Friday, July 9, 2010

Immigrant Trash

The trash that marks the routes of immigrants across the Arizona desert is not littering. It is a Trail of Tears

In the Arizona climate of unremitting hostility that has characterized the debate over immigration, it was truly uplifting recently to read a letter to the Tucson's Daily Star reminding people of faith of the deeper meaning of immigrant trash.

Rev. John Herman of Tempe wrote about the deeply human meaning of border trash. "Many of us fail to recognize what we are really seeing," he began. He then provided a context that should be obvious but rarely is heard. "This is the stuff that refugees jettison when they are so tired they can't take another step. It's like the thousands of miles of debris that folks scattered on the Oregon Trail as they journeyed toward the promise of better things on the West Coast -- personal treasures that became trash because the oxen or horses just couldn't take another step.

"It's like looking at the graves of Cherokee infants, children and grandparents who didn't survive the death march to Oklahoma. It's like opening the storage unit of someone who no longer has the rent money to pay to protect their valuables.... It's not an act of intentional littering . It's not being disrespectful of our nation. It's simply desperation.

I would hate to consider the things my own ancestors had to leave behind, including their families, when they boarded steamships for America.... Humanitarian volunteers in our Arizona desert routinely remove litter at emergency water stations. Their common reaction to removing these personal items is tears, not anger. If it is anger, it may be directed more at the causes than the victims."

These profoundly moving words reminded me of my uncle Jack, an Irish immigrant who arrived in Detroit in the late 1920s. Raised in the hardscrabble West of Ireland, having lost his mother in early childhood, Jack left for England at age 14, alone. After two years deep in the Great Depression, he headed for Detroit where he had acquaintances in the Irish community. But he had no way to lawfully enter, so he did what so many immigrants did in that and every era, he entered illegally, rowing the boat across the Detroit River at midnight.

At a memorial service for Jack when he died in his late 80s, I reminded the gathering about as history, and Bishop Bernard Harrington noted that almost everyone in gathering was the child of immigrants, that Jack was far from the only illegal Irish entrant, that it was our Irish Catholic heritage not to repeat the hostility that our ancestors experienced when they arrived.

In the decade since Jack's dad, I have been saddened by the increasingly acrimonious spirit that has shaped the immigration debate. While there are no ready-made or easy answers, the public debate about immigration policy can only be more productive if we all start by remembering that we are children of immigrants.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Arizona Rancher’s Murder: Bad Cases Make Bad Laws

The uproar around the recent murder of southern Arizona rancher Robert Krentz may lead to some very bad policies.

Having worked for 20 years as a psychologist in the Wayne County court system, I have not been too surprised by some of the recent claims about the relationship between immigrants and crime in southern Arizona and the border. It reminded me of the 1980s when similar mythologies about minority teenagers and crime arose not only in Detroit but all over the country.

In the Reagan era, we began hearing a concerted campaign from hardline partisans that the American streets were being taken over by a new breed of adolescents, typecast as the "super predators." We were told that they would soon create social chaos unless harsh new laws were quickly passed. Many of my experienced co-workers were skeptical, but our doubts were not shared by legislators. They could tell which way the winds were blowing politically and were not going to miss a chance to jump on the "tough on crime" train. We used to joke that after the fall of the Berlin wall and communism, no shrewd politician could afford to not be tough on minority teen delinquents, the new "Communists." In the next decade, Michigan and the majority of American states passed laws that allowed prosecutors to charge pre-adult teen as adults, and many were convicted given life sentences without possibility of parole. Many of us who worked with such adolescents tried to speak up but there was little interest in what we had to say.

A single case was responsible for quick passage of the newly-proposed Michigan anti-“Super predator” law, with all unproven assumptions. The Detroit TV stations and newspapers headlined for weeks a case of 4 minority youth who carjacked a white suburbanite, shooting and killing him during the robbery. All the "Super predator" propaganda converged on that case, and soon new harsh legislation sailed through the Michigan Legislature, and found Gov. Engler eager to sign the new bill.

It was a classic illustration of the old legal maxim, "bad cases make bad law."

Within a few years a more accurate picture of juvenile crime emerged from scientific studies. We discovered that the "super predator" stereotype was the work of a small coterie of right wing ideologues who believe that the role of government was to lock mostly minority youth for selling illegal drugs to mostly white customers. By then however the damage was done, the laws were passed, a new practice of prosecutorial discretion was ensconced, and a great many minority youths, Some as young as 13 were in prison often for long terms. In Michigan, the new legislation was particularly harsh. It permitted prosecutors to charge children as adults, with no minimum age limit. “They committed adult crimes -- Let ‘em serve adult time!”

In Arizona recently, Robert Krentz, a popular Arizona rancher near the border with Mexico, was found shot to death. Immediately the news media reported a story that the shooter had been tracked across the desert to Mexico.

On March 30, Fox News reported “Illegal Immigrant Suspected in Killing of Arizona Rancher”

The right-wing blogosphere went crazy, convinced that this proved their belief that all illegal entrants are criminals anyway, and that soon Arizona would be overrun by the explosion of drug-gang violence responsible for over 20,000 murders in Mexico. Soon John McCain, in a tough primary race against far more conservative JD Hayworth, was demanding that 6000 troops be moved to the border. McCain's 2007 sponsorship of Comprehensive Immigration Reform was heard from no more. Political panic has taken over.

On May 3, an Arizona Daily Star’s front-page story reported "An American is under investigation." Several weeks later, Tucson's Arizona Star front page headlined "Border is relatively safe government data show: officers on the US-Mexico line assaulted less than city cops." The story noted that "the top four big cities in America with the lowest rate violent crime are all in border states: San Diego, Phoenix, El Paso, and Austin according to a new FBI report. And an in-house Customs and Border Protection report shows that Border Patrol agents face far less danger than street cops in most US cities."

An attached graph showed that 71% of 1073 of “assaults” against Border Patrol in 2009 were "thrown rocks."

The Krentz shooting has still not been solved. But the coverage suggests how politically volatile the atmosphere is down here. And unfortunately it is infecting the whole country. And this kind of an atmosphere one realizes more than ever how crucial it is to have an independent Fourth Estate . And to not make policy based on what we don't know. And to not spend $500 million on a problem that cannot be solved by hiring more Border Patrol agents. In a coming blog marshal some strong evidence for that statement.

Remember: "Bad cases make bad laws."

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

What's Going On In Arizona?

Charlie & Jean Dietrick Rooney, longtime Detroit activists, now spend half each year as volunteers with “No More Deaths,” ( a humanitarian group working to prevent migrant deaths in the Sonoran desert south of Tucson.

"What's going on in Arizona?" is a question that inevitably comes up when we phone our Michigan friends these days. Most often it refers to S. B. 1070, otherwise known as the Immigration Enforcement Law.

In the past year, Arizona politics have gone from right-wing-leaning to extreme-right-dominated. While the causes are many, the most proximate is Gov. Janet Napolitano's promotion to Secretary of Homeland Security. She was succeeded by the Attorney General Janet Brewer, a Republican, who signs legislation previously vetoed routinely by Napolitano.

A few examples: Abolition of all restrictions from carrying concealed weapons other than for previous felony conviction -- even eliminating mandatory safety classes. The same legislature that has rejected all proposed tax increases despite a $2 billion budget deficit, has found time to pass legislation to eliminate the Hispanic studies program in the Tucson public schools.

But undoubtedly the biggest stir, and terror, has been created by SB 1070. The key part of the law requires police to ask those they have stopped for other reasons about their immigration status if they reasonably suspect the person is an illegal immigrant. Lawsuits challenging 1070 have been filed, charging that it is an illegal intrusion by the state into federal immigration policy and that the law will result in racial profiling. The original wording of the law excluded "solely race" as a basis for reasonable suspicion. This created a national uproar, since it approved race, along with other factors, as a basis. Within a week the Legislature changed the wording to exclude race but that resolved nothing. At the press conference when she signed the bill, Gov. Brewer could not explain how an officer could have reasonable suspicion except by the color of the detainee's skin, or an Hispanic accent.

From a human rights perspective the most disturbing part of this law is that it attempts to blame immigrants, who are struggling to survive, for the failure of our legislators to find an appropriate formula to allow immigration when the need for it is obvious, and so many are eager to apply. As Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson wrote to the Catholics of the diocese: "The great majority of persons -- women and men and children -- who have entered our country without documentation are not criminals. The new law makes them criminals by their mere presence." In addition, the force that is driving so much immigration is “Free Trade,” a reality that few Americans know about. These unfair trade policies imposed on Latin America by the US have destroyed the domestic agriculture market in Central America, especially in Mexico. In other words small farmers in Latin America can no longer survive as farmers; and their families are starving.

Since the onset of NAFTA in the mid-1990s, over 6000 women, children and men, double the number of 9/11 victims, have died attempting to cross the southern Arizona desert. With very few exceptions, they have been simply seeking a way to make a living and to improve the future of their children. These immigrants only want to feed their families, and have almost no opportunity in their home countries. In similar situations migrants from all over the world cross borders because they see no other way to provide for their families. The tragedy of the Mexican-American border is that our legislators have defined no reasonable way to allow people desperate to support their families to legally fill jobs that the American economy desperately needs them to fill

Unfortunately, most Americans don't know enough about the real situation at the border to have an informed opinion. A good way to start a dialogue about this issue, is to discuss with fellow Americans what they would do if they were in one of the following situations, which are commonplace along the border.

Manuel sat with nine other men at a crowded table in Nogales, Sonora. He had found his way to a soup kitchen for migrants. The day before he was deported by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in a raid on a factory where he had worked for several years. His wife and two daughters, all three US citizens, did not know where he was until he called from a pay phone. There were tears in his eyes as he expressed his determination to return to his family in spite of the risks involved. What would you do in his situation?

Rosa and her husband were in the desert for two days before the Border Patrol arrested them. They had left their home village in Guatemala where there were no jobs to support their family. They left their children in the care of relatives, and spent three weeks traveling to "el Norte." After just one day of walking in Arizona's rugged desert wearing thin-soled shoes, Rose's feet were blistered. On the second day, when a Border Patrol helicopter "dusted" her group and they scattered for cover, she fell and hurt her knee. She continued on, despite her injuries, until they were captured several hours later by Border Patrol. Now, sitting on a street in Nogales, Sonora, as a volunteer treated her feet and knee, Rosa and her husband wondered out loud about where they would spend the night, and what their future holds. Do they return to the poverty of their village or try crossing again when Rosa is healed? What would you do in their situation?

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the current situation is that the real lives of people in these life-and-death circumstances are ignored. Solutions like SB 1070 blame the victim, increase militarization of the border, label immigrant communities as criminal, and result in a campaign of terror which tears families apart through increasing numbers of raids and deportations.

Fortunately, this reactionary legislation has unleashed a torrent of energy by defenders of human liberties, including all the organizations like “No More Deaths” that are advocating for those in imminent danger of death along the border because of current policy.

We ask your support for the work that hundreds volunteers are doing here with inadequate resources. Your support will make a big difference. For example, $62 will buy 100 sealed gallons of water for distribution on remote desert trails. Volunteers distribute 100 gallons daily from June through September to save migrants from the searing summer heat.

Make a contribution online at, and select the "donate" button, then follow the directions; or mail a donation for any amount payable to our tax-deductible fiduciary, "Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson" (UUCT), (memo line: No More Deaths) and send to:

No More Deaths
P.O. Box 40782
Tucson, AZ 85717