On the Quinceañera at the Capitol

On the Quinceañera at the Capitol

You’ve probably read about or seen the videos of the fifteen teenaged girls who spoke out against SB4 last week with a quinceañera-themed protest in Austin. The girls wore brightly-colored ball gowns, danced to “Las mañanitas” and “Immigrants: We Get the Job Done,” read poetry, and gave fiery speeches on the granite steps of the Capitol.

The images from the protest have stuck with me all week, and I’ve been trying to put words to just why this particular protest was so resonant. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

1. I’m floored by the bravery of the girls. From what I’ve read, some of the girls are undocumented; all of them have loved ones who are undocumented. There’s a subtext of risk any time undocumented immigrants speak up for themselves, and state representative Matt Rinaldi made that subtext into text in May when he literally called ICE on SB4 protesters inside the Capitol. But the threat has always been there. My students frequently tell me that they’d like to attend political rallies to advocate for their families, but they’re afraid ICE will show up. And they’re being reasonable: earlier this year, a DACA recipient whose paperwork had lapsed was arrested by ICE after speaking at a press conference in Mississippi.

Just this week, an ICE agent told Jonathan Blitzer that his colleagues “seem to be targeting the most vulnerable people, not the worst.” So it would be understandable if these girls muted their voices and moved themselves further into the shadows. Instead they made themselves more vulnerable by making themselves hyper-visible in jewel-toned, sparkly dresses.

2. Who isn’t moved by a protest that fights ugliness with beauty, and disrespect with grace?

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3. One girl, in her speech, pointed out that the quinceañera is a celebration of both the family and community. That makes a quinceañera-themed protest the perfect response to a law like SB4, which threatens the Latino community by tearing apart its families.

4. Finally, and more personally, there’s this: I moved to Fort Worth from Mount Pleasant, South Carolina in the 7th grade, in time to make friends with classmates who would be having quinceañeras within the next two years. I was invited to several, and even served as a chambelán in two–I stumbled through the choreography in a rented tuxedo, was awed by the Spanish mass before the celebrations, marveled at the colors and the food and the music and–most of all–by the depth and history of a culture that graciously extended itself even to me, an awkward kid from the Deep South. Those quinceañeras were among my first impressions of Texas, and they were my first inkling of the greatness of the state. We tell our cowboy stories, and we brag about our bluebonnets and the size of our Capitol building. But you don’t understand Texas if you don’t get this: Texas is part of America’s borderlands and, to paraphrase both Beto O’Rourke and Gloria Anzaldúa, the borderlands are what make America great. That means that laws like SB4, and all the anti-immigrant sentiments that go with it, aren’t just attacks on individual families (though that’s bad enough!); they’re attacks on the character of Texas itself. They’re anti-Texan, and therefore anti-American. Which may be why one of my favorite moments in all of the videos was when two of the girls held up a banner reading “Love: for our families, for our community, for our Texas.” These girls get this state. Too many of its lawmakers don’t.

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(all photos via AP)

First Thoughts on the Last Week in Immigration News: DACA, DAPA, and the DHS

First Thoughts on the Last Week in Immigration News: DACA, DAPA, and the DHS

 

NOTE: Before reading my thoughts, I recommend you check out Dara Lind’s reporting and analysis on this topic. She’s phenomenal, and a must-follow for immigration news. 

I spent last week at the beach on Galveston Island, trying to recover from the past year of teaching. Most years, I spend June pointedly not thinking about my students, but times are different now. While I was there, a rumor came my way that the mother of one of my students was detained by ICE shortly after the school year ended. There was concern that this boy, who came to the United States as a three-year-old, might have to leave the country. I don’t know if it’s true; I pray it’s not, and I may not know either way until August. But I have a feeling this is what the next few years will be like: a lot of rumors, a lot of fear, a lot of uncertainty.

Thursday evening, big immigration news filled my Twitter feed: the Department of Homeland Security rescinded the executive order known as DAPA (Deferred Action for Parents of Americans). Briefly, DAPA was designed to protect the undocumented parents of citizen children. Really, DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and DAPA are complementary policies: it’s great if you promise not to deport the high-achieving high school student I wrote about a few weeks ago, but it means a lot less if you deport her parents, forcing her to either a) relocate to Mexico with them or b) take responsibility for her younger siblings in her parents’ absence, hobbling her own future in the process.

There was a lot of consternation on my Twitter feed over the memo, which was released on the five-year anniversary of the day Obama signed DACA. But, while the gesture was ugly, it was also fairly meaningless. While DACA has helped around 750,000 young immigrants, DAPA was never enacted. After Obama announced it, 26 governors (all Republicans) managed to stop it in the courts. So, by rescinding the order, the DHS didn’t actually do anything.

On the other hand, another aspect of the memo caused the opposite reaction. After announcing the end of DAPA, the DHS memo says, “DACA, however, will remain in effect.” The response to these words ranged from cautiously optimistic to jubilant: the Trump administration, the word went out, had officially decided to commit to protecting the DREAMers, young, often high-achieving immigrants who were brought here as young children.

But that bright moment was short-lived. When questioned, the DHS clarified that the memo sent out on Thursday was all about DAPA and that, in mentioning DACA, the administration had not meant to imply that a final decision on DACA had been made. So the status of the DREAMers remains up in the air–though in the meantime the administration continues to process and approve DACA applications and renewals.

To be clear, this is still good news: rescinding DACA would be a travesty, and so the fact that Trump has still not ended it has to be taken as a positive. Plus, as Dara Lind points out, the longer the administration lets DACA remain in effect, the harder it will be to end the program. My guess is that the Trump administration will continue to play this game for the foreseeable future, maybe using DACA as a bargaining chip in legislative deals, maybe using it to prove that Trump has a “big heart,” but hesitating to give the DREAMers any real reassurance about their status.

But you have to remember a couple of points. First, DACA is no ironclad protection against deportation–if you have it, you’re still considered an “illegal,” you just have certain privileges (a work permit, the ability to obtain a driver’s license) and ICE considers you a lower priority for removal. But it is not a form of amnesty or a guarantee of safety. ICE is explicit about this. In other words, DACA isn’t a promise; it’s a shrug.

And DACA is easy to lose. Break any law, even a minor traffic statute, and you lose it. Miss a renewal deadline, or lack the funds to pay renewal fees–you lose it. And once you’ve lost DACA, in some ways you’re worse off than if you never had it, since DACA enrollees give the government private information that can be used to track them down.

So, for all of the fireworks around DACA and DAPA, nothing in last week’s order substantially changed, for better or worse, the situation of many undocumented immigrants in the US.

Instead, the most important immigration-related news from last week may have been the least-remarked. Thomas Homan, the acting director of ICE, told members of the House Appropriations Committee, “If you’re in this country illegally and you committed a crime by entering this country, you should be uncomfortable. You should look over your shoulder, and you need to be worried.”

In my piece for Alternet, I wrote about how my students are dimming their lives, how they and their families are letting go of family pets, narrowing their college searches, and, yes, looking over their shoulders everywhere they go. I argued that the fear I described was by design:

That logic, in which cruelty functions as a deterrent and fear is a disincentive, is likely behind the highly public, large-scale ICE raids in February, and ICE’s decision to encroach on areas previously considered sensitive, like churches and courthouses. Such logic may also explain why Texas Republicans paid no attention to city police chiefs who said SB4 would make immigrant communities less safe. After all, if undocumented immigrants don’t feel safe in their neighborhoods, aren’t they more likely to leave?

When I wrote that, I worried that I was going too far, because, as I said, stripping people of their dignity, opportunities, and joy in order to achieve our legal goals makes us into monsters. But the Department of Homeland Security proved me right. They want undocumented immigrants scared. They want my students to fear for their parents as soon as they’re dropped off at school. They want these young people to live smaller, more miserable lives.

If nothing else, hopefully Homan’s comments can finally put to bed the lie that too many of my Trump-supporting friends still believe: that ICE is targeting “bad hombres” and dangerous criminals. Homan admitted it’s not true. “Most of the criminal aliens we find in the interior of the United States, they entered as a non-criminal,” he said. “If we wait for them to violate yet another law against a citizen of this country, then it’s too late. We shouldn’t wait for them to become a criminal.”

In other words, ICE considers all undocumented immigrants to be bad hombres or, at best, potential bad hombres.

Homan also compared his agency’s efforts to those of the highway patrol. ““The highway patrol can’t arrest everybody for speeding, but if we speed, we know it’s a possibility we [could] get stopped. It should be no different with immigration enforcement.”

I could be wrong, but I’d wager that Homan, like most people, has received a speeding ticket. If he has, I’d wager that Homan, like most people, dealt with it by paying a fine or maybe taking a Defensive Driving class. I doubt his family was broken apart because he went 74 mph in a 65 mph zone.

I hope Homan re-read his quotes and felt embarrassed about that comparison. If not, I hope he spends some time thinking about the different outcomes of a deportation order and a speeding ticket. But most of all, I hope the rumors I heard last week are wrong, and that the boy at the center of those rumors will be in class come August, rested and ready to write college application essays.

Grad photo

[Photo by Hope Swearingen, 2017]

 

At alternet.org: on the narrowing of immigrant lives in the era of Trump & SB4

At alternet.org: on the narrowing of immigrant lives in the era of Trump & SB4

[Photo by Hope Swearingen, 2017.]

Alternet.org is running a piece I wrote after having far too many gut-punch conversations in recent weeks with students on what their lives are like right now. An earlier version ran in the Austin American Statesman last week. Here’s an excerpt:

We need to point out that this climate of fear seems to have been built by design. In the early part of this decade, some members of the Republican Party floated the idea of “self-deportation” as a means of reducing the undocumented population without mobilizing a large deportation force. The idea was that if you could make the lives of undocumented immigrants miserable enough, those immigrants would choose to leave the country on their own. The cruelty behind such thinking is obvious; even Donald Trump called it “crazy” and “maniacal” and criticized Mitt Romney for adopting the idea during the 2012 presidential campaign.

But the thinking behind self-deportation is back, in large part because Trump has let his immigration policies be shaped by men like Jeff Sessions and Kris Kobach, the author of Arizona’s SB 1070. Department of Homeland Security secretary John Kelly made it clear in a March interview that his agency intends to use cruelty and fear to deter illegal immigration. While defending the possibility of separating children from their mothers at the border, Kelly said, “Yes, I’m considering [that], in order to deter movement along this terribly dangerous network. I am considering exactly that. They will be well cared for as we deal with their parents.”

That’s the kicker. The piece as a whole is much more personal, and wasn’t easy for me to write.

Trolls, Pennants, and the Pragmatic Case for Immigration Reform

Trolls, Pennants, and the Pragmatic Case for Immigration Reform

I posted a video at the head of my last post that two students at my school made to publicize a petition they started in opposition to SB4, the anti-sanctuary city bill that, lamentably, passed both chambers of the Texas legislature and will soon be signed by Governor Greg Abbott.

Last week, my school had its annual Pennant Ceremony, a day for graduating seniors to  announce publicly for the first time what colleges they’ve decided to attended in the fall. The two students featured in that video, Jassary and Chris, both announced that they’ll be attending Ivy League schools. Chris has known for some time that he would be going Penn–he applied early decision, and his acceptance last fall was big news throughout our district. Jassary was accepted by Stanford, Wellesley, and Barnard, among other colleges, but last week she held up the pennant of Brown University.

I bring this up mostly to brag about those kids. But I have another point, too. See, although the petition those two started won’t likely get the result it deserves, it nonetheless garnered more than 33,000 signatures. Which is amazing, and is due to the efforts of those two, who are among the hardest working, most impressive young people I’ve ever known. Unfortunately, any petition that generates that kind of support is also going to get the attention of trolls. And while the overwhelming majority of the comments on their petition have been supportive, some were pretty ugly. One elderly-looking man from Pennsylvania wrote, “if they came in the back door throw them out what part of legal do you have a problem with go home you should not be wasting our tax money in school anyway.”

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Someone else wrote: “^^^^^^GET DEPORTED NOW^^^^^^^^^”

A third person wrote: “Your parents are here illegally they got to go we’re not ask you to come to our country and break our laws and have a family anybody that Terry legally need to go home to their own country and quit freeloading off America come here the right way the legal way the way my great grandparents came here and many other people”

IMG_3387And then there was a guy named Royce, from Las Vegas: “I hope your illegal parents get deported like the leeching scum they are.”

I know there’s little point in addressing trolls, especially ones as sub-literate as those. But there is a theme that runs through those comments, one that’s both easy and important to refute. That is the idea that families like Jassary’s, or Chris’s, are “leeching,” or “freeloading off America,” or that these kids are “wasting our tax money in school.”

It’s easy to refute by pointing to Jassary and Chris themselves, and to all of the kids–100% of our graduating class–who held up college pennants at last week’s ceremony. Some of them are going to UT, some to A&M. Some are going to Texas State or St. Edwards or the University of Houston. Two of them are heading into the Vermont cold to study at Bennington. There were students who announced that they’ll be majoring in molecular biology, others who will study art, or computer engineering, and still others who will be joining their school’s ROTC and joining the military. It’s easy to see how these kids will make our world a better place and how, therefore, it’s beyond stupid to suggest that they’re somehow wasting our tax dollars.

And it’s just as easy to see how the societal benefits we’ll get from these kids depend on their undocumented parents. Not just for the plain fact that, without their parents, those students wouldn’t be here; I mean that their specialness comes from the distinct characteristics their parents bring to this country. I teach sophomores, and it’s only my second year at the school, so I didn’t teach Jassary or Chris and I’ve never met their parents. But I can say that the vast majority of our students come from working class families. Our students are the sons and daughters of construction workers, housekeepers, and school custodians. They come from families in which “getting ahead” means framing another house, taking on another shift, mowing three more lawns before sundown. They work hard. They save money. They think about the future. And part of the greatness of my school–the real reason we’re able to have such academic success–is that the kids have transferred their parents’ work ethic to their schoolwork. My students explicitly say this. In an essay she wrote for a prestigious summer program, for example, one of my students from last year wrote:

I was always the type of person who set high expectations for myself, never slowing down to catch my breath. I saw how my dad would leave to work at four in the morning, not coming back home until late at night, leaving me with countless days of not being able to talk to him. Every time I saw the sweat coming down my father’s forehead it reminded me why I was constantly putting pressure on myself; I wanted to show him that leaving everything he knew behind was worth it.

So to call either these kids or their families leeches or freeloaders is obviously wrongheaded. 

But it’s important to refute this point because the idea has taken root beyond the little minds of spiteful internet commenters. Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, for example, is a writer I respect. But his recent column in The Week also traffics (more politely) in the idea that our current immigrant population is a drain on the country.

Gobry’s suggestion for fixing our immigration issues is the creation of “charter cities” in developing nations, on the model of Hong Kong, run by first-world countries, where immigrants could go and prove their mettle before moving, legally, to the US. Gobry justifies his plan by writing, “America is an experiment, a grand national project to build a functioning liberal republic of the special kind envisioned by its founders – it is a kind of team effort. You recruit people who will do well on that team and bring something special to it.”

This post isn’t meant to criticize Gobry’s suggestion which, he admits, is a “strange idea.” Instead, I want to point out the assumption underlying it, which is that our current system doesn’t bring the right people here. Gobry contrasts the “previous great waves of immigrants” with those coming today, who are here mostly because they happened to live in poor countries near our borders. Previous generations, he implies, had a “can-do spirit,” and they were people willing to “dare and try things.” Today’s immigrants, on the other hand, are here because of an accident of geography.

In this formulation, those of us who oppose SB4 or Trump’s draconian immigration policies do so for humanitarian reasons alone. Gobry doesn’t exactly say this, but he does depict one side of the current immigration debates as an “influential minority of the country … dedicated to the view that increasing the number of persons on American soil is a profound humanitarian endeavor that requires disrespect for American laws or the view of a majority of the people.” 

And it’s true: I have humanitarian reasons for opposing Trump’s immigration policies. Like not wanting to see the children of undocumented immigrants separated from their parents.

But it’s also true even that apart from those reasons, I want to keep the immigrants we have in the country now because they’re good for the country. They start more businesses and commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans, and study after study shows they’re good for the economy. In fact, I have a hard time seeing a difference between the ideal immigrants Gobry hopes his charter cities could attract and the families who fill my school on report card pick-up night. When Gobry writes, “You wouldn’t take this bargain … if you didn’t have a strong belief in the American experiment, and you couldn’t succeed in it if you didn’t have something to contribute,” it’s hard for me not to think about my students’ parents, many of whom have come a great distance, and at a great risk, to better their families’ futures. Through hard work, they’ve built loving, safe homes for their kids, and they’ve raised those kids into young people who should make any American proud.

In other words, if Gobry’s ideal immigrants are the ones who demonstrate a “belief in American ideals and a capacity to contribute economically and/or culturally to the life of our country,” then I’m sure he would agree we need to focus on keeping here the ones we already have.

There are lots of negative effects that result Trump’s immigration policies, but this is one of the worst: his policies really do seem to be discouraging immigration. There are reports that illegal border crossings have dropped considerably in 2017. Trump points to that as one of his successes; while I’d rather no one cross the border illegally, I can’t see it that way. After all, that drop in illegal crossings hasn’t been accompanied by a surge in legal immigration. Instead, visa applications are down, as are international applications to our universities. Smart, hardworking, enterprising men and women—the kind that make up my students’ families—aren’t coming to America right now. Internet commenters like James in Pennsylvania and Royce in Las Vegas might not understand the loss that entails for our country, but anyone who witnessed my school’s pennant ceremony would.

 

 

Her Mom Doesn’t Take Her To the Bus Stop Anymore: On Fear, Anger, and Telling Stories

“Because–how to explain that it is never inspiration that drives you to tell a story, but rather a combination of anger and clarity?”

Reading Valeria Luiselli’s new book Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions, I underlined the above quote, typed it in large-print letters, printed it out and taped it to the wall of my classroom, next to other quotes by some of my favorite essayists–Joan Didion, Zadie Smith, Ralph Ellison.

Luiselli BookThe Texas Observer, calling Luiselli’s book “the first must-read book of the Trump era,” notes that it’s less self-consciously literary than her previous work. In this book, the Observer notes, Luiselli is not “much interested in transcending anything, or in her own admission to the great house of immortal literature. These days, reality is more urgent.”

The reality she’s writing about is the surge of children crossing our border in the last few years, fleeing violence from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Affected by radio reports of the children crossing into our Southwestern deserts and turning themselves over to Border Patrol agents in the hopes of receiving asylum, Luiselli volunteered as a translator for their intake interviews. The book is structured around the forty questions that make up the initial interview form, through the course of which, Luiselli hopes, these kids will luck into the magic words that will keep them from receiving a deportation order.    

But Luiselli is also writing about the reality that led to Donald Trump’s election: the anti-immigrant hysteria, the dehumanization of others, the politics of cruelty. Early in the book, Luiselli describes being startled by a picture on the internet of an elderly white couple from Tucson protesting the new arrivals with signs that read “Illegal is a crime” and “Return to senders.” “What were they thinking when they put their beach chairs inside their trunk?” Luiselli asks about the two protestors. “And what did they talk about as they drove the forty miles or so north toward the protest in Oracle?”

That image is from 2014, but it’s one of the signs that Luiselli says, in her Coda (written after November’s election), that she should have recognized as an omen of what was coming.

…..

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Stories come from a combination of anger and clarity. I want my students to read that quote, to know it and internalize it, because I think it’s a key to learning to write. At least I write most easily when angry, when I have the urgency of something that needs to be said. That’s why I launched this blog with a reading of George Orwell’s “Why I Write,” and specifically with the section of the essay in which Orwell says he wrote Homage to Catalonia because he knew, clearly, that innocent men were being falsely accused. “If I had never been angry about that,” Orwell says, “I should never have written the book.”

But Luiselli also writes that, while processing her anger over the refugees’ situation, she came to realize that “the most important thing was to know how to transform emotional capital–the rage, sadness, and frustration produced by certain social circumstances–into political capital.”

My students know this. They’ve turned their feelings from the lead-up and aftermath of the election into a variety of political actions. Some of them demonstrated at the Capitol during the Women’s March or the Day Without Immigrants protest on February 16th. Others participated in the spontaneous protests in North Austin on the night of the February ICE raids.

They’ve made a pet project of opposing SB4, which I wrote about in my last post. Dozens of students wrote their representatives when the bill was up for debate in the state senate. Some of my students have been to the Capitol multiple times in the last two months, and not just to protest: they’ve gone to testify, to meet with representatives, to hear speeches. One group organized to pressure a state senator whom their research suggested might be willing to change her vote on the issue. Two seniors created a petition to deliver their representatives, which they publicized with videos like the one above, and which now has more than 10,000 signatures.

But while they’re developing their political capital, I want to make sure you–readers, friends–don’t lose sight of the emotional currents that drive it. Because I believe that anyone who clearly sees the fear that’s moving these good kids to action will be as angry as I am–and with that clarity and that anger, that you’ll be moved to get their stories out, too.

In the video above, the female speaker, Jassary, says that since February’s ICE raid: “My mom doesn’t take me to the bus stop anymore… My younger sister asks me why we don’t go out anymore, and it’s very hard to tell her why, because she’s so young.”

I’ve had this sentiment expressed to me literally hundreds of times since the election. I’ve read it in my students’ journals, personal essays, and writing assignments. I’ve heard it in their class discussions, and in conversations while they eat lunch in my classroom. I’ve heard it from good students and bad students, from freshmen and from seniors. It’s real; my students are afraid.

During the Day Without Immigrants, about 70% of the sophomore class was absent from my school. The next day, I had them write about why they decided to participate, or not, in the protest; about how they participated (did they go to the downtown march or stay home?); and about what they hoped the protests would accomplish. Here’s a small sample what they said:

From a girl in my 5th period class:

“The reason why I decided to be part of that protest was because I seriously fear that one day I will get home and my parents won’t be waiting for me. I have three siblings here. Each one of us needs them. We can’t live without them.”

From a boy in 6th period:

“I know many people whose parents have no papers, including my parents. So I care about all the immigrants. They aren’t evil, they are just trying to support their family.”

From a girl, 4th period:

“Yesterday I wanted to go to the protest but my mom didn’t allow me to, she thought it was too dangerous. So just to support my parents I stayed home. Not many of our parents were able to stay home or miss work. So we as kids fought for our parents. Our parents crossed the border and worked off most of their lives for us. Now it’s our turn as kids to return the favor.”

Another girl, 5th period:

“Every day when I wake up, the first thing I think of is, ‘What would happen to me if one day my parents get deported?’ I think it is not fair that my parents are afraid to go to work, but they have no choice because they are trying to get money to buy food and to pay the rent. It is hard for me to see my parents afraid of what is happening today in our country.”

From a student in 2nd period:

“I didn’t go to the downtown protest because my mom thought that ICE was going to be there and didn’t want me to be at risk. So we stayed home. A lot of people went to the protest. My brothers and sisters wanted to go, and me too.”

Another girl in 2nd period:

“One of the reasons I decided to stay home was because I wanted to support my parents. They have supported me my whole life. It makes me feel powerless when I can’t do anything about their safety. I wanted to show my parents that I stand with them and that I would give up anything to let my voice be heard. Another reason why I decided to stay home is because this way I wouldn’t be afraid all day to get home and have a neighbor tell me my parents aren’t there anymore. I’m afraid of one day getting home and not finding my family in my house. I’m afraid that if this were to ever happen, I would have to drop out of school and support my brothers to keep up their education. I’m afraid that my my family will be torn apart by people who don’t understand what it is like to be afraid all day, every day.”

Another boy, 2nd period:

“My family and I did not go to the protest yesterday. The reason why we did not go is because my parents were afraid to even step outside. … My mom doesn’t even want to go to the store to get food and we live really close. She feels like there’s going to be police just waiting for us. My family, we used to feel safe driving around but now we just look over our shoulders to see if anyone is following us. Of course we make it safely home, but then later that night I hear my parents watching videos of people getting taken away. Then they decide not to drive where those people were getting taken away.”

Again, I’ve seen and heard hundreds of comments like this, from kids who should be thinking about soccer games and their homework. It always makes me angry to see how this country has made them afraid; sometimes, I hear so much of it that I get overwhelmed.

But then I see my students, or young people like them, down at the Capitol, or on the news, and I realize they’re doing a great job of telling their stories and making them public. As someone who cares about the future of this country, that encourages me. As their writing teacher, it thrills me.

At the Capitol: SB4 & SB6

At the Capitol: SB4 & SB6

The Texas Legislature is rushing to get bills passed before the end of its session, and this happens to be a season full of bills that are horrific, crazy, and obscene – even by Texas lege standards.

Two particularly bad ones are SB6, the so-called “bathroom bill,” which would require trans individuals to use public restrooms that match the sex listed on their birth certificates, and SB4, which punishes “sanctuary cities” for protecting immigrant communities from federal authorities. Last week, SB6 was passed by the state senate, after hours of debate, and will move to the House soon; SB4 passed the Senate in February, and is currently being held up in the State Affairs committee in the House.

During my Spring Break, I took advantage of my time off to attend House State Affairs Committee’s hearing on SB4. A brief primer on the bill: it requires city police forces to hold any arrested immigrant ICE requests, and it punishes cities and public officials that don’t. Those punishments include fines and the withholding of funds, and public officials who don’t cooperate can be removed from office.

All that might sound reasonable, but the problem is that undocumented immigrants are often arrested for “crimes” that either a) would result in no more than a ticket for the rest of us or b) the rest of us don’t have to worry about. Driving without a license, for example. So a quick mistake–speeding, driving with a broken taillight, even an accident caused by someone else–can ultimately lead to the destruction of one’s family. This is why a student of mine wrote, about SB4, to her representative: “Everyday, the moment I walk out of my dad’s truck is the second my worries begin for the day. What if he passes the speed limit? What if his brake lights stop working? What if he starts falling asleep?” Any of these things can bring her father face-to-face with a police  officer and, without sanctuary protections, any interaction with a police officer is fraught.

At the Wednesday meeting I attended, more than 600 witnesses testified against SB4, while only 11 testified in its favor. The hearing was scheduled to start at 10, but didn’t actually get going until the afternoon. While waiting for the meeting to start, witnesses in line sang, clapped, and chanted outside of the hearing room.

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Testimony lasted past midnight, and though I only stayed until dinner time, I wanted to highlight here some of the witnesses I saw speaking:

First, Bishop Joe Vasquez of the Diocese of Austin said he could not support the bill because his Catholic faith leads him to support only a targeted proportional immigration policy that preserves human dignity and takes into account the sanctity of the family. “Jesus Christ himself was a refugee,” Bishop Vasquez reminded the committee. “He was an immigrant.”

Three figures from Texas law enforcement soon testified: Ed Gonzalez, sheriff of Harris County (Houston), Bexar County (San Antonio) Sheriff Javier Salazar, and Brian Manley, the acting Chief of Police in Austin. All three spoke out forcefully against the law, arguing that it would have a “chilling effect” on the relationship between their communities and their police forces. Salazar, asked point-blank whether SB4 would make San Antonio safer or less safe, responded without hesitation, “Less safe.”

There was testimony from lawyers, including immigration attorney Faye Kolly, who pointed out that the bill, as written, shares characteristics with Arizona’s infamous SB 1070, and that those similarities may cause the same problems faced by Arizona’s law, parts of which were ruled unconstitutional. And an attorney for El Paso County reinforced the “chilling effect” notion, listing 2 specific recent cases in which victims of domestic violence refused to follow through with charges because of their fear of dealing with law enforcement.

When I started writing this post last week, I looked over my notes with some despair–it seemed obvious to me that the bill would pass, despite the overwhelming opposition to it. That’s more or less what happened with SB6–it, too, faced lots of hostile testimony, but sailed through its committee and went right through the state Senate.

But a few more positive things have happened since then with both bills: first, it has become clear that they face a tougher time in the House than they did in the Senate. House Speaker Joe Straus angered Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick by saying that he opposes SB6, and that bringing it to a vote is not a priority of his. Similarly, SB4 is still in committee, and while it remains deeply flawed, the bill’s author (Charlie Geren) has introduced amendments that make it slightly less odious. Most importantly, he seemed willing during the hearing to listen and to address some of the bill’s worst aspects.

Most of all, the collapse of the AHCA in Congress has given me hope that, with enough pressure from the public, our institutions can still provide some resistance to what looks like the unchecked power of the country’s extreme right. Living in Texas, which has been essentially a one-party state for years, it’s easy to get used to the feeling of being steamrolled by your political opponents. Part of my post-November anxiety has come from the feeling that my state’s situation was about to go national. The public’s victory over Trumpcare has given me hope–not just for the country, but for Texas, too.

 

Why I’m Writing Again.

Why I’m Writing Again.

“I happened to know, what very few people in England had been allowed to know, that innocent men were being falsely accused. If I had never been angry about that I should never have written the book.”

(George Orwell, “Why I Write”)

When I was last blogging regularly, I was sending letters to the Catholic Right, trying to persuade its members to change their minds about LGBT rights, rigid gender roles, and feminism.

I wrote my last post on that blog on April 16th of last year, though really I started saying goodbye in the summer of 2015, after I saw the Catholic Right’s reaction to the Obergefell decision that made gay marriage legal across the nation. I just didn’t think I had much to say to the Catholic Right anymore, and without that impetus, I didn’t know what to write.

A lot has changed since I started blogging. I finished grad school, and now I’m a high school teacher. I still live in the same great Texas city, though I’ve moved from the south to the northwest part of town. My daughter, who was a toddler when I started blogging, is now a kindergartner.

And new issues have been pressing themselves into my consciousness. First, working at a charter school gave me new perspective on the school choice debate, and last year, when my patience with the Catholic Right was waning, I thought about starting to write on that topic. But then, as I got to know my school, its students, and their concerns, another issue moved from the edges of my attention to its center to the point that now it’s nearly all I can think about: the sweep of Trumpism through our society, and its implications for the young people I teach.

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See, the student population at my school is about 96% Latino; many of my students are undocumented immigrants, and even more have at least one undocumented parent. I’ve been teaching for sixteen years now–I taught high school before grad school, and while in grad school I taught at two universities. I’ve witnessed student reactions to every election since Bush-Kerry. I’ve never seen anything like what I witnessed in my school during the buildup to this election, or like its aftermath.

In his essay “Why I Write,” George Orwell describes a particularly un-poetic chapter in his  1938 memoir of the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia. In it, Orwell resorted to sheer reportage in defense of Trotskyites who were falsely accused of collaborating with Franco. Orwell worried that the chapter ruined the book. It was too dry, too factual. Nonetheless, he had to include it. “I happened to know,” Orwell explains, “what very few people in England had been allowed to know, that innocent men were being falsely accused.”

HOMENATGE CATALUNYAWhat I take from that is that when you have special knowledge of a political situation, you have a special responsibility to share that knowledge. And because of my new job, I happen to know things, too.

I happen to know, for example, what immigrant students write about what their lives are like now, under the Trump regime. I happen to know how they react when they hear the president’s name, or when they hear about anti-immigrant bills like SB4 or HB 383 in Texas. (To generalize, the girls start talking and planning and asking questions; the boys look down and to the side in anger.)

And I happen to know, too, that many Americans–white Americans like me, like the friends I grew up with–will never have to face this reality. I know that many of these Americans are kindhearted and don’t want to see families broken up over decades-old immigration violations. I also know that some of those same Americans soothe themselves with the notion that ICE is only going after the “bad guys.” I had one conversation with a Trump voter who told me that she supports the new DHS deportation priorities because, she said, “the same sort of felonies that would land me in prison are the going to land some illegal immigrants back in their home countries.”

I happen to know that’s not the real story. I happen to know, for example, that more than half of the immigrants arrested in February’s ICE raid in Austin had no prior criminal records. I happen to know, too, that many of my students have had parents deported solely for immigration-related offenses, or for “crimes” that would never land a (white) citizen in prison.

IMG_2634My goal here is not to be alarmist. But here’s the thing: we’re not even two months into the new administration. The DHS memos haven’t even really taken effect–10,000 ICE and 5,000 Border Patrol agents remain to be hired. The Department of Homeland Security is still just “considering” a policy of separating mothers from their children at the border.

But we’ve already had massive, multi-city roundups of illegal immigrants, so public and visible they’ve created community-wide panic. We’ve already deported mothers and grandmothers whose only crimes were immigration-related offenses. We’ve already seen a five-year-old handcuffed at an airport, and a father picked up by immigration agents while driving his daughters to school. And the administration has announced that they’ll track and publicize “honor killings” among Muslims, and that they’ll create a special bureau (VOICE) to publicize crimes by illegal immigrants.

And, already, a student from my charter system has lost a parent to deportation in the Trump era.

It will happen again. That’s not me being dramatic—it’s simple extrapolation from what’s happened before, from Trump’s words, and from the orders he’s already signed. More and more of my students will have to deal with the fallout of the promises our new president made on the campaign trail.

So I needed a place to write about that, semi-regularly and at least semi-publically. I won’t only write about immigration here—I’ll still write about religion, and feminism, and LGBT rights. But I needed a blog with a theme broad enough to make room for all of that. That’s what this space is intended to be.

So please check back, and please add your comments!