By Thomas P. Greene, SJ
It is interesting to note the different reactions I receive depending on whether I tell people that I practice human rights law or immigration law. People generally have positive association with the concept of human rights because, in my estimation, it connotes for them a sense of defending a person from degrading treatment, advocating for the poor and defenseless, and protecting another’s right to life. Yet, the word or topic of immigration does not seem to elicit a similar reaction. It denotes something different. It is as if human rights and immigration have become two separate issues, and therefore we have disconnected the two. Human dignity has been replaced by human documents, or perhaps human dignity depends on whether one has the right human documents. Since 1995 I have worked with and ministered to migrants – displaced people – in Southern Africa, Latin America, the Dominican Republic and Haiti, and here in the United States.
Through these experiences, I have come to believe that our world treats undocumented immigrants as disposable people. They are branded as illegal - criminals who have crossed into our sovereign territory to take what is rightfully “ours.” We argue that they steal our jobs, deplete public services, and overrun our schools and hospitals. They have no human rights. In fact, they are not really human beings. Let’s all say it together, “immigrants are not human beings and they do not deserve to be treated as such!” It sounds absurd doesn’t it? It was absurd to me even as I typed it – but I believe it’s true. Consider the following.
In May of 2007, 27 African immigrants were stranded when their rickety boat capsized in the middle of the Mediterranean. A Maltese vessel happened to be in the area towing a large tuna net upheld by buoys, which the immigrants were able to grab hold of. However, the Maltese boat captain would not take the men aboard. "I couldn't take the risk of losing the catch," he said. Instead, he contacted the Maltese government, but they also refused, arguing that the migrants were the responsibility of the UN. While the immigrants waited in the water for a response, the first night passed. One survivor stated: "The first night, most of us started crying, because nobody had faced anything like this before." I thought he was going to take us to his boat. But… there was no response from him, then we started shouting ‘help, help’ because it was so cold." Libya was contacted and they checked their charts and responded that the migrants were not in Libyan waters, so it was really a Maltese issue. The UN was ineffective in brokering a solution between Malta and Libya. After three days of being left in the water, the Italian navy pulled the immigrants on board and brought them to a shelter.
Can you imagine? No one bothered to pick the people up while they consulted their laws, and rules and covenants.
At about the same time in May, a three-year-old British girl, Madeleine McCann, was reported missing from a Portuguese holiday resort. An international search and investigation ensued and millions have been spent and raised in an effort to locate her. A website was set up and there is an online store where you can buy items to support her fund. Now imagine that the Maltese fishing boat happened upon little Madeleine in the Mediterranean Sea. Do you think she would have stayed on that tuna net for three days?
We have come to think of undocumented immigrants as disposable, as people who have forfeited their humanity by crossing a border without documents. Not one of the well-educated lawyers or diplomats with Maltese or Libyan governments took the time to say, “These are human beings, just like me. They have feelings and needs and desires.” Instead the people clinging to that net were numbers, objects or duties and rights; there was a colossal failure to recognize their humanity. And so I argue that religious convictions about human dignity are now more necessary than ever, when we consider migration. Too many policy makers and citizens of this country fail to recognize that human beings migrate – immigrants have human dignity.
But before we get too far in our condemnation of the Maltese and Libyans, let us recall the gospel warning to consider the log in our eye and not the speck in our neighbor’s. For it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that we have twelve million undocumented people clinging to a raft in the U.S. People who live in the shadows, not knowing if today or tomorrow they will be disposed of by “La Migra” the immigration authorities. We say they do not float into our waters of concern because they entered this country without documents. The Texas U.S. Attorney one time argued before the Supreme Court that undocumented children are not persons within the jurisdiction of the State of Texas.1 The Supreme Court disagreed and went on to note that US immigration policy has created a substantial “shadow population” within the country’s borders. However, the opinion of the US attorney from Texas seems to have held the day as I look around the country these days. Undocumented immigrants are not considered “persons.” We strip them of their human dignity simply because they do not have documents; Human dignity, that which we, Catholics, claim makes us all in the image and likeness of God has been replaced by human documents - a piece of paper lets me know how I should treat my neighbor. Hard work, family values, deep faith mean nothing, and instead we call them aliens and criminals for being present in our midst. They seek refuge from war and violence, clean our toilets, pick our crops, construct our highways, and even rebuild our city – yet we treat them with disdain and throw them back across the border like fish that don’t meet the size limits – we call it deportation!
How does our court system treat undocumented immigrants? From 2004-2006 I represented nearly 300 children in U.S. immigration court in Houston, Texas. Of those only three or four currently remain in the U.S. Allow me to tell you about how our courts disposed of two of them.
First there is a twelve-year-old Liberian boy named Michael. In December of 2003, he stowed away on a ship that arrived in Galveston, Texas. Two weeks earlier he was playing soccer in Monrovia, the capitol of Liberia when a military truck drove onto the pitch where he was playing and began herding the children. He described to me a scene of soldiers clutching guns in one hand and lurching and grabbing at the boys with the other. It sounded like a game of tag, except in this case the stakes are a lot higher; to get tagged means to join thousands of your peers as a child soldier fighting the rebel forces on the outskirts of the city.
Michael was playing goalie at the far end of the field and avoided getting tagged. He ran home to the slums of Bushrod Island and somewhat hesitantly, related the events of the day to his mother. He was torn over whether to tell her. On one hand he wanted sympathy, to be heard, to have his mother hold him close and tell him how much she loved him. Yet, on the other hand, he feared that she would tell him to leave home, to save himself by getting away from the violence and misery. Michael lost his father, who was gunned down in a bread line when “peacekeeping” forces opened fire on the crowd as they jostled for position in line. His mother wraps cassava root in a cloth, hands Michael a bottle of water, and walks him to the port where the big ships are docked. As they walk she tells him that she has heard the U.S. has laws that protect children who are forced to be soldiers, and that it is a great country that will protect him. She hides with Michael until the authorities clear the area, and then tells him to scramble onto the ship while she plays “lookout.” Michael is on a ship bound for Galveston, Texas and the captain discovers him in the engine room about four days into the journey.
A private attorney for the shipping company meets the ship at the port of Galveston and tries to get Michael to sign a slip of paper indicating that he is from Ghana and willing to be returned there, even though the ship is from Liberia and the Liberian Embassy identifies Michael as a Liberian citizen. Fortunately, Michael cannot read or write and does not sign. The private attorney is trying to avoid the cost of housing Michael if he makes an asylum claim. If he is from Ghana, a peaceful and relatively prosperous country, he will have no chance at making an asylum claim.
At the same time, a boy visits the Jesuit High School where I am living. He is from Great Britain and the second ranked basketball player in the country. He likes what he sees at the school and a private attorney obtains a visa for him within one week of his visit. What does this say about the values of our immigration system? Who is disposable and who is invaluable? Incidentally, Michael’s case was denied by a judge who refused to obtain a translator and could not understand most of his testimony. He ruled that Liberia is not that dangerous of a country. The transcriber of the trial record was unable to understand his testimony and thus there is no record for the Appeals court to review. Michael will be flown back to the airport in Liberia, and who will meet the plane? The same military that tried to conscript him.
On the other side of the globe, Rogelio, a thirteen-year-old Honduran boy finds his ten-year-old sister’s body dumped in front of his family home. She has been raped and beaten by a man who lives nearby. The family rushes the daughter to the hospital and then goes to the police station to file a report. The man is later arrested, charged, and convicted, but the family's pain and suffering are far from over. The rapist is a member of a local gang, which retaliates by boarding a public bus and shooting Rogelio’s brother three times in the head at point blank range. Later that evening the mother gives her Rogelio one hundred Colon and tells him to leave Honduras and to find his father in the U.S. Rogelio’s father has legal documents (TPS) but his documents do not allow family members to immigrate. Rogelio’s case is denied by a judge who tells him that his mother and nine other siblings can move to the countryside and grow corn to subsist, thereby avoiding the retribution of the gang. The treatment of these children bothered me when I left Houston to finish my theology studies in California. Perhaps I was being overly sensitive to the way in which the judges treated me and more importantly, the way they treated the children. But in December of 2005 I read that Third Circuit Court of Appeal reprimanded an immigration judge and noted “a disturbing pattern of immigration judge misconduct,” and shortly thereafter the New York Times ran an article on the nationwide problem with abusive immigration judges.2 An investigation revealed the following:3 One judge fell asleep during the asylum claim of a Colombian woman; Another made Tarzan jokes during the asylum hearing for a Ugandan woman named Jane. A New York immigration judge made the following remarks in open court: “Colombians are drug dealers,” “Mexicans are drug dealers,” “Salvadorans prefer incest,” “Poles drink too much,” “Dominican woman will have children with anyone,” “Chinese are kidnappers,” and “Dominicans and Jamaicans are murderers. 4
The situation was severe enough that in January of 2006, Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez called for a nationwide investigation of immigration judges. He issued a memorandum to all immigration judges stating that “they are the face of American justice” and that he “has watched with concern the reports of immigration judges who fail to treat aliens… with appropriate respect and consideration.” Gonzalez urged immigration judges “to bear in mind the significance of your cases and the lives they affect… I insist that each be treated with courtesy and respect. Anything less would be demeaning to the office that you hold and to the Department of Justice which you serve.5
What should we expect of an immigration judge? The person who will make decisions that affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of people each year. Is it unreasonable to ask that an immigration judge have experience in immigration law? As absurd as that might seem, one of the outcomes of Attorney General Gonzalez's investigation was the requirement that immigration judges have some experience in immigration law, and that current judges meet basic proficiency standards in their knowledge of immigration law. Does that say something about how much we value the rights of immigrants? People’s lives are at stake and we do not require any background experience! Would we assign a podiatrist to work in cardiovascular surgery? The president of the National Association of Immigration Judges recently lamented, “The irony of it is … [Gonzalez] has put a larger number of people with no immigration backgrounds in as judges who would not be subject to the new requirements.6 Compounding the problem is the fact that the official in charge of screening prospective applicants for immigration judge positions has recently admitted that she used political credentials and loyalty to the Republican Party as qualifying characteristics.7
At a recent Congressional hearing on immigration litigation, a federal appeals court judge recently testified that “a single immigration judge must dispose of 1,400 cases a year.8 Dispose? I think that is how many judges see themselves – disposing of 1,400 people a year. Our system is in need of repair.
Since 2001 I have been visiting detained immigrants in deportation centers – both as a chaplain and as an attorney. The following is a punch-list of characteristics based on the detainees I have met over the years. These are not isolated incidents, but stories that I have heard with frequency.
The children of disposable people can make their way home from day-care: Single mothers and fathers are disposable people get picked up in raids and moved overnight to remote detention centers thousands of miles away. They do not have the right to return home to go home to say goodbye to loved ones or arrange a place for their children to stay. Without fail when I visit a detention center I get a mother of father asking me if I can simply call their home and tell them where they are.
Disposable people don’t need their medicine: They are swept up in a raid at their workplace or picked up on the street and not allowed to go home. They may be from Boston or New York or Nashville they end up in Waterproof, Louisiana or Pine Prairie, or Pearsall or Port Isabel, where the doctor has no access to their medical records and prescribes the wrong medicine. Last week I met with a detained immigrant, who begged me to move his deportation along more rapidly. He told me that he has seizures and the new doctors are not regulating his medicine. He was assigned a top bunk, but moved to the floor because he feared having a seizure. During the night the guards saw him and woke him up by kicking him. They ordered him back on to the top bunk. Later that night, he suffered a seizure, went into convulsions, and fell out of bed. The guards threw water on him and kicked him to bring him back to consciousness.
You Don’t Need Legal Standards for Detaining Disposable People: Detention centers are popping up everywhere and they are privately run. There are no mandatory standards. Years back the government was sued and agreed to a set of detention standards. Yet now the private detention facilities say these are not the law, but only suggested rules to be followed, goals that they aim for.
Disposable people can wait:
Last summer there was a large outcry when the processing of passports began to take twelve weeks. After all, we are US citizens and we should not have to wait for documents. A Mexican who is unmarried and has a U.S. citizen parent must wait fifteen years to receive documents to come to the U.S. and live with his parents. A Filipino who has a brother or sister in the U.S. who is a citizen must wait twenty-two years. The wife of a Mexican must wait five years to be able to get documents to live with her husband. Just like you and me, these people are citizens or have documents, yet they must wait years to be with their families. How many of us have had to wait fifteen years to see a loved one? It’s also hard to overlook the fact that the longest waits are for people of color, and that brings me to my next observation about disposable people.
Disposable people are usually people of color:
Native Americans: Our first disposable group was Native Americans. In 1860 the Supreme Court held that an Indian born in the US and living apart from his tribe was not a citizen and the Court stated that, “Indians were no more born in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof than children of foreigners born abroad.9 Do you hear echoes of the US Attorney in Texas? Native Americans were our first disposable people and the 1890 census reported that an estimated original population of 10-18 million Indians had been reduced to a quarter of a million.
African-Americans: African-Americans were the next disposable group. Even Abraham Lincoln supported deportation plans in his early public speeches. In 1862 he called a group of African-Americans to the White House and made the following sales pitch for deportation of African-Americans to Central America:
It is nearer to us than Liberia…The country is a very excellent one for any people, and with great natural resources and advantages, and especially because of the similarity of the climate with your native land – thus being suited to your physical condition. 10 (By the way, there is no indication that the governments of Central America were ever notified officially of the plan!) Lincoln finally gave up on the plan and on July 2, 1864 Congress repealed the appropriation for colonization.
Chinese: The Chinese were the next group of disposable people. In 1854, a California Supreme Court Justice wrote that, “The Chinese were a race whom nature has marked as inferior and who are incapable of progress or development beyond a certain point.11 Testifying before a Congressional hearing, Judge Hastings remarked: “My opinion is, and I speak from the highest authority, that the Chinese are almost another species…they vary from the Aryan or European race… I think they vary so much that the offspring of the Chinaman, united with the American race would be unfertile, or would be imperfectly fertile, of not mules. 12 Congress acquiesced to these sentiments and in 1882 passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned the entry of Chinese laborers for twenty years.
Much like today’s Central American workers, the Chinese were prodigious and as one historian puts it, “No other railroad builders ever accomplished feats of labor as spectacular as those of the Chinese.13
Mexicans: The US sentiment towards Mexicans may be summed up in the report of the Dillingham Commission, a 1911 immigration committee, which concluded that, “The Mexican is less desirable as a citizen than as a laborer.14 Recognizing the need for farm workers, in 1917 the U.S. government became systematically involved in the recruitment of Mexican workers when the Department of Labor suspended the “head tax” on immigrants, eased the exclusion bars for contract workers and waived the literacy requirement. Dr. George Clements of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce wrote in 1929 that agricultural work was of a type “to which the oriental and Mexican due to their crouching and bending habits were fully adapted.”15
And then in the 1930s we decided that they were disposable. Even we had systematically recruited Mexicans, in 1931 Los Angeles began systematically deporting them by trainloads. 11,000 were removed in 1932 and 200,000 by the end of 1933. The Mexican population of the U.S decreased by 40 percent between 1930 and 1940. A nine-year-old Emilio Castaneda recalls coming home from school and “the only thing my dad said was – pack a trunk with what little belongings we had and we were there at dawn… it was real dark in this train station.16 The dominant strain of thought is best captured by historian Casey McWilliams, “the Mexican can be lured back whenever we need him.17 And indeed the Mexican was needed a short time later in 1942 when the US initiated the Bracero Program. Bracero is Spanish for day laborer or farmhand. The Bracero program ran from 1942 until the 1964 and facilitated the legal entry of 4.5 million Mexican workers. However, no Texas farmers requested braceros in 1942 instead they continued to hire undocumented workers who were less expensive and involved fewer regulations. It is a system that continues to this day. We recruit labor from Central America. In sum, the record shows that we have a propensity to deport and dispose of people of color.
Where do we go from here? How do we improve on our treatment of disposable people? The irony is that disposable people are indispensable to our economy. The prevailing attitude seems to be that we are tired of people coming to get their share of the American Pie. Yet, we seem to forget who is baking the pie! We like to eat the pie and slice it up, but we forget who does the hard work of preparing the ingredients and baking it. We claim that they steal jobs, yet unemployment is 4.6 percent. The hot topic right now is the downfall of the sub-prime market and many Americans are defaulting on their loans. Yet the national board of realtors tells us that immigrants are keeping the housing market afloat. We claim they are criminals, yet the national board of police says that immigrant communities stabilize crime-ridden neighborhoods. The last two chairman of the Federal Reserve have stated that immigration is a positive thing for the economy, and that we need immigrants to fill jobs and to sustain our social security system. We argue that they use too many public services, yet the record shows that they are healthier than U.S. citizens. We think that we only need high skilled immigration – doctors and scientists, etc., yet, a 2005 US Congressional report forecast that in 2050 half of the jobs on offer – in personal services, cleaning, construction, security, and retail sales; would require only a high school diploma or less.
But the danger with these arguments and statistics is that they reduce immigration to economics. And for Christians, the human person is never reducible to an economic entity; the human person is a social being, involved in relationships with people, with families, children, husbands, wives, and parents.
In Erga Migrantes Caritas Christi (The Love of Christ toward Migrants) Pope John Paul wrote, “in migrants the Church has always contemplated the image of Christ who said, “I was a stranger and you made me welcome” (Mt 25:35). Thus the migrant in some way is the image of Christ, that same Jesus who asked the question “Who do you say that I am?” Then by analogy the migrant asks us the same question: “Who do you say that I am?” And for me this is they way to move away from the sentiment of the immigrant as a disposable person. Each immigrant asks of us “who do you say that I am?” And how we answer that question as individuals and as a society will determine the future of our country, and the authenticity of our faith. We need to assess how we treat undocumented immigrants from Central America who are in our city. Don’t stay at a distance from the issue –listening to Lou Dobbs or reading the paper. Just like Doubting Thomas stick your fingers in the side of the immigration debate. Talk to the immigrant in your midst – listen to his or her story.
In closing let me offer one final thought: It’s judgment day and you are in the waiting room with the Maltese ship captain, the twenty-seven African immigrants, and five detained immigrants from Central America. Jesus walks out and says to the trawler captain why didn’t you help these people? The captain looks at his feet. And then Jesus turns to you and says why didn’t you let these people call home, pick up their children or collect their medicine? You pause for a second and respond: “Because they did not have documents!” Are you comfortable with that?
Address given on October 2, 2007 by Thomas P. Greene, SJ, Research Fellow, Jesuit Social Research Institute at Loyola University New Orleans.
1 Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202 (1982).
2 Adam Liptak, “ Courts Criticize Judges’ Handling of Asylum Cases,” New York Times, 26 December 2005.
3 Mitchell Levinsky v. Department of Justice
4 Stacy Caplow, “Immigration Judges: Bullies on the Bench,” The National Law Journal, 5 March 2007, available at http://www.brooklaw.edu/news/homepage_news/caplow_nljoped_07-03-05.pdf.
6 Denise Slavin as quoted in L.A. Times article 26 March 2007 at http://www.latimes.com/news/politics/la-na-usattys26may26,0,7211442.stor....
7 Monica Goodlin as quoted in L.A. Times article cited above.
8 Immigration Litigation Reduction: Hearing before the Senate Litigation Judiciary, 109th Cong., 2nd Sess., (April 3, 2006)(Statement of Hon. John M. Walker, Jr. Chief Judge, United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit) available at http://www.humanrightsfirst.org/pdf/recs-doj.pdf.
9Daniel Kanstroom, Deportation Nation (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2007), 68.
10 Kanstroom, 88.
11 Id at 99.
13 Kanstroom, 100.
14 Id at 214.
15 Id at 156.
16 Kanstroom, 218.
17Id at 219.
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