Thursday, May 16, 2019

Stop Calling People “Migrants”

Get Out of the Road!
The term “migrant” is inherently dehumanizing and journalists should stop using it.
Pedestrians. Everyone hates them. They stride out into the road, not looking where they’re going because they’re too busy looking at their phones. Pedestrians are always crossing the street. It’s like their entire reason d’etre or something. And they get hit by cars so often, you’d think getting hit by a car was their job. God, they’re annoying.
Thing is, there is no such thing as a “pedestrian.” In fact, there are only people, some of whom happen to be crossing the street at this particular moment. We have all entered that transitory state of “being a pedestrian” at some point in our lives.
These days, it’s become very common to read countless stories about “migrants,” who are usually presented to us by the media as a sort of sub-human category of creatures constantly engaged in the act of coming from where they live to where we, the readers, live. Even well-meaning storiesuse the term “migrant” almost exclusively. It’s quite common to read an entire article about “migrants” without once reading them referred to as “a person.”
According to most media stories, migrants are never people, they are always migrants, always the other. The use of the term “migrant” in place of the term “person” forever separates the reader from the subject of the story. Like polar bears or bees, migrants are placed outside of our frame of empathy, creatures whose lives are undoubtedly sad and about whom we should feel guilty, but not people with whom we should empathize.
It is this exercise in dehumanizing semantics that allows most people from rich countries to believe that it is their God-given right to visit any country the want, while simultaneously believing that “migrants” do not have the right, ever, to set foot in another country. And most people from rich countries would never, ever use the term “migrant” to describe themselves. When rich people move abroad, they are ex-pats, not migrants. To be an ex-pat is to be desirable and special, to bless the county receiving you with your wisdom and knowledge.
I am not the first person to note the difference between the use of the term “ex-pat” and “migrant.” Other terms used for people from rich countries might be backpacker, traveler or even “global nomad.” All of these terms have slightly different meanings, but they all have one important thing in common — they are not “migrants.”
Likewise, many Americans are “descended from immigrants.” Immigrants are associated with being scrappy boot-strappers who came to America a long time ago and helped make it great. “Immigrants” are family members and ancestors. They are part of our common heritage. Even the hated term “tourist” is one which we have all embraced at some point in our lives, even as we insist that we are not “that kind of tourist.” The idea that there should be limits on tourism, that not everyone who wants to should be allowed to climb Machu Picchu, is often received with horror. How dare you tell me I don’t have the right to climb Machu Picchu! I am a human being!
For this reason, the term “migrant” is not like the term “pedestrian,” “expat,” “tourist,” or even “immigrant.” Though these terms may have pejorative overtones or uses, they are not intrinsically dehumanizing, because we all spend time as pedestrians or tourists, or know people who have been expats, or have ancestors who were immigrants. Expats, immigrants, tourists and pedestrians are part of the human family. Just like teenagers, who may be annoying, but who are nevertheless only human like the rest of us.
But the term “migrant” is different. Migrants are always the other. No person from a rich country would ever describe themselves as a migrant, nor would they ever be described as such. Once, at a party, while living in Australia (and taking a job away from an Australian, by the way,) I described myself as a “migrant.” The person I was speaking to looked extremely confused. After all, how could I be a migrant when I was clearly an American?
The term “migrant” is inherently dehumanizing. So journalists should stop using it. The word “migrant” constructs a wall between the reader of the article and the subject of the article. It transforms a transitory state of being, that of moving from one country to another, into a permanent state of being, that of being the other. And if you’re wondering what word to use instead, try “person.” Nothing is more humanizing that being called a person.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Journalists Can Change the Narrative on Asylum

Today I opened the Washington Post to see an article by Nick Miroff where he repeats Trump calling the asylum process a "scam." Reporters regularly include charming little Trump quotes like this in their reporting. I get it; these are the official statements of the US President. These are the justifications for sweeping changes to our asylum process. What are reporters supposed to do, not quote him?


The rules of press engagement under Trump have been endlessly debated at this point, but usually this argument has centered around to what extent reporters should call out Trump's lies. Less attention has been paid to the negativity created by Trump's trolling, even when his statements are then carefully debunked. Just repeating the words "scam" and "criminal" over and over again in reference to asylum-seekers and migrants make it hard to think of anything else. Trump knows this; it's why he does it.

So far, most newspapers like WaPo have limited themselves to publishing Trump's statements and then publishing fact checks debunking these statements. This isn't working because (1) Trump is the President so his words carry more weight than anyone else's and (2) most people read the nasty Trump headline but not the careful fact check.  As a result, the toxic lie resonates while the truth gets buried.

If journalists want to keep quoting Trump because it drives story-clicks, adding context about Trump's motives and veracity might help. This a high level of cognitive dissonance in newspapers these days, where headlines quoting Trump calling other people criminals without any evidence often sit side by side with articles detailing 400 page reports on Trump's own criminal behavior. It would be nice if newspapers could combine some of this reported, such as by saying, "President Trump, who has been accused by the former FBI director of criminal obstruction of justice, calls asylum system a 'scam'."

I know this breaks with current journalism practice, but what is the point of a system that is no longer helping ordinary readers obtain the information they need?

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

“Superhero” Immigrants Bring Hope to Small Town America. But Can They Save This Dying Town? By DoBetterNews

Robust Immigration Ensures American Prosperity for Years to Come, but Will It Work Everywhere?

Pete Buttigieg was worried. His construction business in Skinkton, Illinois needed to hire a couple of welders for a big new job. A tech bro from Chicago had recently bought the old Dairy Queen. The tech bro, who grew up in Skinkton and came home to visit about twice a year, wanted to transform the Dairy Queen into a rock climbing gym for his visits. Buttigeig won the contract to build the gym, but he needed to find additional workers, stat.
“I was starting to panic,” Buttigieg told DoBetterNews. “Skinkton is a small town and getting smaller. There just aren’t enough welders to be had.”
Then Buttigieg heard that the government was helping a few hundred immigrant families relocate to Skinkton from the border as part of the government’s “Superheros For America” program. Turns out, a couple of the new arrivals had welding experience. One had even worked for a major construction company in Honduras, before gang violence had forced him to flee.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Buttigieg said. “It was like the answer to my prayers. I called Mayor Bernie immediately to get their contact info. I want to give them a call as soon as they arrive. I don’t want to miss my chance.”
Buttigieg wasn’t the only one thrilled by the news that new families were moving to Skinkton.
“As far as I see it, their loss is our gain,” said Elizabeth Warren, the manager of the Dilly Dolly Diner off Route 231, speaking of Central American countries. “If they don’t want workers, we’ll take ’em. My worry is social security. How are my kids going to get their checks if their ain’t enough people paying into the system? I figure the immigrants are the solution.”
I asked Warren if she was afraid that the immigrants would take jobs away from locals.
“I ain’t never heard of anyone being fired so their boss could hire a newcomer who don’t even speak English. Besides, I don’t even serve tacos, so if they want to open a restaurant, I say, why not? It’s not like they’re going to outdo my meatloaf. No way, no how.”
“Besides,” she went on, taking an apple pie out of the oven behind her and placing it to cool on the windowsill, “they gotta eat, right? I figure once they taste my meatloaf, they’ll be regulars here. Say, do you know how to say ‘meatloaf’ in Spanish?”
Across the town, the reaction is pretty much the same. Since the typewriter plant closed down ten years ago, many young people had chosen to move away, traveling to Chicago, or even further, to find better paying jobs. Many of the storefronts on Main Street were now boarded up and there was the sense that the town was destined to die out if some new people didn’t move in soon.
But what American family would choose to relocate to Skinkton? Enter the “Superheros for America” program, which offered immigrant families financial assistance to relocate to small, American towns. But the “Superhero” program has not been without controversy. After the bidding system allowed big cities like Chicago to scoop up all the families, the government began a nation-wide fraud investigation that led to 20 convictions of city mayors nation-wide.
“Them city folks already got so many people,” Warren says, anger in her voice, “why they gotta take our immigrants too?”
The fairness of the “Superhero” program is proving to be a major re-election issue for the President, who ran on a platform of “Small Towns First.” Now, the government is piloting a new lottery system to make sure even small towns like Skinkton get a shot at hosting a few families. But the government can only do so much. After the families arrive, it’s up to Skinkton to make it worth their while to stay.
Mayor Bernie Sanders sees the “Superheros” program as his last resort. It follows a long series of failed attempts to get American families to move to Skinkton. A few years ago, the Mayor had offered non-resident families $10,000 if they would relocate to Skinkton and put the money towards Bitcoin mining. A few families have taken him up on the offer, but since the collapse of the value of Bitcoin, the Mayor figured it would only be a matter of time before they left again.
“Thing is, there’s really nothing unique about Skinkton, except maybe for the smell. But most folks don’t see that as a positive. I don’t know, maybe the rock climbing place will make a difference?”
I asked him about the new “Superhero” families who would be moving in.
“I couldn’t be more thrilled, frankly. I just hope they’ll decide to stay here. This might be the break we need, but I don’t want to get hopes up too much around town. We’ve been let down so many times before…the Ladies Gardening Society is planning a parade and everything. I just hope it works out.”
He pulled thoughtfully at the end of his long, grey beard, which spilled down his chest, partially covering his grey, Harley Davidson tee shirt. I got the impression that Bernie was exhausted by the effort to keep Skinkton going, when he’d clearly rather be on the open road on his famous Harley, riding without a care in the world. Instead, he was in Skinkton’s tiny Mayor’s office behind the shuttered Walmart, pondering the first ray of hope to come to Skinkton in years.
“Do you think they’ll open one of those burrito joints?” he went on, thoughtfully. “Between that and the rock climbing place, Skinkton might almost feel like San Francisco. Maybe that will attract some more people.”
After my meeting with Mayor Benrie, I took a walk down Main Street. It was a beautiful spring afternoon and a group of women were hanging streamers from lamp posts, getting ready for the parade for the arriving families. By breathing through my mouth to avoid the smell, and by ignoring the boarded up Bargain Shopper Discount Store to my left, I could almost picture a bright future for Skinkton. If only they can convince the immigrant families to stay.

Downtown Skinkton

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Hoda Muthana, Shamima Begum, Said Imasi, and You

"Because it claims she is a dual citizen of Bangladesh. Britain’s Home Secretary (or interior minister) Sajid Javid says he was legally entitled to strip Begum of her British citizenship because she already has Bangladeshi citizenship via her Bangladeshi-born mother. However, Bangladesh’s ministry of foreign affairs insists she is not a citizen, and that there is “no question” of her being allowed into the country. She has never lived in Bangladesh."

Quick, can you list all the countries to which you have an "effective link?" Where were you born? Where do you reside? Where were your parents born? What about your grandparents? Where were you educated? Have you ever served in the military? What's your religion?

Ok, so maybe you have links to 3 different countries. Or maybe 5. Or maybe just 2. Now, answer this question: Which of these links are "genuine"? Sure, maybe you've been living in Canada for the last 10 years, but do you really feel like you have a genuine link to Canada? Do you even like maple syrup? Have you ever even watched a hockey game? Do you feel like you are more closely connected to Canadians than with any other people?

Maybe you were born in Gabon, but you left as a little baby. How genuine is your link to Gabon? Do you even know how to make baton de manioc? Have you ever even eaten manioc? Maybe your parents were born in the United States, but you've never been there. Are you American? You could very well be! Are you entirely sure that you're NOT American?

What is nationality? The International Court of Justice says it's a social fact of attachment. A genuine connection of existence. So that clears THAT up.

The UK passed a law saying that "terrorists" can be stripped of their citizenship. Who is a terrorist? Whomever the UK says is a terrorist. And so, through this circular logic, the UK has decided it can take citizenship away from anyone at any time.

But doesn't international law prohibit creating statelessness by taking citizenship away from someone who doesn't have another citizenship? Sure, but who's to say someone is stateless? The UK says that Shamima Begum is a citizen of Bangladesh, but this seems to be news to Bangladesh. Both countries are now pointing fingers at each other with no solution in sight. The Statelessness Conventions define stateless persons as those "not considered to be a national" by any country "under the operation of its law." But there's no final arbitrator of statelessness, so the UK is free to declare someone is not stateless after all.

Many stateless people find themselves in immigration detention for years, waiting to be deported because the country detaining them will not admit that they are stateless. Just ask Said Imasi, detained in Australia for 8 years. He is not sure where he was born, but he thinks his mother comes from Western Sahara. That country refuses to accept him. The logical conclusion is that Said Imasi is stateless, but the Australian government will not agree. Instead, they recently tried to determine where Imasi is from by recording his voice and sending it to an expert on accents. It may take forever, but the Australian government is going to deport him, somewhere.

These cases highlight perhaps the biggest challenge facing efforts to resolve statelessness. There is no international mechanism for establishing someone's nationality. If you are stateless, there is no international forum where you can establish that. If your country decides you are not a national, there is literally nothing you can do, yet at the same time, your country can continue to deny that it has made you stateless. Yesterday, Mike Pompeo stated that a woman with an Alabama birth certificate was not born in Alabama. How he arrived at this conclusion is not clear, but before other Americans decide to leave the country, maybe they should ask themselves how well they've been getting along with Mike Pompeo. Because you're country can pretty much decide you're not a citizens whenever it wants to, and who is to stop it? Sure, Mike Pompeo may get schooled on this case by the US Supreme Court. There is a pretty strong precedent against denaturalization in Trop v. Dulles. But are you sure you want to take that risk?

Not only can your country wake up one day and decide that you are not a national, other countries may refuse to offer you protection because they may refuse to accept that you are, indeed, stateless. Determinations of statelessness often require one state, such as the UK, to interpret the nationality laws of another state, such as Bangladesh. Good luck with that! Of COURSE other states will be happy to accept any person deported by the UK, particularly so that the UK can score a political win. Of course.

The international laws of nationality and statelessness are like an endless hall of mirrors, each reflecting back a door that can never be opened, because it's not really a door, it's just a mirror. We all deserve better, but in a system of sovereign nation states, what authority is going to tell the UK, the US and Australia no? Who is going to force them to take back their citizens, or to resolve a case of statelessness created by other countries?

So next time you're planning a trip abroad, make sure you're in good with Mike Pompeo.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Trump May Be About to Trigger the Largest Border Crisis in US History

Image result for us border

***Update: The US government is now claiming the current number of persons seeking asylum at the border is so high it is "overwhelming"" the immigration detention system, with over 70,000 people detained in February. (It is worth noting that there is no need to keep migrant families in jail. The entire detention crisis could be solved by detaining fewer people, but I digress.) Meanwhile, UNHCR reports there are now over 400,000 Venezuelan asylum seekers world wide, the majority in neighboring countries. The math should give everyone pause.

*** Update from Refugees Deeply on the situation in Venezuela.

A few years ago, US citizens watched Middle Eastern countries like Lebanon buckle under the weight of the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria as millions of people crossed the borders between a collapsing Syria and its neighbors. While Lebanon and other countries in the region opened its borders and offered asylum to millions of Syrians, many refugees found themselves unable to work in their countries of refuge with little to celebrate and few options for the future. After several years of waiting, many, many, many of them decided to move Europe. What happened next was the biggest humanitarian crisis Europe has faced arguably since the end of WWII.

Today, there are over 1 million Venezuelan refugees in Colombia and two million more in other countries in the region, but that number may only be the beginning. The United States is weighing a military intervention, awash with the dream of a pro-American government in Venezuela at long last. Meanwhile, the current government clings to power, sparking fears of a civil war. A war would trigger a massive refugee crisis that will make the current situation seem small by comparison. Venezuela currently has a population of over 30 million and I am willing to bet that most of them have at least thought about leaving. Violence and open warfare would likely convince many people that staying in Venezuela is not an option.

The US didn't experience much in the way of consequences for its invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.  Likewise, turmoil in the Middle East has not led to a huge refugee influx into the United States. One benefit to "over there" is that an ocean separates us from our current wars. But a war in Venezuela would be different. Very, very different. It would not take long for the consequences to be felt immediately and enormously on our border. A massive influx of refugees could trigger renewed violence in Colombia and worsen the regional security situation. Right now, there has been an enormous amount of solidarity in Colombia for Venezuelan refugees, but that feeling cannot last forever.

The Bush administration made foreign invasion and regime change seem easy and cost free. After all, here we all are, more than 15 years into the Forever Wars, and little of the turmoil we created in foreign countries has touched our peaceful shores. The number of Iraqi refugees in the US is so small that, statistically, most non-Iraqi US citizens will go their entire lives without meeting one. Most immigrants come to the United States in response to the push and pull of the global economy, much as US citizens continue to move abroad for work or family reasons. But humanitarian refugee flows are very different. They are sudden and desperate. When people need to flee, they will flee, period.

A war of intervention in Venezuela, or a civil war brought about by failed international diplomacy, would cause a serious refugee crises in the United States far beyond the pretend border crisis Trump railed about in the State of the Union the other night. (I say "pretend crisis" because of the percentage of new arrivals as a function of the total US population. I'm not very good at math, but the current US population is well over 300 million. We could easily absorb all of these refugees, so this is very much a crisis of our own making.)

A quick look at the asylum statistics from February shows that the number of Venezuelans claiming asylum already dwarfs claims from all other countries, though the number, a little over 2,000, remains so low that its effect on the life average, non-Venezuelan US citizen is probably close to zero. The total number of asylum screenings for 2016 were fewer than 100,000 for the entire country. While this was a huge increase since 2008, it represents a tiny fraction of total immigration to the United States and a drop in the massive bucket of US citizens currently existing on Earth.

Most US citizens alive today have never experiences an actual humanitarian crisis. Unless you are an immigrant, an aid workers, a soldier or a journalist, you have probably never been to a refugee camp or seen a mass border crossing. But we may be about to. Let's hope our government is ready for the challenge. Somehow I'm not filled with confidence that it is.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Offshore detention and the recolonization of Africa

***Update: AU pushback against attempts by the EU to recolonize Africa by offshoring migrant detention.

Image result for kakuma refugee camp
Your tax dollars at work.

The US recently got its very own refugee camp, the first in many years on US soil, called by many the "tent city." It's in Texas. There are over 2,000 children in this special camp built just for them. This news comes hard on the heels of a rash of other uncomfortable reporting about US migrant and refugee programs. A few days ago, Victoria Law wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about how private prison contractors use immigrants for forced labor. The new spotlight in the US media about our shameful immigration prison system, which houses at least 42,000 people, is very welcome. But what a lot of people don't know is that the biggest population of migrants and refugees in US migrant jail are actually outside the US, being held in refugee camps run by UNHCR and paid for mostly by US and EU tax dollars.

Kakuma camp in Kenya houses close to 200,000 people, mostly fleeing war and poverty in Somalia. Kakuma might be outside the US, hidden from the sight of most Americans, but make no mistake, Americans own it. Never heard of it? That's funny, because it's probably been around for most of your life. Many of its occupants have been there for their entire lives. What does this have to do with the US? The US government is one of the biggest funders of Kakuma camp, as it is a major funder of refugee camps all over the world. The US government has been in the concentration camp business for quite some time.

As a UNHCR report, published way back in 2000, explained, the people living in Kakuma, some of them for their entire lives, are not Kenyan citizens. In most cases, they do not have the right to leave the camp. As a UNHCR staff member put it at the time, the people in Kakuma are "confined to a small area in an arid corner of Kenya with scant legal access to integration..." Since the publication of this report, things in Kakuma have only gotten worse. Thousands wait hopelessly for resettlement, while the situation in Somalia shows no sign of resolving.

Recently, TEDx was lambasted in the Guardian newspaper for hosting an event in Kakuma showing individual refugee problem-solving and resiliency, as though the people living there were autonomous individuals in control of their own lives, instead of the residents of a modern-day concentration camp. The Kenyan government continues to restrict refugee movement in violation of the 1951 Convention, but this is seen as a necessary trade-off to keeping Somali refugees safely in Kenya and away from both mass bodily harm and violence, but also any chance of a future somewhere that isn't an inhospitable desert. But while Kenya provides the land and the legal right for the refugees to stay in limbo, the US and EU pay for the camp, they run the resettlement program and they are in charge of any long-term solution. This system portrayed by almost everyone as "humanitarian aid," which it was for perhaps the first five years of Kakuma's existence.

But now, almost 30 years later, is Kakuma still a humanitarian emergency? Is the US government still trying to help people, or is it trying to keep them in one place? UNHCR calls Kakuma "protracted refugee situation." I call it a concentration camp. It's a place where hope goes to die and the future doesn't exist.

Containment is at best a failed strategy. It certainly has caused a great deal of strain on Kenya. Periodically, the Kenyan government threatens to forcibly expel Somali refugees from Kenya. Recent terrorist attacks by Al Shabab will likely only increase calls for the closure of the camps. We hear a lot about Al Shabab, but much less about the hundreds of thousands of displaced Somalis living in our off-shore detention camps.

Nothing in this article is meant to take attention away from the very real crisis of detention that is ramping up in the US, but make no mistake, we are also paying for the biggest prison system in the history of the world, a camp archipelago that stretches from the deserts of Africa to the jungles of Asia, with no end in sight.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Some Immigrants are Criminals...High-Income Immigrants who Buy Passports and Launder Money through Real Estate

Image result for us passport
For sale to the richest criminal?

The EU is getting ready to crack down on the sale of citizenship in Europe, arguing that it facilitates money laundering and tax evasion by criminals. The sale of passports allows small states to raise a lot of tax revenue, but why would a billionaire want to buy citizenship in Malta? Well, maybe they love the weather. Or maybe they want to launder some money. Lots of countries offer citizenship or residency in exchange for cash, including the US.

It's worth asking during today's fraught immigration debate - where is the real risk of criminality coming from? Is it from gangs and drug dealers sneaking across the border, as President Trump maintains, or is it actually from some of his wealthy friends, who hide their stolen money in foreign real estate and buy passports to protect themselves and launder money? You decide.