Banning Grandparents is Inhumane

Kudos to Hawaii’s US District Judge Derrick Watson who ordered the government not to enforce the ban on grandparents, grandchildren, and other close relatives of people in the United States. "Grandparents are the epitome of close family members," the judge declared. In my book, he’s absolutely right.

The book I refer to here is my first essay collection, Telling It Like It Is, in which I included a piece called “Under the Willow Tree.”  It went like this: When I was small, the childhood classic The Wind in the Willows was my favorite. That was because of my willow tree, the weeping giant by Belle Tract Lake under which my maternal grandfather used to tell me and my siblings a bubbachka when he came to visit us on weekends.

“The ritual began with my Zayde walking slowly up the street toward our house having disembarked from the bus which had brought him from Philadelphia to our New Jersey home. He smelled of cigarette smoke, old newspapers, and the scents of the bus that had brought him and he always carried a small bag that included some chachkas for us kids.

“Yayde’s here! We shouted to our mother who was already making him a glass of tea. The two of them would settle at the kitchen table and before long one would say something to outrage the other and a Yiddish shouting match would ensue until both contestants repented. Then Zayde would go to his room until dinnertime when all was forgiven and conversation turned to the updated trials and tribulations of my mother’s two brothers and their families.

“On Sundays one of us kids would suggest, as though it were an original idea, that we should “make a picnic” and go to the lake, all as pretense to hearing a bubbachka, a story, under the willow tree. Bubbachkas always lost their magic, their credibility and romance when they were told anywhere else but under that mournful, majestic weeping willow. It was also an unspoken truth that bubbachkas only wove their spell if no grown-ups went along.

“And so our entourage would assemble, my older sister carrying the brown grocery bag of food (wicker baskets being for goyim) me following with a cloth to sit on, and my baby brother, nubby knees sticking out of short pants, holding Zayde’s hand as both of them struggled to keep up. At the corner of Delaware Street, I became the Safety Patrol, nodding solemnly with the all-clear. We appeared, no doubt, to have stepped straight out of a Normal Rockwell painting.

“Our picnic lunches were always the same: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, carrot and celery sticks, graham crackers, and fruit juice in a red plastic container. We’d settled under our weeping willow, which miraculously no pigeon or person ever sat under when we wanted it, and wait for feast and fable to begin.

“The bubbechka Zayde told was also always the same. ‘Once upon a time in a shtetl in Vilna, there was a boy called Jacob (or a girl called Sasha)…’  Just as it was coming to an end, my sister or I would jump up to announce that if we didn’t get back, Zayde would miss his bus back to Philly. While we groaned and cleaned up, Zayde promised to tell us the happily-ever-after part, and another story, next time he came to see us. And so it was until my beloved Zayde died when I was seven years old.”

My two grandmothers had passed away before I had a chance to know them, and my paternal grandfather, who we only saw once a year, lived in Canada and spoke not a word of English.  And so all my childhood love for a grandparent was lavished on my Zayde, even though in later years I learned he had been a difficult and not always kind man.

The memory I wrote about happened more than sixty years ago, and yet it is as clear a remembrance as if it had happened only a few weeks ago. Such is the depth of such connection, the place of ritual in our lives, the unconditional love between an elder and a child. 

No grandparent should ever be denied the right to that love, and no child should ever have to wonder why the stories they tell have disappeared. None of us should be made to grieve the absence of a beloved relative and no willow should weep for our absence.

Judge Watson did the right thing. So did the Supreme Court when it let stand for now the court order from Hawaii that grandparents and other relatives who want to visit family members in the U.S. can be admitted while the case is pending appeal. Let’s hope that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco reaches a sensible decision when it decides the larger case regarding enforced restrictions on refugees still under a travel ban.

Immigrants, Refugees, Asylum Seekers and the Myths of Migration

When I was a child, I thought everyone was a first generation American like me. I couldn’t believe it when friends said their parents and grandparents were born here. All of my maternal and paternal family – parents, aunts, uncles and their parents – emigrated to the United States and Canada to flee persecution as Jews in Russia. That history is, in part, why stories of refugees and immigrants move me mightily, as they did in the recent book, The New Odyssey: The Story of the 21st Century Refugee Crisis, by Patrick Kingsley.

It’s been widely said that unless we are Native American, we are all immigrants or descendants of immigrants here in the U.S. What isn’t emphasized enough perhaps is the crucial role immigration has played in the story of America.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), immigrants account for 47 percent of the increase in the workforce in this country over the past ten years. They fill important places in both fast-growing and declining sectors of the economy and contribute more in taxes and social contributions than they receive in benefits. Further, they boost the working age population and contribute notably to technological progress as well as to filling jobs regarded by domestic workers as unappealing or lacking career prospects. It should be clear from such research that most immigrants don’t come here seeking social benefits; they come to find work so they can improve the lives of their families.

A recent study using 2014 data conducted by the New American Economy, revealed that immigrant workers earned nearly $655 million and contributed one in every 29 tax dollars to the state. They paid almost $86 million in social security and Medicare taxes (even though they don’t receive Medicare benefits), and then contributed to the U.S. economy for housing, food, and other basic needs. Clearly, it is a “myth that immigrants simply drain public coffers,” as Michelle Chen put it in The Nation last year.

Asylum seekers, on the other hand, are displaced persons who are fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries, as my grandparents and parents did. They are requesting sanctuary individually, unlike refugees who are invited and resettled by the U.S. Department of State after a prolonged process of vetting and judicial review.

A myth about refugees is that once they are resettled, crime rates go up. Not true. For example, Decatur, Georgia took in 6600 refugees from countries like Burma and Iraq between 2006 and 2015. During that period, violent crime rates went down by over 62 percent and property crime went down by nine percent. These FBI statistics are similar to those of most other large and small cities.  Further, according to a CNN report, “no person accepted into the United States as a refugee, Syrian or otherwise, has been implicated in a major fatal terrorist attack since the Refugee Act of 1980 set up systematic procedures for accepting refugees into the United States.”

Given the data, and the reality of life for immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers, it is deeply sad that U.S. immigration policy is being driven by fear, stereotyping and falsehoods. The stigma of ‘criminality’ ascribed to people who have suffered in unimaginable ways is not only unfortunate and unfair, it is wrong. Recent ICE actions, and the threat of more border patrols, national guard units and police being coopted into roundup and arrests is irrational, alarming and counterproductive.

About 44 million foreign-born people now live in the U.S. Something like 33 million of them are lawful immigrants, including naturalized citizens, green card holders, students and workers, like the doctors from abroad who came to practice in underserved areas but were recently turned away during the Muslim Ban. Of the other 11 million, three-fifths entered the country without proper documents; the other two-fifths simply overstayed their visas.

Among the people who came to this country one way or another and live here are Nobel Prize winners, MacArthur “Genius” Awardees, and founders of large companies. Many of them now say they feel discriminated against because of their religion or country of origin.  Some are fearful. As a New York Times editorial put it, “They await the fists pounding on the door, the agents in black, the cuffs, the van ride, the cell.”

That’s no way for anyone to live, especially in a country that considers itself “exceptional” for its principles of religious and political freedom. A recent Senate resolution stated that “the United States should remain a global leader in welcoming and providing refuge to refugees and asylum seekers and that no person should be banned from entering the United States because of their nationality, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender.”

Is that really so hard for the so-called leaders of the free world to agree upon?

The Horror of Detention Centers is Making a Comeback

I can’t get the pictures out of my mind. The barracks. The women with babies and bundles disembarking from buses. The guards. The packed dining halls and inadequate living quarters. The sons in US military uniform.

They are, of course, the pictures of Japanese Americans interned at Manzanar and other internment camps during WWII, many of them now on display at the Smithsonian’s national Museum of American History in Washington, DC.

Seventy-five years ago, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed an executive order authorizing the imprisonment of Japanese Americans, about 120,000 of them – men, women, children, elders - were held in ten camps across the country where appalling conditions prevailed. Toilets lacked privacy, barracks were filled with rows of cots, guards with rifles patrolled from towers, barbed wire surrounded the desolate landscape, and fear was ever-present.

“It was like Nazi Germany concentration camps,” recalls a woman who was interned at the age of seven. “We were constantly under threat if we went near the barbed wire fences.”

Today many people are rightly worried that the growth of “detention centers” to be run by large private corporations that profit hugely from operating such centers will be used as holding camps for immigrants awaiting deportation. They have every reason to be afraid following Donald Trump’s recent executive order and his promise to remove “bad duded” quickly and completely.

And anyone who thinks the recent roundups aimed at capturing undocumented immigrants aren’t an escalation needs to think again.  Recently, passengers on a domestic flight arriving at JFK airport in New York were not allowed to disembark before showing their IDs.  An undocumented immigrant diagnosed with a brain tumor while in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody was forcibly returned to a detention center from her hospital bed in Texas. She told reporters her ankles and wrists were tied as she complained of severe pain. Neither her family nor her lawyers were allowed to communicate with her. It’s pure Kafka.

According to the ACLU, the U.S. immigration detention system locks hundreds of thousands of immigrants away unnecessarily every year. These detainees are subject to brutal and inhumane conditions, confined sometimes indefinitely, at huge costs to American taxpayers. Mothers and children are torn from each other in many cases. No regulations or enforceable standards are in place so that medical and mental health treatment, access to telephones, access to legal services, and even to religious services are denied. And many of the people trapped in such Draconian settings are lawful permanent residents and asylum seekers.

Such detention centers have grown exponentially in recent years and more are planned as ICE turns to contracted facilities such as for-profit prison corporations. These facilities operate outside the purview of public oversight and accountability and they have limited, often untrained staff, which translates into poor care and treatment of inmates, in order to maximize shareholder returns. They have, ACLU says, “a particularly grisly record of detainee abuse and neglect.”

Human Rights Watch Reports that indefinite detention of asylum-seeking mothers and their children takes a severe psychological toll. Many of them report serious depression, suicidal thoughts, and other symptoms of major psychological trauma.

Detention of innocent people is not new in America as we know from the Japanese American experience. In another example, after 9-11, several innocent men who had overstayed their visas were detained, abused, and otherwise badly mistreated because they were suspected of being radical Muslims. Several of these men who had been detained for months or in some cases years sued the Justice Department’s Attorney General (John Ashcroft), the FBI director (Robert Mueller) and several other government officials for violation of their fourth amendment rights. In January of this year, their case reached the Supreme Court. With Justices Kagan and Sotomayor having to recuse themselves, only six justices, four of them right-leaning, will decide the case.

It’s a case that brings together the Muslim Ban, the increasingly brutal roundups of immigrants and asylum-seekers, the issues surrounding private “detention” centers, and the role of the courts in addressing and ending law enforcement transgressions, especially in a Trump administration. Let’s hope the courts, at every level, get it right. The very future of our nation, which prides itself on being dedicated to freedom and human rights, depends on nothing more vital than a sound, well-reasoned, compassionate and moral judicial system.