Families versus Workers, Morality versus Self-Interest

New Orleans     When Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son, and one of the most prominent evangelists in the country and someone with in-and-out privileges at the White House says the Trump family-separation anti-immigrant policy is “immoral,” you know there’s something truly evil in this mess.  Trump has even expressed reservations about family separation as a policy in the past, but the mad dog anti-immigrants of the administration, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and adviser Stephen Miller, have somehow managed, in the words of conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, to make this “the wickedest thing done by this administration so far.”  There’s no one in America who wants to look at that long list, so you know this ranks as the worst of the worst.

So, we now have 2000 children in what some very sober-minded commentators are calling Nazi-like concentration camps that are converted Walmart supercenters along the border.  The Trumpsters are lying about this being a policy forced on them, but the fig leaf covering this atrocity is the notion that the nuclear option of family separation will act as a deterrent.   We have to ask whether families going through the trauma of fleeing their home countries in fear for their own lives and those of their children can really effectively be deterred under any circumstances.  Trump’s draconian policies in fact might deter some families, but these families are going to go somewhere, and some or many will still rate the odds and come here.  We can look around the world or at our own national experience.  We cannot stop migration.  We can potentially control migration, but the right is wrong to believe immigration can be banned, no matter how evil our policies might become.

Douthat argues that a least-worse policy would be to ramp up E-verify, the program that scrutinizes employers’ workforce in order to root out and deport any undocumented workers.  The irony here is so rich.  The paradox is so painful.  This isn’t going to happen, because in a period of less than 4% unemployment, employers, especially in the service industries are crying for more workers.  Business wants immigrant workers and will continue to demand them.  Neoliberalism loves a mobile and transient workforce but hates the families they leave behind and has no plan or place for the ones that workers bring along.

Reading about the suicide of Anthony Bourdain, I realized I had never read his classic, Kitchen Confidential.  I have now done so, and it’s a wonderful read in addition to being chock full of insights.  Bourdain is being mourned in some quarters as an unabashed advocate for immigrants and their rights, which is all true, but it is also true because he saw his Latin American kitchen staff as his hardest, most faithful, and easiest to manage workers.  The number two lesson he offered at the end of the book was “learn Spanish.”  Bourdain’s commitment, it’s fair to say, was as much business as personal.

Business doesn’t want E-verify.  They want cheaper, harder working, even precarious employees. They also don’t want anything to do with their families.  The United States will be more willing to endure human rights complaints from the United Nation and around the world for the inhumane conditions of our family-separation child-incarceration policies than we will be willing to create problems for businesses.  Case closed, but what a tragedy.

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UndocuFund and the Philippines

Petaluma   Two interesting meetings, one in San Jose and the other in the north bay city of Petaluma in Sonoma County brought the issues of immigrants, both documented and undocumented in California, into stark relief.

I tracked down Davin Cardenas, co-director of the North Bay Organizing Project, and lead organizer for their tenant organizing for many years.  We knew Davin well from the Organizers’ Forum dialogue in Bolivia several years ago and keep in touch.  My first concern was to find out how the coalition they had organized was doing in their efforts to rekindle a petition drive around rent control in Santa Rosa.  They had narrowly lost last year at the ballot, but in the aftermath of the disastrous fire that raged through Sonoma County, the shortage of housing and high rents was an even greater issue, so they were in the middle of another signature drive to see if they could put the issue on the ballot again.

We’ll dive deeper into that discussion another time, but one of the interesting things Davin shared, especially given ACORN’s experience in the aftermath of Katrina, was their own efforts to organize support for undocumented workers and their families in the area after the fires.  They organized something they called UndocuFund.  The idea was simple.  There are some 3000 undocumented workers in Santa Rosa and more in the county.  Many of them lost work and housing in the fires, which displaced both rich and poor indiscriminately.  The difference is that FEMA does not support undocumented immigrants, so the UndocuFund was designed to provide similar emergency cash support to fill the gap for these families.  Davin said they hoped to raise a half-million, but they hit a cord and raised over $6 million, gaining a lot of attention.  In the six months or so since the fire they have already given out more than two-thirds of the money and are getting ready to make an additional appeal since some of the same issues persist.  Fires in the Santa Barbara area also triggered establishment of an UndocuFund in that area.  This is a real unique organizing breakthrough!

Less encouraging was a meeting I had earlier in the day with an immigration lawyer based in San Jose who specializes in dealing with issues relating to immigrants from the Philippines.  In his case load the issues were less about documents and more about other issues where predatory practices target immigrants.  His other concern was for families caught in the crossfire of the government in the Philippines and its extra-judicial killings that are little more than masked vigilante activity triggered by concerns over drugs.  At one level my friend was shocked at the amount of support some of these actions had among the Filipino community.  At another level the organizing problem became how to offer support to people and institutions willing to stand up for justice and the rule of law.

The issues are daunting and effective strategies are illusive, but as Davin’s experience indicated, where organizers and organizations are close to the ground, feeling the pain, and moving with their base, they are coming up with creative approaches and responses.

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