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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: https://www.hulu.com/)

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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

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

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

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 

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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