Archive for the ‘Immigration’ Category


The (myth of the) American Dream

February 5, 2011

I’ve been meaning to write this since watching Obama deliver the State of the Union last Tuesday.

Toward the end, refering to Joe Biden and John Boehner sitting behind him, he said:

…but we believe in the same dream that says this is a country where anything is possible. No matter who you are. No matter where you come from.  That dream is why I can stand here before you tonight. That dream is why a working-class kid from Scranton can sit behind me. That dream is why someone who began by sweeping the floors of his father’s Cincinnati bar can preside as Speaker of the House in the greatest nation on Earth. That dream — that American Dream.

From what I know, the two of them–and Obama himself–are pretty good examples of the American Dream.   They weren’t born into perfect circumstances and have still managed to become incredibly powerful in adulthood.  It’s just too bad that they are the exception, not the rule.  For most people, most of the time, the American Dream is out of reach.

Two things.  First, lest those of us who are inspired by the Obamas, Bidens, and Boehners feel lonely, we’re not.

The figure below contrasts the average US perception of mobility and inequality with the average response of 27 comparison countries (from the International Social Survey Programme).  Click to enlarge.

I find this data absolutely incredible.  I don’t quite know what to say other than that it makes my point about the myth of mobility quite nicely.  (Well, either that or Americans have managed to create a special mobility-and-equality-conducive environment that they are keeping secret from the rest of the world.  I’ll get to why that’s not the case in another post.)

Secondly, this news story serves as a reminder that the structures that keep just anyone from achieving the American Dream are real.

Late last month, a mother was sentenced to 10 days in jail (she originally faced up to 10 years) for falsifying records to get her daughters into a better school.

Poe [the superintendent] said residency disputes are usually resolved after parents prove that they live in the district, pay tuition or remove their kids from the schools.  This marked the first time that one of their residency challenges went before a jury in criminal court. Poe said prosecuting this case was meant to send a message.

“If you’re paying taxes on a home here… those dollars need to stay home with our students,” Poe said.

However, family and friends of Williams-Bolar call this an unfair case of selective prosecution.

I don’t know the case beyond the various news stories about it, and the NPR interview with the superintendent makes a pretty compelling case for why this situation went to court while prior cases haven’t.  But if you believe education is one of the best “ways out,” it highlights one of the many structures that limit real generational mobility at a large scale.

(As an aside, one of the worst things about this story is that the mother has been working to get her teacher’s license.  Now that she has a felony on her record, she probably won’t be granted licensure.)

On a slightly different note, I’ve been reading a fair amount of migration history that points to where some of the idea of the American Dream came from.  And also where it went.

More on that later.



The multi in multi-disciplinary

February 1, 2011

I was fast-tracked to the social sciences from pretty early on and have never really managed to escape.  I majored in one and have played around in most of the others, but I realized over the course of the last week that I couldn’t explain the foundational beliefs that impact how each field approaches migration theory.  Which is a problem since it means I can’t competently decode the migration-related writings coming out of each one.

Lucky for me, Carolina Brettell and James Hollifield have pulled together a couple of  nifty comparative charts in Migration Theory: Talking across Disciplines.

So simple.  Yet so, so incredibly helpful.

Given a pair of clickable ruby red slippers, I would wish for something like this to be required for the introduction to any multi-disciplinary text.



The overlap of migration and military policy. Or how the Hmong came to the US.

January 18, 2011

This history lesson is a little long.  If you want, skip down to the longish quote from Fadiman and start there.  For those who are game, here’s a quick run through:

The Geneva Accords of 1954 recognized three states in what had previously been French Indochina.  These were Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam (temporarily divided into North and South, intended to be unified later).  Laos was supposed to be neutral and, according to the Geneva Conference of 1961, the US, Soviet Union, North and South Vietnam and several other nations agreed to respect that neutrality, agreeing not to send in “any foreign troops or military personnel.”

Except that the we didn’t really want to respect that neutrality (to be fair, no one else did either).  The US had been providing covert support to the anti-communist Royal Lao army since 1955 as they struggled against the Communist Pathet Lao for control of the country.  But we wanted to step up our game, because Eisenhower, and then Kennedy after him, believed that if Laos fell to Communism, Thailand, Cambodia, South Vietnam, and Burma would be right behind.

And so, a cadre of CIA advisors were sent in to train a secret guerrilla army of Hmong soldiers to fight the war by proxy.  Continued under Johnson and then Nixon, this secret army eventually grew to more than 30,000 strong.

There is a lot about this story that is complicated.  Some call the Hmong mercenaries.  And, for the most part, they were paid.  But it was $3 a month compared to the $200-$300 per month an army private in Vietnam received.  Not all of them signed up voluntarily as many villages had solider “quotas” they had to fill to avoid punishment.  And displaced from their farmland by the bombing in Northern Laos, few had real alternatives.

For a more detailed (and better!) summary, Anne Fadiman gives a stellar primer on the subject, as I alluded to here.  The story actually first broke in 1987 when a British investigative journalist wrote The Ravens: The Men Who Flew in America’s Secret War in Laos (which I haven’t read, but is supposed to be good).

Regardless, in 1973, the US signed the Paris Agreements, pledging to remove all forces from Vietnam.  In 1975, the Communist Lao People’s Democratic Republic took control, the party’s newspaper announcing that the Hmong “must be exterminated down to the root of the tribe.”

American planes airlifted between 1,000-3,000 high-ranking army officers and their families to Thailand, leaving tens of thousands of vulnerable Hmong behind.  After the last American place took off, many of those remaining began the long and dangerous journey to Thailand, where they would spend years, even decades, in refugee camps along the border.    Others tried to stay and survive the Vietnamese persecution.  Some were successful, others ended up following the first wave to the Thai border.

About 10,000 Hmong eventually emigrated to France, Canada, Australia, Argentina, or elsewhere.  But most, because of what the Hmong refer to as “The Promise,” set their sights on the US.  For this, I’ll just quote directly from Fadiman as she says it better than I could:

Every Hmong has a version of what is commonly called “The Promise”: a written or oral contract, made by CIA personnel in Laos, that if they fought for the Americans, the Americans would aid them if the Pathet Lao won the war.  After risking their lives to rescue downed American pilots, seeing their villages flattened by incidental American bombs, and being forced to flee their country because they had supported the “American War,” the Hmong expected a hero’s welcome here.  According to many of them, the first betrayal came when the American airlifts rescued only the officers from Long Tieng, leaving nearly everyone else behind.  The second betrayal came in the Thai camps when the Hmong who wanted to come to the United States were not all automatically admitted.  The third betrayal came when they arrived here and found they were ineligible for veterans’ benefits.  The fourth betrayal came when Americans condemned them for what the Hmong call “eating welfare.”

And so.  We ended up with a sizable Hmong community in the United States.  And, well, no one really knows (or remembers) that that’s why they’re here.  Because we asked them to fight a war for us so that we could avoid international condemnation for violating the Geneva Accords we had, in fact, signed.

I don’t know; I wasn’t there–but I’d bet good money that when the CIA was enlisting the first Hmong military leaders, promising that they’d help if the war turned against them, they had no idea what more than 200,000 Hmong refugees and immigrants in the United States would mean 50 years later.

Military decisions catalyze migration decisions.  We’re terrible at anticipating them ahead of time.  But it’d be nice to at least see them acknowledged in hindsight.



The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

January 17, 2011

I just finished reading The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman, and I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

As you can see, the front cover says, “A Hmong child, her American doctors, and the collision of two cultures,” which is a rough but fair summary.

The Hmong child is Lia Lee, born with severe epilepsy; the book’s title is the literal translation of the Hmong phrase for the condition.  Since it was published in 1997, the book has been well-received (and rightly so); no excuses for why I’m so late getting to it.

I’ll start out by saying that it’s a well-written, well-researched, insightful, and compelling book.  But there is a lot that makes it exceptional.  There are a multitude of angles at work: Lia’s parents’ interactions with her doctors in the 1980’s; the subsequent efforts of the author to gain the trust of both the Lee family and the medical community to research the book; an ethnography of the Hmong belief system; a history lesson of how the Hmong came to migrate to the US in such large numbers (more on that later);  and a complex look at the process of assimilation–for both immigrant communities and the communities that receive them.

Unfortunately, discussions of Lia’s story often describe what happened over the course of her medical treatment as a series of tragic miscommunications and misunderstandings.  And, in part, that’s true.  Yes, miscommunications happened when an interpreter wasn’t present (or even when an interpreter was present as the Hmong language lacks vocabulary for even the most basic organs).  And minsunderstandings based on false information abounded on both sides.  But Fadiman’s writing reveals another layer beneath language and facts–what are often fuzzily called “cultural barriers.”

I can think of several instances when I was living abroad or working with immigrant or refugee communities here in the States when despite what I thought was a crystal clear explanation, followed by another crystal clear explanation, preceded and followed by lots of questions on my part and that of the other party to ensure comprehension, the other person then went and did the exact opposite of what I expected (or I did the exact opposite of what they expected).  Every now and then, I managed to unravel what happened.  But usually, I just walked away frustrated and confused.

Fadiman takes years of these interactions, after which both parents and doctors are so confused and frustrated that  their willingness to share their story at all is a miracle, and pieces together what happened in the spaces between expectation and disappointment.

Lia’s parent’s “non-compliance” with her medications serves as an example.  Fundamentally, Lia’s parents believed that her epilepsy was the result of soul loss that occurred when Lia’s sister slammed the door too loudly and Lia’s soul was frightened out of her body.  While they didn’t want their daughter to suffer unduly, epilepsy also confers status in the Hmong culture as it increases the likelihood of the child becoming a shaman.  So while they wanted medical attention for Lia when aspirating a food particle during a seizure lead to pneumonia, they didn’t actually want the epilepsy completely cured and thought that medicines with negative side effects were unnecessary and, well, almost cruel.  The parent’s worst fear (that Lia’s soul would never return) and the doctor’s worst fear (that Lia would enter into a continuous unstoppable seizure) were so far apart that the pursuit of each worked at cross-purposes with the other.  Even absent Lia’s parent’s suspicion of the American medical system (which the side effects helped to fuel), they simply didn’t believe the doctors knew what was best for their child.  In return, the doctors’ lack of faith in the competence and care of Lia’s parents eventually escalates into her temporary removal from their care by Social Services.

With Fadiman’s careful unpacking, it all makes so much damn sense.  And, as the reader, you find yourself deeply empathizing with almost everyone.  But the narrative is long and complex, and Fadiman is unfailingly evenhanded–throughout the book, you can see her choosing phrases and frames with the utmost care.  I don’t think I could have made sense of the story without such a skilled guide, and that admission reminds me of how far I have to go.  I–and so many others who work across cultures–need to read more and more of these accounts, until the two-way decoding becomes an in-the-midst-of-chaos instinct.

I’ll be deep into migration over the next four months.  Next up on the reading list are The Warmth of Other Suns and Arrival City.



Just ink, no action: the Packinghouse Workers Bill of Rights

November 16, 2010

In 2007, Minnesota passed the Packinghouse Workers Bill of Rights (PWBoR).

But congratulations aren’t really deserved.

Tonight, at an event sponsored by the Midwest Human Rights Coalition, I heard John Stiffin from the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry (DLI) talk about what has happened in the three years since the law’s passage.  His answer was appalling.  Basically, meat processing plants (called packinghouses here) have each been mailed an English poster of the PWBoR which they are required to post.  And–honestly–I think that’s the extent of it.

Let me start out by saying that I understand that the PWBoR was an unfunded mandate.  I understand that the DLI hasn’t been given many resources and I understand that real enforcement requires such resources.

But tonight I’m focusing in on the little things.  The inexcusable things.  The large impact-small cost failings that prevent policy changes from being as effective as they could be, even absent adequate funding.

  1. The poster isn’t included on the webpage with all other mandatory state posters from DLI for download or order.
  2. The poster wasn’t provided in any other languages, even though all other mandatory posters are.  Employers are expected to provide a translated version in the language of their workers.
  3. There has been no outreach to the Karen population, despite their recent and rapid concentration in meat processing centers such as Worthington and Albert Lea.
  4. Although the majority of packinghouse workers are from Mexico, Guatemala, Somalia, Sudan, or Southeast Asia, the single staff person was deliberately NOT hired from any of these ethnic groups to avoid the “appearance of favoritism.”
  5. There has been no collaboration with the staff person coordinating an nearly identical Bill of Rights in Nebraska.
  6. There is no proactive enforcement.  Compliance with the PWBoR isn’t integrated into OSHA’s compliance and a credible complaint is required to initiate an investigation.
  7. There is no protection for workers who file complaints, other than that the DLI “isn’t likely” to actively pursue information about their immigration status.

So maybe 6 and 7 aren’t really small cost criticisms.  But the others are.

And that’s just what I learned in a 20 minute rambling conversation.  And it doesn’t include individual-level complaints like Stiffin’s justification for not translating the poster into Spanish: Puerto Rican Spanish is different than Mexican Spanish, so translations are hard.  Right.  Because there is no such thing as Standard Spanish.  And we were really hoping the poster would be translated primarily in slang anyway.

Three years out, we should be talking about visa alternatives for workers who report violations (like the U-visa for survivors of domestic violence).  The PWBoR should be fully integrated in OSHA compliance.  And the coordinator should be able to articulate his outreach strategy to the workers, not just a one-time mailing to the employers.

Instead, we learn that there have been no complaints in three years.  Not a single one.  From one of the most dangerous industries employing some of our most vulnerable residents?  Despite John Stiffin’s reassurances, hardly proof of transformative legislation.



Immigration slots, huh?

October 18, 2009

The notion that the restrictions on international labor mobility are a gaping inefficiency in global development isn’t a new one.  But this takes the role of immigration to a new, and quite innovative, level.  Here, Matt Collin takes on “climate aid,” or the policy proposal that populations most affected by climate change (who are also, for the most part, least equipped to cope with it) deserve some kind of payment from the populations that are the primary polluters.  The whole post is worth a read, if only to remind you what an in-the-box thinker you are, but here’s an excerpt:

First, every country in the globe gets a certain amount of “emigration” points, which constitute a budget for purchasing the right to move to a new country. These points are indexed to the relative rise in average temperature for that country (they would be set at zero for those living in areas least affected by climate change). When an emigration slot is purchased using this budget, the government allocates that slot via a lottery system (perhaps on a family-by-family basis).

On the supply side, countries are free to continue polluting, but the more carbon they emit, the more immigration slots they have to offer up for sale.

The political ramifications of excessive immigration (and I’m talking about mass immigration) would act as the shadow price of pollution. If they acted as incentive enough to reduce emissions, then we are ok – disaster averted. If they are not, then the worst polluters must accept those that are the worst effected. It is not a perfect internalisation of the externalities at hand, but it would suffice.

The political feasibility of this is somewhere below zero.  But that doesn’t make it any less interesting to think about.



Ensuring census inaccuracy

October 16, 2009

From a policy standpoint, I find this amendment to the Commerce, Justice and Science appropriations bill absolutely mind-boggling.  In short, Vitter and Bennett don’t think that undocumented folks should be counted in the census.  And they think the best way to make that happen is to insert a question about immigration status/citizenship into the line-up.

I’ve got several problems with this.

  1. It’s unconstitutional.  We’re directed to count residents. Not just people we like.  Not just the rule-abiders.  Not just citizens.  Residents.
  2. It’s also not possible to somehow exclude undocumented folks and still count everyone else accurately.  The truth is that a high percentage of immigrant families are mixed-status.  Any line of questioning that poses any threat to undocumented folks will result in a overall undercount of all legal immigrants too.  Period.
  3. As it stands right now, society is still obligated to provide a number of services to all people, documented or not.  Children still go to school.  Emergency rooms still treat everyone.   So its pretty broken logic to think that federal money should be allocated by a formula that doesn’t include folks the states will still have to serve.

There are other reasons that this is bad policy.  But that’s my first draft.  Feel free to add.

And, you know, if your rep Senator is on the fence, feel free to give him/her a call too.



Spanish is scary

September 11, 2009

I find this absolutely appalling.  Why folks couldn’t sit tight for 30 seconds until Representative Himes translated the question is beyond me.  Why folks felt comfortable trampling on someone else’s right to free speech is even more beyond me.      

But it did make me stop and think about the English Only movement and Americans’ fear of Spanish.  I think the capacity to understand why someone else believes or behaves as they do is a powerful skill to develop; accurately analyzing what is at the root of a given belief or behavior can shine quite a lot of light for activists wanting to address it.  And so, here is my best attempt to dissect what is going on here (and keep a lid on the snark as long as I can).

But first: there is a very real combination of racism and xenophobia at play.  And it deserves to be mentioned first.  There are folks who believe that English is a superior language, much like there are folks who believe that Whites are a superior race.  There are people who wish to create as many hurdles as possible for non-English-speakers immigrating to the United States; there are folks who would like to see them prevented from thriving or even functioning in our society via any means possible.  I’m not trying to address these people right now.  Their primary issue isn’t language; it’s hate.  

But I do believe that there are non-actively-racist, non-actively-xenophobic* folks who still support many of the principles of the English Only movement.  And they’re the ones I want to zero in on.    

1. It’s part our national identity! We’re a relatively young nation.  We’re racially and ethnically heterogeneous.  We have strong state and regional identities.  Though the majority of Americans identify as Christian, a significant and growing minority don’t, and there is almost more diversity between some interpretations of Christianity than between Christainity and other world religions.  And to top it off, there isn’t much of an American cuisine either.  So I think its conceivable that many folks think of English as an important part of American culture.  It isn’t a far leap to believe that being a “real” American means speaking English.  Seems relatively reasonable and makes for a great organizing tool.  That said, when folks are shouting down a bishop trying to ask a question in the language he’s most comfortable expressing himself in, we’re really talking about the majority forcing something upon a minority to protect the majority’s culture.  Makes it a little less compelling, doesn’t it?    

2. Speaking a single language increases political unity! Funny, I thought shared political ideals like democracy and freedom were supposed to do that.  

3. Monolinguists just don’t understand how polylingualism works. Woah, can you tell I spent some time wallowing in linguistics jargon once upon a time?  In simpler terms: as a nation of folks who mostly speak one language, we assume that expanding the number of languages we speak will dramatically change our society and for the worse!  We won’t be able to communicate with each other; the government will either descend into chaos or fail to serve a significant portion of the population; translation costs will be astronomical; infants will be confused and stop speaking altogether; the Southern states will try to secede again; and the Dark Ages will return.  

Unfortunately for the folks who believe this, it just isn’t true.  

3a. If the next generation of Americans learn to speak both Spanish and English: Although adults admittedly have a more difficult time, kids are completely unfazed by an increase in the number of languages they encounter.  A infant will learn to speak two (or three!) languages just as quickly as he/she will learn to speak one.  If they are exposed to it before the age of ten, most children have no trouble picking up a second language.  There is absolutely nothing developmentally complicated about having children learn the language(s) their parents speak at home and then learning additional language(s) needed once they start school.  There are a lot of countries already doing this very successfully.      

3b. If most non-Latino Americans continue to speak only English but increasingly interact with Spanish-speakers (gasp!): We have plenty of tools to compensate for interaction between different languages.  The degree to which technology can facilitate flawless comprehension between languages is impressive and also, increasingly affordable.  But even without technology, most of us could make it through daily life just fine.  As someone who lived abroad in two different regions of the world without first mastering the primary local language, I can vouch for the notion that the first 100 vocabulary words–even without verb conjugation–are the most important for functioning day to day.  A mix of charades, gestures and the quick sketch or two can usually fill in the gap.  (Just imagine what frequent application of this would do for Saturday night rounds of Pictionary all across the country!)  

4. This just sounds like more work. Some folks don’t want to make an effort to accommodate other folks they don’t really think are all that important in the first place.  Or maybe they do think they are a little bit important but not quite important enough to exert energy playing charades.  Well.  Then be apathetic and don’t interact with your Latino neighbors.  But please sit down and shut up while others are talking in the town hall meetings.  Kthanks.    

*Flying Whale, a post about the Racism Matrix, please?



Political realities; wrong answers

August 21, 2009

Though I caught part of President Obama’s radio interview during a coffee refill yesterday, Ezra Klein prompted me to read the entire transcript.

While there is a lot here to appreciate, I find this incredibly discouraging:

OBAMA: I’d be happy to. First of all, you mentioned illegal immigrants. This has been an example of just pure misinformation out there. None of the bills that have been voted on in Congress, and none of the proposals coming out of the White House propose giving coverage to illegal immigrants — none of them. That has never been on the table; nobody has discussed it. So everybody who is listening out there, when you start hearing that somehow this is all designed to provide health insurance to illegal immigrants, that is simply not true and has never been the case.

SMERCONISH: What is their fate, if I might ask? Because there’s a 1986 law on the book that says if you show up at an ER, you’ve got to be treated.

OBAMA: Well, that will continue because we don’t want a situation in which some child, even if they’re an illegal immigrant, shows up in an emergency room with tuberculosis and nobody is giving them treatment, and then they’re going back to the playground and playing next to our kids.

So I think there is a basic standard of decency where if somebody is in a death situation or a severe illness, that we’re going to provide them emergency care. But nobody has talked about providing health insurance to illegal immigrants. I want to make that absolutely clear.

I understand that undocumented folks aren’t going to gain access to health insurance through any of this fall’s legislation.  I get the political reality.  And I get why Obama answered the question that way.

But it’s still the wrong answer.

EMTALA isn’t about containing contagious diseases.  And differentiating between “our kids” and those other kids is wrong and counterproductive.

It doesn’t take someone particularly malicious to see that there are two solutions to the hypothetical Obama offered.  EMTALA.  Or segregated playgrounds.