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The Worst Prison System in America

Yearning to Breathe Free: A Voice Investigation
August 8, 1995

Lilian Loukakou stares at the cinder block walls of the York County jail in Pennsylvania, trying to make sense of the nightmare that has been her life since she traveled to the U.S. last December. What is she doing locked up in a maximum security cell? She has committed no crime. Why is the U.S. government treating her this way?

Loukakou, 26, came from the Republic of Congo last winter with a visa to study English in Colorado. She hoped to earn a degree in computer science. But hours after she landed in Chicago, the Immigration and Naturalization Ser­vice took her into custody. They accused Loukakou of lying on her visa application and intending to remain in the U.S. indefinitely. After a week in a local holding cell, she was sent to the immigration jail run by the notorious Esmor corpo­ration in Elizabeth, New Jersey. She was crammed in among some 240 men and 60 women from 40 countries, all nabbed at airports without proper documentation.

Most of these prisoners had applied for asylum as refugees from political repression, religious persecution, or ethnic warfare, only to find themselves jailed in a concrete former warehouse as they waited — typically months, possi­bly years — for their cases to be resolved. Loukakou’s only solace was finding another French-speaking detainee with whom she could communicate.

For four months she languished. Finally, in April, an­other detainee recommended an attorney, and a hearing date was set for July. If she could just hang on until then, Loukak­ou told herself — if she could endure Esmor’s spoiled food and freezing temperatures, the racial and sexual slurs from guards, the insect-infested bed and relentless stench from the open bathroom nearby — everything would be all right.

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Then in the wee hours of a Sunday morning toward the end of June, the jail erupted in a riot. A small group of male detainees led the charge, tearing up mattresses, yanking down sprinkler pipes, cutting electricity, smashing up chairs, all in a desperate attempt to protest the inhumane conditions of the jail and the Kafkaesquc process of getting their cases addressed. After a night of turmoil, local police stormed the jail at dawn.

The prisoners were moved to other INS detention facil­ities or to county and federal jails. For 18 hours, their wrists were shackled behind their backs, and they were deprived of food, water, and the me of a toilet. Three Cuban men were immediately put into solitary confinement, isolated for six days until their lawyer — after hounding the INS to learn the whereabouts of her clients — paid them a visit.

Several men report that they were beat­en during the transfer, stripped naked, and forced to sleep on the floor. Among them was a Finn whose body, according to a local prison-rights activist, was covered with bruis­es. He smiled dopily at his visitor, pointing wordlessly to his head and lower spine to in­dicate pain. A week after the transfer, he had neither seen a doctor nor spoken to anyone who understands Finnish.

Loukakou, separated from her French­-speaking friend, was taken to the county jail in York. Guards dismissed her protests and cut her hair. Lilian Loukakou’s shoulder-­length dreadlocks dropped onto the cement floor, like her silent tears.

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The riot shone a light on the govern­ment’s bizarre and often corrupt sys­tem of detaining immigrants. The case looked closed when the INS re­leased a scathing report on the Es­mor facility two weeks ago and an­nounced that it would not be renewing the company’s contract. The riot was treated as an object-lesson in the perils of privatization.

But a Voice investigation, including interviews with more than 50 INS detainees all over the country, has established that the in­humane practices at Esmor are common — ­whether facilities are operated privately or by the government. The 315 detainees from Eliz­abeth represent just a fraction of nearly 82,000 immigrants who were imprisoned by the U.S. last year in conditions that often fail to meet the standard set by the American Corrections Association, not to mention the UN.

In a labyrinthian system of 10 detention centers run by the INS, five contracted out to companies like Esmor, and hundreds of beds (an INS spokesperson could not say ex­actly how many) rented out for detainees in many of the country’s 900 county jails, im­migrants are subjected to human-rights violations that are the stuff of denunciations on the floor of Congress when they take place in Cuba or in refugee camps in Hong Kong. But here they go officially unchecked and un­challenged, as Congress makes increasingly restrictive immigration policy and the INS enforces it without having to account to any­one. In response to ongoing reports of abuse, INS Commissioner Doris Meissner ap­pointed a citizens’ Advisory Panel in March to review complaints. It is still too soon to gauge the impact this 15-member group will have on an entrenched system.

INS detention facilities have been investigated — and condemned — by the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, the UN High Commis­sioner for Refugees, and Amnesty Interna­tional. A national class-action lawsuit on be­half of detainees has been filed by attorney Peter Schey of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law. The case was grant­ed class standing in March — several months before Esmor exploded. The court, says Schey, “is signaling its belief that we’ve raised serious constitutional claims and its willing­ness to issue nationwide orders telling the INS how to run its facilities. Esmor was bad, but it’s hardly unique. No other correction­al institutions, state or federal, engage in such alarming practices. Only the INS.”

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Over the last decade, as Congress has made it easier to deport immi­grants, the number of detainees has increased —  from 57,000 in 1991 to a projected 88,800 in 1996 — crowding the jails and overwhelming the system. The average length of detention has increased from 11 days in 1986 to 26 days in 1994, but those figures are skewed by the inclusion of thousands of Mexicans who are detained for a day or two before they are thrown back over the border. Advocates estimate that hundreds have been held for more than six months and dozens for years. In 1994, taxpayers spent nearly $200 million on immigrant detention.

It’s not just the INS’s widely reported er­rors and excesses that allow abuses to persist. Detainees have little claim to such all-Amer­ican principles as due process and equal treatment under the law. Even the Eighth Amendment, with its provision against cruel and unusual punishment, does not apply to these prisoners because of their classification as civ­il, rather than criminal, detainees. As such, they are not guaranteed attorneys. Even Alexander Aleinikoff, now a top INS official who defends such policies, once scoffed that U.S. immigration law resides “in the back­waters of constitutional jurisprudence.”

There are three types of immigrant pris­oners: “excludable,” “deportable,” and “criminal aliens.” Each category is governed by a distinct set of harsh and byzantine laws. Ex­cludables are people who, like Lilian Loukak­ou and most of those detained in Elizabeth, New Jersey, are apprehended by the INS as they arrive at the border. The INS defines them as never having entered the country, and this legal fiction means they are not enti­tled to the basic rights that apply to anyone who touches down in America. (Which is why it was in the government’s interest to wade into the water to round up immigrants on the Golden Venture before they could make it ashore.)

When Loukakou arrived last December, INS officials doubted that the passport she presented was her own because her long braided hair did not resemble the short style in the photo taken a few years earlier. Some faxes from the embassy in the Congo, and a scar on her neck that matched the one visible in the photo, cleared up the confusion. But by then, INS officials had searched her bag and found letters from her boyfriend in Col­orado in which he addressed Loukakou as “my dear wife.” For that reason, the INS ac­cused her of fraud: On the visa form, she’d checked the “single” box for marital status.

“Ayyyyy,” moans the boyfriend, Loui­son. “That’s just a traditional way to call your loved one in our culture. Since when is a let­ter the equal of a marriage certificate?” Louison recalls his own days in detention as a student opposition leader during the Congolese dictatorship in the ’80s, before he came to the U.S. as a refugee. “They took me away and put me in jail,” he says. “But I never met a sys­tem like this one in the U.S., this land of freedom and democracy.”

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Ever since the Chinese Exclusion Act, more than a century ago, the Supreme Court has deferred to the “plenary power doctrine” — the prin­ciple that matters involving immi­grants should be determined by Congress and the president, not by the courts, limiting excludables’ access to due process. More recent laws call for the manda­tory detention of excludable aliens awaiting “further inquiry” into their right to step on American soil. That means virtually everyone arriving in the U.S. without proper documents goes directly to jail. (Parole is a distant, chancy possibility.)

These strict provisions were enacted in re­sponse to huge influxes of Haitians and Cubans arriving by boat in 1981. The Reagan administration sought to discourage refugees, and detention camps looked like a good way to do so. Then, in 1989, the INS announced it would detain all applicants for political asylum entering the country through Texas to deter others from joining them. The INS commis­sioner at the time said the policy would send a message to would-be Central American refugees: they would be held in conditions that “won’t be like the Ritz Carlton.”

In sum, before Reagan, detention was a short-term measure to assure that “flight risks” with pending cases would not disap­pear. Now it is an ideological matter: Putting immigrants in jail makes examples of them back home, the explanation goes. Only those with serious fear of persecution will risk de­tention. The INS asserts that this policy has worked, citing a decrease in attempted illegal entries at JFK, for example, from 14,700 in 1992 to 8,800 last year. So by its own logic, the INS is detaining thousands with credible asylum claims.

Nonetheless, the law is becoming even more restrictive. In an effort to expedite asy­lum hearings — in 1994 the INS reported a backlog of 425,000 applications — the agency set up entry interviews at airports. Anyone with false documents is excluded from the program, as if political refugees could always obtain official papers.

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Illegal immigrants who have made it past a port of entry, or those who came legal­ly and then violated the conditions of their visas, have a little more leeway if only because the state recognizes that they are actually here. These are the people deemed “deportable” and the INS is cracking down on any of them who fall into the system.

Anis Lalani is a 25-year-old man from Pakistan who had been living and working in the U.S. for six-and-a-half years. He had ap­plied for a green card with sponsorship from his employer at a Los Angeles printing press, and he was engaged to be married to a U.S. citizen. Last year, he and his fiancee went to visit her mother in Tucson, and they all decided to pop down to Mexico for supper. On the way home, they were stopped at the bor­der, and Lalani was surprised to learn that his work permit had expired a couple of weeks before. On the spot, Lalani was taken into INS custody; after some days in a federal prison, be ended up at an INS-run facility in Florence, Arizona.

Lalani sought various remedies, but after learning that his appeal could take months — if not years — he withdrew it. “I decided it was better to risk prison in Pakistan than to sit in this Arizona prison for one more day,” he said, after having been detained for two months. “This place is driving me crazy.” So he “signed out” — agreed to be deported. That was June 27, 1994. But it rook the INS until the following April to actually put him on a plane.

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The third category of detainees­ — “criminal aliens” — are immigrants (many of whom reside legally in the U.S.) who committed a criminal of­fense. As they complete their prison sentence, the INS takes them into custody and begins deportation pro­ceedings. Such immigrants are often shocked to find themselves shipped out to a new kind of jail just when they thought they had finished doing their time — and many who took plea bargains had no idea that deporta­tion was part of the deal.

If these detainees try to fight in the courts to stay in the U.S., they can spend years locked up while the case grinds along. In INS custody, the “sentence” is always indefinite. Lulseged Dhine, an Ethiopian Jew who has been resisting INS efforts to deport him to Ethiopia (where, despite the airlift of virtu­ally all Jews to Israel, an INS judge ruled he had no reason to fear persecution), has spent five years in INS detention — more than tripling the time he did for drug possession — ­and he sees no end in sight.

Ex-offenders comprise about 5 per cent of all those eligible for deportation — and about 60 per cent of those who are detained. In these days of inflamed anti-immigrant sen­timent and tough-on-crime mania, there’s no bigger bogeyman than these “criminal aliens.” The Republican “Contract With America” goes so far as to demand the summary deportation of all non-citizen criminals the moment their sentences are completed. Just this month, Governor Pataki deported 180 ille­gal immigrants with criminal records.

But despite a few notorious cases of vi­olent felons who have evaded the INS, most “criminal aliens” — like most of those incar­cerated in criminal jails nowadays — are guilty of drug possession and petty sales. The law says that all “aggravated felons” must be de­tained without bond and be deported — and Congress keeps widening the definition of a felony. The result is INS jails overflowing with detainees who would not have been considered deportable a decade ago. Serving their sentences paid their debt; there was no double jeopardy, no exile. What’s more, many of these immigrants have lived most of their lives in the U.S. and have no connection to the country where they were born. A young Vietnamese man, who came here as an infant with his refugee parents and, two decades later, got busted for drug possession, told the Voice he was terrified of being sent to a country where he didn’t know a soul and couldn’t speak the language.

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Arturo Garay Burgos, a legal permanent resident born in Mexico, did time for a 1978 conviction for possession of heroin. He was granted parole in 1984, and his case was closed two years later. He moved to Phoenix with his wife and three children and started a new life, working in a community service or­ganization developing programs for abused children and helping low-income families secure permanent housing. His record remained clean. “Then in ’88 out of the blue,” he says, “I get a letter from the INS saying I have to appear in court and I’m going to be deported. They had passed a law making the crime I’d done 10 years earlier an aggravated felony and now they want to punish me for it all over again.”

Garay, 42, has lived in the U.S. for 38 years. He was educated — from nursery school through college — here. His wife, children, and grandchildren are all citizens. “I don’t have anyone in Mexico,” he says.

Garay’s case dragged on until 1993, when the INS ordered him deported. His ap­peal is still pending. Nonetheless, the INS is­sued him a final deportation order on Janu­ary 10, 1994. Arguing that his case was not yet closed, Garay was granted a stay of deportation. Then, on March 13, “here come two INS agents out of the clear blue sky to my house and tell me I’m charged with failure to appear on January 10. Like a stupid fool I go with them to the office. That’s the last time I see the streets.”

Garay was taken to the Florence immigration jail and remained there for nearly four months until, about four weeks ago, he was released on a bond (which he was able to muster only because of a timely income tax return). Garay — like many “criminal aliens” interviewed for this piece — decried the conditions in the INS facility. “That place,” he snorted, “makes the state penitentiary look luxurious.”

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The Florence facility — or as the INS euphemistically puts it, Service Pro­cessing Center (SPC) — sits in a dusty, remote town whose primary industry is incarceration. Along the two-lane highway, federal, state, and INS jails have been sprouting like cacti.

The INS SPC holds about 500 men, most of them “criminal aliens.” Temperatures typically reach 102 degrees in the summer, but the men get clean shirts and underpants only every several days — and, they say, the clothing comes from the laundry still putrid with sweat. They worry that men are intro­duced into the population without being screened for communicable diseases like TB. But the chief complaint is that inmates are punished on a guard’s whim and sent to “the hold” — solitary, lock-down cells just large enough for a bed and toilet. Once there, they are denied visits, recreation, and phone calls.

Phone calls at Florence, as at most detention centers, can be made collect only. And the INS has contracted one of the most ex­pensive phone companies in the country, RCNA, for this facility. According to an RCNA operator, a 15-minute call to the East Coast costs $22 (compared to $8 charged by AT&T). Worse still, the INS gets 35 cents on every dollar charged to a call. (INS spokesper­son Daniel Kane says he was not aware that the INS profited by such arrangements.)

At other facilities, such as the SPC in El Paso, detainees can buy a $10 calling card to use on phones there. But few of them come in with $10, so they end up taking kitchen or custodial jobs in the jail, reaping $1 a day on these jobs. “This is particularly distasteful and probably illegal,” charges attorney Schey. “They work for the INS at slave wages as a quid pro quo for a seven-minute call to their attorney.”

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Florence is one of three INS detention facilities that has passed inspection by the American Corrections Asso­ciation, the body that monitors stan­dards in criminal prisons. But ac­cording to a guard at the Florence SPC, who had helped spruce the place up before the ACA looked it over, “They found things that didn’t measure up and just said, ‘Fix this before we come back next year.’ ”

The detention center in New York doesn’t come close to passing an inspection. It is filthy, airless, and right across the street from one of SoHo’s prime cultural attrac­tions — the Film Forum at Houston and Var­ick Streets. On the fourth floor of this feder­al office building, 185 immigrants are confined.

Almost two years ago, the ACLU published a blistering report on the facility, pointing out that it was ill-equipped and over­crowded. The jail was established in 1984 to hold detainees on a short-term basis — no more than one week. Since then, the length of time has increased more than twentyfold. As of 1992 (the last year for which figures are available) the average stay was 154 days.

No one is permitted outside (a violation of ACA — not to mention UN — confinement standards), and the windows  are sealed shut. That means that for upward of five months, most detainees never see the light of day or inhale fresh air. In the four years he was confined at Varick Street, Lulseged Dhine watched his brown skin turn a pasty gray.

Visiting hours are more restrictive than at a high-security prison. Visitors are herded into one line after another, and none of the procedures are ever explained. Minors who show up on weekdays to see a parent typically burst into tears when they are gruffly turned away — and no one tells them they may come back on the weekend. One day a guard urged the crowd to move faster through the sign-­in procedure. When a visitor suggested the process would be quicker if instructions were posted in a few languages, the guard snapped “Yeah, it would go faster if all these people learned English.”

Visitors can’t catch a glimpse of the liv­ing area, and the INS said it could not ac­commodate a tour for press. But Sun Tok Stegeman, a detainee originally from Korea, describes the women’s dorm as a small room crammed with a dozen beds. There’s barely room to walk between then, she says, but that hardly matters as there’s little to do but lie in bed and stare at the ceiling. Detainees can watch a single television set for up to two hours a day, but they are forbidden to have books. The temperature is so cold, Stegeman sleeps in long johns, socks, and a sweatsuit­ — which she possesses only because her boyfriend has brought them. Others are not so lucky. They yank their single blankets over their heads, she says, and whimper through the night.

Lilian Loukakou spent a night at Varick Street in June. She was taken there after the Esmor riot. She slept on the cold floor with­out a blanket.

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At a notorious INS SPC in Texas, where employees said supervisors and other personnel were sexually molesting female detainees and guards, it took years of pounding on government doors before the Justice Department would conduct an in­vestigation — and in the end little action resulted. Beginning in 1990, former guards at the Port Isabel SPC in Los Fresnos attempt­ed to publicize allegations of misconduct. In 1992 some brought a sexual harassment suit against private security companies the INS contracted for guard staff.

Reverend Anthony Hefner, who worked as a guard at Port Isabel from 1983 to 1990, says he saw supervisors pluck young women from the dorm late at night, bring them out to the parking lot, and take them into their cars. Another former guard (and a plaintiff in the sexual harassment case), Cyn­thia Rodriguez, says she was asked to escort a 16-year-old Salvadoran girl from her dorm to supervisors’ offices and then back to the dorm. “I was asked to take her three or four times that day and each time she’d come back all sweaty,” Rodriguez recalls. “I said to her, ‘What the hell were you doing, girl?’ and she said she was dancing the Lambada for the officers because they said if she did, they’d help her get out.”

All the charges were denied by the INS district director at the time. Nonetheless, these reports led to an investigation by the Office of the Inspector General in 1992 — which concluded that the allegations were unsubstantiated. But, former staff say, the probe was intentionally obstructed by officials. Several guards, says Reverend Hefner, were warned by superiors that they’d lose their jobs if they spoke to any investigators­ — and four signed affidavits attesting to these threats. Some detainees and staff who wit­nessed sexual misconduct were not inter­viewed, though their names had been sup­plied to the OIG. Meanwhile, the sexual harassment suit was thrown out on a technicality — the judge ruled that it had been filed after the statute of limitations had expired. An appeal is still pending.

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Most detainees at the Port Isabel SPC come from Mexico and Central America; indeed, guards must speak Spanish to be hired. Rodriguez remembers having to go through 40 hours of training for the $9-an­ hour job. Part of it, she says, was learning not to care about people. “They told us not to talk to these people unless we were giv­ing them an order, not to crack a joke or even smile at them, to treat them as they’re supposed to be treated — which is not like people at all.” Still, says Rodriguez, “you just can’t help it. There was this lady pass­ing out and spitting up blood and I couldn’t just sit there. Another officer and I carried her to a cell, but one of the immigration officers yelled at us and accused the lady of bluffing so she could be let out. He kicked her and told her to get up. She passed away that evening.”

Along with Hefner and other former employees, Rodriguez described such inci­dents in testimony before a House Judiciary committee on International Law, Immigra­tion and Refugees almost two years ago. They called for a new, complete investigation and for extensions of protections of the Whistleblower’s Act to any personnel work­ing for a contractor in government facilities.

The INS spokesperson had no informa­tion on the status of the investigation. “They haven’t gotten back to us” says Rogelio Nunez, executive director of Casa de Proyec­to Libertad, which provides legal services for detainees at Port Isabel. “Conditions remain the same.”

Olanrewaju Ajayi has been detained at Port Isabel for almost almost three years. He was tak­en into custody by the INS for lying about his immigration status on a $2500 student loan application in 1982. Back in Alabama, Ajayi’s wife tries to look after their three chil­dren as best she can, but her hands are para­lyzed and Ajayi worries about his oldest, 11- year-old Yinka, who is “doing everything for her and losing his own youth.” Ajayi has lost 30 pounds at Port Isabel, and at 5-11 weighs a scrawny 150 pounds. “This place,” he says, “is like a concentration camp.”

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Proyecto Libertad is one of a hand­ful of groups around the country that supplies free legal assistance to detained immigrants. Without the intervention of such organizations, attorneys, or the occasional jail­house lawyer, most detainees would never know they had any recourse at all. Indeed, one of the central points in the Schey class-action suit is that prisoners are de­nied meaningful access to legal assistance.

By law, they are supposed to be given a list of attorneys and phone numbers upon their apprehension. But according to dozens of detainees around the country, the lists are distributed without any explanation — prisoners, especially those who don’t read Eng­lish, don’t have a clue what they’ve been handed. Often, the lists are inaccurate or out date. And even if a detainee uses the list, there is no guarantee that a collect call from a stranger will be accepted. Especially if the law office has an automated voicemail system that can’t accept collect calls. A U.S. citizen was penned up at Varick Street for weeks in 1993, unable to obtain a copy of his birth cer­tificate because he couldn’t get a collect call through to the Department of Health for in­formation on how to obtain it.

Lawyers say that because there’s no way to contact detainees, their clients often arrive at meetings unprepared. And guards may take their time producing the clients for vis­its. One New York attorney says he has stopped representing inmates at Varick Street because he frequently had to wait nearly two hours before seeing them.

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If the client is even there. Often de­tainees are moved from one facility to another without the attorney being notified — even the day before a hearing. During his three­-year detention, Franklin C. Bart-Addison, a 49-year-old Ghanaian national with a green card, was moved 26 times, shuttled from Texas to Oklahoma and Louisiana. “There was never any explanation for all this,” he says. “On the way, I lost all my legal papers and personal property. I would try to call my wife to tell her where I was each time. The farther from home I got, the more difficult it was for my family to visit me.” For four years, Bart­-Addison didn’t see the youngest of his six children, now five years old.

When the INS rents beds in criminal jails, there is even less accountability. After Lil­ian Loukakou was transferred to York, it took almost a week for her lawyer, Carmen Men­diola, to locate her. Then, after Mendiola drove three and a half hours from Elizabeth to visit Loukakou (and other clients), the warden refused to let her in. After 90 min­utes of haggling on the phone with INS au­thorities, Mendiola finally persuaded them to give her the access that is her clients’ right. The warden relented, but would not permit the assistants who accompanied Mendiola to go in with her; in fact they were threatened with arrest if they did not leave the waiting room.

The most notorious county jail to take in INS detainees is the New Orleans Parish Prison, a 7000-bed complex where current litigation alleges sexual abuse of female in­mates and men subjected to beatings and electric shock. Many of the Chinese women who were fished up by the INS when the Golden Venture ran aground two years ago were taken there; they remain in custody (though some have been moved to a Cali­fornia jail).

This prison gets $45 per detainee from the INS — almost twice the amount the state of Louisiana pays for criminal inmates. Employees there refer to INS detainees as a “cash crop.”

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Medical access is often even worse than legal access, despite recent INS efforts to meet national standards on correctional health care. At Port Isabel, says Cynthia Rodriguez, “medical attention means Mylanta or Tylenol” — an assessment echoed by detainees across the country. A 22-year-old Russian man held at Varick Street who was HIV-positive was, despite repeated requests, unable to get his pre­scription filled. He became so depressed that he attempted suicide by slashing his arms, splattering blood all over his crowd­ed dorm. The INS had ordered him de­ported after he completed a criminal sen­tence for possession of stolen property, but couldn’t get him onto a plane because he had no travel document. For months he sat in the airless boredom of detention, fearing that he would die there. Finally, another de­tainee told a visitor about the Russian’s case and she contacted lawyers at the ACLU and GMHC. It took them three months to get him released — and only because the ACLU threatened a lawsuit.

One of the named plaintiffs in Schey’s class-action suit, Gladstone Jumbo, was de­tained for two years in a small jail outside Atlanta, all the while denied access to the walk­er he needed to get around and the care he needed to delay progressive paralysis. “Guards said he was faking it,” says Schey, “never mind that he had been getting treatment for two years before his detention, and was using a walker when the INS apprehended him. In his cold cell, his condition deteriorated. By the last few months of his two years there, he was dragging himself along the floor to get to the shower or visitation room. Just drag­ging himself along, and they said he was con­triving his condition.”

Stories like Gladstone Jumbo’s — along with the spreading fervor for legislation like California’s Proposition 187 — have spurred a grassroots movement for detention and im­migration policy reform. Contradicting the sweeping tide of anti-immigrant sentiment, private citizens, especially in counties where detainees are kept in local jails, have made reg­ular visits to detainees, pressed for their re­lease, and even offered to take people in until they can fend for themselves.

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A group called People of the Golden Vi­sion: An Interfaith Coalition for Immigrants’ Rights has organized a series of regional meet­ings around the country to bring together lawyers, human rights activists for immigrants, religious groups and others “to call national attention to the conditions” and “put an end to human rights abuses” within INS detention centers.

At the first such meeting in Washing­ton, D.C., in April, some activists warned that detention reform is a tricky goal, especially as there’s talk in Congress of moving INS detention centers offshore, putting them under the control of the U.S. mili­tary in closed bases, or building huge pris­ons in the boonies. “You think we have access problems now,” said Wendy Young of the Women’s Commission on Women Refugees. “Just imagine.”

ACLU attorney Judy Rabinovitz elabo­rated: “We could lose by winning. They could build a giant facility that’s clean and has a ful­ly stocked library and plenty of outdoor recre­ation — in Oakdale, Louisiana, where detainees would be out of the public eye, and away from family and attorneys. The goal is not to have beautiful, wonderful detention centers, but to make  detention at most a last resort.”

In the meantime, Lilian Loukakou re­mains in maximum security at York County jail, awaiting an appeal. The ruling last week, in the July hearing on which she’d pinned her hopes, was decided against her. The judge said he did not believe her story.

The eight-month confinement has taken a toll. Loukakou stares listlessly at the floor and fidgets in her chair. Her fingernails have grown long and her skin is breaking out. “She looks totally different from when I met her in April,” says attorney Mendiola. “Mentally, she’s had it.”

Says her boyfriend Louison: “She calls me almost every day, and all she does is cry and cry and cry.” ♦

Categories
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Chinatown ’89: Growing by Leaps

ONLY 50 YEARS AGO, China­town was what “Charlie” Chin of the New York Chinatown History Project calls “an out­post of working men” on lower Mott, Pell, and Doyer streets, and 25 years ago it had not yet crossed Catherine or Canal streets. Now the community has 10 newspapers, 25 bank branches, and a population of roughly 100,000 — half of whom have ar­rived in the last five years.

It now reaches north to Grand Street, west to the Holland Tunnel, north and east through much of the old Jewish quarter, and south to City Hall. Little Italy has been compacted into one block on Mulberry, where a city ordinance pro­tects the Italian “look” for the benefit of tourists.

In addition, a rival Chinatown has blossomed at the end of the No. 7 line in Flushing, spilling over into Bayside, Elm­hurst, and Jackson Heights (aggregate population, 110,000). Another satellite community has sprouted up almost over­night in Brooklyn’s Sunset and Borough Parks, which now have a Chinese population of roughly 50,000.

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While the pre-’97 Hong Kong exodus has recently added momentum to this rapid expansion, the initial impetus came from a change in U.S. immigration poli­cy. In fact, it is the double valve of U.S. immigration and Chinese emigration pol­icies that continues to determine and reg­ulate the growth pattern of New York’s Chinese community.

The Immigration Act of 1965, more than any other event, set in motion the dynamic transformation of Chinatown. Blatantly discriminatory immigration quotas that had straitjacketed the com­munity since the 1880s were lifted, and China’s visa allocation jumped at once from 105 per year to 20,000 (on par with all other non-European nations). Hong Kong, as a dependent colony, was allotted 600 at first, but the number has gradually increased, and now stands at 5000. (Eligibility is by country of birth, rather than current residence or citizenship.)

New York City’s Chinese population jumped from roughly 33,000 in 1960 to nearly 70,000 by the end of the decade, according to U.S. census reports (invari­ably an undercount because of the lan­guage barrier and the natural reluctance of legally shaky immigrants to come forward).

Even more striking than the sudden population increase was the arrival of large numbers of women. The male-fe­male ratio, nearly two to one in 1960, approached parity by the end of the decade.

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The U.S.’s family-based immigration policy — which gives preference to the rel­atives of those who already have Ameri­can citizenship — may have ended the gender imbalance among Chinese Ameri­cans, but it did nothing about long-stand­ing regional imbalances. Because the old China trade operated off the country’s southern coast, the majority of early Chi­nese immigrants were Cantonese — and Toyshan — speaking laborers from the south. Admission based on family ties meant that the bulk of the newcomers were also working-class southerners. Without English or professional skills, they gravitated toward Chinatown, where they were funneled into the restaurant and garment industries — and often ex­ploited by their Chinese bosses.

In 1979, the U.S. government officially recognized the People’s Republic of Chi­na, which made an additional 20,000 vi­sas available to Chinese people. The mainland government, as part of Deng Xiaoping’s modernization drive, has en­couraged thousands of Chinese students and professionals to seek further training in the States. These changes, coupled with a loosening of Taiwan’s borders in 1976, opened the floodgates to a large number of Mandarin speakers — the northern Chinese and their relatives, who have controlled Taiwan since ’49.

These northerners are generally more educated than the southern Chinese and Hong Kongers who arrived during the previous era — and less likely to get sucked into the Chinatown economy.

By the late 1970s, the Chinatown hous­ing market had become so tight that many of these newcomers — often with different class and lingual backgrounds — ­settled in Queens. The Flushing satellite is distinct in character from Chinatown both because it is more middle-class and because the language on the streets is Mandarin.

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Sunset Park in Brooklyn, in contrast, is a Cantonese-speaking community, de­spite the fact that roughly 65 per cent of its population comes from the mainland, according to Paul Mak of the local Coun­cil of Neighborhood Organizations. The community has developed only in the last four years, since the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration laid the plans for Bei­jing to assume control of Hong Kong in 1997. Residents are culturally and eco­nomically more connected to Chinatown, to which they have easy access via the B and N trains. For instance, most resi­dents do their banking in Chinatown, says Mak, since there are still no banks on Eighth Avenue, Sunset Park’s main drag.

As the Chinese community in New York and around the nation comes of age, it is beginning to test its political clout. Many community interest groups see the Kennedy-Simpson immigration bill, which has just passed the Senate and will be considered in the House this fall, as a backlash aimed at containing their politi­cal power.

A staffer at Wyoming senator Alan Simpson’s office explains that the pur­pose of the bill is to “increase the number and proportion of immigrants with skills — by increasing the overall number of visas” and “to give more [of a] chance to other countries,” since, currently, 85 per cent of all immigrants come from Asia or Latin America.

But Stan Mark, a lawyer at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, calls the bill “racially discrimina­tory… even exclusionary.” Mark says that while the bill is “being promoted as an increase in numbers,” an examination of the fine print reveals that “the number of family preference visas available will actually decrease each year.” ■

CHINATOWN 1989

The New Chinese Exodus: The Party’s Over but Still in Power — Get Out Now
By Dusanka Miscevic and Peter Kwong

Riding the Dragon: Chinatown’s Politics — Many Votes, No Chinese Candidates
By Yuen Ying Chan

Surviving in America: The Trials of a Chinese Immigrant Woman
By Joann Lum & Peter Kwong

Outside Looking In
By Luis H. Francia

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Equality From The Archives Immigration Neighborhoods NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Theater

Chinatown ’89: Outside Looking In

THE AUDIENCE LEAPS TO ITS feet, moved to wild applause. The reviews are ecstatic, and the public reveals itself to be as keenly appreciative and discern­ing as it is culturally mixed. Not once, in a society expansive enough to encourage heterogeneity, are the labels exotic and ethnic mentioned.

This is the dream, shared by all artists of color.

And this is the nightmare: The recep­tion reeks with politeness, even noblesse oblige. But what the crowd sees/hears/reads isn’t you, only a pale apparition. The crowd addresses itself to this appari­tion even as you gesture frantically. You scream. No one hears. They’ve buried you alive and they don’t even know it.

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PING CHONG, A CHINESE-AMERICAN theater and performance artist who grew up and still lives in Manhattan’s China­town, recognizes both the dream and the nightmare. Chong, who won an Obie in 1977 for his work Humboldt’s Current, realizes the dangers with which cultural hyphenation in an immigrant society is fraught, where an Outsider — or someone perceived to be an Outsider — becomes the harbinger of a new and unsettling order. He acknowledges “the problematic nature of being not just an Asian-American artist but an artist of color, knowing the biases of this culture.”

Chong deals with this problematic con­cern by employing material that is osten­sibly not Asian, at least not in the tradi­tional sense. His works are highly eclectic, drawing from sources as varied as film noir, vampire legends, Archie comics, cartoons, Indonesian shadow plays, and Alice in Wonderland. Yet his elliptical pieces suggest an Asian sensibil­ity, with their yin-yang interplay of light and shadow, cartoon humor, and totali­tarian menace. They suggest, above all, a continuity — darker than we would ordi­narily care to admit — between the per­ception of wake time and the time of the buried self.

Chong’s characters rarely have conver­sations; instead, they speak in codes and at cross-purposes. Their few exchanges are marked either by cheery banality or by melancholy and despair: earmarks of an impotent, and ultimately fragmented, society. There’s a loss of awe, of spirituality — a big concern of Chong’s — and the only thing that makes sense is non-sense. Chong’s latest work, Noiresque, which had an all Asian-American cast, is a per­fect example: Its main character, Alice, gets stuck in Terminal City, an Orwellian nightmare that might be New York. Or Hong Kong.

However you want to read the dilemma of the hyphenated artist, one of its essen­tial aspects is the fashioning of a sensibil­ity secure from the demands of both sides of the hyphen (whom do I write for when I write for “myself”?). Then there’s the fact that all art, as David Henry Hwang once said, is ethnic. The dominant (read white, male, upper-class) ethnicity has the power and the privilege of disassoci­ating itself from the term “ethnic,” cate­gorizing itself as “universal,” with self­-anointed guardians holding up lily-white standards for all to emulate. And so the peculiar logic of the crossover, of cultural hyphenation — where the hyphen sways like a frayed rope bridge over a roaring chasm — dictates a one-way movement, from the “particular” to the “universal.” Or, as Chong puts it, “How white do I have to be?”

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BORN IN CANADA and brought to New York’s Chinatown at the age of one, Chong grew up on Bayard Street, where his parents opened a restaurant. “China­town was more of a village then,” Chong, who is in his forties, recalls. His first experience of the staged arts was the Chi­nese opera, his father having been a producer/director of Chinese opera and his mother a performer. This influence is evi­dent in the ritualistic and imagistic as­pects of his work. Indeed, Nosferatu opens with two angels in stylized combat reminiscent of martial arts, and the musi­cal punctuation includes cymbals, used much as they are in Chinese opera.

Chong believes it’s extremely difficult to expand in a ghetto. “The Chinese there don’t support the arts. They’re very pragmatic, they’re into making money. They’ll watch soap operas. Don’t forget, when we talk of the art of China, we’re talking about the aristocracy.” Eleanor Yung, codirector of the Chinatown-based Asian American Arts Center, agrees: “Most of the immigrants recognize physi­cal survival and are so busy with this they forget cultural survival.”

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A similarly pollinated sensibility in­forms the works of Ming Fay, a sculptor who’s lived in New York for 16 years. Fay is known for his modernistic giant sculp­tures of fruits and vegetables such as coconuts, pears, and peppers. Because they’re such familiar items, they can be easily appreciated — or just as easily disparaged — as Claes Oldenburg spin-offs. But Fay works in a very different con­text, choosing certain items because of their iconic value in Chinese tradition. Thus, a pear represents prosperity, a peach, longevity, and an orange tree, good fortune.

Like Chong, Fay is pragmatic enough to know that recognition of the Asian-­American artist is as much a political as an aesthetic act. “As we grow in number, politics will come into play. Critics will be forced to pay attention. It will be the younger artists” — and here he names Martin Wong, David Diao, Mel Chin, Ti Shan Hsu — “who will reap the fruit — no pun intended.”

There is, of course, always a gap be­tween artists and their audiences — nar­rower when a cultural history is shared, wider when it’s not. Asian-American ref­erence points puzzle; we know WASP and JAP, but what about sansei, ABC, and Flip? Inevitably, the audience turns to familiar imagery, determined largely by totemized stereotypes, e.g., the opium den, the Filipino houseboy, the submis­sive Asian woman. The audience itself becomes a problem. As Filipino-Ameri­can novelist, poet, and performance artist Jessica Hagedorn points out, “I’m not going to give up my ‘inside jokes’ to ac­commodate them, but I do hope there’s enough there that a discriminating reader can understand and appreciate.”

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The insularity of New York audiences is a familiar beast to all artists operating outside the mainstream. Laments Ki­miko Hahn, poet and director of the mul­ticultural arts organization Word of Mouth, “We have trouble getting people outside the community to attend our readings even though they’re held in Manhattan’s Chinatown, easy to get to. There’s a refusal to expand beyond the familiar names of small circles.” In addi­tion, she points out, the phenomenon of crossing over often results in what she terms “one writer per season,” that is, the Chosen One Stands In for All.

Yet the success of David Henry Hwang’s play M. Butterfly on Broadway, of Ping Chong’s works in the downtown art scene, and of Maxine Hong Kings­ton’s and Amy Tan’s books continues to tantalize, keeping alive the dream, how­ever peripherally. But just as there exist guardians of the “universal,” so too are there guardians of the “particular,” quick to portray each step across the gap as a betrayal. Hwang and Kingston, for instance, have been attacked within the Asian-American community for revision­ism; for writing for a white audience; for, in short, “selling out.” Clearly, in the minds of both sets of guardians, “culture” and “ethnicity” are irrevocably defined. It is this dogmatic, ultimately sentimen­tal attachment to an old order that con­stitutes the most difficult obstacle for the artist intent on crossing over. ■

CHINATOWN 1989

The New Chinese Exodus: The Party’s Over but Still in Power — Get Out Now
By Dusanka Miscevic and Peter Kwong

Riding the Dragon: Chinatown’s Politics — Many Votes, No Chinese Candidates
By Yuen Ying Chan

Surviving in America: The Trials of a Chinese Immigrant Woman
By Joann Lum & Peter Kwong

Growing by Leaps
By Lauren Esserman

Categories
Equality From The Archives Immigration Neighborhoods NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Chinatown ’89: Surviving in America

EVERY SUNDAY MORNING, hundreds of Chinese gar­ment workers, waiters, and cashiers spend their only free time of the week at­tending English classes. Squeezed into makeshift classrooms organized by various community groups and churches in China­town, they struggle with basic words and simple dialogues. At the end of class, a few frustrated students will fret that they are too old and forgetful to ever learn English. Ying Jian Xia, 42, attended classes like these when she first arrived here from Hong Kong four years ago. But after three months she had barely mas­tered the alphabet. Discouraged, Ying gave up, convinced that “for a person of my age, it’s hard to learn. You’re set in your ways.”

Ying is not alone in this predicament. According to the 1980 census, 55 per cent of the city’s Chinatown residents — many of whom have been here more than 10 years — don’t understand English. Some observers blame the Chinese themselves for this situation. They argue that all immigrants should learn English and make the difficult transition of assimila­tion, rather than keep to their own kind. Ying, too, believes that “you just have to speak English to get a good job.” She knows that the ability to speak English might have landed her a job as a hotel cleaning woman, which, she was told, would pay more than $10 an hour and offer good benefits.

But Chinatown residents, unlike those of many other transitional immigrant en­claves, end up getting caught in their community because they can get jobs there. Chinese immigrants not only live in Chinatown but work for and with oth­er Chinese. They don’t use English among themselves and don’t come into contact with many “Americans.” Ying’s inability to learn English, then, has more to do with her lack of opportunity to hear and speak it than with her age. Ying’s efforts were further hindered by her having had only three years of formal education in mainland China — to this day, she has problems reading Chinese. Again, her lack of education is not unusu­al; the 1980 census reported that 71 per cent of the residents of New York’s Chi­natown had not graduated from high school. They occupy the opposite end of the social spectrum from the well-educat­ed, upwardly mobile Chinese profession­als — engineers, doctors, and scientists — ­at whom Americans enjoy marveling.

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Ying is no longer studying English and has accepted her life as a seamstress at the Fashion Enterprise factory, which is located on the fourth floor of a 19th-cen­tury bank building on Canal Street. Fash­ion Enterprise, a medium-sized factory, is a family-run business: The mother of the man who owns it supervises the hemming section, one of his wife’s sisters is the floor manager, her other sister sews and monitors the work of the other seam­stresses, and one of these sisters’ husbands is a steam presser.

Typically, a Fashion Enterprise seam­stress works from eight in the morning to seven at night, six days a week, and makes about $200 per week. Wages of hemmers and cutters are even lower, about $5000 a year — just above the cutoff point for eligibility in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union health insurance plan.

Although New York’s garment industry suffered a 40 per cent job loss between 1969 and 1982, the number of factories in Chinatown increased. The availability of factory and service jobs has encouraged thousands of people with minimal skills and no English to emigrate from Asia directly to American Chinatowns. In New York’s Chinatown, close to 20,000 Chi­nese Americans are employed; the popu­lation has grown from 15,000 in the ’60s to well over 100,000 today. The main reason for this boom is that Chinatown’s wage rates are competitive with those of the Third World. Most of the Chinatown owners are “cheap,” says Ying, using out-­of-date machines, deliberately confusing or failing to inform workers about piece rates before each job is done, and refus­ing to pay overtime. To survive in New York on piece rates, workers put in as many hours as possible. Some even work on Sundays, and others will not take breaks during work, eating plain bread for lunch so as not to have to stop their machines. One of Ying’s coworkers de­scribes her work as involving ying lee­ — “feminine exertion,” an intense, exhausting type of labor that does not require brute strength.

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YING, HER HUSBAND TING AN, and their three daughters, Jenny, 16, Eunice, 14, and Pauline, 11, arrived in this country from Hong Kong in 1985. Ying and Ting An speak only Cantonese. The couple had to start working as soon as they “got off the boat” in order to pay back the $9000 they had borrowed, interest-free, from Ying’s brother and Ting An’s sister to resettle here.

Although Ying has accepted her lot here, her 52-year-old husband is having trouble accepting his. In Hong Kong, Ting An was a wicker-furniture maker, but here in the U.S., he has had to work as a dishwasher in Chinatown and, now, as a food preparer at a Chinese restau­rant in the Hamptons. For $1200 per month, he works 11 hours a day, six days a week, in a kitchen where he sees and talks to only his Chinese coworkers. After work Ting An retires to a rooming house that he shares with his colleagues. As the restaurant is located two hours away from his family’s apartment on Manhat­tan’s Lower East Side, Ting An visits just once a week.

He would prefer a job in Chinatown but, except for those of waiters, the wages there are much lower than what he’s re­ceiving now. Being a waiter, though, re­quires some comprehension of English, of which he has none. As a matter of fact, Ting An does not even know the English name of the town where his restaurant is located. Feeling stuck and humiliated, he will not discuss his situation with anyone.

Tired and beaten, Ting An assumes a peripheral role in his family, seeing him­self as simply one of the breadwinners and an occasional visitor. “He doesn’t call at all — even when the kids are sick,” Ying says matter-of-factly. The kids seem to be as adaptable as their mother. They like their father and enjoy having dim sum with him in Chinatown on his day off and getting him to “buy things we don’t need; like lead pencils,” as one daughter puts it. But they don’t know him or miss living with him. They have only the faintest notion of what his living and working conditions are like. On his part, Ting An hasn’t forgotten that he never wanted to come to the U.S. in the first place; it was Ying’s idea to move here for their children’s education.

Even Ying admits that she and her husband are having a difficult time ad­justing to this country. Since they can’t read a map or ask for directions, their mobility is severely restricted. They are lost as soon as they leave Chinatown or the immediate area around their apart­ment. Ying is dependent on her English-speaking daughters to negotiate the af­fairs of daily life, such as filling drug prescriptions and writing out money or­ders to pay the rent and phone bills. Ying does not read newspapers or watch TV, and she has no American friends. She has ventured out of the city only twice in her four years here — to a New Jersey apple orchard and to Belmont State Park — ­both times on day trips organized by a Chinatown community group.

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WHEN ASKED WHETHER she regretted having emigrated, Ying, with tears dis­turbing her usual composure, answered, “I know my life was fated for hard work. It’s the only kind of life I ever knew. But we did not come to escape hardship. We did it for our children.” Ying was born into a poor family in the Guangdong province. In 1959, partially as a result of the failed Great Leap Forward, a severe famine struck the country, and Ying’s family emigrated to Hong Kong. She was only 11 and was not able to resume her schooling, which she had been forced to abandon while in the third grade in Chi­na. In Hong Kong she went straight to work in a factory making plastic flowers. As Ying passed through her teens, her parents talked about marrying her off to ease the family’s financial burden; her chances, however, were not great because she had suffered from a heart murmur since childhood. At the age of 25 she agreed to marry Ting An, a man 10 years her senior, who appeared simple, trust­worthy, and unfazed by her health. In addition, he had experienced a similar life of poverty and hardship. Ying ended up caring not just for Ting An, but also for his blind father and his brother who had cancer. Soon, with the addition of her three children, Ying’s household consist­ed of seven people living together in a tiny studio apartment. “Seven people had to eat,” she says, and they could not live on the HK $1600 (US $230) a month that her husband brought home as a producer of wicker products. Ying supplemented their income with her seamstress work. “I had to work from morning until night — I cooked for them, cleaned house, waited on them, and worked all day at home sewing,” she recalls. It was only after her father-in-law and brother-in-law died and the loans incurred during their illnesses were paid off that Ying and her husband had the chance to think about their own futures.

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WHEN THE FAMILY FIRST ARRIVED in the U.S., they piled into the small China­town apartment of Ying’s parents. For 10 months the two couples and three chil­dren shared the cramped two-bedroom apartment. Ying, Ting An, and their daughters then found a place for $460 a month in a run-down neighborhood in Flatbush; Ting An was mugged soon after they moved there. But luck came their way. A friend of Ying’s told her about a homesteading project sponsored by Re­habilitation in Action to Improve Neigh­borhoods that had an opening in a 16-unit building in the Lower East Side. Undaunted by the fact that her family was the only Chinese participant (most of the others were Latino), Ying joined the project, taking her daughter Jenny every Saturday for more than a year to help clean up rubble, mix cement, and put up walls. The surrounding neighborhood is depressed, but the family is living in a two-floor unit with five bedrooms and two bathrooms, for which they pay $480 a month.

The kids are enjoying their home. After dinner and before finishing up their homework, they can be found hanging out in the living room, which is furnished with a Sony TV, a Quasar VCR, and two couches and an armchair covered with clear plastic. One wall-hanging proclaims “Fortune” in Chinese; another calls for “Joy, luck, and longevity.” One evening, the girls watch a rented Hong Kong­–made movie called The Arranged Mar­riage, set in China at the turn of the century. It’s a love story that, although they’ve seen it already, transfixes them. Then it’s time for Jenny to pop a tape of Raidas, a Hong Kong disco group, into the Toshiba Bombeat cassette player. Eunice and Jenny sing along with the Cantonese lyrics. The songs, says Jenny, are “about friendship and social issues — ­about how to deal with people.”

Despite the appearance of material comfort, there are signs here and there of barely making due: The towels in the bathroom, for example, are worn thin and gray with use, and the living room and kitchen light bulbs hang stark and naked. All of this, however, does not matter much to Ying, who says that “we decided to come to America for the children’s future.”

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THERE ARE EXCELLENT SCHOOLS in Hong Kong. In fact, in Ying’s mind they are better than those in the U.S., which she thinks are “not strict enough.” But the school system in Hong Kong, starting at the elementary level, is extremely com­petitive. Opportunities for young people to go to college are few. Average students from working-class backgrounds are at a disadvantage because their parents can­not afford to hire private tutors or send them to tutorial schools to get ahead. Immigrating to the U.S. offered Ying’s kids the chance to attend college — some­thing she deeply wants her children to have, something that she missed out on herself.

Ying is making every possible sacrifice for her children. She does not want her kids to work — they are to devote them­selves to education. In Hong Kong, Ying would shut the three girls in the apart­ment and padlock the TV until their fa­ther came home. “I wanted them to study,” she explains. Today she continues to apply the same kind of pressure. The girls are instructed to come home as soon as school lets out, and are rarely allowed to go out with friends. Ying periodically visits her daughters’ teachers (“so my children will be afraid”), taking along an English-speaking friend. And though she can’t help her kids with their home­work — in fact, since she can’t read, she can’t even tell whether they’re doing it­ — she often warns them that “if you trick me, you’re just cheating yourselves.” When their report cards arrive, Ying has them translated by a friend.

While education is the top priority for Ying, her children aren’t the super-accel­erated Asian kids celebrated in the me­dia. All three daughters agree that Ameri­can schools are less rigorous than those in Hong Kong. Jenny observes that “it’s easier here. You don’t do as much home­work.” Still, none of the children are having an easy time in school. And, contrary to a prevailing myth, none of the three excels in math, and the younger two don’t like science.

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But the three sisters become animated when discussing their dream careers. Eu­nice, who is in the ninth grade at China­town’s I.S. 131, wants to be an astronaut, even though she doesn’t do well in sci­ence. But she and Jenny, a sophomore at Brooklyn Technical High School, also de­scribe the thrill of being undercover de­tectives. One soon realizes that their im­pressions are shaped by their favorite TV shows, including Moonlighting, 21 Jump Street, and Miami Vice.

Aside from school and TV, the girls don’t have much contact with the outside world. Even in school their friends are mostly recent Chinese immigrants who speak Cantonese. The girls have a sole acquaintance in their apartment building, a Greek man who takes them to Yankee games. Jenny often breaks away from the family on Sunday mornings to attend ser­vices at the Protestant Chinese Alliance Church in Chinatown. It is the social, not the religious, aspect that draws her there; after the service, members of the congre­gation have lunch together and the chil­dren and teens play games. A self-de­scribed “tomboy,” the laconic Jenny likes to play sports with the boys. She is glad that her mother doesn’t go to church with her because she knows that Ying doesn’t approve of this kind of play. Jenny’s fan­tasy is to be able to “go all around the world. I’d just go find a job, get some money, then go to another state, then another. It would be fun.”

The girls’ attitudes toward jobs and college are ultimately formed by the expe­riences of their parents. Eunice says that she wants to go to college so that she “can find a good job,” which in her view means one in which “you don’t need to work very hard — like teachers, who don’t have to work as hard as people who work in restaurants. They get home early and have many holidays.” Pauline chimes in with “working in a bank — my mom says it’s a good job.” The girls have never visited their parents’ workplaces, but they have been told of the conditions and warned repeatedly of expecting that kind of future if they don’t study hard enough. “She has to work 24 hours a day — or 18,” says Pauline of her mother’s job in the garment factory. “No, she works from eight to seven,” says Eunice. “It’s boring and hard. And it’s ugly and dirty, with all the material on the floor.” Jenny says she wouldn’t want to work as a seamstress because she doesn’t like to sew, but she concedes that her mother probably doesn’t, either.

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YING AND HER DAUGHTERS are engaged in a strained balance of power involving language and culture. The kids know En­glish as well as Cantonese, and thus have access to mainstream American society. They aren’t interested in teaching En­glish to their mother, and she does not ask it of them. When the girls speak English among themselves, Ying is closed out. Ying, however, wants to maintain tight control over her children; she is afraid of losing them to a world with which she cannot communicate. More­over, they are Ying’s only expression of hope and the future.

But such an acknowledgment would never come from Ying herself, for it has no place in her pragmatic world. She ag­gressively pursues concrete goals to main­tain her family. She talks about being fated to a hard life, but she takes advan­tage of opportunities that present them­selves. It was Ying who found the family’s good apartment through the homestead­ing project, and she who applied for emi­gration. (She told Ting An that she and the kids were going to the U.S. — he could join them if he wished.) As the mainstay of the family, Ying tends to its every aspect. She works to bring in money, takes care of the bills, maintains the fam­ily’s apartment, directs and disciplines her children. Even her dreams are about being responsible for the care of her fam­ily. She entertains no illusions about her husband, their marriage, and his role in the family. “He never has any opinions about anything, and he doesn’t make any decisions,” she says. Sometimes Jenny tires of her mother’s stories about how hard she’s worked for the family, but Ying forges ahead. She describes her phi­losophy: “As long as I’m honest and do things according to what’s right, I have nothing to be afraid of or to regret.”

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She has no sophisticated beliefs, no formulated political ideas, but she seems to have a sense of the limitations inher­ent in her class as a worker. “There is absolutely no future for people like me,” she says. Still, as strongly as Ying feels about education, she seems unsure of its ultimate value. Sometimes, her attitude is almost Confucian: “Education is not for a good job,” she says. “It’s something for yourself.” At other times, she is less lofty: “Education helps one get a good job. I don’t know enough to know what jobs are good. I guess a good job is a job that pays well.”

When asked about her future, Ying says, “I don’t plan for the future. I deal with what I need to do now.” It’s likely that her daughters, armed with their knowledge of English and at least some education, will move on to mainstream jobs and assimilated lifestyles. Ying will have accomplished her objective. But her own prospects are not as promising, de­spite some material improvements in her living situation. She left behind a dreary life in China to make her way to this land of opportunity, only to find herself trapped and isolated in Chinatown. ■

Editor’s note: Names and some identify­ing characteristics in this article have been changed. 

Research assistance by Wendy Lau 

Categories
Equality From The Archives Immigration Neighborhoods NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Chinatown ’89: Riding the Dragon

STILL BASKING IN HIS PRIMARY VICTORY, Joe Hynes, Democratic candidate for Brooklyn district attorney, found himself in an upscale Chinatown restaurant one day in late September, making a pitch to the local press corps. At the luncheon, Hynes’s Chinese-American sup­porters, mostly accountants, lawyers, and garment con­tractors — all members of the emerging Chinatown mid­dle class — were on hand to endorse their chosen candidate and announce plans for an October fund­raiser. “It will be a great party and the initiation of Chinatown into American politics,” said Robert Lin, an organizer for the event and professor at John Jay Col­lege of Criminal Justice.

While most Chinatown people don’t vote in Brooklyn, New York’s Chinatown, with its hustle and bustle, nev­ertheless represents the soul of the Chinese existence in New York City. So it is only appropriate for Joe Hynes to cross the Brooklyn Bridge and give symbolic homage to the city’s 300,000 Chinese.

All through the summer, every mayoral candidate came through Chinatown to pay his respects, visiting day-care centers, senior citizen centers, schools, park events, stomping the litter-filled streets of the crowded neighborhood.

In return, Chinatown gave generously. In late August, Mayor Koch was feted at a 77-table banquet at China­town’s Silver Palace Restaurant, adding over $40,000 to his campaign coffers. Richard Ravitch, who befriended a group of Chinese garment manufacturers, was rewarded with $28,000 at another fundraiser.

According to exit surveys conducted by the Asian­-American Legal Defense and Education Fund at four Chinatown polling stations, David Dinkins was the big winner with 51 per cent of the Democratic primary vote. But the Dinkins victory hardly represents the real politi­cal awakening of Chinatown — that has yet to happen.

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FOR ALL THE ATTENTION lavished on Chinatown — and all the money they collected — the candidates have gen­erated little enthusiasm among the men and women on the street. In the primary, less than 600 voters turned out at the six Chinatown polling stations — out of an estimated 9000 registered voters.

“It is very disappointing, and I don’t know why,” said a puzzled Pauline Chan, president of the Chinatown Voters Education Alliance.

The long history of internal strife in China is the main culprit for the apathy, according to Nora Chang Wang, founder and board member of CVEA. “Chinese Americans, whether they are from China or Hong Kong, don’t want to associate with any political party,” said Wang. “The fights between the Communists and the Kuomintang make them think that party politics means dirty politics.” Wang added that a CVEA study early this year revealed that a full 60 per cent of the registered voters in the Chinatown area reported no party affiliations.

Wang, who emphasized that she speaks in her capaci­ty as a “community person,” is associate commissioner of the city’s Department of Employment, one of the two highest-ranking Chinese Americans in the city adminis­tration.

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If China’s politics hangs like a deadly weight on the political involvement of Chinese Americans in this coun­try, ironically it has also ushered in a new wave of activism since the Tiananmen massacre. As mainland students returned to their classrooms and libraries after an initial uproar, a number of Chinatown groups took up the good fight for democracy in China. Alfred Lui, director of a senior center and an organizer of a number of pro-democracy demonstrations, believes that any di­version from American politics by these activities will only be temporary — the agitation will have a healthy effect, shaking the community out of numbness. “At least people will begin to think not in terms of them­selves, but matters of right and wrong, just and unjust.”

But the Tiananmen events have also reopened old wounds — and created new splits. Virgo Lee, chair of the citywide Asian Americans for David Dinkins, rejected a last-minute plea by Lui, also a Dinkins supporter, to dissociate himself from an 80-table banquet in honor of National Day in the People’s Republic of China. Lui, who chose to picket outside the restau­rant with 60 other demonstrators, warned that support for the Chinese gov­ernment by AADD members would hurt Dinkins’s campaign efforts. “Attending the dinner is not an endorsement of what happened at Tiananmen,” Lee said. “Picketing is not appropriate in terms of maintaining good relations in the community.”

Lee is also president of the Chinese Progressive Association, one of the 18 sponsors of the dinner. CPA traces its origin to a small group of Asian-Ameri­can radicals who came together in the late ’60s to advocate ties with the Peo­ple’s Republic of China, a taboo subject in the community at that time. Since then, CPA members have broadened out and become active in the Rainbow Coali­tion, and now they have become the main players in the AADD — while remaining pro-China and riding the changing tides of the Chinese leadership over the years. But as China first shifted toward capital­ism and now fascism under Deng Xiaoping, being pro-China has long ceased to be seen as an automatically “progressive” stance. So once again, American politics became trapped in Chinese realities.

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THE DEAD HAND OF THE PAST works in other ways. After all, this is a community where, by American law, residents could not bring their wives in from overseas or become citizens until World War II. The decades of exclusion were followed by an­other quarter century of silence, when community activists were labeled Com­munists and haunted by the FBI and by Chinatown’s anti-Communists.

The first openings didn’t come until Nixon visited China in 1972. It was only then that the civil rights movement of the ’60s finally came to Chinatown. Thousands of residents demonstrated for construction jobs, over union and indus­try opposition, and protested against po­lice brutality.

But that was the ’70s. As Chinatown approaches the ’90s, money and people are pouring in from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and mainland China at an unprecedented rate. Foreign banks and investors are bringing as many opportunities as threats to the old order, just as residents are drawn into a fiercer battle to make it in the U.S.

For the average working-class Chinese American, it’s a daily battle to survive, to keep your kids in school and away from the street gangs, and maybe, one day, to move to a “good” neighborhood. Con­trary to the myth depicting Asian Ameri­cans as “the model minority,” 71 per cent of Chinatown residents never finished high school and 55 per cent either do not speak English well or at all, according to the 1980 census. In addition, 24.7 per cent of Chinatown’s families live below the poverty level, compared to 17.2 per cent citywide. The census also found that at least half of all Chinatown families have two or more wage earners.

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SO FOR THE 5000 OR SO IMMIGRANTS that pour into Chinatown each year, nothing but work — and more work — ­could be the ultimate salvation. Since most immigrants work at nonunion jobs and are reluctant to receive government benefits (for fear of jeopardizing immi­gration prospects of close relatives), their only security comes from monthly entries into the precious saving pass books.

In Chinatown, the stores and restau­rants never close except during Chinese New Year. Here garment workers bend over their machines until seven, eight, or even nine o’clock at night and keep going on Saturdays, sometimes even on Sun­days, as long as jobs are available. Over the years, piece rates in the factories have gone down, but low wages are clearly no deterrent for people with limited options.

Workers board mini-vans on China­town street corners every morning that take them to their suburban or out-of-­state jobs. In packed, smoke-filled neigh­borhood employment agencies, new im­migrants hustle for choice jobs — ­restaurant jobs with 60-hour work weeks, but at locations not so far from the city so they can come home to their families once every week, instead of every month.

Chinatown’s emerging middle class, on the other hand, is also under siege, even as they try to get ahead of the rat race to exploit the new riches from overseas. Paul Yee, head of the Chinatown Beauti­fication Council and owner of a travel service on Canal Street, lamented the de­terioration of basic services during the Koch years, which he feels is threatening the neighborhood’s development. Parking has become the number one problem, he said, undermining both the restaurant and the garment industries, which de­pend on sidewalk deliveries to survive.

Yee said Chinatown has lost at least four major parking lots to condominium or commercial developments in the last few years. As he speaks, a nearby 15-story condo built on a former parking lot at the corner of Henry and Market streets has topped out; it will soon be renting at $350 to $400 a square foot, Hong Kong investors are expected to be the prime buyers. Yee added that he has complained about peddlers, the homeless, traffic, and the parks for years.

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BY ALL ACCOUNTS, Chinatown is under­represented and underheard — and win­ning a catch-up game will require consid­erable maneuvering. Chinese Americans do not hold any elected legislative office in the tri-state region, Chinatown’s best chance for an electoral seat is in the state assembly, yet the neighborhood is split between the 61st and 62nd districts along the Bowery, rendering Chinese-American votes on both sides insignificant.

School District 2, where over 35 per cent of the students are of Chinese origin, has only one Chinese member on its nine-person school board. Chinese-Amer­ican representation on the local commu­nity board has improved since David Dinkins became borough president (with the power to appoint all board members) four years ago, but the five Chinese Americans on the board still fall short of the proportion of Chinese residents in the area, which is about 24 per cent.

Chinese Americans are similarly under­represented in the city administration, According to a new study by the Commu­nity Services Society, Asian Americans, of which more than half are Chinese, make up 1.7 per cent of the total city government workforce — less than half their share of the city’s total labor force.

Finally, in spite of Mayor Koch’s occa­sional parties for Asian Americans at Gracie Mansion and his promises of Asian-American appointments, there are only two Chinese Americans occupying senior decision-making positions in the city government: Nora Chang Wang and Barbara Chin, assistant commissioner of the NYC Human Rights Commission.

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For Chinatown residents, the big cor­porations are as guilty as Koch’s City Hall, with the banks leading the charge for the Chinatown gold mine. Deposit levels at Citibank’s main Chinatown branch at Mott Street stood at $27 mil­lion in 1988, ranking eighth among the total of 76 Manhattan Citibank branches, surpassed only by Wall Street, and mid­town Park and Fifth Avenues branches. Taken together, the three Citibank Chi­natown branches boasted $550 million in deposits. Yet just two months ago, Citi­bank put on hold a Chinatown applica­tion for a $7 million loan for commercial development until the sponsors can raise more equity funds.

The project, named Chung Pak, is to be built next to a new detention center at Canal and Centre streets on land donated by the city as part of a compromise. The project, for which the community must raise its own seed money, has suffered numerous delays, with Citibank’s stalling on the loan its latest woe. “With all the money Citibank is making in our commu­nity, I thought it should have given us an interest-free loan,” said 72-year-old Yukfoo Chan, a longtime Chinatown resident who sees his chance for an apartment in the housing that would be built atop the commercial project fade day by day.

Robert Lee, who heads the nonprofit Asian American Arts Centre on the Bow­ery, shares many of Chen’s gripes about the banks. He added that his center had managed to get $500 every year from one bank but “you have to dress up to attend their press conferences and let them take your pictures for the papers.”

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IN THE SUREST SIGN of the post-Koch era, Chinatown restaurants are getting ready to remove the mayor’s picture from their windows. The three-term mayor will best be remembered for the detention center he built in the heart of Chinatown, over vehement protests from Chinatown residents, which culminated in a 20,000-strong march on City Hall.

But even staunch Dinkins supporters, who are convinced that a Dinkins reign would usher in a new openness and ac­cess for minorities to City Hall, dare not entertain high hopes. “We have to keep making noises and keep up the pressure,” said AADD cochair Lui.

If fighting is the answer, Chinatown will have to fight its greatest enemies from within — to once again energize and bring together its people to identify with an issue, a cause, and maybe a candidate. Despite the public rhetoric and the cam­paign fanfare, community leaders will have to answer one ultimate question: can they mobilize and deliver?

Take the Chinese Consolidated Benev­olent Association, whose president once earned the title “unofficial mayor of Chi­natown.” An umbrella organization con­sisting of 60 family associations — some of which are now defunct — CCBA has been taking a backseat in most major Chinatown issues, whether they be housing, land use, the schools, or new road plans. While the group has been the standard bearer of anticommunism in the commu­nity for decades, it has uncharacteristi­cally taken a low profile in the community after the massacre.

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To many residents, these are signs that the century-old CCBA has grown old and spent. After all, the group just took a beating when City Hall excluded it from the sponsorship of Chung Pak, after Manhattan D.A. Robert Morgenthau warned that three members of the CCBA’s Board had ties to the “tongs,” Chinatown’s criminal underground.

True, the new Chinatown middle class has been challenging the old guard for some time. But it is unclear if the young professionals, civic-minded entrepre­neurs, and ’60s-radicals-turned-main­streamers will ever come together and agree on a working agenda to claim the allegiance of their people. As the politics of Chinatown and the city prepares for a new administration, activists outside CPA are watching closely to see if AADD will open up access to the campaign be­yond the narrow interests of any one or­ganization. “It should be an opportunity to prove the viability of our community,” said Nora Chang Wang.

Citywide, a new generation of Chinese professionals and businessmen, American and foreign-born, is coming of age and is increasingly represented in the corporate, industrial, and art worlds. But for Chinatown, these are intangible allies, since few “Uptowners” have been willing to make the connection with the “Down­towners” committing to change in China­town. Chinese-American multimillion­aires will donate millions of dollars to the big-name institutions instead of casting their favors on a dilapidated Chinatown. Gerald Tsai, former Wall Street wizard and CEO of Primerica, donated $5.5 mil­lion to Boston University last year. Maria Lee, a Hong Kong investor, gave a mil­lion dollars to Pace — instead of to a school in Chinatown, where she is reap­ing huge profits in real estate and from the neighborhood’s largest chain of bakeries.

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WHILE DINKINS SUPPORTERS CITED their candidate’s longtime commitment to Asian-American issues as the reason for his victory, many remain unconvert­ed. In the two election districts that cover the heart of Chinatown, voters gave Koch a 56 per cent majority in the primary. Race is still a touchy subject. Mini Liu, chair of the Committee Against Anti­-Asian Violence, recalls that when a Chi­natown anticrime group displayed snap­shots of circled “suspicious characters” to pedestrians on Canal Street, all the tar­geted people were black. “It is outrageous,” Liu says. “It is racist, and feeds the notion that crime is generated by black people.”

While few would admit to such overt racism, there are those who believe that for Chinese Americans to identify them­selves as a minority is detrimental. “Our first task must be to rid ourselves of our own prejudices — [to realize] that we are Americans, no more, no less,” said Peter Ng, a Republican local district leader.

AT LATE SEPTEMBER’S CHINESE Na­tional Day banquet in honor of the main­land government, 800 people defied the demonstrators and catcallers in the streets to enter the Chinatown restau­rant. Many of those who attended, with their business stakes in China, could not afford to break ties with the Chinese gov­ernment. But many others in the crowd were laundry and restaurant workers who had no personal ax to grind. For many workers who emigrated years — or even half a century — ago, the occasion is not so much a celebration of the Deng-Li-Yang regime, but rather a final defense of their pride as a people in a still-foreign land.

Jimmy Chen, 67, who came to the United States in 1940 to work 16 hours a day in a laundry — and is still working — ­recalls fondly when China exploded the atomic bomb in 1965. “It makes us so proud as Chinese.” Talking about the demonstrators outside the restaurant, he said, “You curse your country, people will look down on you.”

But for the silent and nonvoting major­ity in Chinatown, there seems to be little way out of the enigma of being Chinese in America, at least for the time being. As immigrants of color, they have become neither Americans nor Chinese, but exiles in a promised land.

Categories
From The Archives Immigration THE FRONT ARCHIVES

America’s Border War Gets High-Tech and Nasty

Finding Freedom in a K Mart Lot
May 30, 1989

TIJUANA — Scrambling up the steep slope, you reach El Bordo, or the ledge, across the top of a concrete-lined flood control levee. Against a hot, dusty afternoon sun, you can make out the red K Mart no more than a football field away.

Although the official border gateway is to the east, with its flags and customs queues, in the world of el bordo the K Mart sign is the Statue of Liberty, the beacon of safe haven for many of the illegal aliens who cross into the United States along the San Diego border each year.

Journalists and other political tourists come from far away to see el bordo. Some say it’s the Wall, some see it as the DMZ. Others say it is a new version of the Maginot line.

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El Bordo begins a few blocks from the levee in Tijuana’s red-light district, where immigrants, or pollos (chickens), on their way from the despair of the Mexican interior or the wars in Central America, stop for the night in one of the cheap hotels to meet coy­otes (guides) who will take them north to relatives in Los Angeles, Chicago, or New York.

Here — amid the broken-down cars, families having dinner on the sidewalk, and, wonder of wonders, the teenage Vietnamese whores — in a hole-in-the-wall cantina, can be found El Salado, the unlucky one. He’s a big, burly fellow, 46 years old, who picked cotton and peaches in the U.S. before becoming a coyote four years ago.

Salado is one of several hundred coyotes operating out of Tijuana. Every two weeks he gathers up a covey of 15 pollos and heads north for Los Angeles. Some of the pollos find him on their own. Others, most likely the Central Americans, already will have been picked up and shaken down by the Mexican police, then sold to him for $30 each. The coyotes themselves enjoy a tenuous relation­ship with the police, who extort bribes from the smugglers whenever they get a chance. Salado gets along with the police because he always pays them off. Still, he tries to avoid them when crossing the street, anticipating yet another shakedown.

Salado charges Mexicans $300 a head for the trip from Tijuana to Los Angeles. Pollos from Central America or the Middle East must pay $500. While the Mexicans still out­number Central Americans two to one in Sala­do’s operation, the number of people from south of the isthmus is fast increasing. Still more exotic immigrants are charged according to what the market will bear. A group of Germans recently paid $1500 each for the trip to San Francisco.

For those who can’t afford the cost, a coyote will guide you from el bordo to the K Mart parking lot for anything from $70 to $120. Since most pollos are poor, already extorted many times over by the police or by train and bus drivers, Salado, like other coyotes, will accept payment on delivery from relatives in the United States.

Led by Salado and accompanied by two experienced scouts, the convoy will set out to cross at the westernmost and of el bordo, taking its chance during a change in Border Patrol shifts or at a moment when the patrol is occupied elsewhere. They plan to run down the levee, cross the dry bottom, and clamber up the other side into the K Mart parking lot. Some may cross the freeway’s speeding traffic to be picked up by a car, which was likely stolen in San Diego, for a quick drive deep into safer territory.

Salado himself never drives, to avoid prose­cution if caught. Tonight, the car proceeds up Route 5 through San Diego, stopping one-hour north, just outside Oceanside, where the Bor­der Patrol has a checkpoint. While the pollos wait in the brush beside the road, a scout drives through. If it is manned, then the group will walk around it, to be picked up again farther along the road.

In Los Angeles, Salado delivers the pollos to their relatives and receives his money. If the relatives don’t pay, Salado claims to be philosophical, writing it off as a routine cost of doing business. Other coyotes hound their pol­los, putting them on a payment plan, threat­ening to turn them in. Still others strip the embarrassed pollos nude and dump them in the middle of the Los Angeles freeway.

Salado says he makes $1500 for each trip north. He doesn’t carry drugs because, “I don’t want to go to jail,” although some of his friends do traffic in cocaine. In general, coy­otes trafficking in aliens seem to be a separate breed from those dealing drugs.

About a mile from Tijuana’s red-light dis­trict, in the hills on the U.S. side of the border, half a dozen men wearing radio headsets hunch over wildly blinking computer screens in the Border Patrol command center. They watch as groups of immigrants set off Vietnam War–era impact sensors buried in the ground. When a sensor goes off, they radio the news to one of the 700 Border Patrol agents stationed along the San Diego sector, a 66-mile-long stretch of border. Outside, a by­-now ancient Vietnam War–era artillery spotter steadily circles the area, watching for a break in the defenses. At night, the command center dispatches an innocuous-looking van into the hills, where it takes up station, sliding back the roof to send up an infrared scope for surveying the border.

The Border Patrol is the most visible arm of a mixed and largely uncoordinated police op­eration set to mimic here at home the futile forms of counterinsurgency warfare tried un­successfully in Asia and Central America. The components of low intensity conflict are scat­tered around the border for anyone to see.

In addition to its uniformed force of offi­cers, the Border Patrol maintains its own tac­tical squad — which has been sent on missions as far away as Bolivia and elsewhere in Latin America as part of Washington’s war on drugs. Undercover agents of the Immigration and Naturalization Service have operated in­side Mexico, penetrating major coyote mafias that smuggle aliens into the United States. Recent changes in federal law have made it possible for police on the border to receive intelligence and surveil­lance data from the military.

In recent years there have been efforts to combine the competing local, state, and federal police into a coherent force. Thus, Border Patrol agents joined with members of the San Diego police force in a special tactical group called the Border Crimes Prevention Unit, ostensibly aimed at protecting illegal immigrants from gangs of bandits hiding in the brush-filled canyons that groove the ter­rain hereabouts. The Border Patrol has worked with the California Highway Pa­trol, stopping cars and searching for ille­gals all across the state. In recent months Border Patrol agents have been stopping individuals they think might be illegals from Latin America or Europe or Asia at San Francisco– Bay Area BART subway stations.

A few years ago the pretext for height­ened police power along the border was the threat of terrorism — every illegal im­migrant was a potential communist agent. Now it’s drugs, even though in San Diego drugs from across the border can’t begin to compete with the area’s own homegrown methamphetamine indus­try — and even though it’s widely agreed that the coyotes guiding immigrants don’t mule drugs. Border Patrol agents double as Drug Enforcement Administra­tion officers, and they are linked together with customs, the DEA, and the Coast Guard in Operation Alliance, which pur­ports to be a unified police command aimed at cracking drug smuggling along the border.

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Units from the California National Guard, which have picked up experience flying air missions and conducting ma­neuvers in Central America over the last decade, are now helping U.S. Customs agents inspect vehicles at border cross­ings. In an effort to help law enforcement throughout the nation, state National Guards will provide radar, aerial photog­raphy, equipment, and transportation. In addition to California, Guardsmen have been assigned to points of entry in Texas and Arizona as well.

The current deployment breathes new life into Operation Border Ranger, an air surveillance program scotched last fall af­ter a Guard chopper crashed, killing five sheriff’s deputies and three Guardsmen. The original plan called for the National Guard to work with local police and the Coast Guard in searching abandoned landing strips and ships for drugs.

While federal law bans the use of the military as local police, conservatives in Congress want to amend the Posse Comi­tatus Act to permit use of Special Forces A-teams for drug interdiction. Since the state, Army, and air National Guards are increasingly regarded by the Pentagon as active duty components of the nation’s armed forces, their current deployment is an end run around the law. The Califor­nia Air National Guard, for example, has plans that make the counterinsurgency in El Salvador seem almost restrained. It wants to equip three C-130 transports with advanced radars so they fly up and down the coast providing aerial surveil­lance. Then it wants to obtain 20 of the Army’s most advanced Apache attack he­licopters, equipped with low-light TVs, that can sweep up and down the border. Once they locate a potential drug opera­tion, the Guard would dispatch double-­rotor Blackhawk choppers loaded with officers for the hit. “We are not trying to take over the law enforcement agencies’ role,” a National Guard spokesman told the Los Angeles Times last year. “Our job is simply to assist them. Say, for exam­ple, a drug-smuggling Cessna darts under our Apache, we can get a Blackhawk — loaded with law enforcement officers — up in the air safely, quickly, and in pursuit.”

In addition to the troops, the U.S. is also digging in. A line of fortifications, including a long ditch along a mesa top­ — to block the cars that until recently bar­reled straight through to the land of op­portunity — is still on the drawing boards.

This hodgepodge of American cops is more than equaled on the Mexican side, where seven different police forces vie with one another in shaking down the arriving immigrants.

Along with the police buildup on the border comes a hint of nascent paramili­tarism, most visibly in two young white supremacists who took matters into their own hands earlier this year, shooting two Mexicans as they walked along a highway outside San Diego.

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On the top of both sides of the le­vee, small knots of people drift back and forth, cutting deals with coyotes, buying pork rinds and sopes from ven­dors, doing drugs. Below, in the dry, con­crete-lined riverbed itself, banditos lie around a small fire. Four kids stoned on glue wander along the ditch. Down the middle of the channel runs a shallow, surging stream of human and industrial sewage, crossed by means of a plank — ­after paying a toll of 40 cents to its owner.

On the American side, the hills are scarred with trails made by the aliens. Off in the distance, you can make out the artillery pieces of this war, the pale green vans of the la Migra, as the INS cops are known, strategically placed at vital inter­sections, their occupants watching the scene through high-powered binoculars.

Some days more than 500 people will fill the ditch, hanging out at the edges of the fence, taunting the migra, trying to feint them into making a move, waiting for the shifts to change so they can make a run for it. At night, choppers with light arrays hover overhead.

As the police and military operations along the border have grown, so too has the violence. There have been 44 shoot­ing incidents over the last two years. Eighteen people have died.

Violence is random. In early January, Border Patrol agents assigned to the Bor­der Crimes Prevention Unit shot and killed from behind two coyotes who were 500 feet over the border. Efforts by the dead men’s attorneys to seek prosecution of the officers were rejected by both the San Diego D.A. and state attorney general.

According to the mythology of the U.S. government, aliens carry dope. So a few weeks later the Border Patrol and Mexi­can police engaged in a joint pincer oper­ation at el bordo, rounding up more than 400 individuals. No one found any dope. Most of the prisoners were turned over to the Mexican officials, who removed them to a private lot to shake them down.

Everyone remembers the time four years ago when 12-year-old Humberto Carrillo went to the aid of his brother, Eduardo, who had gone over the border to buy a hamburger at a Jack ‘n’ the Box. On his way back, a Border Patrolman accosted Eduardo and began to beat him with his truncheon. Humberto yelled at him to cut it out, and grabbed a stone to throw at the cop. The migra promptly shot Humberto, who by some miracle lived. As with every other case, his attor­neys asked the San Diego district attor­ney and then the California attorney gen­eral to prosecute the Border Patrol agent for shooting Humberto. They refused.

When Jim Bates, the San Diego con­gressman, sponsored legislation in 1985 to make federal law enforcement officers (including members of the Border Patrol) more strictly accountable for their ac­tions, he ran into a wall of protest from the police lobby and the amendment was dropped. Still, Marco Lopez, Humberto’s attorney, persevered, and in 1987 a feder­al judge awarded the boy $574,000 from the government for the incident.

Since Humberto’s shooting, things have gotten worse on el bordo.

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On March 28, Evelyn Castaneda de Ruiz , 21, left home in Tijuana for a quick trip across the border to the K Mart to get some candies for her two daughters. Leaving her husband Francis­co on the Mexican side, she walked across the drainage ditch and up the side of the levee with a small knot of Mexi­cans toward the K Mart. A Border Patrol van, which had just pulled away, sudden­ly made a U-turn and came toward the group. The members of the group began to run, but Evelyn, six months pregnant, lagged behind and was cornered as the van pulled to a stop. Getting out, the Border Patrolman grabbed her by the hair and pushed her to the ground. Alarmed, Francisco, still on the other side of the border, began to run to his wife’s aid, yelling at the officer to let go of Evelyn. Instead, the Border Patrol agent placed his foot on her stomach and warned Francisco to get back. Thorough­ly enraged, Francisco picked up a rock. The migra went for his gun. The first slug hit Francisco in the stomach, spin­ning him around so that the second en­tered his buttocks.

Both of these Mexicans were brought to justice: a federal judge in San Diego sentenced Evelyn Ruiz to six months in prison for illegal entry, but dismissed the charge of resisting arrest. She served three months in an Arizona prison, and was released; her baby is due any day. After a lengthy recuperation from his wounds in jail, Francisco is being held on $15,000 bond in San Diego, awaiting trial for assaulting a police officer. The sen­tence could be as much as three years.

The growing tension along the border has led to the creation of a special human rights commission of peace and religious leaders from both sides. The violence has gotten so bad that even the legislators of Mexico and the U.S. have created a bi-national commission to improve human rights.

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El Bordo absorbs despair. It’s 1 a.m., and a bandito in the ditch has just stabbed another, slashing his jugular. This time the migra watched, .357 mag­nums in their holsters. After it was over, the Border Patrol called their Mexican counterparts, who in due course hauled the dying man off.

A member of the Border Patrol stands by his van at the end of a road that abuts the border fence, its headlights aimed at the small clumps of people perched on the levee behind the fence. Fires dance across the concrete causeway, their flames lighting the constantly shifting groups of people like a flag rippling in the wind.

The migra won’t say his name, but he’s plenty pissed. Sensors are going off all over the place. Sensor 54, sensor 55. Everyone knows these are trails for dope. But nobody moves off to make a bust. His orders are to hold the levee.

In a stroke of luck, Border Patrol agents caught nine men muling 900 pounds of cocaine in burlap sacks just the night before.

Operation Alliance is a joke. They only go out one night a week. Everyone knows where the dope comes through. But the chief won’t let the agent move. Hold the levee. What’s he supposed to do?

Look, he gestures at the dark. You can just make out silhouettes of three men moving through the border. He can’t do anything. There’s no agent in the K Mart parking lot, or for that matter, to the north of it. If he sees a family, well, he looks the other way. Wouldn’t you? That’s how his family got here. Didn’t yours? ■

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BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES Immigration THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Natalia Sylvester’s Immigrant Song

When I ask Natalia Sylvester why her family chose to immigrate from Lima, Peru, to Miami in 1988, the 34-year-old writer laughs. The reason, she says, “changes depending on who you ask in my family.” Sylvester was four years old when her mother and father (a medical administrator and a doctor, respectively) chose to leave with Natalia and her older sister. Her mother has always been vague about why they immigrated, suggesting, in some ways, a question that is impossible to answer.

This same silence would help to inspire Sylvester’s first novel, Chasing the Sun, which follows the disruption of one man’s unhappy marriage after his wife has been kidnapped and held for ransom. Sylvester’s own grandfather, a successful businessman, was kidnapped shortly before her family left for Miami, but she didn’t learn of the abduction until she was twelve years old. It was a jarring revelation for Sylvester, even though the rest of her family seemed to know. “Everyone I asked, like my mom and my dad, would say, ‘Oh yeah, we kind of talk about it, but not really.’ ” Chasing the Sun would go on to be named the Best Debut Book of 2014 by Latinidad, and would be chosen as Book of the Month by the National Latino Book Club.

Sylvester recently published her second novel, Everyone Knows You Go Home, which traces the trauma several generations of a Mexican American family face as they try to cross the border and settle into comfortable lives. When Martin and Isabel decide to get married on Día de los Muertos, Isabel knows his family history is fraught. But the appearance of Martin’s deceased father, Omar, and arrival of Martin’s teenage nephew from across the border help the family reconcile with their past. The premise, of a spirit helping to shed light on lost history, has been compared to that of Coco, but Sylvester’s work is less interested in revelations and happy endings. Her characters are marked by happenstance and ignorance, a testament to the devastating effects arbitrary laws can have on the lives of everyday people. The novel has been hailed as timely in the wake of increased anti-immigrant rhetoric, commentary Sylvester has explicitly rejected as well-intentioned but flattening. Like her parents’ reasons for immigrating, Everyone Knows You Go Home revels in uncertainty and refuses easy answers.

How would you classify Everyone Knows You Go Home? As I read it, I realized I had been thinking of it as a kind of ghost story/romance.

I don’t know that I was thinking about classification. I didn’t think of it as magical realism even though I feel it was very much influenced by magical realism. What people would term fantastical elements in this book is really an actual cultural tradition. It was a reflection of the way that your ancestors are always with you. That felt very natural to me. This is our truth in the real world, and maybe you can’t [illustrate] that when you only stick to what’s right in front of us. To me, that’s the point of fiction.

I did think of it as a love story, actually. You write to sort out your obsessions and maybe find answers to them. Looking back at my parents’ experience coming to the United States and everything they left behind, I always wondered, “How bad did things have to get in order for you to leave everything you know and love?” I ended up working that out through this love story between Omar and Elda [Martin’s mother].

Omar’s the catalyst for undoing so much shame in his family, but he’s also a ghost, so his ability to affect the story is limited. What does he symbolize in this narrative, and how did you craft his appearances?

I didn’t think of him so much as a ghost than as a spirit. In Western culture we often think of ghosts as associated with scary hauntings. It’s not in line with Día de los Muertos, or even how a lot of cultures similar to mine think of your dead. It’s not a terrifying thing. The fact that they’re with you can be very comforting.

There was a moment where I felt like Omar wasn’t doing enough, and I had to consciously push back against that. The way we teach craft in fiction is the idea that your protagonist has to be proactive. It’s often taught in this literal way that needs to be external as well as internal. Omar is the epitome of the internal force. It seemed like a very privileged way to teach craft, because not everyone in the world has the same amount of power [to act externally], but that doesn’t mean their story isn’t worth listening to.

If we decide to only tell the stories of those who have power, then what does that say about whose stories are being told? I had to embrace this idea that, though there’s not much he can do in this physical space, Omar is still a force. His story still matters.

I was struck by how these characters affect one another so far down the line. Did you always know these stories would be interconnected in this way?

I moved around so much when I was younger. This idea of “Where is home?” always stayed with me. I kept thinking about how, when you have an experience that deeply impacts you, a shared experience with others, then no one can take that away from you. How is that not a sense of home? I thought of migrants, the time and place they occupy as they’re together, which is this very in-between space, and everything they go through together. It’s something they would carry with them, always. It makes sense to me that they would go their separate ways in life, but at a root level still be intertwined.

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Depending on your definition, the sacrifices made by Omar and Elda were either worth it or not. Not everyone gets a happily every after in America. Is the ending of the novel a triumph or something more complicated?

I think it’s more about never knowing if it was worth it. My parents were the same age that I am now when they left. It was unimaginable to me. It’s something I felt I couldn’t grasp, those sacrifices. These days, I’ve been feeling it in a much more concrete way because I ponder that. I ponder, sometimes sitting in my own home, looking around, “None of this can come with us.” Or thinking, “How quickly do you know when it’s time to go?” There’s a big history of people having to flee their countries when they were being persecuted and it’s sometimes very sudden. I used to contemplate those things from the hypothetical, but it’s becoming less so.

The other question that comes with that is, “With everything you gave up, was it worth it, if we’re ending up in the same place?” When I wrote my first book, I learned about the politics in the Eighties and the Nineties that led to my parents leaving Peru. Even at that time I thought, “This sounds familiar.” Now more than ever it is familiar. It’s really heartbreaking to see what we’re going through right now. Almost every immigrant family can tell you, “Yeah, we’ve seen this before,” because they fled similar regimes. And here we are again. Where do you go next from that? We don’t know if it was worth it.  

I read your Writer Unboxed essay about people calling your novel political, or not political enough. How do you avoid the tokenization the publishing industry can sometimes foist on writers or color?

There were a few editors who said, “You know, I really love this, but we need to see less of the everyday things, it slows down the plot.” My agent asked, “What do you want to do about this? Tell me what you want to do.” I told her, “If this were a white man just writing about everyday experiences, it would be seen as talking about the human condition. No, I don’t want to revise it.” I didn’t want to take away the everyday joys and triumphs of these characters, and reduce them only to their suffering. She was 100 percent behind me on that. I think it’s important to find people who will hear you out and back you up.

To go back to the question, I try to embrace the ordinariness of my characters. You hear this narrative with immigrants sometimes. “Look at all these amazing accomplishments and contributions to U.S. society that immigrants have made.” The other extreme is, “Look at all these criminals.” What gets lost in the middle is the fact that the vast majority wants an ordinary life with access to food, love, and protection. If we can’t say that, then we’re not painting people as fully human.

That’s what’s so frustrating to me about the way we talk about the immigrant experience. The idea of what’s authentic is often just tied to how much they hurt. I didn’t want to write to that.

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With this anti-immigrant administration, there’s so much talk about art saving us in this political climate, but you didn’t write this novel to teach anyone about immigrants. Who did you write this for?

When I look back on my childhood, what defined it was seeing my parents try to navigate this new life, and the immigration system imposed upon them, and the uncertainty that came with it. There was always this feeling that you have to do everything right, or else any small misstep could ruin everything. We’d get sent back. My parents tried to protect me from that, but I would see so much of that anxiety. This book became an act of witnessing all that.

I saw how unfair it was that there were others within my family and community who, as hard as we had it, weren’t as lucky. How is it that they didn’t have the same opportunities that we did? What was the difference between us? It was nothing. All chance, whatever it said on a piece of paper. Contrived things. I was trying to say, “I see this.”

Everyone Knows You Go Home has been out for a few months now. How has it been received? Were there any reactions that you were surprised by?

One of the most beautiful aspects of it has been having people share with me what meant the most to them. It’s always something different. It’s not just Latina immigrants. There is no such thing as “The Immigrant Experience,” and we tend to talk about it as if it’s a singular thing. But even within those experiences, the fact that we have all these commonalities is wonderful. It’s something that I was hoping to celebrate.

I had a friend once tell me, “When you think of your audience, don’t think of it in a marketing way. Think of it as who would you offer this as a gift to.” When we were younger, we all had books that felt like gifts the world was sending over to us at the right time. I just hope that it will find the people who will feel that way.

Categories
Immigration THE FRONT ARCHIVES

’The President Said We Can Call Our Kids — Why Is He Lying?’

It was sometime in the middle of June that Ofelia Calderón’s uneasiness hit its peak. Like other immigration lawyers around the country, Calderón, a founding partner at Calderón Seguin PLC, in Fairfax, Virginia, had been monitoring Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s “zero tolerance” policy, trying to figure out how the practice of prosecuting all individuals entering the country illegally would be implemented in reality. It was starting to become clear, to Calderón and her fellow lawyers, that it was playing out in unprecedented ways: Stories had begun leaking that migrant children were being separated from parents as soon as they crossed the border, with some infants even being ripped from their mothers’ arms while breastfeeding.

Calderón is on the board of Dulles Justice Coalition, a group of lawyers who first organized in the early weeks of Trump’s presidency to go to D.C.’s airports to help represent immigrants being turned away or detained following Trump’s Muslim ban. They had stayed together as a group because “it became apparent that there might be a need for rapid legal responses in the next four years,” Calderón says; the migrant children crisis, she says, “seemed like the kind of situation where we could deploy a rapid response.” And so on June 19, Calderón and two other Dulles Justice board members headed to south Texas to see how they could help.

That Friday, two days after Trump signed his executive order that ended the separation of families at the border while doing nothing to reunite those families already torn apart, the lawyers arrived at Port Isabel Detention Center, near the remote town of Los Fresnos, Texas. More than a thousand immigrants were being held following their prosecution for illegal entry at Port Isabel — a detention center the ACLU has said “looks and operates like a jail.”

Lawyers cannot just enter such detention centers and start talking to the people held there about their legal rights — “you have to know that someone’s there, you have to know their name, you have to know their alien registration number,” says Calderón. So they obtained entry through a local nonprofit that aids immigrants seeking asylum and that already had an agreement allowing volunteers into Port Isabel.

In the seventeen years Calderón has been practicing immigration law, she says, she’s heard horrifying stories from clients fleeing violence in countries like Guatemala and El Salvador. In Port Isabel, she interviewed a woman who had been raped repeatedly by the gang member in charge of her hometown in Honduras, a man who she feared would never face prosecution because he buys off the police. But she and her fellow lawyers were still not prepared for what they encountered that weekend in south Texas.

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“When I initially walked into the room of men to give them their legal-rights orientation, I noticed they all had red eyes,” says Eileen Blessinger, another D.C.-based lawyer with whom the Dulles Justice Group worked at Port Isabel. “I started the orientation and kept receiving the same questions: ‘When will I see my child?’ ‘Will I ever see my child again?’ ‘Do you know where my child is?’ ‘Do you know if my child is OK?’ ‘The president said we can call our kids — why is he lying?’ ”

“I kept asking, ‘Where did you last see your child?’ ” remembers Calderón. “They would tell me, ‘Hielera.’ For the first five interviews, I literally thought Hielera was a place. It wasn’t. Hielera is an ice box. It is a freezer. What they were describing was a large holding room kept at subzero temperatures where they were all held with their children.”

“I saw desperate women hysterically crying, begging senators and congressmembers to help them see their children again,” says Blessinger. “In their desperation, these parents wrote letters to their children, but they didn’t know how to get the letters to them. These letters are some of the saddest things I’ve ever seen. They said, ‘Be strong,’ ‘I love you,’ and ‘Believe in God because He will bring us together again soon.’ ”

Over the course of that weekend, Calderón interviewed more than forty men and women. Each had endured some form of persecution in the town they’d left behind, and all had come to America with their children. None had had any idea that their children would be taken from them, even when the separation actually occurred: They were told that they needed to leave their children while they went through some additional legal processing and that they’d be right back.

“I tire of people telling me, ‘This is a consequence of their actions and they knew it was going to happen,’ ” says Calderón. “They didn’t know it was going to happen. I think it’s supremely inhumane of people to think that way.”

In the days and weeks since they’d been separated, Calderón says, 70 percent of the people she spoke with had had no contact of any kind with their children. The remaining men and women had received a phone call or two, each lasting between one and five minutes. But even most of those parents still did not know where their children were; the only information they were able to obtain was through the children themselves, who, if old enough, could tell their parents what little they’d been able to glean about their surroundings. One of the few women Blessinger encountered who’d spoken with her child told the lawyer that, during her phone call, she could only hear her son crying, “asking why she didn’t love him and why she left him.”

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Blessinger, who spent ten-hour days with the men and women in Port Isabel, says she was so traumatized by what she experienced that she had difficulty sleeping afterward. Upon returning to work, she says, “Someone asked me how I was doing and I just broke down crying. That was pretty much my entire day. If it is this hard for me to recover from being in these circumstances for five days, I don’t know how these parents or children can ever recover.”

Reports now estimate that nearly 3,000 children were separated from their parents in the weeks between April 6 and June 20. Although some of them have since been reunited with their parents — including some of the youngest, who were returned earlier this week — more than 2,000 have yet to be located and returned. Calderón is now representing one of the women she met at Port Isabel, a mother who is lucky enough to know where her child is, with a foster family in Texas.

Now, instead of phoning Calderón to prep for her upcoming interview for asylum, her client is calling to talk about how worried she is about her daughter. She is concerned she’s not happy at the foster family’s; there’s another child there who’s been hitting her. “I’ve called the social worker daily for the last three days,” says Calderón. “No response.” Now she’s worried too.

Categories
Immigration THE FRONT ARCHIVES

‘Continuous Trauma’: What It’s Like for Immigrant Kids Separated From Their Families

What happens to children once they are torn from their parents?

The separation of immigrant families at the U.S. border continues to provoke an outcry. The Trump administration’s decision to detain and criminally prosecute every adult who enters the U.S. without documentation has sent parents directly into the federal penal system, while their children are treated as “unaccompanied minors” and sent to shelters or into foster care. Even after public opposition led Donald Trump to order that families be detained together going forward, more than 2,000 children remain separated from their parents — and the Justice Department said Friday it “can’t commit” to meeting a court-ordered deadline of Tuesday for returning all children under five years old to their parents.

This spring, before the Trump administration announced its “zero tolerance” immigration policy but after it had already begun family separations, our team of scholars studied what happens to unaccompanied immigrant youth who have been separated from their parents. Afterwards, the children are placed in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which sends them to one of at least 100 facilities scattered across the country, ranging from privately run shelters to temporary government facilities, such as the one in Tornillo, Texas, where children have been seen sleeping in tents at night.

We were particularly concerned about the youngest children aged twelve and under, many of whom are placed by ORR into transitional foster care instead of a shelter. In March, we visited some of these temporary foster care facilities and interviewed twenty staff members who are responsible for them.

The transitional foster program model for unaccompanied immigrant children was created with older children in mind, as a brief stop on the way toward being placed with a sponsor (usually a relative) or a federally licensed foster home. Under the Trump zero tolerance policy, foster families and daytime facilities are instead being confronted with the challenge of caring for infants and very young children; they’ve had to stock diapers for babies, create quiet rooms for napping children, and reallocate program space to accommodate toddlers just learning to walk.

Staff reported to us that separated children arrive at their facilities in a state of shock. Some are traumatized and don’t speak. Some speak a Mayan language that the staff do not understand or are so young they have not learned to express themselves with words. One staff member described what she observed as evidence of “continuous trauma” in children who already have experienced violence and uncertainty in their home countries and en route to the border, only to find themselves unexpectedly taken from their parents once they arrive.

Not surprisingly, the children are often distraught because they miss their parents. Some cry and huddle in the corner when they arrive and show other signs of trauma. Staff members say they do what they can to comfort the children, but as one worker explained to us, these children have been “ripped apart from someone that gave them that sense of comfort, that could read to them, that could easily care for them and help them…where now they’re with strangers who have to relearn that. And it doesn’t matter how trained you are or how kid-friendly you are — even if you speak the same language, even if you understand the culture, it’s still a huge guessing game.”

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Program staff work to arrange regular phone calls between children and their parents in detention. However, tracking down parents and coordinating a call can be difficult, especially when parents can be moved from one federal facility to another without warning, and may not have money to make a call themselves. When they can be arranged, these phone calls are comforting for the children, but providers report that the children and parents are often quickly reduced to tears, with little time to talk — if the child is old enough to be able to communicate verbally at all.

At the same time that they’re trying to keep children connected to their parents, case managers and clinicians must also help them build trust with their transitional foster families and prepare them for what comes next — whether moving to a longer-term sponsor in the U.S. or repatriation. This swirl of possible caregivers can leave the children feeling confused, especially those who are too young to understand.

Some of the children have not seen a doctor or dentist recently — if at all — and case managers work with local providers to ensure they get necessary treatment. But this isn’t an easy process either. The children do not arrive with a medical history, raising lots of questions. Do they have a heart murmur? Are they not eating because they don’t like the food, or because they have a food allergy? Without a parent present to explain their child’s needs, providers must rely on behavioral cues or scraps of information from children in order to know how to help and keep them safe.

Our research highlights that transitional foster care facilities are doing what they can to help these young children who have been forcibly taken from their parents. The staff try to meet the children’s social, emotional, and physical needs. But as they are operating under a program model designed for older children, they are facing stretched budgets as they have to buy things like diapers and baby formula, and are struggling to find foster families willing and able to take in young babies.

These facilities rely heavily on local churches, local health clinics, volunteers, and other community members. Additional funding from ORR would allow them to enhance the quality of the services they are able to provide — especially by increasing the number of full-time staff members, particularly professional mental health providers who have expertise in addressing child trauma.

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But there are many ways that we can provide a more robust system of care for the youngest children placed in transitional foster care. We need more lawyers, pediatricians, social workers, and therapists willing to volunteer their services. If you’re a professional in one of these areas, consider volunteering your time and expertise to a local agency. If you’re bilingual or bicultural, consider becoming a foster parent. You could also volunteer to be a community mentor — making those connections can make all the difference to a child.

There is no question that separating immigrant families violates the basic tenets of U.S. child welfare policy and practice. Transitional foster care — while necessary — is merely a cog in our ever-evolving and dysfunctional immigration system, a necessary programmatic response to a policy-generated problem. Building up a more robust set of supports for these facilities does not mean that separating parents and children at the border is a justifiable practice — but in the meantime, these children and families need all the help they can get.

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NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES The Harpy

The Moral Case for Incivility

It’s always interesting to see when the question of civility arises in a profoundly uncivil country, and who raises it. As the federal government rushes to punish journalists and restaurateurs that rebuke their vicious policies, the leaders of the Democratic Party, in the true tradition of Neville Chamberlain, advocate for politesse, servility, and “unity,” as if large swathes of their base ought to placate those who seek to destroy them.

To those on the left, who are not adequately represented by the executive, legislative, or — increasingly — judicial branches of the government, the command in the nation’s op-ed pages and network broadcasts to seek “civility” feels like a command to surrender the only weapon they have left: outcry and confrontation. With the news of Justice Kennedy’s retirement, it has become abundantly clear that the fate of generations rests on this moment’s struggle. As more than 2,000 migrant children remain separated from their parents; as racial gerrymandering and a Muslim ban is enshrined by the Supreme Court; as the cyclone of corruption, deregulation, and racist rhetoric emerging from the Trump administration whirls faster and faster across our taxed consciousnesses, the call to be meek and passive feels only like an insult. Even a turned cheek burns when it’s slapped.

There is, of course, a peevish case to be made for incivility — the notion that a political wing whose watchword seems to be “triggering the libs” does not deserve the politeness it never affords its opponents. Beyond the questionable tactical value of continuing to give ground to those who never relinquish their own, there is a sense of reciprocity in the desire to ostracize and shame members of the administration. After all, they have caused suffering; should they not suffer, even in the smallest and most fleeting ways, a little themselves?

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But there is another case to be made for incivility, one that goes deeper, and further back — millennia, in fact. I would like to submit as an example the prophet Jeremiah, author of the eponymous Book of Jeremiah, a prophet of the Old Testament. In the 52 chapters of his moral opus, which begins around 627 BCE, he lashes out at Jerusalem with such ferocity that the modern English word for a castigating speech is jeremiad. His prophetic mission overlapped with, then responded to, the utter destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE; it was an empire, as he saw it, on the precipice of doom due to its moral failings. And in his anger, the absolute nature of his moral clarity, and its ultimate futility, there is an example for us, if we choose to see it.

Jeremiah is coarse, urgent, repetitive. When it comes to “the blood of innocents” — a favorite phrase of the prophet — he is uncompromising. At the top of his ragged voice, he condemns the rich who “are waxen fat” and fail to plead the cause of the fatherless. From them, he demands shame. He demands they cringe at their failure to protect those who need protection, at their cruelty, “as fowlers lie in wait; they set a trap, they catch men.” Those he verbally assails are doubly condemned for their lack of self-awareness and repentance. “Were they ashamed when they had committed abomination? Nay, they were not at all ashamed, neither could they blush: Therefore they shall fall among them that fall.” Those who embrace cruelty — those who are cruel to those separated from their fathers — deserve the worst vagaries of fate.

For this — the lack of compassion, and humility — the punishment promised is to be total. There is no quarter given in the divine vision Jeremiah passes through his mouth to the men of Earth. The Earth will be bronze, the sky lead; “both the great and the small shall die in this land; they shall not be buried,” and no one will be left to mourn. To the men that surround him Jeremiah cries his warning, and the wages of not heeding it are suffering without surcease.

Jeremiah walks on the edge of society. He is commanded by God not to take a wife or bear children, for sons and daughters and the mothers who bore them are destined to die by the sword and be fodder for beasts. With the precision of a surgeon he severs his life from adherence to what is expected. He walks on the edge of himself and finds God there.

“Cry of prophet Jeremiah on the Ruins of Jerusalem” by Ilya Repin

What does it feel like when God speaks to a man? Is it like the thrilling curl of a drug through a vein, a blood-pain rushing down to the tip of each limb? Jeremiah says, “There is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones”; he is impelled to speak each searing word.

Jeremiah is not impressed with the pomp of civil authority or its riches. From the first chapter onward, his most frequent metaphor for Israel is that of a sexually transgressive woman: an adulteress, a shepherdess with many suitors, and, again and again, a whore. The prophet likens idolatry to promiscuity — a lust so profound as to be inhuman. “A wild ass used to the wilderness, that snuffeth up the wind in her desire; her lust, who can hinder it?” he asks, of his own people. In the age of a golden temple with priests fattened on sacrificial meats, in an age of thriving pilgrimage, the form divine inspiration takes in him is the clear and piercing sight of condemnation. All the lavish accoutrements of Jerusalem have no more dignity than a donkey in heat, snorting unheeded in the wild desert.

Jeremiah, a powerless man, confronts the agent of the state. In Jeremiah 19, he is instructed by God to take an earthen vessel, and approach “the elders of the people” and “the elders of the priests,” and shatter it in front of them, declaring it a symbol of the fate of Israel. He does not waver. He does not consider their standing, nor their material worth, nor debate civility or submissiveness. He smashes the pot and speaks his prophesy.

For his act of daring, Jeremiah is punished by the state: He is placed in the stocks, in full view of passersby. He cries out: “I am become a laughing-stock all the day, everyone mocketh me.” He laments his own life, wishing that his mother’s womb had been his grave. Nonetheless, he speaks, and speaks, knowing that his words could hold the unimaginable destruction of his home at bay. His command is simple, even after his suffering:

“Execute ye justice and righteousness, and deliver the spoiled out of the hand of the oppressor; and do no wrong, do no violence, to the stranger, the fatherless, nor the widow, neither shed innocent blood in this place.”

It would be easy to mistake Jeremiah’s uncompromising stance, his tongue-lashing, with hatred for Israel and its people. After all, he predicts their deaths unceasingly; after all, he looks into their souls and sees profound injustice. After all, he does not respect the agents that fashion the kingdom’s edicts. But this is not so. After the destruction of Jerusalem, the kingdom’s harshest critic becomes its chief mourner.

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When Jerusalem was destroyed — the destruction of the Temple and its golden host — Jeremiah issued a second book. It’s called Lamentations, and it is five sparse chapters of terrible grace and grief. Jews recite it once a year on a day of fasting for past tragedy; into this little book, we imbue all our losses, every atrocity inflicted on us. The text — fierce and loving, a howl in biblical parallelisms — spares nothing in its mourning, just as Jeremiah spared nothing in his futile desire to keep horrors at bay. In the Book of Jeremiah, the prophet takes on the voice of a scorned God; in Lamentations, he assumes the voice of Jerusalem, a woman in mourning: “I called for my lovers, but they deceived me; my priests and mine elders perished in the city,” he cries out. The burning of prophesy becomes the burning of grief. “Mine eyes do fail with tears, mine inwards burn,” says Jeremiah. The piercing nature of his sorrow stems from love — the same love that animated his rage.

Love can be fierce. Love can be critical. Love for country in a time of moral turmoil must be fierce and critical.

This is a time to smash the vessel of vanity, to heed the moral urge of the soul, and to speak, knowing it will be met with retribution. To despair when it is called for, then raise oneself and speak again.

There is no punishment from the state that should deter us from condemning injustice, no matter how freely the federal authorities use their platforms to crush dissent.

There is no value to meekness or servility, no moral purpose served by figures like Chuck Schumer or Nancy Pelosi denouncing their more outspoken colleagues. The most moral figure in the Bible is its least civil. Jeremiah never considers electoral strategy, or even the popularity of his cause. He speaks what he knows to be just.

Truth and justice don’t care about what polls highest, don’t care about popularity, don’t care for decorum, don’t get measured by Quinnipiac.

What does it feel like when God speaks to a man, when the urge toward morality triumphs over social convention, over politesse? For Jeremiah, it meant walking a burning, lonely walk. For those who care to see clearly where we are standing now, at the precipice of the abyss, perhaps there can be fellowship in knowing our cause: The cause of the stranger, the widow, the fatherless, is our own.