Friday, November 16, 2012

How to talk about? Migration/US-Mexico border

How to address symbolic and emotionally-charged arguments about migration and 
the U.S.-Mexico border

By Professor Josiah Heyman
University of Texas at El Paso
Sept. 23, 2005; rev. July 21, 2006

(1) Illegality (breaking the law, etc.)
People often are disturbed that the law is broken in unauthorized migration.  We can understand this, since we are reasonably law abiding and law respecting individuals.  However, when broad forces drive people to leave their homes in search of work and to reunite with family, and when the law (complete with extensive law enforcement) does not stop them, it may be that the law itself has failed and there is a need for a better solution (e.g., fair and just development in Mexico; safe and legal temporary migration to the U.S. with earned legalization).  A good analogy is the failure of prohibition in the U.S. in the1920s.

(2) Emergency (sense of impending crisis, panic, vulnerability, etc.)
States of emergency declared by various governors are political publicity designed to make them seem “on top of the issue.”   People need to be careful with political rhetoric and also with dramatic news shows designed to sell advertising time.  Unauthorized migration along the border has been quite stable in recent years (actually slightly declining, to judge by arrest rates).  It rises and falls largely according to the state of the Mexican and Central American economies, and also demand for labor in the U.S.  Migration flows shift back and forth along the border, moving ahead of the concentration of law enforcement; this means that as some areas of the border seem to be in an “emergency” (first Arizona and then New Mexico), others become quiet (San Diego county, urban El Paso).  Whichever side of the immigration issues you are on, there is little need for panic and little reason to hope for quick fixes; this is a set of issues that has built up for a long time and needs to be addressed over the long run.

(3) Invasion (fear of demographic change, fear of separatism, etc.)
Unauthorized migration is not an invasion in any meaningful sense of the word (it is a large movement of people over time, of course, but so is the population boom in Texas in the last 30 years).  It does not involve an armed enemy.  The government of the U.S. or its states are in no danger.  Large segments of the domestic U.S. population support the “invasion” by providing jobs, rental apartments, etc., and of course benefit enormously.  The “invaders” are not cohesive, they slowly but surely enter the U.S. mainstream, and are largely patriotic (expressed loyalty, military service, etc.). 
The population of the U.S. is not being demographically overwhelmed, though it is gradually changing; the number of unauthorized migrants is approximately 4 percent of the U.S. population and growing by about .17 percent (of the total US population) a year.  The Latino population is growing rapidly, but this is largely due to U.S.-born, U.S. citizen Latinos.  If so, fear of invasion suggests hidden fear of Latinos as people. There is no meaningful case of separatism in the U.S. involving voluntary immigrants, with or without documents.  These are people who choose to come to the U.S., after all.  Separatist movements in other countries (e.g., Quebec/Canada) involve conquered people who were in place before the conquerors came in.

(4) Fear of workers
Poor workers, including those in physically demanding, dirty, and stigmatized jobs, are often feared and disliked because of distaste for their occupations and because of the poverty in which they live (because of low wages).   This is applied to immigrant workers, such as day laborers, especially when they are in fancy areas where they are seen as “eyesores” and “dangerous.”  Yet such jobs are socially necessary, and we should value and admire people who fill them.  Immigrants are not especially dangerous; their violent crime rates are lower than those of comparable U.S.-born populations.

(5) Fear of families, women, children, and use of social services
There is a common fear of immigrants as bringers of/producers of children.  But this expresses a resentment of a normal, healthy human process, one that we should cherish.  Indeed, the U.S. is an aging country that needs immigrants to maintain a healthy young population.  A society with a shortage of children and young families is a very dysfunctional society indeed.  The demographic facts needed to discuss this issue are listed under item 3, above.

The use of taxpayer dollars is complicated.  Immigrants are mostly young working adults and young families.  They benefit society significantly through taxes and social security withholding.  They do use schools and emergency medical services (but in general they underutilize health services).  This tends to cost local governments the most.  The largest benefit is to the federal government.  The overall cost/benefit analysis is close to break-even, with a net benefit from immigration.  Besides, it is morally questionable to think purely in cost/benefit terms.  These are children, after all, whose well-being is at stake.

One of the main objections is that U.S. citizens only (only sometimes legal residents) should have any right to social benefits, health services, or education.  It is ours, and outsiders have no right to it, is the thinking.  However
   (1) immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants, have access to few social benefits--no welfare, and only basic health services such as emergency room care and public health such as vaccinations.  Only K-12 education is a universal right, by Supreme Court decision (Plyler v. Doe).  So the social services issue is overestimated.
   (2) Immigrants of all legal statuses more than pay their dues to society, by working hard and paying withholding taxes, and more generally contributing to the well-being of all of us.  We all owe each other something, an immense web of mutual debts, including both citizens and immigrants.
   (3) Some things it is appropriate to consider restricted personal possessions, like a car, say.  But some things are so fundamental that we cannot just personally possess them and ignore everyone else.  We cannot afford to live in a society where large numbers of people do not receive primary health care so they transmit preventable diseases or end up in terrible shape at the emergency room, costing many more dollars than the prevention would cost.  We cannot afford to live in a society where millions of children do not attend school and do not receive an education.

(6) Fear of language change/loss of cultural traditions, “Cultural fundamentalism” (akin to racism but using cultural difference as a justification for fear and prejudice)  
People often fear different cultures and feel a sense of communication barriers when encountering languages that they do not know.  When familiar places and landscapes change, this leads to a strong sense of loss.  The best answer is to ask people to have a sense of history.  The United States is a powerful cultural system with a long history of including immigrants, to some extent assimilating them, and also being enriched by immigrants.  Vast numbers of German, Italian, Spanish/Latin American, French, Irish, Scandinavian, Hungarian, Slavic, Yiddish, Lebanese Arab, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and other language speakers/culture bearers have come to the U.S., with no evident harm to great American traditions.  In fact there has been a strengthening of American democracy by insisting on justice and participation.  The evidence is that cultures are not “fundamental,” that people can and do change (and enrich) their cultures.  Recent Mexican and other Latin American immigrants are following the same path.  Adoption of English and other markers of culture change are occurring at the same rate and following the same patterns as past immigrants.

(7) Fear of crime
We often fear the unknown and the outsider in ways that may not be accurate, indeed, may be unfair.  Immigrants are not especially dangerous or crime-ridden; their violent crime rates are lower than comparable U.S.-born populations. Criminals do cross the border, but the U.S. and Mexican governments have a good  (if not perfect) track record of cooperating, catching, and extraditing them.

(8) Terrorism (vulnerability, etc.)
Terrorists/terrorist devices could come through the U.S.-Mexico border, and we should be concerned about that border in the same way we are concerned about airports, seaports, the Canadian land border, domestic transportation, etc.  However, none of the 9/11 hijackers came through the Mexican border and Mexican and Central American unauthorized migrants have no likelihood of being terrorists.  The effort spent arresting non-terrorists, and the business of human smuggling sustained by “illegalization” of Mexican migration, actually makes it harder to detect possible terrorists coming through this border.  A safe, legal system of labor migration would enable a clearer focus on law enforcement against terrorism along the Mexican border.

(9) Scapegoating
There are many difficulties and forms of rapid change affecting the contemporary U.S., and we are made aware of them (in a fearful, superficial way) by the news media.  These include the decline of the “suburban paradise” in California and other parts of the post WWII United States; globalization of the economy and loss of steady jobs; changes in standards of personal behavior; urban sprawl and pollution; terrorism; bloody, frustrating counter-insurgency wars in distant lands; and a chaotic post-cold war foreign policy world.  If we take almost any of these changes, we quickly see that it is unreasonable to scapegoat immigrants for them, or to exaggerate their role in them; we also see that it avoids facing our own responsibility for these processes.  Unfortunately, powerless outsiders are easy to scapegoat, but this does not honestly and forthrightly address our own issues.

(10) Racism
I find it almost impossible to understand the reasoning involved with open or covert racism, and thus it is hard to get at the underlying emotions involved.  One hopes that we can all embrace our fellow humans in a spirit of love.  At the rational level, as an anthropologist familiar with the scientific literature, I can say that “race” is a disproven and useless way of describing human biological variation.  Hispanic/Latino is a completely preposterous “race,” being made of a vast range of ancestral populations.  Even “Mexican” is not a consistent genetic pool and is not a race.  “White” is certainly not, being a highly varied assemblage of mobile peoples from the long history of Eurasia.  Race is a distorted, pseudo-scientific way of speaking about roles people have had over long periods of history in the power system and the division of labor, especially in the Americas.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Snapshot: Considering (the size of) a rhinoceros

I never realized the true size of a rhinoceros until I saw this photo. 

Who says dinosaurs are no longer with us?

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Snapshot: I miss letters...

Book review: Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard

I just finished Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard and found it to be a most seamlessly written, interesting, informative and surprisingly moving book. Highly recommended. 

From Goodreads: 
James A. Garfield was one of the most extraordinary men ever elected president. Born into abject poverty, he rose to become a wunderkind scholar, a Civil War hero, and a renowned and admired reformist congressman. Nominated for president against his will, he engaged in a fierce battle with the corrupt political establishment. But four months after his inauguration, a deranged office seeker tracked Garfield down and shot him in the back. But the shot didn’t kill Garfield. The drama of what hap­pened subsequently is a powerful story of a nation in tur­moil. The unhinged assassin’s half-delivered strike shattered the fragile national mood of a country so recently fractured by civil war, and left the wounded president as the object of a bitter behind-the-scenes struggle for power—over his administration, over the nation’s future, and, hauntingly, over his medical care. A team of physicians administered shockingly archaic treatments, to disastrous effect. As his con­dition worsened, Garfield received help: Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, worked around the clock to invent a new device capable of finding the bullet. Book reviews excerpted below.

President James Garfield
Garfield was a brilliant man who was born into extreme poverty and ended up putting himself through college. His first year at college, he was a carpenter and a janitor. By the second year, he was made a professor of literature and ancient languages. And by the time he was 26, he was the university President. Garfield never had what he called 'Presidential fever.'" He traveled to the Republican convention in 1880 to give the nominating address for someone else. But his speech was so good that at one point during it, when he uttered "What do we want?" someone shouted, "Garfield!" and people started essentially writing him in to vote for him.
In this book the reader learns about Alexander Bell as well.
Alexander Bell
Excerpts from book reviews: 
"In her brilliant and absorbing new book, Destiny of the Republic, Candice Millard makes a persuasive case for elevating a third martyred president—America's 20th—to the pantheon long reserved for Lincoln and Kennedy. . . . As in her best-selling River of Doubt, which took readers deep inside Teddy Roosevelt's harrowing journey into the Amazon, Millard settles here on a story all but lost in the cavernous house of presidential history. Equal parts political and medical thriller—indeed, a dazzling cross between the best of Robert Caro and Robin Cook—Destiny of the Republic offers a bristling account of the dramatic struggle to save Garfield's life. A struggle, Millard explains, inextricably bound up with larger, fiery contests over America's post–Civil War future and over the trajectory of modern science and medicine." - The Daily Beast

"Millard…creates a vivid portrait of the times, a vulnerable nation, political hardball, nightmarish decision-making and the eloquent Garfield, who's a footnote for generations of high school students. She covers topics as diverse as the fiefdom of New York senator and patronage dispenser Roscoe Conkling, and the mind of Alexander Graham Bell, working on an electrical device to find the bullet lodged in Garfield's back. Millardseamlessly unfolds multiple tales....Millard finds the ironies of history throughout this stirring narrative, one that's full of suspense even though you know what's coming. She makes you a witness, not a reader." - Erie Times

"[An] engaging, elegantly written and insightful look at the political and scientific developments of late-19th century America…" - The Washington Times

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Snapshot: What we choose to emphasize in [our] complex history

What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places -- and there are so many -- where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.

- Howard Zinn

Snapshot: Life as art - Maya Angelou

Because of the routines we follow, we often forget that life is an ongoing adventure....Life is pure adventure, and the sooner we realize that, the quicker we will be able to treat life as art: to bring all our energies to each encounter, to remain flexible enough to notice and admit when what we expected to happen did not happen. We need to remember that we are created creative, and can invent new scenarios as frequently as they are needed. 

- Maya Angelou
Thanks to Terri Windling's blog for this quote (

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Art notes: Pissarro, Dufy, Caillebotte

Lately I've been studying the work of artists Pissarro, Dufy and Caillebotte. It turns out that Caillebotte is the creator of some of my favorite paintings, but I'd never realized they were all by the same person. I wasn't aware of the work by Pissarro, but kept running across mention of him as being a strong influence on many of his contemporaries, especially Gauguin and Cezanne (the latter is one of my favorite artists). I found his life interesting - his background and youth as well as his commitment to his family (in a time when fellow artists were quite negligent of their partners and children). Also, his sustained artistic focus and exploration was exciting to see. He stuck with his experiments and investigations - kept up a strong practice - in a way that I found to be reminiscent of Buddhist practitioners. Dufy was fascinating in how he started with a strong academic foundation and then devolved (in a good sense) to use looser rendering of images and refuse to limit color to a merely descriptive function (in his work it could convey all kinds of things: emotions, memories, etc.). Of course, this may not seem like much of an innovation now, but it was during the time period in which he worked. Indeed, he was criticized for not being serious enough. I have a more complex reaction to the art of Caillebotte. Much of his work leaves me cold, but there are three pieces that move me: Les raboteurs de parquet (workmen stripping the floor of a luxury Parisan apartment), a display of fruit and a view of snowy Parisian rooftops. Also, I appreciate his many paintings of people looking out windows and gazing over Paris. He painted at a time when the city architect Haussemann was tearing down large sections of medieval Paris and turning it into the more modern wide-boulevarded city that we know today. You can imagine that it took a great deal of looking to get used to this new place.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Book review: Le Road Trip by Vivian Swift

Le Road Trip: A Traveler's Journal of Love and France follows on the success of Vivian Swift's delightful and genre defying first book When Wanderers Cease to Roam: A Traveler's Journal of Staying Put In Le Road Trip Swift has given us another gift for the senses. This book celebrates in both word and image how to be a tourist in your own life - take it in, savor it, but also don't take any of it too seriously.

Her "chocolate box" approach to books allows you to read in any order you like (though chronological is fun because it gives you the unfolding experience of the trip). As with her first book, "Le Road Trip" is completely hand-lettered by the author as well as full of her gorgeous watercolors and line drawings, perfect and often obscure quotes as well as thoughtful reflections on what it is like to travel (and be in love). I find that Swift's books lend themselves to re-reading. You'll always notice something new, most notably in the deceptively simple illustrations.

How I wish this book had been around when I first went abroad as a teenager and young adult. It'd have been a help and encouragement to find my own unique way of traveling - the way that was right for me. Indeed, I plan give this book to anyone about to travel or live abroad (perfect for exchange students, college year abroad students and even Peace Corps volunteers). On the surface "Le Road Trip" is about a trip to France, but really the subject is universal - the joys and, at times, difficulties of any kind travel outside of the familiar (going to college, living on the other side of the globe, starting a new relationship).

Nancy Pearl, Seattle librarian and book reviewer extraordinaire said it best: "A perfect gift for travelers, those with artistic souls, those with a sense of wonder, those who are hug-the-hearths--in short--nearly everyone on your gift list."

All I can add to that is be sure to put yourself at the top of that list!