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Out of Many, One: The Fine Art of Immigration Policy

In his retirement, former president George W. Bush has famously taken up painting. His first collection was titled “Portraits of Courage, a collection of oil paintings and stories honoring the sacrifice of America’s military veterans.” His latest work is titled Out of Many, One and is a series of portraits of people who have immigrated to the United States. In an article published in the Washington Post, Bush writes that he had two goals for this series: “to share some portraits of immigrants, each with a remarkable story I try to tell, and to humanize the debate on immigration and reform.”

In the Post article, Bush says he’ll leave specific immigration policies to current political leaders. But then goes on to outline exactly what he thinks should be done in 6 parts. Let’s take a look at each of his ideas.

  1. Bush advocates for a path to citizenship for Dreamers. Well, this is low-hanging fruit. He feels like this is an easy place for agreement and it is, with the majority of the country supporting this. But then he goes on to argue that Dreamers should be granted a path to citizenship because “they ought not be punished for choices made by their parents.” Ugh, Bush, really. You had to throw that line in, didn’t you? So, there you have it. Dreamers are good immigrants. Their parents are bad ones. Dreamers shouldn’t be punished, but the implication is their parents should. Their parents are human beings who risked everything to try and provide a life for themselves and their children. Yes, their children had no choice. But one could argue that their parents felt they had no other choice as well.
  2. His next point is the need for a secure and efficient border. He advocates for “all the necessary resources — manpower, physical barriers, advanced technology, streamlined and efficient ports of entry, and a robust legal immigration system — to assure it.” Hmmm. Ok. I definitely agree with a robust legal immigration system (I’d add a robust, fair, legal immigration system). I also support streamlined and efficient ports of entry. Physical barriers and advanced technology? Have we not seen that border walls don’t work like when kids are being dropped over the wall? Or when tunnels are dug beneath them? The ever-increasing militarization of our border just leads to more human rights violations, deaths of migrants, and to one the most dangerous border between two countries NOT at war in the world.  “Advanced technology,”  in this context — from facial recognition programs to drones — turns out to be little more than a euphemism employed to legitimize increased state surveillance behind a veneer of ostensibly respectable innovation.
  3. His third point is that we need to “work with our neighbors to help them build freedom and opportunity so their citizens can thrive at home.” Yes!!! Let’s address root causes of migration. Trump’s presidency did nothing if not prove that horrific conditions here and at the border do not prevent people from trying to come to the US. Why is that? Perhaps because no amount of deterrence can trump (pun intended) desperate conditions in home countries. But what does it look like to help build freedom and opportunity? Supporting an authoritarian president whose term has ended like Jovenal Moise in Haiti? Imposing sanctions, as in Nicaragua? Supporting known drug traffickers like Juan Orlando Hernandez in Honduras?
  4. Bush also suggests modernizing our asylum system. He says we need a “system that provides humanitarian support and appropriate legal channels for refugees to pursue their cases in a timely manner. The rules for asylum should be reformed by Congress to guard against unmerited entry and reserve that vital status for its intended recipients.” Yes!! Ok, we agree on something. The system has to start recognizing that people seeking asylum aren’t just fleeing persecution based on religion, race, ethnicity or politics. There is a large, and growing, number of migrants fleeing home countries because of climate change. Our definitions of refugee and asylum need to expand to respond to current realities.
  5. Increased legal migration, guest workers, etc. A point of agreement- if it is done equitably and fairly. You’ll excuse me if I’m doubtful.
  6. Lastly, he goes in hard against undocumented immigrants. All the same old arguments — “amnesty would be fundamentally unfair to those who came legally.” No, the system that allows some to come legally while others are forced to risk their lives to come “illegally” is unfair. He does say that undocumented immigrants should be brought out of the shadows with a gradual process to legal residency, so that’s something. But let’s stop acting like our current system is fair and some people are wrong for not playing by the rules.

He closes by saying “Over the years, our instincts have always tended toward fairness and generosity. The reward has been generations of grateful, hard-working, self-reliant, patriotic Americans who came here by choice. If we trust those instincts in the current debate, then bipartisan reform is possible. And we will again see immigration for what it is: not a problem and source of discord, but a great and defining asset of the United States.”

Wait — since when have our instincts tended toward fairness and generosity? The Chinese Exclusion Act? Ethnicity-based quota systems? In an excerpt from the book, Bush acknowledges the racist, biased history of our immigration system. But based on this article, he seems to have forgotten. If we trust our instincts we will end up right where we started. But I’ll agree with Dub-ya on one thing. Immigration is a “great and defining asset of the United States.” So let’s start there and build a new system actually built with fairness and generosity.

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The Mexican

Stretch and Bobbito are renowned DJs and their debut album No Requests came out early this year. One track, The Mexican, is a reimagining of the British band Babe Ruth’s song from 1973. Partnering with Mariachi singer Mireya Ramos, the songs’ lyrics have been updated to reflect the times. Referencing Trump’s border all, one line says “Wall so high from the outside/Makes it hard to Dream.” Bobbito explains that “with the video we advocated for immigration rights and opened up a curtain for the experiences of asylum seekers.”

Enjoy the song and video here:

Check out an interview with Stretch and Bobbito on NPR here

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Where are the Good Americans?

Immigration Nation is a 6-episode docuseries on Netflix. Filmmakers embedded with ICE for 3 years give us a behind the scenes look at ICE as it has shifted and expanded under the Trump administration. Episode 1, Installing Fear, weaves the stories of ICE officials with interviews of affected migrants and their family members. The result is an impactful look into the practices of ICE agents and how the people who are the targets of enforcement actions are affected.

The first agent we are introduced to is Scott, ICE Deputy Field Office Director, as he oversees Operation Keep Safe — a week long operation to bring in “fugitive aliens.” In 2003, there were 8 Fugitive Operations units and now there are 129. He is asked about people calling ICE agents Nazis and racists and he says, “We’re used to it. I love my job. I have a good stable home, make good money. To be called a Nazi, a racist, it’s…ignorant. We don’t pick people based on race, color, religion, we just look for people who are removeable.”

Another agent we meet is Judy. She says, “We constantly look like the bad guys when all we are doing is enforcing the laws and doing our jobs. It gets to me sometimes because I just feel like we have no respect.” Working for ICE for 12 years, Judy says the agents used to have “priorities” they had to follow, but “now the administration has changed and we’re finally able to do our jobs.” She is referring to the Obama administration’s focus to prioritize undocumented immigrants who had committed serious crimes. Now, under Trump, agents can focus on anyone with an immigration violation.  

We are shown migrants who are being detained at the border and separated from their minor children. The series then switches back to NYC, where Judy is interviewed in her patrol car and says, with relief, that she and her fellow agents aren’t involved in the terrible business of family separation. She then knocks on the door of a family, politely asks the father to step into the hallway and explains that he is being detained and will be deported. The whole time, his small child is crying. The mom asks the officer if he can say goodbye and she allows it. He hugs his crying daughter until the mom has to pull her out of his arms and he is taken away. Although the hypocrisy is obvious to the viewer, somehow this agent has been able to separate what she is doing fromwhat is happening at the border. The reality is that she separated that father from his family. 

One agent talks about walking into a donut shop and having an employee ask if the agent remembers him. The agent says the man looked familiar, but he wasn’t sure why. The employee says, “You deported my mom.” The agent replies, “I’m sorry, how long ago was that?” The answer: “Last week.” The agent admits that after a while, the people just run together and he stops seeing each individual. He then points out that he was in the military saying, “I was a soldier; I do what I’m told.” 

Another agent profiled seems to recognize the unfairness of the current system and says that the immigrants he picks up are “just got caught up in politics.” He insists he doesn’t pick collaterals because it’s not fair (collaterals are people detained other than the “target” of a warrant. Under Obama, agents were directed to not pick up collaterals. The Trump administration has reversed that directive). We see him driving a man he has taken into custody who asks him, “Were you born here?” The agent gets quiet and eventually says, “That’s irrelevant really.” But the question highlights the injustice. Either the agent was born here and just by the luck of being born in one place versus another, he is the one placing the other man in cuffs; or he himself was born in another country, but because of different policies or circumstances, he was able to migrate to the US legally, while the man in his custody was not. The agent clearly recognizes this injustice, but continues doing his job. 

Interviews with human rights lawyer Becca Heller are interspersed through the episode. She explains, “The brilliance of any bureaucratic system whose net result is fear and terror is that it’s big enough to break it down such that everyone just thinks that they’re only moving papers or only doing a little piece. A very small number of people at the top have designed the [immigration] system such that an incredible amount of terror results but those people [enforcement agents] are completely divorced from that.” 

One agent noted that the laws change and those changes come from above, outside of the system itself. But, he says, “It’s written law. You just have to follow it.” He feels no responsibility for the laws or their impact, just their enforcement. 

Interjected between portrayals of the agents, we are introduced to migrants, particularly Erin and Josué. Erin fled his home with his daughter when his wife was murdered in front of his daughter. At the border, she was separated from him and he just cries as he says he has no idea where she is or who is taking care of her. He has family in the United States and is eventually reunited with her. We see them boarding a bus to get to their family. He asks his daughter what happened while they were apart and she says the agents just kept telling her she would never see him again. 

Josué left Honduras and made it to Mexico with his wife and 1- and 3-year-old children. He didn’t have enough money to pay a coyote to bring all 4 of them across the border, so his wife and the 1-year-old stayed in Mexico and he and his 3-year-old crossed. They were detained and his son was taken from him. In his interview, he explains that he has no idea where his 3-year-old is and that he hasn’t been able to communicate with his wife in Mexico. 

Josué says that in his hometown “gringos” would come visit his church and they were so kind. He was optimistic about coming to the United States because of the kindness he had experienced. But now that he is here, he wonders, “Where are the good Americans?”

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Taste The Nation

Taste the Nation, a new series on the streaming network Hulu, is hosted and produced by Padma Lakshmi, best known as the host of Top Chef. An immigrant herself, Padma wanted to research immigration in the US in the wake of Trump’s election and the US’s latest anti-immigrant wave. Recognizing the power of food, she chose it as the lens to frame the topic. Through 10 episodes, the show explores 10 popular foods in America. As we learn the history, techniques and rituals that surround the food, we are also shown the history of the people making it, particularly their migration story. The immigration policies that impacted them, both current and historical, are also highlighted.

It is often said that the United States is a nation of immigrants. However, that statement negates an entire group of people and mischaracterizes the history of another. 

There are people whose ancestors have always lived here in the Americas and episode 7 explores the rich food traditions of the Apache and the impact of colonialization on those traditions. The episode starts with fry bread. A food many are familiar with and often considered traditional. But the episode quickly explains that fry bread is a food that was developed out of a necessity to use the commodity food rations given to indigenous people by the United States government, after forcibly removing them from their traditional land and food sources. Though it may be tasty, it is a painful symbol of colonialization, displacement and genocide. The episode goes on to highlight the amazing bounty of food that the Arizona desert provides.  Foods such as prickly pear fruit, barrel cactus fruit, onions, and small game such as rabbit or pack rat. Indigenous chefs are reclaiming the recipes and cooking techniques of their ancestors that have been erased and nearly lost. They are reclaiming the medicinal, healing properties and health benefits of their ancestral food. 

To say that African American ancestors “migrated” to the Americas negates the fact that they were forced to come in chains. Episode 3 explores the rich food traditions of the Gullah Geechee, descendants of enslaved Africans who were brought to the Americas primarily for their knowledge of growing rice. They now live along the coast from northern Florida to North Carolina with an unofficial capital in Charleston, SC. Modern southern and soul food can be traced back to the Gullah, but often they aren’t given credit. Padma talks with chefs and community members who are working and fighting to preserve the traditions and language of the Gullah (a blend of the various languages of the enslaved Africans and English). Sitting on ancestral land where so many atrocities happened, Padma acknowledges that talking about Gullah history is painful, but it is an important part of American History and it is part of the healing process this nation has to undertake. 

They say you are what you eat, but do we even really know what we are eating? or where it comes from? Hot dogs are often seen as quintessentially American, as American as baseball and apple pie. But hot dogs, or wieners, are German; so, in episode 2, Padma travels to Milwaukee to explore German immigration. This episode focuses on assimilation and the fact that so many of the German contributions to US culture have been so thoroughly absorbed, they are no longer viewed as German, but simply American. Padma says “Assimilation is complicated. While many people fight to be accepted. Others work to hold on to what might get lost. And that push and pull my friends, is America.”  

Many episodes explore what it means to pass on your cultural traditions to children who have a hyphenated identity. In episode 3, about Indian dosas, Padma’s daughter (Indian-American) reluctantly admits that she prefers pancakes to dosas. This cultural transmission is further complicated when you can’t travel back to where your traditions originate, as in episode 6 about kabob and the Iranian-American children of immigrants who fled Iran following the revolution. 

The very first episode of the series is perhaps the most relevant to our current debate on immigration. The episode goes to El Paso, to explore, the burrito. The chefs interviewed are quick to note that what we’ve been eating at Chipotle, is NOT what they are making. One chef notes that “a burrito is tradition wrapped in colonialization… Flour is not one of our ancestral foods. It’s an imposed food.” So that flour tortilla, like fry bread, is a symbol of colonialization. The episode talks a lot about the region and the arbitrary border that separates families and friends and has become ever increasingly militarized. Padma says, America loves Mexican food, but asks, “what about the hands that make that food?” Chef Marentes takes great pride in making his tortillas but notes, “It’s hard for me to think that people are going to accept my tortillas before they accept my cousins.” 

The last episode takes the viewers to Hawaii and is about poke. It focuses on the fusion of traditional Japanese and Hawaiian ingredients and cooking techniques. Gastronomically, the two have fused well, elements of each have been retained but have combined to create a delicious hybrid. Padma wonders if this could serve as a model for the nation. What would our country look like if traditions could be accepted and respected but also joined to create something new and beautiful. It’s a hopeful note, one that is much needed in these times. 

What does it mean to be American? Who decides? Which cultures are welcomed, accepted? Which ones are ignored or erased? Taste the Nation explores all of these questions and more. 

But as Chef Twitty says, quoting a West African saying, “if you sit at my table and eat with me, you’ll know who I am.” The table Padma Lakshmi explores is rich in flavor and diversity. It brings stories of pain and hope. And if we sit together and eat at this table, we will get to see the beauty of what it means to be American. 

(Hulu is a subscription based streaming service:

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Save Asylum- Take Action Now!

The comment period to protest the proposed changes to the US Asylum laws closes Wednesday July 15, 2020.

Speak out now!

To learn more about the proposed changes and what you can do to speak up against them please visit the Bay Area Border Relief page.

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Daily Dispatch 11/15/2019: For mixed-status families, the fear of family separation is constant

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Daily Dispatch

November 15, 2019

DACA recipients and others who attended oral argument are greeted by friends and supporters on the Supreme Court’s steps.

Family separation at the border is an enormous humanitarian crisis and makes daily headlines. But families across the country are separated or fear separation every day due to mixed immigration status. Nearly 9 million families in the U.S. have members with different immigration status – some are citizens or permanent legal residents, some are undocumented, while others are in a gray area – holders of DACA or TPS.

Both DACA and TPS have become political playthings for the Trump administration and their futures are unclear. As we shared earlier this week, the Supreme Court heard arguments on Tuesday regarding DACA. What they decide will determine the future of 700,000 people and has the potential to rip apart thousands of families.

The fear and uncertainty undocumented immigrants and holders of DACA and TPS feel not only impacts them, but their entire families. In 2016, the APA published a study on the effects on U.S. born children living with undocumented parents and found numerous long and short-term consequences. The study states:

The possibility of losing a parent to deportation, having to hide a family member’s legal status, and living in fear of authority and in social marginality has consequences on children’s mental wellbeing including high rates of anxiety, depression, fear, attention problems and rule-breaking behaviors.

This is in addition to the many physical and financial hardships.

Miriam Gonzalez, a plaintiff in a case against the Trump Administration for ending DACA.

NPR podcast “Code Switch” has followed a family with mixed status. Two parents, three children and three different legal realities. Mom and Dad are undocumented. One sibling has DACA. One is undocumented, and one is a U.S. citizen. One of those children, Miriam Gonzalez, is a plaintiff in the case suing the Trump Administration for ending DACA. To hear in their own words what being a mixed-status family looks like and what the fear of family separation does to a family, click here.


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Orange is the New Black: Tragedy Porn or Window On Immigrant Detention?

The Netflix series Orange Is the New Black (OITNB) has undoubtedly shined a light on the US prison-industrial complex through a diverse web of characters. Inmates, guards and administrators alike have been shown as the complex people they are – neither good nor bad, or perhaps both – but always human, trapped in an inhumane system. But OITNB has also been charged with exploiting the tragedies that disproportionately affect people of color and members of the LGBTQ community. Season 7, the final season for the ground-breaking show, begins with Litchfield Prison, already run by the private for-profit company PolyCon, contracting with ICE to house immigrant detainees. 

The series explores a number of issues such as the lack of mental health care in prison, lack of addiction treatment, the challenges that come with parole, and the lack of re-entry services. But the lens for season 7 is most definitely immigration. We see the profit motive within private prisons taken to a whole new level through Polycon’s partnership with ICE. Even the show’s writers and producers were shocked by what they found when they began researching for this season. They visited Adelanto Immigrant Detention Center in Adelanto, CA and producer Carolina Paiz said:

“We know prisons and we imagined it was going to be like camp, like a minimum-security prison, but looser than that…What shocked us was that it was no different than a maximum-security prison, except that they have less rights. They have no right to an attorney. They have no right to a phone call. It was the most horrifying realization for people who already have worked within that world to realize that it gets darker.”

With this research, the show seamlessly weaves the stories of the characters, each dealing with very different elements of US immigration policy. We see familiar characters we have gotten to know over the years leave the prison system only to end up in immigrant detention, where we then meet new characters who have also been caught in the government’s complex web.

Let’s take a look at a few of those characters and see what insight each can offer about immigrant life in detention. 


Blanca’s story illustrates the interplay of the US criminal system and immigration system. Blanca is granted early parole from Litchfield after her lawyer recommends she take a plea deal. A hopeful scene shows Blanca waiting to leave and her partner waiting outside for her with flowers, but the scene takes a turn as Blanca is separated into a line heading not for freedom, but to an ICE bus. It turns out her Green Card has been revoked due to her guilty plea. Her lawyer’s advice came with no regard for what that would mean for her immigration status. This outcome is a routine occurrence, given a system in which criminal lawyers who don’t know about immigration law give bad advice that can have devastating consequences. Blanca’s story is actually one of the few hopeful ones, as she learns how to defend herself in her own deportation proceedings and successfully argues she had bad legal representation when she pled guilty. This gives her enough time to find adequate legal help and eventually secure her freedom. 


Karla illustrates the challenges faced by an estimated 16 million people in the US, families with mixed immigration status. She is an undocumented widow and her two sons are US born citizens. When she is placed into deportation proceedings, her sons are placed in foster care, but she is unable to communicate with them because the foster home cannot accept calls from a prison. As the scene plays out, Karla argues that she can’t possibly take her boys back to her hometown in El Salvador where gang violence is pervasive. The judge replies that her children are not in deportation proceedings; she is. She passionately replies that she is their mom and their only parent. The judge then states that she doesn’t have custody of her children (because she was detained by ICE and they were forced into foster care) and that they can be adopted. Karla’s story shows how family separation is not just something happening at the border, but is something that happens throughout the country everyday. 

President Obama’s proposed Deferred Action for Parents of Americans, or DAPA, could have prevented Karla’s deportation. According to reports, an estimated 3.6 undocumented immigrants would qualify for DAPA, which would prevent the kind of separation Karla and her boys face.  


Santos’ storyline illustrates the need for improved language access for detained migrants. She speaks K’iche’, an indigenous language and the most common language spoken in Guatemala after Spanish. Prison guards turn to other detainees for translation but no one else at Litchfield speaks K’iche’. They yell at her to speak English, or at least Spanish, but no effort is made to find her a translator. Finally, an administrator provides a translator and discovers that she desperately needs medical care, care that is denied. In 2012 the Department of Homeland Security “committed to implementing Executive Order 13166 to ensure that all people, regardless of the language they speak, have ‘meaningful access’ to DHS’ programs and services.” This is clearly not happening. In December 2018 alone, 2 children from indigenous Maya communities died in custody and reports point to language barriers causing a delay in medical attention resulting in their deaths. 


Maritza grows up thinking she was born in US. When she gets caught in an ICE raid she tells officers she is a US citizen, but when she tries to prove her citizenship, her mother reveals that she was actually born in Colombia. Maritza’s case is placed into an expedited removal process when she is found to be sharing an immigration hotline with fellow detainees. (The real hotline on which this is based is run by the group Freedom for Immigrants was shut down by ICE since the airing of OITNB). Expedited removal is a process that was created in 1996 to allow low-level immigration officials to deport individuals apprehended within 100 miles of the border who had entered within the last two weeks. Trump has greatly expanded its reach and use. Maritza does not see a judge and has no chance to argue her case; she is just deported with nothing to a country she doesn’t even remember. The final scene of Maritza’s story is the one of the most powerful in the season. 

There are other haunting scenes like Shani being dragged out of the center, Karla being left in the desert, little kids defending themselves in court. Yes, OITNB is just a show, and sure, it’s Hollywood. But OITNB tries to make real the stories that are playing out in communities across the country everyday. So, does OITNB exploit these tragedies or shed light on them? I would argue it does both. 

Maybe the real answer to the question lies in our response to the show. Do we turn off the TV and thank God that it’s not happening to us. Or do we get up and do something about it?

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