Saturday, April 7, 2012

Bakers, Colored Eggs and Terrorized Families: an Easter meditation

Guest post from David Schmidt

Years ago, I called up an old friend from high school to chat. It was the Saturday before Easter and I could hear his children giggling in the background, dying eggs with their mother.

I mentioned to my friend that I was working with other immigrants’ rights activists to organize a fundraiser for a group of bakers who had recently been detained in an I.C.E. [Immigration and Customs Enforement] raid in San Diego. The federal agents raided the bakery where the people had worked, blocking off the streets and swarming into the facility with high-powered assault rifles.

As I described this scene to my friend, I could hear pots and pans clanging in his kitchen. His oldest girl was asking his mother to pass her the pink dye.

I told my friend that after the raid, the bakers were sent to an austere private detention facility in the middle of the desert, nestled in the mountains miles from any urban center. Some of them were still being held in the detention center, known by the name “Corrections Corporation of America”, confused and bewildered, unable to contact family or find out the exact status of their immigration case.

I heard the blender fire up in the background over the phone. My friend’s son, a toe-headed toddler, giggled at the loud noise.

I told my friend that most of the bakers were still being held in the austere private detention facility, CCA, located in the desert mountains far from town. Many of them had children who were U.S. citizens. The detainees’ families had rushed to find places for the children to stay while their parents were being dressed down and fitted for blue jumpsuits in Otay Mesa. Most of these parents, I knew, would have no recourse from deportation.
My friend’s youngest baby was laughing at a funny dance his daughter was doing.

I told my friend that I had met some of the children of these people, seen the deadness already beginning to spread in their eyes. After a few weeks separated from their parents, their lives were already marked with an irremediable scar. Some of them, I knew, had not seen their parents since the immigration raid. Others had gone to visit their parents at CCA, had seen their mothers and fathers handcuffed like common criminals, had looked at them through a bullet-proof plate of glass. Most of these U.S. born kids would eventually be facing life-shattering choices—either stay in the country of their birth, occasionally crossing international borders to visit their parents, or leave their country and join their parents in a land that was foreign to them.

While his children dyed eggs in the background, my friend reacted to my story with a one-line response: “Well that’s too bad, I feel sorry for them and all, but that’s what they get; that’s life.”

I was silent for a minute.

There were a lot ways I could have responded to this. I could have responded to the implication of my friend’s “that’s what they get” comment: that immigrants without papers have done something wrong, have committed some crime. That’s the whole mentality surrounding any debate about legalization, after all—people call it “amnesty”. Folks on the right are against amnesty, folks on the left in favor of it, but both groups speak in terms of  “forgiveness”, which imples that immigrants have done something morally wrong.

I could have gone into all the trade policy, economic policy, and foreign policy that our own government pushes for, policies which make the world a more unequal, uninhabitable place, that force people to migrate. I could have mentioned the fact that the category of “economic refugee” does not yet exist in the law. That people in our country don’t examine the way our own trade policies, which bring us cheap consumer products, also force people out of work and force them to migrate. That there are no recourses for the economically displaced to take to get their livelihood back. And no legal way to migrate when they are driven off their land because of our policies.

I could have gone into how impossible it is for the working poor of most other countries to legally immigrate to a country like the United States, or the European Union, or Australia. That when people say “why don’t they come legally”, there is no legal way to come. That when people say “get in line and wait”, there is no line to get in.

I could have talked about the bakers who were being detained at the private detention facility in the desert, and the fact that most of them would pay thousands of dollars to immigration attorneys to “fight their case”—in vain. The fact of the matter is, unless you have a parent or child who is a citizen or legal resident and can petition for you, have a U.S. citizen who depends only on you and has a serious medical condition, or can prove a death squad will kill you if you go back to the country of your birth, you have very few options for avoiding deportation. Most of the time, immigration court proceedings are a way for people to buy time while they hope for a new law to pass. Too often, they are a form of false hope given to the immigrants involved in them. A chimerical light at the end of the tunnel, the promise that a father or mother just might be able to stay with their U.S. born children—a hope which is almost always snuffed out at the end of the court proceedings.

But that wasn’t the first place my mind went.

The first place my mind went was in response to my friend’s caveat, “I feel sorry for them”.

Because I knew it wasn’t true.

During Holy Week—a time set aside to remember a marginalized peasant man, a peasant from a family of carpenters who had lost their land due to the Roman empire’s consolidation of its economic power, a man who preached a message of radical inclusion and who was murdered by the powers that be—on this Easter weekend in question, my friend had not shown a smidgen of true compassion or mercy for the people I was describing.

I knew that, if my friend would stop for a split second to think about what these families were really going through—these families just like his, with children they loved just as much as he loved his—he would find it impossible to make a callous statement like “that’s what they get”. The words would taste like arsenic in his mouth. They would make him physically sick.

I wanted to say this, but I didn’t. I let my friend get back to his happy family. After all, they had eggs to dye, and they had to be up early in the morning for church the next day.

“Happy Easter,” I told him.

David Schmidt is a freelance writer and multi-lingual translator in San Diego, CA. He is a proponent of immigrants' rights and fair trade, and works with worker-owned coops in Mexico to help them develop alternative, fair sources of income.

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