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My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant

A must-read this morning.

I decided then that I could never give anyone reason to doubt I was an American. I convinced myself that if I worked enough, if I achieved enough, I would be rewarded with citizenship. I felt I could earn it.

I’ve tried. Over the past 14 years, I’ve graduated from high school and college and built a career as a journalist, interviewing some of the most famous people in the country. On the surface, I’ve created a good life. I’ve lived the American dream.

But I am still an undocumented immigrant. And that means living a different kind of reality. It means going about my day in fear of being found out. It means rarely trusting people, even those closest to me, with who I really am. It means keeping my family photos in a shoebox rather than displaying them on shelves in my home, so friends don’t ask about them. It means reluctantly, even painfully, doing things I know are wrong and unlawful. And it has meant relying on a sort of 21st-century underground railroad of supporters, people who took an interest in my future and took risks for me.

Really do read it all

Jayaben Desai, 1933-2010

Jayaben Desai has died at 77 years of age. From The Hindu:

The diminutive India-born Ms. Desai, who moved to Britain from Tanzania in 1969, came to be known as a “lioness” for her role in leading the two-year long strike at the Grunwick Film Processing Laboratories, north London, in the 1970s to demand union recognition for its largely Asian and female workforce.

She famously told a manager: “What you are running here is not a factory, it is a zoo. In a zoo, there are many types of animals. Some are monkeys who dance on your fingertips, others are lions who can bite your head off. We are those lions, Mr Manager.’’

Jack Dromey has written an obituary at The Guardian.

Taking Babies from Undocumented Immigrants

Encarnación Romero was an undocumented immigrant working at a poultry plant in Missouri when she was arrested in 2007 during a raid by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement. She was jailed for two years for federal identity theft, because she used a fake name and Social Security number when applying for her job (those charges, notably, would not stick if they were filed today — the Supreme Court rejected the use of identity theft prosecutions in simple immigration cases like this one). In prison and unable to care for her infant son herself, Romero did what many parents would have done (and what my own parents certainly would have done): She asked her sister to look after the baby, Carlitos, until she could come home. The sister was already overwhelmed with her own three children, and sought help through her church. An acquaintance took Carlitos to the home of the church’s minister, and the minister and his wife contacted another couple who were looking to adopt.

Romero’s parental rights were then terminated, and Carlitos was adopted by Seth and Melinda Moser.

Unsurprisingly, Romero did not have adequate legal representation, and does not speak English. Lawyers for the Mosers, who adopted Carlitos, say that Romero abandoned her child, and “She went by different aliases, and therefore all the correspondence that the court sent her, and that I sent her, even that her attorney sent her, all came back refused.” Romero’s attorneys, though, say that while she did seek employment under an assumed name, she gave ICE officers her real name shortly after being arrested. The fact that she was booked under a false name doesn’t mean that she abandoned her child — it means that there was a clerical error (and possibly that there wasn’t proper translation, and that she didn’t have a lawyer).

The whole thing is horrifying. And of course the public argument is coming down to nice adoptive parents vs. illegal immigrant jailed mother — with “the best interests of the child” used as a tool to advance injustice:

Rick Schnake, the Joplin attorney representing the Mosers, said that removing the child from the family he has known for the past few years would only compound the tragedy. He argued that the best interests of the child are served by keeping him with his adoptive parents.

“This little boy is four years old. He doesn’t speak Spanish, he speaks English,” Schnake said. “I don’t mean to be caustic about it but it’s not the child’s fault she was (in jail).”

Considering that Romero would not be jailed for the exact same act had she been arrested today instead of in 2007, it’s not so clear that it’s totally her fault she was in jail, either. And it’s not her fault that her parental rights were terminated, and that her son was taken away from her. It’s not the child’s fault that he was part of a predatory adoption, but that doesn’t mean that it’s in his best interests to stay with those adoptive parents. Adding to the mess is the fact that the adoptive parents hired the attorney who acted on behalf of the birth mother during the court proceedings to terminate Romero’s parental rights.

A lot of the commentary on this story says it’s a “tragedy for all involved” and that we’re all hoping for “the best outcome for everyone.” Except, well, no. It is a tragedy for all involved, but it’s more of a tragedy for the woman who had her baby taken from her and for the baby who was taken than for the couple who knew that parental rights hadn’t properly been terminated, but apparently thought that their desire for a child trumped another woman’s rights to raise the child she carried, birthed, loved and raised for his first six months of life. I don’t want to impute too many motives on the Mosers, because who knows what the whole story is from their perspective. But I do think it’s fair to expect that adoptive parents will make every reasonable effort to figure out where their baby is coming from, and will act as ethically as possible in a situation which is often fraught with inequality and injustice and coercion. I’m not sure it’s clear that the Mosers did that here. I can understand why, having raised this child for four years, they wouldn’t want to give him up. But unless I’m missing something (and I might be), it seems that they made a whole series of unethical, bad decisions on the front end and now want everyone to look the other way. I don’t have a whole lot of sympathy for that position.

The undercurrent in all of this is the idea that the Mosers are de facto better parents than Romero because Romero is brown and “illegal.” And that’s an idea that plays pretty well in much of the United States. I hope Romero gets her son back, and that this case can be a lesson that predatory adoptions and aggressive anti-immigrant policies only serve to harm women, children and families.

Yes, I’m sure immigrants are crossing the desert by foot for the free water

I can’t believe that this is even a dispute, or that there are people who seriously think it should be illegal to leave jugs of water out for desperate immigrants walking across the Arizona desert.

Two years ago, Daniel J. Millis was ticketed for littering after he was caught by a federal Fish and Wildlife officer placing gallon jugs of water for passing immigrants in the brush of this 118,000-acre preserve.

“I do extreme sports, and I know I couldn’t walk as far as they do,” said Mr. Millis, driving through the refuge recently. “It’s no surprise people are dying.”

Mr. Millis, 31, was not the only one to get a ticket. Fourteen other volunteers for Tucson-based organizations that provide aid to immigrants crossing from Mexico to the United States were similarly cited. Most of the cases were later dropped, but Mr. Millis and another volunteer for a religious group called No More Deaths were convicted of defacing the refuge with their water jug drops.

But opponents say the water drops are encouraging immigrants to continue to come across the border illegally. The critics say there ought to be Border Patrol agents stationed near the water stations to arrest those who are crossing illegally as soon as they finish drinking. So furious are some at the practice of aiding immigrants that they have slashed open the water jugs, crushed them with their vehicles or simply poured the water into the desert.

Yes, I’m sure that undocumented people, crossing the Arizona desert, are really only doing it because they know there will be free water.

Mr. Millis, a former high school Spanish teacher who now works for the Sierra Club, disputes the notion that leaving out water jugs is luring more immigrants. He said it was border enforcement efforts that had pushed those seeking to cross into dangerous desert areas.

As for spoiling the environment, he said he collected as many jugs as he left behind. He also recounts how he found the dead body of a 14-year-old Salvadoran girl near the refuge days before he was ticketed.

Water jugs aren’t the problem.

One of my favourite bits of cognitive dissonance

There’s something that always gets me about white people who want to restrict immigration so as to preserve their cultural and racial dominance, which is supposedly under threat, in a given country. Who want to ban, for instance, Muslim women from wearing clothing of religious, cultural and social importance because they feel uncomfortable encountering the Other in their own backyard. Who want to partake in bits of non-white, non-Western cultures but don’t want those people around so much because this suburb is becoming overrun, and it’s a bit scary, don’t you know?

So, I’ve got a question for white people who feel uncomfortable with having their status as the default humans threatened.

You want to prevent us Others from living where we wish…
You want us to keep our strange customs and faces to ourselves…
You want selected bits of who we are but you want the fullness of who we are out of your faces…

… and you’re the ones who feel threatened?

Weapons Scientists and Surgically Altered Actresses

You’d think they had nothing in common, right? You’d be wrong about that. But perhaps the only way to discover the connection is, as I did, to become an American citizen.

Dressed appropriately, the Wizard, a couple of friends and I shot off to an older, but nicely renovated small town theater to be naturalized (well, I did; they came to watch). And it was the experience of a lifetime. But perhaps not in the way a potential immigrant would expect. I was happy for the whole thing to be so multi-cultural — information about voting in 5 languages, people of different races and cultures so alive and so visible — but I was shocked by the images of America that pervaded the ceremony.

I’m not a great believer in ritual; I learned that ceremony doesn’t always make the difference you think it should shortly after we were married. But I do believe that what we say and do in ritual and ceremony are key to understanding what we think about ourselves — as people and as a culture. So, I was curious about what I would think and feel about being in a room, in a highly emotional situation, with a lot of people all doing and saying the same thing. I don’t do group. It scares the *!@#* out of me. For a while, I wasn’t even sure I would say the required oaths aloud — I don’t say them for the country I was born in, so I wasn’t clear on what would make me say them for a country I was choosing. (I did, though. Just this once. I even placed my hand over my heart, but I did not stand — more on that later.)

I don’t know how much you know about the process. But it’s like being in a machine: 500 people in my ceremony, and they were doing three ceremonies on my day. I was very unaware. I won’t say naive, because I guess I could have found out more, had I asked; I just didn’t think to find out. I didn’t even know who would be performing the ceremony or who else would be there. What would I have to do? These were questions to which I should have had answers, because as it was, I was unprepared.

The people being sworn in were separated from our families; we sat in rows according to some impenetrable system (whether or not we had a certain number of points on our application? people in our party? who knows?). I and the only other wheelchair user were placed at the back of the hall behind a wall over which I could barely see. I was prepared for it to be a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual gathering; I was curious about what the disability take would be.

Disability and immigration have a long history of something between uneasiness and rampant discrimination. At the moment, the ACLU has filed suit against the deportation and indefinite detention of people who are not able to understand the proceedings against them. Canada recently denied the immigration of a family, because one of the children was disabled (link to a summary of Canadian policy and the idea of disability as an “excessive demand” on the system). This link is to a post on my site about the quirks, disability and otherwise, of the N-400, the form you file to apply for naturalization.

As we waited to become American, a screen slideshow of iconic images of the US floated before us; the photographs, mainly of North-East coastal American and San Francisco, were accompanied by military music. This made sense: between the pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, New England lighthouses and Mount Rushmore (no, not coastal), were pictures of America’s troops, her planes, her ships, and her other paraphernalia of war. I was curious about the people in the pictures of immigrants of the past — shown, of course, in huddled, downtrodden mass poses of people yearning to be free. What had happened to them? Where had they gone?

Mostly, though, I was surprised by the pictures chosen as representative of the country. So many politicians seem to refer to the mid-West and South as places of the average American, but there were no pictures of, as my friend put it, “waving wheat.” No, the America pictured was both coastal and warlike. For some, the coasts are home to America’s elite. And this made the conjunction of imagery somewhat incongruous. Do Washington, New York, and New England elites fight the country’s wars?

I don’t know how much standardization there is between ceremonies. Was mine an accident of location or are they all like this? Who conducts them? (An official from USCIS, it turns out). I worry about standardization because mine was totally chaotic. It’s an awful thing to say. But it was totally chaotic. The officiator had not practised what he was going to say. So, he just talked; he wasn’t the best of public speakers. I think he was aiming for inspirational, but he didn’t have anything original or new to say. He rambled (he probably does a gazillion of these things and the awesome nature of the moment wears thin). When he opened it up to his counterpart, they joined in reading a list of notable Americans.

I have to admit. Many of the names read aloud were unfamiliar to me, so the effect is clearly a product of my ignorance. Nonetheless, the names that I recognized were either famous weapons scientists or actors. You can imagine my horror at, and I quote verbatim, the following string of names: Liam Neeson, Madeleine Albright, Pamela Anderson… Yes, you read that aright. My jaw hit the floor, and I missed the other names. I looked around; no one else seemed perturbed and the moment rolled by: these are notable Americans. And, in truth, I guess they are. After all, no one has heard of me; my name won’t be read before thousands of people, eagerly anticipating the moment when they will become citizens of a great nation. Snobbery or not, I want to differentiate between the work of the first female Secretary of State and the work of an actress perhaps most famous for her body and personal life.

I was drawn back into the ceremony at the moment we were supposed to take the oath. We were called upon to stand; the other wheelchair user and I looked at each other. He winked; I rolled my eyes. He chortled and was shushed by his family. There was a roll-call of countries of origin; people had come from all over the world, including the USSR and also Russia. Unbeknownst to me, my peeps and I all had a similar moment: had the person from the USSR been in the system so long that their country of origin was now just Russia? Silicon Valley has a particular immigrant population: mostly, people hailed from India, Pakistan, China, or Mexico. There were a couple of Brits and Canadians.

The current naturalization oath is:

I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the armed forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.

I took it, reflecting on the exchange in my interview about whether I as a disabled person could bear arms — it was decided that I could usefully fly a drone plane. I found myself fascinated that the discourse of documented immigration is one of war while that of undocumented immigration is one of work. War disables so many of America’s citizens, transferring them in an instant from membership in a group of those represented in her defining imagery to membership in a group with the highest unemployment statistics. Once a soldier; now, mostly, invisible.

But before I could get any further following the bitter irony, I had become a Yank. We were formally invited to wave our flags. I opened my voter registration materials, took out my little plastic flag, glanced at my disabled comrade to my right, and held it up in front of me.

black girls like us

look. i am not abusive to my kid. not even close. and neither is her father.

she is a happy, healthy three year old. she speaks three languages, loves to dance middle eastern style, and explains to strangers that ‘mama is from america’ but she is from bumblebee (the name of her preschool).

but, us american society, history, government is abusive to black children.

and egyptian society and government is abusive to black children. i know this cause i worked with sub saharan african refugees in cairo. i worked with ex child soldiers and teenage sex workers from sudan, refugees from eritrea and ethiopia. they are stuck here in limbo, cairo, legally segregated from the rest of egyptian society, not allowed to attend public schools, hospitals, racially profiled by the police, making 150 dollars a month is a considered a good job, living in ghettos, and struggling to either be repatriated or moved to europe, the usa, or australia.

they have been my teachers, my students, my friends.

some of them are mothers, and many of them didn’t have a real choice in the matter.

a lot of them look like me.

a lot of them don’t have the luxury of child free spaces, because many of them are children, themselves.

i know what abuse is. i grew up with it, day after day, year after year. and there are times when i would rather have my daughter with me at a bar, than with a babysitter that i barely know.

i work really hard so that my daughter knows that she is a person. because it is rare for black girls or women to be allowed to be people, a full fledged person, in this world.

Outlaw Clothing: Burqas, Islamophobia and Women’s Rights

The ongoing quest of the French government to preserve their country’s “secular traditions” came to the fore once again Tuesday when the lower house of France’s parliament voted to ban women from wearing any face-covering veil, such as the infamous burqa or the less “extreme” niqab — a move obviously targeting French Muslim women, of which perhaps 1,900 wear a face-covering veil. France has the highest population of Muslims in Europe, comprising about 5 million of France’s population of 64 million people.

I’m sure you remember the “no hijabs in public schools” ban France passed in 2004 after almost a decade debating it, barring students from wearing a headscarf or any other piece of clothing that would indicate the religion of the student wearing it. To be fair, that does include Jewish yarmulkes and cross necklaces, however, the surrounding debate was particularly focused on the Muslim hijab. It just seems that since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, Western countries have been not-so-subtly putting their Islamophobia on display.

Of course, this is not to say that all Muslim women disagree with the banning of the burqa or niqab. Some Muslim feminists have spoken out in favor of the ban. I fully support the right of Muslim women to not be forced to wear face-covering veils. However, I think banning religious clothing at the governmental level is taking the issue in a scary direction. I believe in choices, and banning burqas and niqabs eliminates the ability of women who actually wear the veils of their own volition to continue to make the choice to wear them, however few the women may be that make that choice. The author of the Huffington Post article, Caryl Rivers, makes a lot of good points, but I really do believe that in order to truly gain equal rights for Muslim women in their culture it’s going to have to come from changing Muslim men’s “hearts and minds” and not changing Muslim women’s clothing.

In the Salon article linked above, Eqyptian feminist Mona Eltahawy states:

I support banning the burqa because I believe it equates piety with the disappearance of women. The closer you are to God, the less I see of you — and I find that idea extremely dangerous. It comes from an ideology that basically wants to hide women away. What really strikes me is that a lot of people say that they support a woman’s right to choose to wear a burqa because it’s her natural right. But I often tell them that what they’re doing is supporting an ideology that does not believe in a woman’s right to do anything. We’re talking about women who cannot travel alone, cannot drive, cannot even go into a hospital without a man with them. And yet there is basically one right that we are fighting for these women to have, and that is the right to cover their faces. To tell you the truth, I’m really outraged that people get into these huge fights and say that as a feminist you must support a women’s right to do this, because it’s basically the only kind of “right” that this ideology wants to give women. Otherwise they get nothing.

I agree with her on basically every point she makes, yet I can’t reconcile my feelings about government-enforced bans on religious clothing. I just don’t think that simply legally preventing women from wearing burqas, niqabs, or hijabs is going to cause transformative change in Islamic culture. This is a crude analogy, but it seems like banning black women from relaxing their hair. Yes, black women would be unable to cowtow to the oppressive beauty standards forced on us by Western culture, but would their minds be freed as well? Would black men suddenly stop desiring women with long, straight hair? With the banning of burqas and niqabs, are sexist, oppressive Muslim men and the governments they run suddenly going to stop treating women like second-class citizens? I don’t see that happening. Western governments using women’s rights as an excuse to ban Muslim religious garments just smells like Islamophobia couched in “progressive” rhetoric. Some leaders in the U.K. have actually voiced their concern over the “growing threat of Islamism“.

So what can we expect this ban on face-covering veils to do for Muslim women’s rights in France? Eltahawy had this to say:

What I hope it will do is that it will create a situation where a woman can say to a man, look, you know that I have to go out and work so that we can continue to live here, and I can’t go out with my face covered, even though you want me to, because that’s what the law says. I hope the law gives women this kind of out. I have no idea if that’s actually going to happen or not.

I can’t get behind legislation like this when the only benefit for women would be that you get to tell your husband that you’re required by law to not wear the veil, and the many benefits for the government and Islamophobic French people include not having to be visually reminded there’s Muslims in their communities and also stopping the spread of “Islamism”. I don’t trust the women’s rights angle at all from Western governments when it comes to Islam. We continue to ally with countries that do much more than just expect women to cover themselves head to toe when in public — we’re in bed with countries that beat and jail women who have been gang raped and impregnated because the rape constituted the woman committing adultery. I personally don’t think her lack of burqa helped at all in that situation.

So I’m not exactly joining the cheerleading squad because France decided its Islamophobia was good for women’s rights. Of course I don’t want Muslim women to be forced to cover themselves head to toe. But I firmly believe true change in the Islamic world will never come via simply outlawing certain types of clothing, and I question the veracity of France’s reasons for doing so. The fact that they’re mentioning things like “defining and protecting French values” sounds eerily familiar and to me, is more of a nationalist concern than a concern for women’s rights.

There needs to be substantive change in Muslim men’s attitudes towards Muslim women rather than superficial change mandated by a government that seeks to erase those parts of immigrant populations they find distasteful.

Stop right there, thank you very much

Two new fronts on the immigration fight in the US:

In Nebraska, a small town called Fremont just passed a referendum today that will require tenants who are not US citizens to get an “occupancy license” from the city council in order to rent housing. Even residents of nursing homes will be required to get the license. Further, employers found to have employed “illegal” immigrants will be open to local sanctions as well as the pre-existing sanctions.

And in Nevada, new Arizona-style immigration laws are being considered. However, a coalition of the ACLU, Democrats and businessmen have filed a lawsuit attempting to block the law from going to the Legislature or voters.

What both moves suggest is the depressing fact that a good portion of the country looked at Arizona and didn’t think oh no here comes fascism, but rather, how can we can get some of that over here? I hope that Fremont is not a sign of further new ground being staked out in the move to purge certain areas of undocumented immigrants, though I’m frankly pessimistic about that. These types of laws effectively criminalise the entire Latin@ community, as well as having secondary affects of other groups whose legal status may be murky (ie trans people whose legal sex on their documents may be mismatched with their gender presentation).

Let us all hope that the Nevada lawsuit prevails, as well as the Federal government’s lawsuit against Arizona. Because the spread of these laws must be stopped.

New York Expected to Extend Protections to Domestic Workers

This is great news. The bill that New York is considering also protects workers who are undocumented, and requires a series of basic workplace protections:

The State Senate this week passed a bill that would require paid holidays, sick days and vacation days for domestic workers, along with overtime wages. It would require 14 days’ notice, or termination pay, before firing a domestic worker.

The Assembly passed a similar measure last year, and lawmakers expect that the two versions will be reconciled and that Gov. David A. Paterson will sign what they say would be the nation’s first such protections for domestic workers. It would affect an estimated 200,000 workers in the metropolitan area: citizens, legal immigrants and those here illegally as well.

This is long overdue, and it’s a shame that New York is the first state to pass legislation like this (assuming it’s signed, which it looks like it will be). There is some question as to whether it will actually help undocumented workers, who may be hesitant to report violations, but it is a step in the right direction. And other types of workers in New York — deliverymen, grocery store employees — have successfully challenged workplace violations, even where some of the individuals were not here legally.

The bill will also give workers more negotiating power, and will help people who hire domestic workers to parse out what is fair and what isn’t.

But for nannies and parents alike, the legislation, if enacted, could well create a kind of baseline for negotiations over pay, hours and benefits. Now, the dealings typically leave both sides unsure of what is fair, and in the end, employers sometimes feeling guilty and employees feeling shortchanged.

“We are really looking toward healing the divide between employee and employee,” said Sara Fields, program director at the advocacy group Jews for Racial and Economic Justice.