On detention camps, ICE, and what persists

To begin, I feel completely unqualified to write on this subject, and also obligated to put  words to it. What do I know about the long trajectory of US immigration policy, the contemporary politics of Central America and Mexico, or the extent of political organizing on/around the US Mexico border? Not much, especially compared to many thoughtful scholars, including Jenna Loyd and Alison Mountz, or Patricia Ehrkamp. 

But this is also the moment – the moment of asylees having their children kidnapped by the US government, of concentration camps on the border, of racial incitement by the administration against immigrants – when it is incumbent upon us to speak, even if it is not enough. In saying I’m going to to speak up even though I don’t feel qualified, we ask our communities to hold us accountable to do more.

As a scholar,  I have been thinking for a long time about persistence. In my own work, I think about the persistence of things called ‘public amenities’ in the landscape. In turn, I also think about the persistence of ideas that seem outdated, or those which seemed pretty good but disappeared. And lately I think about the persistence of political actors  whose cruel actions have overwhelmed many of us as of late. What combinations of power, influence, organizing, and inertia cause things to stick around? For good and for ill.

Last year, I wrote about the current US administration’s call to cut the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB – home of PBS and NPR). I noted then that the proposals were frustrating but not surprising: indeed, they had been hanging around in the CATO Institute’s Handbook since 1995. That is, the plan to cut all that remains of the meager federal funding for arts and culture in the US has persisted for at least 24 years through an independent organization with lots of wealth and ties to power. The policy has been waiting in the wings. It gets published and re-published every couple years, as its supporters wait for the right political moment to roll it out. Persistence.

So as I have been following the current administration’s actions on immigration at the US-Mexico border, I have been thinking about the persistence of ICE, an agency that is relatively new to the federal law enforcement landscape, having been established after 9/11. Before it was added to the newly-created Department of Homeland Security, pieces of ICE came from the US Customs Service, and Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS), among others.

This got me thinking about some time I spent in new Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, in 2005 – 6. While there, I mostly cooked for the Clinical Staff at Common Ground Health Clinic. I also handed out respirator masks and did some medical interpreting in a weekly mobile clinic for the affiliated Latino Health Outreach Project (LHOP). (The organization, which no longer exists, was formed in when two independent volunteers began going out to give tetanus shots to Latino migrant workers doing demolition jobs, and evolved to provide other basic medical services in downtown New Orleans and in a suburban church.)

What appears here is from an email newsletter I sent to my friends and family (social media wasn’t really a thing yet) after a mobile clinic in a parking lot.

Account, 5/17/06:

When the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents round up our patients, we are just closing up the mobile clinic at the labor lines for the day.  Until I saw the vans with the emblem, I hadn’t realized how creepy and distopian “Department of Homeland Security” seems.  The agents seem to come out of the concrete we are standing on; I look up and all of the men are up against the wall.  As they empty one man’s pockets, all that falls out is a bar of soap we had given him in a hygiene kit. 

[People at the mobile clinic are always happiest to receive these bags sent by church groups from across the country: a face towel, soap, toothbrush and toothpaste.  I try to let it remind me about the privilege of a hot shower and the ability I have to take care of myself.]

An aside: We read about the anti-immigrant sentiment in the news, and the bills being put through congress, and I feel like my hands are tied.  Truth is, I could probably have called my congresspeople last week and I didn’t.  I did, however, go to the mayday rally here in New Orleans, as did tens of thousands of people in LA, New York, Chicago, Philly and San Francisco.  To me, rallies feel good, but also futile, as there is an ignorance and power machine running the country, using fear to motivate people to mow over each others’ rights.  (Note to self: call legislators.)

So, the men are thrown into these white vans, and driven off.   We five medical folk, just minutes earlier feeling so good about a smooth day in the parking lot mobile clinic, stand and watch, powerless.  When we get close enough to see, they shout at us.  “You are interfering with a federal investigation!  Do you want to roll too?”  Another patient, a Black man, walks up beside me and says softly “Naomi, I know you think this is wrong, but I don’t want to see you get hurt.  These guys are real assholes.”  It feels good that these guys are looking out for me, and I understand my own limits too. 

The vans drive off.  I feel very un-brave. 

My great grandfather was an undocumented immigrant in this country; so were lots of our relatives. Then what gives me the right to be here??   I tell that to people sometimes who ask me why I’m helping people who undermine our economy, who steal work from ‘real’ Americans.  And though I could also make a million arguments about the varied permeability of the US border over time, about the amount of money that immigrants provide our tax base without receiving equal services in return… I do this work because there is no one looking out for these people.  They have come here to work; they work without safety equipment, and often without pay; then they are arrested and deported. So I hand out respirators and talk to men with no homes and no families, and feel un-heroic. 

Before I left SF this last time, all sorts of people told me how proud they were that I am going to “save the people of New Orleans.”  Oy. Vey.  And then the people here are always thanking us for coming here and helping.  (And I acknowledge that  I suffer from a certain amount of this Jewish tendency: “Oh this dress?  I bought it at Marshall’s for ten bucks!”)  But really, heroism is trying to rebuild your house in a low lying flood plain and support your grandma and travel thousands of miles from home to send money back to your family in Mexico/El Salvador/Guatemala/Texas.  I just try to notice once or twice a week.

Reading my own words 13 years later, I think a few things. One is: I fell down on the job. On one hand, Katrina – and Common Ground in its 2005-6 incarnation – changed me politically, as it did for many people. It got me rethinking race and racism in the US, how governments and their agencies work, and what building justice looks like. On the other hand, I haven’t been calling my congresspeople. I haven’t been paying attention in the ways that were so obvious during the Bush II administration. I have gotten two graduate degrees, I have supported students doing good work, but ICE has persisted, has further embedded its own existence.

Today I persist in writing.

I’m not sure what I have to say yet, but you’re here and maybe I have gotten you to think about what action means, too.

Here‘s one place I think is doing good work; maybe you will give them some dollars and they will pay the bond for folks who have been detained, and provide them with legal services. The organizations that have persisted for so in fighting for justice on the border are spread thin right now; they have big ideas waiting in the wings, too.