicates this question: although Germany admitted approximately 1 million refugees in 2015 and faced a subsequent spat of terrorist attacks, it’s also worth noting that the German government has emphasized that the risk of someone being a perpetrator of terrorism is no greater amongst the refugee population than amongst the general population. Even jihadists themselves have told investigators that ISIS wants to recruit within Germany and in the UK, rather than having foreign terrorists infiltrate said countries by presenting themselves at the border as asylum seekers. I also did a small survey of the data myself and found that the UK and France have suffered many more terrorist attacks (France has endured 17 Islamist terrorist attacks since 2014) than more significantly refugee-friendly countries such as Germany and Sweden (the former had 9 terrorist attacks since 2014, while the latter only had 1). At least in the European context, the risk of extremism that migrants pose is pretty tenuous. However, I acknowledge that the historical “newness” of the situation and the lack of conclusive data make this the arena where one may face the biggest moral dilemma, especially when considering the admittance of potential refugees.

Nonetheless, the type of immigration that I’ve largely been referencing in my previous blog posts and that largely concerns the United States today is that which comes from south of the border, not from majority Muslim countries. Muslim foreign nationals are only about 0.6% of the US population, but that number jumps to 6.2% when looking at foreign-born Hispanics. Knowing the similarities between terrorism and gang violence, there’s a more relevant question regarding immigrant-linked extremism in the US: is Latin American immigration linked to gang violence? As in the case of recruitment by ISIS, citizens––not undocumented immigrants––are more likely to be affiliated with gangs, though precise numbers are unavailable (in Suffolk County, MA, 39 out of 156 gang members were unaccompanied minors). Additionally, although ICE operations targeting gang members have led to arrests of individuals who arrived as undocumented minors, it’s unclear if they joined gangs after coming to the United States or already had an affiliation prior to entry. In 2012, only 159 children apprehended at the border were suspected or confirmed to have gang affiliations (some activists even warn against conflating “suspected” and “confirmed” especially as ICE has occasionally been unable to substantiate its allegations of gang affiliation) out of a total of about 45,000 kids arriving that year. However, unaccompanied minors are targets for MS-13 recruitment. Quoting Politifact:

Scott Michael Conley, a detective in the Chelsea Police Department in Massachusetts, said that while the majority of unaccompanied minors were fleeing violence, “the smallest group of unaccompanied minors are ‘homeboys’ being sent by the gang to bolster the ranks of MS cliques operating in the United States.”

Conley presented a recruitment scenario when gang members and minors who are not in gangs travel in the same group to the United States. Gang members gather information from non-gang members, such as where they lived and who their relatives are, and later use that information to recruit them. Those who refuse to join are subject to assaults or threats that their relatives will be killed, Conley said.

The link between gang violence and Latin American immigration is unclear, just as is the relationship between terrorism and Muslim migration. However, as stated above, these problems are equally homegrown as they are immigrant-linked, and the likelihood of suffering a terrorist attack is so tiny that it’s considered negligible in the first place. Security and safety is Americans’ primary concern when discussing immigration, and in light of the above analysis, it’s not a very compelling point if we’re arguing to limit immigration, or even if we’re arguing against increasing it.

But if we are arguing to increase immigration, how far can it go? How many people is too many people? Is the concept of open borders unreasonable?

Yes, it is. But not for the reasons you’d think. In the essay I referred to earlier, Nathan Smith imagines an open border scenario where 1 billion people immigrate to the United States, and the issues he believes will arise in such a situation are not related to economics, security, or crime. Rather, the challenges are to the nature of governmental institutions. In order to govern a much larger population, Smith predicts, the US government would necessarily become more authoritarian. Political parties would reinvent themselves to appeal to the values and ideals of a diverse ethnic composition. As a result of self-segregations practices, neighborhoods, workplaces, churches, and community organizations would become significantly more homogenous than the general population as a whole. Government organizations would have difficulty retaining sovereignty over a population so large and diverse. He hypothesizes that employment rates amongst unskilled Americans would decrease, to be increasingly replaced by lifestyles based on “dividends, land rentals, and government subsidies.” America would function much like an empire, in the vein of its Roman and British precedents. It’s political character and cultural value system would crumble.

I determined that long-term financial responsibility––and protective responsibility, too––are largely unthreatened by immigration, at least in the American context. But it seems there might be another type of responsibility––that of historical continuity, of assimilation, of retaining culture and politics as we know it. What might it entail, exactly? And is this the realm where the concept of open borders can justifiably be tethered down

Letter 3

In my last blog post, I interrogated the depth of narrative and the law’s inability to capture the profundity of an individual. For this blog post, I attempted to evaluate the flip side of the coin by opting to work backwards: instead of appraising existing laws, I’d instead set foot along the theoretical frontier of open borders. In a world where no restrictions, quotas, or criteria existed, how would one build a standardized immigration policy from the ground up?

I breached the topic of open borders with the presumption that such a concept would be a logical extreme for any reasonable person. I read a number of articles on the topic, ranging from the more convincing to the not so much. I even dipped a toe in the literary with an essay from the New Inquiry that turns the tables by putting the power structure––not the person––on trial. Armed with enough research to at least hold my own, I readied myself for the qualified, tempered commentary I expected to receive in my conversations with four immigration attorneys on the subject of what does and does not work in immigration.

And frankly, I was surprised. Apparently, open border theory is not relegated to the intellectuals, writers, or radical economists who have little to lose by pressing the accelerator as far as it will go just to see where the world ends up. The concept of open borders is not a liberal pipe dream; the practical, grounded “clerks” have their hands on it, too. One attorney point-blank said to me, “Honesty, I’m for open borders” while another stated, “I don’t understand why there should be any sort of limitations [on immigration], except for keeping people who are unsafe out.”

This kind of heedless honesty puzzled me. I expected the construction of the attorneys’ commentary to somehow mirror the complex, contradictory nature of the space in which they operate: though the meaningful, valuable work of immigration attorneys should not be understated, it is not at all untrue to state that they profit off of the policies they criticize. Immigration law is so convoluted that it is frequently compared to the tax code. Add that to the fact that deportation cases fall under the jurisdiction of civil law, so defendants must rely on private attorneys if they ever want a chance to stay in the United States, with the stakes ramping up if their proceedings take place in cities like Atlanta or Charlotte, NC, where deportation rates are upwards of 90%.

Simply put, I found it odd that one would advocate for no visa quotas when her job involves steering an individual through the violent tides and murky waters of immigration policy in order to clinch an H-1b visa. I found it strange that an attorney would proclaim open borders when her office is bursting at the seams with twice as many calls as she had a year and a half ago. And I found it outright bizarre that an attorney would argue that the government must provide free legal counsel to those facing deportation proceedings when he makes his living as a private, paid attorney representing said individuals. This latter attorney later described the discomfort he felt as a “bougie lawyer” representing refugees who were fleeing violence and could barely afford to pay him. Another described the stark “power dynamic” he sensed between himself and his clients, stating that the latter were placed in “vulnerable situations” that necessarily positioned them “in a state of dependency on a private attorney.”   

In my conversations with attorneys, what I was expecting was some sort of reaffirmation of existing immigration policy: Sure, the law will fall through occasionally, and sometimes its failures may be egregious, but at least its underlying spirit retains some semblance of morality. However, I found that this was far from the case. Two attorneys advocated for a “complete overhaul” of current immigration policy, while the other two stated that “major changes” needed to be made. And three of the four attorneys stated that immigration policy “values economic and political purposes more than it does the person”. Even the one attorney who agreed that immigration policy is grounded in moral principles quickly added that he “fundamentally disagreed with some of those principles” and that many a time “the economic and the political come first.”

The attorneys repeatedly cited a number of examples that they believed demonstrate their assertion: the slowness with which a path to citizenship has been formulated for provisional and undocumented workers, who are crucial to agriculture yet are frequently exploited as a result of their liminal status; the deportation of El Salvadorans with TPS although some have been established in this country for nearly 18 years; the president’s backing of merit-based proposals that are simply thinly-veiled excuses for cutting legal immigration across the board (the administration’s merit-based claims are also insincere considering its hypocritical cuts to H1B visa availability and its removal of a policy that allowed H4 spouses to work, despite H1B and H4 recipients being some of the most highly skilled workers that are entering this country); DACA and the ease with which Democrats stopped backing it when its political appeal became null. When asked to assess the moral value of immigration policy, one attorney straightforwardly asserted that refugees and asylum seekers are “basically screwed unless they have good economic resources” and those with “limbo” status like TPS and DACA recipients are “frequently taken advantage of.” The moral premise of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you is completely ignored by the structure of the law,” this attorney stated.  

In my last blog post, I spoke of the contrast between narrative and policy and the inherent difficulty of overlapping handsdrawing the colossal vibrancy of an individual through the narrow letter of the law. But what I found was that the immigration lawyers I spoke to had no issue with the limited nature of legalistic morality in contrast with the richness of narrative morality; rather, they found that law itself was often not moral at all. Granted, all four of the attorneys I work with specialized in humanitarian law, which has faced the greatest slashes in over a decade and has received significantly less attention than family and employment-based immigration, which together constitute at least 80% of immigration cases. Though the attorneys had varying critiques of family reunification and merit-based system, all had scathing criticisms of the asylum policies, which one attorney labeled “the stingiest possible” and another called “shameful.” This latter attorney described the doubling in migrants coming from the “Northern Triangle” (which consists of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) between 2011 and 2014 as evidence of a “refugee crisis.” In 2014, Honduras had the world’s highest murder rate, followed by El Salvador at #2 and Guatemala at #9. Northern Triangle states are among the poorest in Latin America, and a 2014 DHS report cited rural poverty and “extreme violence” as forces motivating unaccompanied children to cross the border. Thus, the attorneys’ frustration is understandable: when your clients are in “direct danger” and you consider them to be refugees under every standard other than the law’s, then the law’s inability to formally accommodate such cases seems not only aggravating, but unjust as well. “Unless you fit into a pigeonhole, you can’t stay here,” said one attorney, “So I have to find creative ways to get them status.”

What are the implications when some of the most pragmatic and practical individuals who could speak on the subject of immigration law have such strong emotions regarding it? What does it mean when an attorney––who has everything to lose or gain with changes in policy––advocates for open borders or a complete overhaul of the current system? Is this an indication that the system is broken? That it seriously has no moral credence? I’m not sure about that. But what I do think is that the attorneys’ harsh words on the origin of immigration policy serve as a reminder that we must consider why laws are drafted, and for whom. Politicians want to be reelected, so they want to serve the interests of their voters. But when the policy they’re drafting intimately affects individuals who are not their constituents and only tangentially concerns their actual voters, then what reason do they have to be nuanced, careful, and concerned? Is it this phenomenon reflected in the blundering nature of the law that the attorneys cited time and time again? Perhaps we’ll have to wait until the immigrants––or their children––start voting before immigration law truly starts changing.

I think a lot about questions of obligation, especially as it concerns students’ sense of “purpose,” and one of the elements of obligation that frequently comes up in these conversations is: how equally do we want to be treated? I often have students read Peter Singer’s classic “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” piece, which lays the framework for a lot of his subsequent writing on the moral obligation to help those far from us. In the past, he suggests that we didn’t necessarily know in with any certainty what was happening out of our purview. Communications technology has made the world much “smaller,” and so now I can know with fairly high certainty that an earthquake has occurred in Haiti or that there’s an ongoing crisis of migration to Europe from the Middle East and North and Central Africa. I’ve been to Brownsville, TX to talk with consuls and lawyers and those engaged in humanitarian work. I “know” that issue more intimately. But Singer suggests that I really know about the Mediterranean or Haiti equally well, or well enough that I would act if the issue were physically closer. In a later piece, he suggests that all of us would save a child drowning in shallow water if we were to see it occurring on our way to work. If my shoes get ruined, who cares? Small price to pay for ensuring that an innocent life isn’t wasted. If I know about such peril out of my line of sight, my moral burden is equal. Intellectually this makes perfect sense.

Where it tends to get tricky for students is when the stranger’s peril is balanced not against equal “strange”ness at greater distance but against higher degrees of familiarity. Am I morally obligated to treat a stranger in peril equally to my children in peril? How much should I sacrifice of my income, which I primarily consider for ensuring that my family can survive and thrive, in order to ensure the survival of people far away? I’ve introduced confounding variables and also a healthy bit of irrationality. I’m not primarily rational about my children. I don’t consider them to the exclusion of everything else, but they’re frankly more important to me than other people’s children are. That in and of itself isn’t controversial. If nation-states are paternalistic towards their citizens, if the moral foundations of the nation-state rest at least in part on its denizens being separate and the primary concern of the nation-state, what do we owe people who are outside that purview? Probably depends on a number of factors, but I think a lot hinges on the degree to which you think Singer is right that we should indeed operate as if each life, which in the Enlightenment and under many forms of law should be treated as of equivalent value to any other life, does indeed require equivalent action.

I’ve written about 500 words here, and I’m still WAY oversimplifying, but something to consider, especially as you talk with people about what’s good about borders and border policy and what’s bad about them. Capricious immigration policy is likely immoral. Likewise, since nation-states and their denizens interact consequentially, what happens outside borders matters for everyone. Wild and disproportionate hoarding of resources within a border again seems likely to be immoral, especially given some incredibly ugly and unjust history of action by the US and in the areas of the world that are currently unsafe to live. Distilling it down, though, what should our obligations to help desperate people outside our borders be when we aren’t to blame for their circumstances? Is that formulation reasonably possible?

Letter 2

In thinking about immigration and the intersection of the personal and the political, I’ve often ended up finding myself immersed in story:

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a poetry reading by Warsan Shire, whose feature on Beyoncé’s Lemonade launched her into small-scale stardom. Though Shire is renowned for her chronicles of womanhood and feminine sexuality, I believe she’s at her best when she dips into her immigrant and refugee background. She achieves greatest profundity by engaging the area of ambiguity that exists when you’re a refugee attempting to build a home out of your own bones because no nation will call you its own. Shire herself is a Kenyan-born Somali who has spent much of her life in London, and her poetry reflects her untethered background as she recounts the stories of immigrant family and friends who know much more about the journey they have endured than who they actually are.

In “Conversations About Home (at a Deportation Centre),” for example, Shire depicts the preposterous capacity of bureaucracy and immigration policy to flatten people into nothing more than slips of paper:

No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark. I’ve been carrying the old anthem in my mouth for so long that there’s no space for another song, another tongue or another language. I know a shame that shrouds, totally engulfs. I tore up and ate my own passport in an airport hotel. I’m bloated with language I cannot afford to forget.

It’s a heavy passage. Says Rafia Zakaria of The Guardian, “A question posed: Is reducing a person’s right to refuge to a piece of paper more or less bizarre than the act of eating one?… In verse, Shire recalibrates the distance between the documentary details of belonging and the human experience of it, revealing them to be two vastly different things, fragile and futile foundations for justice.”

As Zakaria suggests, Shire’s poetry manages to document all, functioning much like a camera trained on immigrant life that not only captures the photo but also the emotions that swirl within its margins. But one thing Shire can’t help but zoom in on is this: sometimes the law isn’t right. Sometimes it’s immoral. Often times it’s shortsighted. And many a time it’s limited.

And I agree with her. In fact, it’s a belief I’ve implicitly held for longer than I can remember, and I believe it’s what undergirds my desire for story. Why else do I cite Shire’s poetry or M.I.A.’s “Borders” as work that hustles me forward, finally allowing me to well up with anger, if only for the briefest of moments? Why is “because I get to learn about other peoples’ stories” my answer when someone asks me why I want to enter the field of immigration law? Why else, when writing this letter home, did I immediately pull up the TIME cover story from a couple of months ago detailing families whose lives had been ripped apart by Trump’s harsh enforcement of deportation policy?

However, though narrative is enough for me, it’s not enough for everyone. I’ve come to find that an emphasis on story, though compelling and poignant, is limited in its underlying philosophy that at times the law is morally incorrect. When we first and foremost underscore humanity and individuality when discussing issues of immigration, it is to elucidate the narrow nature of the law. It’s a people-first strategy for convincing others to one’s side, and one would assume that that approach would work, right? Because when it’s personal, the politics should presumably unravel.

But our varying views of right and wrong, especially when it comes to immigration, are not mere permutations of one another with the fundamental core still intact. At times they are the inverse, flipped inside out; for some, it’s not the law that melds to the people, it’s the people that conform to the law: when I was interviewing a citizen couple last week, one spouse stated that he was willing to give amnesty to children but not to adults because the latter “chose to come here anyway.” And in regards to amnesty for children, he considered programs like the uninitiated Dream Act or DAPA to be “too much,” since “people will come to the United States and have ten kids” just to get legal status. “There’s a right way to come to the United States,” he asserted, and if you’re coming in the “wrong” way, well, then you just have to face the consequences, as Mark Krikorian of the conservative Center for Immigration Studies argued in the TIME article I mentioned earlier: “They’re illegal, they’re breaking the law, why shouldn’t they be living in the shadows?” he’d argued.

That seemed a little harsh to me. Aren’t we talking about real people, real stories? Maybe not. After TIME self-purportedly “pressed [him] on specific cases” of families being shorn apart by hardline immigration enforcement, he said, “Look, when it does happen, it’s not a great situation… But it’s not our problem. These immigrants are adults; they have to be responsible for their actions. Kids sometimes suffer from the bad decisions their parents make. If Mom and Dad stop paying their mortgage and get evicted, the kids don’t get to stay in the house.”

Krikorian’s viewpoint is fundamentally law-first. It’s the law that is right, and it’s the people that break it who are wrong. Not the other way around, like Warsan Shire or M.I.A. or even the undocumented “rule-breakers” would suggest: in a 2014 study, USC sociologist Emily Ryo found that undocumented immigrants not only believe that they’re moral people, but that they’re helping the United States, stating:

They view the violation as resulting in something that’s good for the U.S. economy. They recognize that engaging in work without authorization is illegal, but they focus on the nature of the work they’re doing, which to them is admirable. Our refusal to grant them legal status to work legally they see as a pretty hypocritical stand, that we’re benefiting from the fruits of their labor at the same time we’re saying, “We don’t want you.”

What lies underneath is this idea that immigration law occupies a fundamentally different moral sphere from other kinds of laws. They see themselves as law-abiding despite their violation of our immigration laws.

Why is this? Why do many––including myself––want the law to the flexible, at least to some degree? Why do others want the people to be malleable at whatever cost? How can viewpoints differ so essentially?

Perhaps it’s where we come from: Let’s say I’m Warsan Shire, and I’m coming from Somalia. Or I’m Sara, the young woman profiled in the TIME article who came from a Honduran pueblo with one of the world’s highest murder rates. Or perhaps I’m M.I.A., and I’m coming from Sri Lanka, where my father is wanted as a member of the Tamil Tigers. If I were any one of these people, maybe I’d be more suspicious of the law because it had failed to protect me in the past. Maybe I’d be less likely to see it as legitimate simply because it’s deemed “the law”.

Or perhaps my hypothesis is entirely wrong, and it’s not this at all. Hopefully we’ll see as I conduct more interviews in the upcoming weeks.