Friday, June 29, 2018

Deliberate Losses: Children at our Border

The Children Are Watching

     The white vans pull up to the shelter in a tight line.  The shelter workers bring their charges out to be loaded in, careful to document the identity of each one.   Having been examined and, if necessary, treated at the shelter’s clinic, then perhaps fostered by caring volunteers, the charges are healthy and well-prepared for the trip. The van driver meticulously confirms the information, matching the details of identity, route, and destination. Only after all documents are verified does the silent line of vans proceed down the highway to a faraway state.  Upon arrival, the same care for clear document check precedes the discharging of the passengers into the arms eagerly waiting to receive them.

No, I’m not describing our government’s treatment of immigrant children ripped from their parents’ arms at the US – Mexico border. No, I haven’t come across hidden evidence that in fact all is well with the more than 2000 children dispersed across what we now know is more than 17 states in places for the most past unknown to and unreachable by their parents.  And, no, I’m not reporting that stories of missing documentation, lost names and family connections, have suddenly been proven false.

The white vans I’m describing take rescue pets from shelters in Houston to rescue organizations in other states where stray, adoptable dogs are scarce, and where families are eager to adopt one of the thousands of abandoned animals in our city that would otherwise be euthanized.   One of the lead volunteers of this pet rescue organization recounts the professionalism and precision with which the Houston organization, and our local animal shelters, coordinate with their counterparts in states like Colorado, providing careful and detailed documentation on each animal.  And, yes, the organization does have its own clinic, assuring the animals are healthy before they are transported; those needing time to heal from neglect or injuries or illness are placed with knowledgeable and caring foster families before they begin their journey.

When I first heard that ICE, Homeland Security, the US Justice Department, and other federal agencies had together managed to “lose” more than 2000 children after taking them away from their parents who came here seeking asylum, I was appalled at the incompetence and lack of caring for these, “other people’s,” children.  When we further learned that many of these children were babies – infants and toddlers, even still nursing, and that many were not even old enough to speak, a collective horror arose across the nation. And that was before we found out that not only did their parents not know where they were, our government doesn’t either.   That’s when the mental image of the pet rescue vans came to me:  the pet rescue folks know where the pets are at any given time because they care.  Our government, with its high-tech surveillance systems and sophisticated communication networks, would know where the children are – and who their parents are – if they cared.  But as I wrote about in a recent post, these are “other people’s children,” not “our kids.” 

Given the capacities of the US government, its millions of employees and thousands of departments and agencies, one can only conclude that the disappearance of these children is deliberate.  Not the result of incompetence or bureaucratic snafus or poor planning:  deliberate.  

To even think such a thought evokes guilt: how could we accuse anyone of deliberately “losing” little children?   Then we began to listen more carefully to the words – the words of the president, of Jeff Sessions (why is he so afraid?), of the various Cabinet secretaries and spokespeople.  Really listen.  That’s when we knew the children are not taken away from the heat of the border for their own benefit: they are being held hostage as leverage to get their parents to sign away their rights to an asylum hearing, to just leave, regardless of the violence that forced them to flee their home countries.  

We know that losing track of this many children is not the result of a hasty policy pronouncement or poor planning: the government had plenty of time to award multimillion dollar contracts to the for-profit and (putatively) non-profit companies like Southwest Key  for the tents, and to the  computer and communication companies to set up the detention centers.  Plenty of time to install all those wire cages – and to line up the trucks and people to carry all these materials and equipment to remote places in the desert.  Plenty of time to coach border agents on standing on the border marker, not an inch behind it, to prevent asylum seekers from lawfully entering the US to be able to petition for a hearing. Plenty of time to commit taxpayer millions to bus tickets and airline tickets and “shelter” contracts and subcontractors.  Plenty of time to divide up the tasks among Homeland Security and Justice Department and HHS and numerous others agencies in a planned chaos of hidden machinations and distributed (and therefore non-existent) accountability.  Plenty of time to set up the apparatus of control.

The parents have been given a how-to-guide for reuniting with their children, complete with a 1-800 number to call to ask where to find them.  Sometimes no one answers. Sometimes the person who answers doesn’t speak the parents’ language. Sometimes the person knows where the child is but won’t say, or says the child is fine but gives no more information. 

As of June 27, only 6 of the more than 2000 children missing one week before have, according to official sources, been reunited with their families.   In the meantime, another caravan of white vans have left Houston with rescue pets that reached their intended destinations, cared for safely and attentively all along the way. None lost. 

To share your thoughts on ways we can provide a safe welcome to children migrants, click on the “comments” pencil.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Kiddie Cages and Baby Wall

The Children are Watching

I’m so proud that Houston’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, has told ICE in no uncertain terms that he does not want a detention center for young children separated from their parents at the border to be in our city. Here's our mayor in his own words:
“I do not want to be an enabler in this process ”
“There comes a time when we must draw the line, and for me the line with our children”
“I don’t want our facilities and property owners to participate in this process”
“There comes a time when Americans, when Houstonians, when Texans, have to say to those higher than ourselves: This is wrong”

He is joined by Catholic nuns, rabbis, African American protestant ministers, parents with their young children, people representing the myriad nationalities and cultures that make up this, the nation’s most culturally diverse, city.  Many voices, one message:  No Baby Jail in Houston!   No “tender care facility.”  No facility is “tender” if the children have been taken away from their parents.  And it is definitely not “caring” if it exists to hold children hostage to force their parents to leave our country, no matter how strong their claims for refuge and asylum from the dangers they have so courageously fled.

Houstonians are not demonstrating to keep one baby jail out of our city.  We demonstrate to demand that families be united, that families crossing our border be granted just and lawful hearings, that parents not have to bargain their own safety away to get to hold their babies again.  Here are plans for this Saturday’s community protest: 

We do not want Donald Trump’s border wall paid for by the blood of Central American families:  No border wall! No baby wall!

And no cages!  The sight of very young children huddled under thin mylar “blankets” inside cages made of cyclone fencing has shocked the nation.   Tough reporters have been moved to tears and members of Congress rendered speechless at the sight—when they have been permitted to enter and see for themselves what it means for a powerful government to “detain” powerless children.

Ross D. Franklin/AP

The horrified and generous responses to the sight of those cages --from pro-bono lawyers, from ordinary families setting up go-fund-me sites to raise money for assistance in re-uniting families, from church groups and human rights activists -- has been immediate and inspiring.

But I fear another, less noticed, response: it is the impulse to see anyone incarcerated as probably guilty.  We know that defense attorneys don’t want the jury to see their clients in that orange prison jumpsuit – and definitely not in handcuffs or those clanking shackles.  A person accused of a crime who’s dressed in prisoner garb looks much more guilty than a guy who’s had a haircut and wears a crisply ironed shirt to the courtroom– maybe even a suit.  

My point here is that people in a cage, or being marched into a detention center’s maze of cages can look to an uninformed observer like a prisoner – like a guilty person – not like a person who is waiting for a legally required, Constitutional hearing on his reason for being in our country.    The sight of a woman in a big wire cage may prompt in an observer not a gut-punch of sympathy for the violence she left to protect her children from, but a twinge of suspicion of some terrible thing she must have done to warrant being so brutally locked up.

I hope I’m wrong.  But the anti-immigrant press (and shouters) don’t use the term “illegals” lightly. They mean the people themselves and the laws they (supposedly) break just by crossing the border.  The term allows them to ignore the very legal act of seeking asylum, of being afforded a legally required assessment of the danger and persecution they are fleeing. 

The sight of those cages and the exhausted, often terrified people being pushed along in lines by uniformed guards creates a powerful visual of criminals getting what they deserve.  A visual of tall wire enclosures keeping these “others” out of our neighborhoods, out of our country.

At a time when so much fear has been fomented, so much hate shouted from the White House as well as by traditionally whites-only, anti-immigrant groups, we can’t assume that everyone is seeing those cages, those faces, the same way.  That’s why smart, steady, sustained action is demanded by all who value the Constitution, who understand the need for children to be with their parents, who are grieving the terror and fears our officials – and these detention center profiteers – are exploiting.

The president claims to want a safe border and no crime. Right now the crime is in denying legal due process to asylum–seekers.  The crime is in “processing” people without a legally-required hearing to determine the validity of their claim.  And our borders won’t be safe until these families are re-united and the baby wall comes down.

To share your thoughts, click on the “comments” pencil.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Mexican American Studies in Texas!

Los Niños Nos Miran 

Signs from a June 12 protest against the name change.  RUBEN PAQUIAN

Whose knowledge is of most worth? Whose stories comprise our collective histories and whose are rendered silent?   Which Texas children find their communities’ accomplishments and struggles and names between the covers of their textbooks?   Who decides?

The teaching of history – histories – in Texas schools came closer to true authenticity today with a decision by the State Board of Education that the state will not only have credit courses in Mexican American Studies but that the courses will in fact bear that name – the name chosen by Mexican Americans. 

The name should not have been an issue. But in what seemed be an act of resistance to the very idea of ethnic studies – and to the sustained, organized advocacy for the inclusion of Mexican American Studies in our schools, members of the SBOE (mostly Republican and Anglo) decided in April that their grudging okay for the courses would be granted on the condition the courses be named “Ethnic Studies: An Overview of Americans of Mexican Descent.”  A name that evoked the demeaning othering from the Jim Crow era. A name not used by Mexican Americans to name themselves.    Angela Valenzuela, scholar activist and one of the leaders of the concerted effort for Mexican American Studies, has written powerfully and frankly about the struggle for the courses and the insulting naming.   The name could not stand in contradiction to the courses themselves.

She and her colleagues focused on the content:  historically accurate, culturally rich, research-based histories and literature grounded in the centuries of experiences and breadth of knowledge of Mexicans and Mexican Americans in Texas and the US.  “Mexican American Studies” is itself an established body of scholarship with myriads of serious publications, journals, professional expertise, and academic courses.  They argued that the K-12 curriculum needs to build on and draw from that breadth and depth of established knowledge and ways of knowing.

What caught my eye in the Republican characterization was the word overview.  "Overview" is pedagogically indefensible.  An “overview” is by definition superficial; it holds the “viewer” at a distance from the subject.  The subject itself is static; the viewer (presumably learner) is passive, observing but not engaged.  “Studies” on the other hand denotes active inquiry, discovery, cognition, exploration.  One who studies engages, questions, delves, and – this must be emphasized – adds to the subject, contributes to the collective knowledge.  An “Overview of…” posits the subject as fixed, as derived from an external authority or fixed source separate from the learner.  “Ethnic Studies” invites the learner in, requires the learner’s active role.

That active role – embodied over many months by the students, teachers, parents, community elders, scholars and allies who built the coalition in support of Mexican American Studies – may be what intimidated the conservatives on the SBOE to try to slip “overview” into the title.  It didn’t work. 

Here is Angela Valenzuela’s post on June 14, celebrating the SBOE’s acceptance of the name Mexican Americans call themselves and their history here in Texas.  I urge you to seek out her blog posts from this past April as well as June 13 and 14 to read her account, and her generous posts of other writers’ recounting, of this successful struggle to make our children’s schooling consonant with their histories:

Thursday, June 14, 2018
Happy to see that the Texas Observer gave us some ink.  Still savoring the taste of victory this morning.  I'm hoping that we can continue to be a presence and force in SBOE policy and politics, as a whole. It is our moment to own public education. Latinos will be a third of the entire US population by 2050 or 2060 no matter what anyone does to limit our presence. So the education of Latinos should be everybody's business at the same time that we need to grasp that only we can and must do for ourselves since there's nobody else out there that will do this. Plus, we are not only abundantly capable of doing this, but what we have still to offer this country is breathtaking. Why? Because we have such amazing leadership and we also have amazing super powers—as Tuesday’s show of strength revealed! 

Finally, we need new adherents and allies and we need to continue being allies to all who suffer and whose stories have similarly been marginalized by the dominant narrative. 

Sí se puede!


To comment on this struggle and the education of all our children, click on the “comments” pencil.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Who Are the Migrant Children? Who Hears Their Stories?

The Children Are Watching

“I have the right to be protected by adults…..”  So asserts the United Nations Convention of the Child, a convention signed by 196 nations and every member of the United Nations except the United States of America.

Those 196 official ratifications are not mere statements of agreement in principle, or even in sentiment.  They commit the signatory nations to act on behalf of children:  to change or create laws and develop practices that will provide all children with the protections they need to grow and thrive, to be safe, to be educated, to be healthy.  To become active parts of their families and communities and civic life.  To develop their fullest capacities.

So what is it like to be a child who comes to a country that has not officially acknowledged the rights of the child?  What is it like to make a desperate, dangerous trip to get away from wars, from being kidnapped like your cousin or raped like your sister? To keep from being captured and turned into a soldier when you should be safe in your home or learning new things at school?

Valeria Luiselli knows what it’s like:  she asks the children. She listens to their stories. Her book Tell Me How It Ends introduces us to the very vulnerable children who come here fleeing poverty and violence, hoping for a safe and peaceful life.  What they find – that Luiselli hears first-hand – is not the warm embrace of a caring nation, but cold, impersonal questions asked by strangers (don’t our parents tell us not to talk to strangers and not to talk about our family with people we don’t know?) in a stark office in a big building in a strange city.  The people who ask the questions don’t speak the child’s language. That is where Luiselli comes in.  A noted writer in Mexico, her home country, she now lives in the US. While awaiting her own green card, she learns from her lawyer that translators are needed for “processing” children in immigration court. She translates the 40 seemingly innocuous questions and the children's answers on which so much depends. 

Each child is questioned separated from parents or other family members and without a lawyer:  “Why did you come to the United States?” and “Did anything happen to you on your trip to the US that scared you or hurt you?”  Many of the children rode “La Bestia,” on top of the train from Central America through Mexico.  Many have been kidnapped or tortured, the majority of girls and women raped, and these are the ones who escaped death, death that may have claimed members of their families along the way.  “Do you like where you are living now?”  What does such a question mean to a refugee child – in comparison with what former, maybe peaceful time – or the perils of the journey?

Some questions are tricky:  answering “yes, my parents have been the victim of a crime after coming to the US" could be dangerous, with “no, it wasn’t reported to the police” seeming to ignore US law or “yes, the police were called,” which like “yes, I have relatives in the US,” may expose parents without legal immigration status to investigation and possible deportation.

As Luiselli recounts the stories of the children to her own family, her daughter is caught up in one particular story and asks her mom, “tell me how it ends.”  Today Luiselli would have to tell her that the current president and his attorney general who seems to hate all people who are not (in his estimation) sufficiently “white,” how it ends for many children is dire: even potential immediate deportation without a hearing. She says that a single Border Patrol agent can personally assess whether a child is being “trafficked” or is at risk of being trafficked upon return to their home country, or has a “credible fear” – and make the decision to deport a child without even having to document the decision – or the deportation.

That standard, arbitrary practice harbingers today’s even more cruel headlines: of refugee and migrant children being separated from their parents even when the families present themselves at the border seeking asylum. Luiselli documents the inanely impersonal, uncaring questions that loom as barriers in Immigration Court interrogations of very young children in a strange land.  We can’t  yet know “how it ends” for these children, but in reading her book we can better understand the institutional cruelty that makes a lie of our myth of accepting “the huddled masses yearning to be free.”  And those 40 questions the children struggle to answer – or to even understand – presage the greater cruelty of the current policies that risk “disappearing” children who come here to be safe, to exercise that right of the child to be protected by adults.

What can we do for children who come to us as migrants?  Buy Luiseli’s book. Send it to your member of Congress.  Vote this November for candidates who will stop the official ways we harm children who come fleeing danger. And contribute to one of these organizations that is working to assure our youngest refugees have the protection of the law:

ICARE - Immigrant Children Advocates Relief Effort
KIND - Kids in Need of Defense 

To share your thoughts on ways we can provide a safe welcome to children migrants, click on the “comments” pencil.