a tale of two speakers

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Last week I had the opportunity to attend the Catholic National Migration Conference in Washington, D.C.  As has been my experience with previous conferences for immigration legal service providers, there is always more information on offer than time to absorb it.  It is at once an exhausting and rejuvenating experience—meeting new colleagues from other parts of the country, reconnecting with old ones, fine-tuning your practice, commiserating with others whose clients are also facing impossible situations.
sad Postville girl.jpg

There were many fine speakers at the conference, including Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat and genocide survivor Immaculee Ilibagiza.  But the stark contrast between two of the speakers in particular was impossible for me to ignore. [Image: Citizen Orange]

At the Tuesday morning plenary session, we heard from Julie Myers, head of Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE), the enforcement wing of DHS.  I’ve expressed concerns about her leadership of the agency in this space before.   

Setting those issues aside for now, her presentation was notable for the near-complete misalignment between the issues she talked about and the issues of primary concern to those of us listening.  As a speaker, you have to know your audience, and she didn’t seem to.  She talked about her recent experience sitting in on a citizenship swearing in ceremony, and the happiness she felt at being able to witness this moment of such importance for those who reach that point.  Left unanswered was the question that must have immediately presented itself to most of the audience, as it did to me: Why, then, does ICE make it so difficult for migrants to attain citizenship? 


Why, if the agency values the benefits to society and to immigrants themselves that naturalization brings, do it and the other DHS agencies throw up obstacles to citizenship at every turn?  Why is ICE trying so hard to lock up and deport longtime lawful permanent residents (LPRs), who’ve lived here for decades, on the basis of minor crimes committed in their youth?  Why is CBP going out of its way to charge returning LPRs with abandonment of their permanent residence?  Why are naturalization officers hassling applicants for inane and sometimes incomprehensible reasons at their citizenship interviews? 

Ms. Myers talked about ICE’s welcome initiative to release nursing mothers on monitored supervision after a raid so that the lives of their infants aren’t placed at risk.  She didn’t mention that those mothers will still be deported and those families may still be torn apart. 

She talked about a recent initiative to encourage “fugitive aliens”—DHS’s term for people with an outstanding order of removal (or, in some cases, longtime LPRs with old criminal convictions) to contact ICE in order to self-deport.  There would be no benefit to the migrant to this action except for being able to depart the country in an orderly manner.  This was framed as a concession on the part of ICE—I still don’t see what was conceded or why anyone would ever do this.  Again, complete failure to connect to her audience.

As the head of the agency trying to lock up and deport many, if not most, of our clients, it was never going to be an easy pitch.  But the session was clearly designed as a PR exercise and not a particularly effective one.  In fact, it achieved the opposite effect.  Better not to have come at all, though I imagine she was invited by the Bishops. 

On Wednesday night at the awards ceremony, one tireless migrant rights worker was honored.  When Sister Mary McCauley of St. Bridgett’s Church in Postville, Iowa came to the stage, she received a standing ovation from the audience.  A diminutive woman who I would guess is in her seventies, she is not an imposing figure.  She spoke carefully and precisely.  Though it must have been difficult to recount the events she described, her voice never wavered and her eyes were clear.

She spoke of the early warnings of the raid, as if of an impending hurricane or wildfire, of the difficulties in organizing a response in the face of language barriers and a paucity of people on the ground.  She described the helicopters overhead and how she traveled to the Agriprocessors plant the morning of the raid to see what she could do, but all she saw was a sea of agents in blue.  She talked about the trickle of children of workers who came to the church, a trickle which soon became a flood.  She spoke of a young child expressing his sadness that his mother would not be coming home.  She catalogued the difficulties of helping families survive when their sole breadwinners had been sent to prison: how to pay for rent, utilities, food, transportation, limited medical expenses, phones, legal costs.  All of this having to come out of whatever donations had come in to the parish for this purpose after the raid.  She described the stigma borne by women in the community who had been temporarily released but wore ankle bracelets—people labeled criminals by our government because they had tried to provide for their families. 

She talked of parents who needed to put food in front of their children and weren’t able to do it in Mexico or Guatemala.  They didn’t have the option of waiting 10 or 15 years to come across with papers (this assuming that they had family members in the U.S. who could file petitions for them—most probably didn’t).  They had come here with dreams of a better life.  Those dreams had been shattered, she said. 

The thing is that both Julie Myers and Sister Mary believe they are doing what is right for their community, for their country.  They both believe their actions are consistent with their faith.  Both believe they are on the right side of a thorny moral issue. 

So how can this be?  It should be obvious to the reader who I side with.  But I have met ICE officers and attorneys I know are good people—I can see it so clearly in my interactions with them.  I know they, like most of the participants at the conference, have made sacrifices to commit to a difficult occupation because they believe they are acting in service of something greater than themselves. 

Over and over again in the immigration debate, we run into the problem of seemingly intractable moral claims on each side.  On the one hand, a sovereign country that values rule of law should be able to regulate and monitor the people who enter and exit its territory.  On the other hand, this is a nation built through immigrant labor since its inception.  Furthermore, many economic problems that lead to emigration from poor countries have their roots in the international economic and political system that keeps rich countries rich and poor countries poor.  And seems unjust to uproot people who’ve spent years—even decades—in this country paying taxes, contributing to their communities, and building their families. 

It should be obvious which argument I find more compelling.

But until we can break out of this narrative we are currently locked in, we will never resolve this issue.  I find very few on the pro-migrant side who disagree with the “enforcement/sovereignty” principle—among politicians and the wider public, that number drops into insignificance. 

But let me repeat: until we transcend this narrative, the immigration debate will never be resolved.  It might be postponed, it might be delayed.  It might explode.  But it will not be resolved. 

I and my co-bloggers at Citizen Orange have laid out, in draft formulation, some ways to think about this impasse (always building on or referencing the works of others).  Others who read and post here agree and disagree to varying degrees.   But we need to have this discussion openly, or we’ll find ourselves in the same place or worse in another twenty years.  Putting off the conversation out of political expediency until comprehensive reform gets passed, yelling about “illegalz” until everyone is locked up or self-deports—these plans all but guarantee failure. 

The immigration debate is not going away.  The days are over of wide bipartisan acquiescence on overly strict legislation trumpeted to the restrictionists followed by lenient enforcement with a wink and a nudge to business.  And deporting 12 million people and their 8 million immediate family members now here in lawful status is a fantasy, one perhaps achievable by a Stalin or a Milosevic, but not in this country.  So let’s talk about fundamentals.  Let’s have this conversation now.

Donations to the St. Bridget's Postville relief effort can be sent to:  

St. Bridget's Hispanic Ministry Fund
c/o Sister Mary McCauley
PO Box 369
Postville, Iowa 52162


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1 Comments

kyledeb said:

Good piece, yave. I re-read my moving towards a new migrant manifesto piece for the first time in a long time. Not too shabby if I do say so myself =).

Where I think the solution lies is in the development of a global citizenship. The only way we're going to change this is if we start going door to door and developing a list of voters interested in not only voting for the benefit of their country, but for the benefit of the world.

Once we've developed those voters all over the world within the nation-state system, then perhaps we can start talking about a world government, if in fact that's the best route to go.

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This page contains a single entry by David Bennion published on August 4, 2008 7:49 AM.

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