Seventy-five years ago today bombardiers on an U.S. B-29 called the Enola Gay dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The pilot, Paul Tibbets, call-sign Dimples 82, could only muster a “My God!” as the bomb detonated 1,600 feet above the ground, instantly killing 100,000 people, and condemning a generation of survivors to days, months or years of illness. Following the bombing of Hiroshima, President Truman said, “If they do not now accept our terms they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.” Three days later the U.S. dropped a second bomb, Fat Man, on the city of Nagasaki.
Over a three day period, the United States government authorized the murder of 200,000 civilians with the dubious claim that doing so saved lives. And despite the horrors unfolding, the intent was to keep dropping the bombs – another raid was planned for August 18. Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945.
In Japan, the survivors of the atomic bombings are called hibakusha. For decades there was a real stigma in being hibakusha. People feared that radiation sickness might be contagious, or that the effects could be passed down through generations. Allied, mostly U.S. forces, which occupied Japan until 1952, helped generate the silence surrounding the bombings and their survivors.
The Allied forces, led by the US Occupying force, General McArthur, had censored all information, including the scientific and literary publications about the bombings – for instance film reels were confiscated, along with scientific specimens and doctors’ records. These were then shipped off to the US. The hibakusha, who were examined medically, for the famous Life Span study (the longest study of radiation effects in existence) were, in general, not interviewed for their experiences, except for a very few psychological studies.
Instead, the hibakusha were the unwelcome reminder of an unknown, unclassifiable event, something so unimaginable society tried to ignore it.
In 1957, a law was passed so that those hibakusha who had illnesses that could be traced back to the bombing were able to receive medical stipends to pay for their care. (For some years, the government failed to recognize as hibakusha non-Japanese survivors, especially thousands of Koreans who had been brought to Japan as laborers during the war and then died in — or survived — the bombings.) Even so, it has only been in the last decade or so that the stigma of being hibakusha has lifted. Of the 650,000 people who survived these bombings, 120,000 were still alive in 2016.
A nijū hibakusha refers to someone who survived both bombings. While as many as 165 people have been identified as nijū hibakusha, the only person to be officially recognized as such by the government of Japan is Tsutomu Yamaguchi. From Nagasaki, Yamaguchi was in Hiroshima on a business trip for Mitsibushi on the morning of August 6:
At around 8:15 am…Yamaguchi heard a plane circling above the city, and then saw something drop from it. Two small parachutes were visible in the distance, carrying a big object that was slowly making its way towards the ground in the center of the city. Yamaguchi was about 3 km away when suddenly a blinding flash of light went off. The explosion aggressively pushed Yamaguchi back and severely burnt the left side of his upper body. Confused and in pain, with ruptured eardrums and temporarily blind, he managed to crawl into an irrigation ditch before making his way into a shelter for the night.
Yamaguchi returned to Nagasaki on August 8. With just bandages as treatment for his wounds, he was back at work at his office in Nagasaki the next morning. While explaining what he saw in Hiroshima to his boss, who was doubtful a single bomb could do such damage, the second bomb struck. Yamaguchi survived the second bombing – as did his wife and young son.
In 2010, the year Yamaguchi died of stomach cancer, a book of his poetry was published in English for the first time. The book, titled, “And the River Flowed as a Raft of Corpses,” contains 65 poems translated by Chad Diehl. The poems are “tankas,” a poetry form, which like haiku, has a specific rhythmic structure (which constrains translation). On surviving:
Carbonized bodies face-down in the nuclear wasteland all the Buddhas died, and never heard what killed them. Thinking of myself as a phoenix, cling on until now. But how painful they have been, those twenty-four years past. If there exists a GOD who protects nuclear-free eternal peace the blue earth won’t perish.
World War II was not a “great” war. It was a global travesty involving the slaughter of tens of millions of people in the name of “great powers” competing for global position. That such a war ended in tragedy is somehow fitting. The atomic bombings provided the segue between the old global order of European imperialism and the new, U.S. imperialism launched under the reign of terror that is the threat of nuclear annihilation. We still live under the shadow of the bomb. And so, we must remember the source, and all the brutality associated with those bright lights in the morning skies above Japan in August of 1945, and vow “never again.”
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/)
On social media several weeks ago, I read, with no small alarm, the hysterical rants of the great protectors of our cultural patrimony, upon the defacement of the sculpture of Cervantes in a San Francisco park. Clutching my pearls, I wondered what had become of our way of life. Digging deeper, I learned that the two statues facing Cervantes were also “desecrated” with spray paint. These statues, of course, represent Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Our founders at the Quixote Center took the name of this fictional nobleman because he embodied a quest for living according to lofty, if sometimes ludicrous, ideals. His squire, Sancho, has shared a name with our computer system at the Center, lo, these last 40 years.
On the night of June 19, 2020, when statues including Junipero Serra and Francis Scott Key were toppled in Golden Gate Park, red paint was sprayed on the eyes of the bust of Cervantes and his creations, and the word “bastard” on the pedestal for the bust, as well as red crosshairs on the backs of our beloved knight and his faithful Sancho.
Some folks – not least a bystander named “Howard” – were upset. As covered by the local CBS affiliate: “‘Don Quixote and Sancho Panza — and for what?’ asked a frustrated Howard, watching the graffiti removal from John F. Kennedy Drive. ‘It’s very sad. It makes me feel it’s totally out of hand and it has nothing to do with civil rights.’” He further lamented that the police just “let them do it.” A blogger stated that the protesters were Antifa.
I don’t know about the truth of this claim. I don’t know anything about the beliefs of the person whose hand held the can of spray paint. I don’t really think either of these guys does either, although Howard may have seen something. He certainly seems to think this was somehow unfair.
Maybe it was. Or maybe it was done by people frustrated that fictional characters got a monument, showing more honor for their imaginary lives than those of flesh and blood people.
The Judeo-Christian tradition has a word or two on the subject of graven images. Some have pointed to the story in Exodus when Moses called out the worship of a golden calf. But a more instructive case for our current moment may come from a different tale. In Numbers (21:4-9), Moses is divinely instructed to fashion a bronze serpent to protect the Israelites from the bites of serpents. After many generations have passed, however, this same sculpture – the Nehushtan, or “brazen serpent” – resurfaces in 2 Kings (18:4). By then it had become an object of worship in itself, contemptible because it is just a thing, not worthy of worship, so Hezekiah destroys this remnant of the past.
Anyone who considers a statue or even a big box store worthy of an impassioned defense – while also allowing that some people may simply deserve to die – is an idolater, according greater value to a physical and aesthetic object than to a being endowed with senses, feelings, and life. Yet it seems every generation must learn anew the lesson that we can still treasure the wrong things, and often we do.
Statues are worth something, to be sure, and not just in financial terms. Like so much art, a statue is often understood to embody ideas and ideals and other qualities that go beyond observable features and tell us something about the age, context, or emotional life of the artist and the moment in which they were created.
But whatever statues may be worth, tangibly or intangibly, statues have no affective life to call their own. Statues – apart from, perhaps, the mythological Galatea (not to be confused with Cervantes’s novel of the same name) – cannot feel pain, know longing, suffer. A statue can be toppled or sent to the depths of the sea, but it cannot drown. It cannot have the life crushed out of it, because it has no life. When people’s lives are threatened by violence – be it state-sponsored or systemic or personal – prioritizing statues over people is indefensible.
Just because statues do not deserve saviors does not mean they are of no consequence. Centering public art that celebrates and memorializes the lives of oppressors is not an accident and it is not harmless. It has a long history and is a legitimate site of debate and activism. Symbols of past and present violence and oppression do real harm by celebrating historical misdeeds as if they were heroic exploits; and it is fair game for protesters to address these harms.
The work of toppling statues can help to correct a narrative that has afforded access to privileged places on pedestals to oppressors while actively suppressing the stories of those who struggled and survived against their sinister designs.
Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias,” tugs irresistibly at my mind. In it, the statue of a monarch lies in pieces, with the head fallen to the ground and words carved into a pedestal reading, “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; / Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” This ironic twist rewrites the narrative of a king who thought that nothing could humble him, but time and even the artist’s rendering, have betrayed this belief. History has triumphed over his “sneer of cold command.”
Racial justice demands attention to telling a fuller, and hence more truthful, story. Recently, the narrative of J. Marion Sims has been rewritten with this understanding. Sometimes revered as the “father of gynecology,” his experimental method of using live enslaved human subjects without anesthesia to test his hypotheses has led to much justified criticism. Telling this story now is important work. Relocating his statue from Central Park to the cemetery where he is buried makes him just one statue among many in a place where all sorts of people are remembered – without necessarily being honored. This more suitable placement gives new meaning to the words of early 20th century labor activist Mother Jones: “Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.” Moreover, a plaque offers context and names Lucy, Anarcha, and Betsey, three of the Black women who were subjects in his research, adding their names to the historical record.
Returning to our namesake, in the last chapter of the first volume of Don Quixote, the knight errant comes upon a group of penitents garbed in white and carrying a statue of the Virgin Mary. Our hapless hero decides he must rescue this helpless icon from her captors. In his zeal to deliver the damsel in distress, Don Quixote ends up getting knocked to the ground. While he lives to have more tales of derring-do, his attempt to rescue a statue is a tale of tomfoolery. This episode suggests that Cervantes would have laughed at the notion of people trying to come to the aid of an inert statue featuring his visage (or even that of a certain European slaveholder).
So, if you thought the folks at the Quixote Center would be offended by a little paint added to some literary statuary, you don’t know us very well. We maintain that people who work for justice in the world may be laughed at sometimes, but that the work is worthwhile anyway. While we take our causes seriously, we try not to take ourselves too seriously.
We prefer to focus on today’s work – standing with movements for justice – so that the narrative of tomorrow can lift up new heroes who stand with the oppressed people of history and work for our collective liberation.
The Franciscan Network on Migration provides support to migrants traveling through Central America and Mexico. The network includes dozens of shelters and soup kitchens in the region. The shelters that we are working with most directly are the Frontera Digna in Piedras Negras, La 72 in Tenosique, and the Casa y Comedor San Francisco de Asís in Mazatlán, pictured below.
In Mazatlán, the house has been primarily a soup kitchen, or comedor. During periods of high traffic, however, people have been allowed to sleep in the corridors and courtyard at the church that is providing support. Thanks to the donation of a new facility, and support from donors helping to fund renovations, there will be a full service shelter in the coming months – though not likely to open until after the current health crisis has abated.
The photographs below show friars in Mazatlán providing meals this week – as they have for years. But, for now, they must offer bags “to go,” as sit-down meals are not possible because due to pandemic health considerations.
The Quixote Center is the fiscal sponsor for the Franciscan Network on Migration within the United States.
The Supreme Court ruling against the Trump administration’s effort to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) has been well covered in the news. DACA offered protection from removal for “dreamers,” or people who arrived in this country as children but who are unauthorized. The ruling allows DACA to stand as policy, though there may well be further efforts to halt the program. The future of the policy largely lies with the upcoming election.
In addition to this landmark ruling there have been three other recent decisions to note.
I. Children in Custody
In the first case, a federal judge ordered Immigration and Customs Enforcement to release all of the children in its custody due to concerns about exposure to COVID-19. A huge victory, at least on the surface. The judge did not specify that parents must also be released. If ICE insists on holding parents, this could set up another family separation crisis.
Immigrant children are held by the U.S. government through several agencies. Customs and Border Protection may hold unaccompanied children and families with children, usually for 72 hours or less, before making a determination to deport, release or transfer them. Currently, almost everybody picked up by CBP, including unaccompanied minors, are being deported immediately with almost no processing and no opportunity to seek asylum.
Unaccompanied children, at least prior to the border closure in March, were typically transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, where they would be detained until a family member or community sponsor could be located. There are just over 1,000 children in ORR custody right now, a very small number by recent standards – mostly because new arrivals are simply being deported.
Families with children, at least those that are able to remain together, are typically transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which detains families in one of three facilities (two in Texas, one in Pennsylvania). These children are the focus of the judge’s order: “Citing recently reported coronavirus cases among detained families, as well as allegedly lax masking and social distancing enforcement at two family detention facilities in Texas, U.S. Judge Dolly Gee ordered ICE to release all minors who have been held for more than 20 days.”
The catch is that Gee does not have the authority to mandate the release of parents – her authority is directly tied to oversight of the Flores Settlement agreement that provides guidance for the treatment of children in custody. The choice is that ICE must either release the parents as well, or separate the families by placing children with community sponsors or other family members. Unless pressed to do otherwise, ICE will almost certainly try to continue detaining the parents – which means separating children from parents yet again.
Members of Congress issued a letter to the Department of Homeland Security and ICE leadership asking that families be released together.
“Family separation should never be this country’s policy. Medical organizations have long stated that the practice creates extraordinary harm to children,” the lawmakers wrote in their letter to Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and Acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director Matthew Albence. “Detention of children for any amount of time, even with their parents, causes physical harm and irreparable trauma.”
ICE has until July 17 to release all of the children in custody. Take a moment to sign our petition demanding that families be released together.
The next case involved a direct challenge to the administration’s authority to summarily expel children and asylum seekers under a Center of Disease Control policy that Trump has used to essentially shut the border down to everyone – including refugees and unaccompanied children. The ACLU, Oxfam and the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies sued on behalf of a 16 year-old boy from Honduras and his father. From the ACLU’s release on the judges initial ruling in favor of the child:
A federal court has once again provisionally blocked the deportation of a Honduran boy in the first legal challenge to the Trump administration’s order restricting immigration at the border based on an unprecedented and unlawful invocation of the Public Health Service Act, located in Title 42 of the U.S. Code…
U.S. District Judge Carl Nichols issued a ruling from the bench today prohibiting the removal of the boy under Title 42 protocols as the lawsuit continues. The judge agreed with the plaintiff’s central argument that the CDC had likely exceeded its authority in ordering the expulsion of children and asylum seekers under the public health laws. (emphasis added).
This case may establish the necessary precedent to bring an end to Trump’s border expulsions policy, which has so far led to over 40,000 people removed at the border without any due process. Though the ruling this week does not by itself do that – it is an important first step toward bringing this tragedy to an end.
III. Transit Ban
Finally, a court ruling on Tuesday will end – for the time being – the Trump administration’s efforts to close off asylum to anyone who transits a third country prior to reaching the U.S. border. The so-called “transit ban” had effectively ended asylum for anyone arriving at the U.S./Mexico border who was not a Mexican national. The transit ban was clearly intended to target Central American refugees, but ultimately impacted refugees from all over the world who travel through several countries in Latin America before arriving at the U.S. border.
The case was brought by the Capital Area Immigrant Rights Coalition, and was focused on the administration’s violation of rule-making procedures and public notification requirements related to the transit-ban. The merits of the policy itself are also under judicial review in a separate case. In a communication to coalition partners, CAIR’s litigation director, Claudia Cubas, wrote:
In CAIR Coalition v Trump, Judge Timothy Kelly, a Trump appointee sitting on the federal bench in D.C., just vacated the third-country transit rule (the Administration’s asylum ban II barring asylum seekers who passed through third countries en route to the US without seeking asylum in other countries) in its entirety, based on the government’s failure to follow APA notice-and-comment. The court also declined to stay its decision, so it goes into effect right away.
These rulings are part of larger efforts to restore asylum policies in the United States. Toward that end, we encourage everyone to take part in Virtual Asylum Advocacy Days on July 14-16. The Asylum Working Group and Interfaith Immigration Coalition are organizing virtual legislative visits with your members of Congress. There will be a virtual training session to help prepare in advance. You can sign up here.
The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless other Black people by police officers and racist vigilantes attest the need for systemic change and solidarity in the fight for justice and equity for Black communities. The Quixote Center stands in solidarity and friendship with Black communities and the Black Lives Matter movement.
As a multi-issue social justice organization, the Quixote Center aims to bring about lasting systemic change. Confronting racial injustice in the United States and elsewhere requires action that undercuts the material bases of oppression. We call for and support campaigns that seek to defund police departments, eliminate Immigration and Customs Enforcement, end the detention of migrants and seek the abolition of prisons. Funds used to police and incarcerate should instead be directed toward building sustainable communities.
We support in an unqualified way the right of those who are engaged in protest actions in response to injustice, particularly racism, at this time. The harm to human life, disproportionately to the Black community, brought about by state violence and persistent institutional racism, must end.
For those who are unable or do not feel it would be prudent to participate in mass mobilizations at this time for health reasons – particularly in light of the global pandemic – there are other ways to support the cause of racial justice.
For those who would like to learn more about anti-racism work, you can start here.
For those who want to get engaged in movement activities, the Movement for Black Lives has a list of ideas for actions, coded for degrees of risk, connected to themes that have animated the ongoing week of action.
For those who want to support protesters in the streets from their homes, here are some ideas.
For those who want to donate to black-led organizations working directly on questions of racial justice, here are just a few to get started:
Black Lives Matter– Founded in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer, BLM is an international organization whose mission is to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities.
Minnesota Freedom Fund– Community-based nonprofit that pays criminal bail & immigration bonds for individuals who have been arrested while protesting police brutality.
Movement for Black Lives – created as a space for Black organizations across the country to debate and discuss the current political conditions, develop shared assessments of what political interventions were necessary in order to achieve key policy, cultural and political wins, convene organizational leadership in order to debate and co-create a shared movement wide strategy.
Black Visions Collective– A black, trans & queer-led organization that is committed to dismantling systems of oppression & violence, & shifting the public narrative to create transformative long-term change.
Campaign Zero– online platform & organization that utilizes research-based policy solutions to end police brutality in America.
Political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. ~George Orwell
In light of the attack from the Invisible Enemy, as well as the need to protect the jobs of our GREAT American Citizens, I will be signing an Executive Order to temporarily suspend immigration into the United States. ~Donald Trump, April 20, 2020
I read the news today, oh boy. ~John Lennon
In 1946, George Orwell wrote the essay “Politics and the English Language.” Of particular concern in this essay was what Orwell portrayed as a general decline in the English language, evident in the use of unimaginative metaphors, pretentious diction, extraneous verbs and other operators, and, finally, what he simply calls the use of “meaningless” words. Orwell argues that the general decline in language is both a cause and effect of environmental factors. In his words, language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
Orwell’s particular target was political language, which is constantly deployed to “defend the indefensible.” He writes, “political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification.”
The manner in which language is used to conceal more than to reveal in the hands of politicians, political commentators and even politically engaged “everyday people” was hardly a new concern, even in 1946. Whether the English language has suffered a general decline is not precisely an empirical question, of course, but if we agree that political language was in a sorry state of affairs in 1946, abused as it was to deflect attention away from the brutality of war and conquest, it is not a huge leap to suggest the language of politics has continued to devolve. Political language has become inherently untruthful. Indeed, we hardly expect honesty at all from our political class any more (beyond what can be defended from our own “standpoint”). The result is brutality, which if commented on at all, is veiled in lies.
The Invisible Enemy
The segue from this general observation to the Trump administration is not a difficult one. Trump is known to lie pretty much continuously. When he tries to tell a version of the truth, he is often wrong, or minimally, confused about the details. And yet, his administration has been the fulcrum employed to engineer a massive redistribution of wealth – to the wealthy – while gutting every regulatory regime that existed prior to January of 2017. Alongside these activities, his administration has employed a hyper-nationalistic narrative to turn an already brutal immigration system into one of abject cruelty. This brutality has evolved over the years behind consistent use of terms like “criminal alien” and “illegals” (one hardly needs to ask who “illegal” refers to anymore). Justified by this rhetorical twist that turns migration into a crime, the United States has built the largest immigration jail network in the world. Most of the people trapped in this system have committed no crimes, of course, but the language of criminality works here as it works in domestic “criminal” justice to dehumanize.
This network of immigrant jails and the mechanics of removal enfolds otherwise disparate institutions and interests, from thousands of private companies to dozens of county and local police agencies, alongside the largest federal law enforcement agency in the country, into a constituency with a material commitment to maintaining the detention and deportation machine. If there is any doubt about this publicly-funded commitment to profit from the pain of migrants, one need merely look at how the last two months have played out. From the standpoint of reason and public health, detention centers would have been cleared and deportations halted. Border controls, unavoidable in such times, would have been crafted in a way that maximized the provision of health services to migrants (and all of us!) — as it is no one’s human interest to leave people uncared for in the face of a pandemic that is indifferent to the borders we draw around our otherwise imagined communities.
But Trump is not operating from the standpoint of reason nor concern for public health. Unable to even say COVID-19, Trump’s team has sacrificed thousands in order to capitalize on brutality in the fight against the “invisible enemy.” Since early March, the Trump administration has fought against humanitarian releases from detention facilities, has continued to deport thousands of people from those detention facilities to countries around the world, and has engineered a public health crisis at the U.S./Mexico border out of sheer indifference to the human suffering these policies mean for tens of thousands of people.
“Committed to Health and Welfare”
On Sunday, May 17, 2020, Choung Woong Ahn took his own life at the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center in Bakersfield, California. Ahn was 74 years old and a diabetic. ICE had refused to release Ahn on bond after multiple appeals from family and attorneys since the time he was taken into custody in February. Ahn was a permanent resident. He had been convicted of attempted murder in 2013 and was taken into custody by ICE after he had completed his sentence earlier this year. Given his age and health conditions, there seems little reason to have kept him detained. His crime made him deportable, but he had already served his sentence. If he were a U.S. citizen, he would simply have been sent home. Had he been permitted bond, and allowed to wait for his hearing with family members, he would still be alive.
In the press release announcing the death of Choung Woong Ahn, ICE included this statement: “ICE is firmly committed to the health and welfare of all those in its custody.” If this was remotely true, the people in ICE’s custody would mostly be released. Certainly, they would have been released in the face of a global pandemic. ICE, when pressed, will claim that immigrant detention is civil detention and not intended to be punitive. This is true – legally speaking. And yet behind the prison walls where ICE detains people, those people are brutalized, emotionally scarred, physically scarred and in too many cases, whatever the ultimate outcome of their cases, suffer what will become lifelong trauma as a result. Many take their own lives. Ahn was not the first to do so this year. And sadly, he won’t be the last. We can expect such human losses until the detention machine is shut down.
Overall, Ahn was the eleventh person to die in ICE custody since the fiscal year began on October 1, 2019, and the third person this month. This is the highest annual total of deaths in ICE custody in a long time, and we are only half-way through the year. As a sign that things are about to get far worse, the other two deaths in May were due to COVID-19. As of May 19, ICE reported that 1,145 people in custody have tested positive for COVID-19. Since ICE has only tested 2,194 of the 26,660 people currently being held, the actual number is surely much higher.
The first person to die in ICE custody as a result of COVID-19 was Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejía. Carlos was born in El Salvador and he fled that country as a child with his mother and sister after his brother was killed during the civil war in 1980. He had lived in the United States for 40 years. Like many people who live in the shadow of trauma, Carlos struggled with addiction and one result was a number of arrests for possession and a DUI. For these offenses, he served sentences like anyone else, and yet, under Clinton-era laws, the convictions made him deportable. With a removal order in place, Carlos was placed in detention at the Otay Mesa Detention Facility after being stopped at a check-point by Border Patrol in January of this year. Carlos also had diabetes severe enough that an injury to one of his feet several years ago led to its amputation. In a wheelchair, diagnosed with hypertension and diabetes, he should have never been detained at all while awaiting his hearings — and certainly should have been released with humanitarian parole once the threat of COVID-19 was apparent. Instead, he was incarcerated. He contracted COVID-19 in detention and died on May 6 after being transferred to a medical facility for treatment.
After forcing Carlos into detention, delaying testing and treatment for COVID-19 until he was very ill, (and in the process exposing many of the people detained with him to the disease as well), ICE also wrote in the release about his death, “ICE is firmly committed to the health and welfare of all those in its custody.” ICE’s expressed concern for the people in its custody has to be set alongside the tomes of affidavits, reports and inspector general findings that testify to the contrary. Against this wealth of evidence of abuse, denial and/or serious delay in the provision of health services, ICE’s boilerplate expressions of commitment ring hollow. More importantly, what this means is that ICE was unprepared for COVID-19, and, per its track record in dealing with other outbreaks of communicable diseases, ICE has altered its operations only minimally in response to the crisis. For example, in a May 14 letter to ICE director Matthew Albence, congressional leaders wanted to know why…
At the Otay Mesa facility, Marciela Ortiz was assigned with 15 other women to begin working in the kitchen, the same workspace where another detainee had tested positive for the virus. Within days, Ms. Ortiz and other women on the kitchen detail began experiencing coronavirus symptoms. When Ms. Ortiz sought help, she was told to walk around and take a shower. Ms. Ortiz and others with symptoms were left in the general population rather than being isolated. Ms. Ortiz was not able to get tested for coronavirus until after she was released on bond. She tested positive.
Members of the House Oversight and Civil Rights committees have written three letters to Albence demanding answers about scenarios like this since April. They are still waiting. Meanwhile, people keep getting sick.
Óscar López Acosta was born in Honduras. He had been charged for irregular re-entry, having crossed the border after being deported in 2009 and again in 2012. Rather than simply plead out, however, Óscar fought the charge and was held in pre-trial detention for months. In May of 2019, he was released from federal prison after a judge sentenced him to time served for the re-entry charge. Rather than get released, however, he was transferred back into ICE custody, where he remained for another year. On April 24 of this year, after it was confirmed that another person detained with him (and dozens of other people) had tested positive for COVID-19, he was released from Morrow County Jail. Oscar himself tested positive on May 3, and died of complications from the disease on May 17. He should have never been detained. Óscar López Acosta also had diabetes, and ICE knew this. During his trial for irregular re-entry in January of 2019, he went into diabetic shock after jailers forgot to give him his insulin injection. There was no purpose to his detention to begin with, and given his risk factors, he should have certainly been released much sooner. Now he is dead.
Earlier this month, a federal judge ruled in Fraihat v ICE, that ICE must undertake a mandatory review of everyone in its custody that is at high risk if exposed to COVID-19 and release more people. In making this ruling, the judge noted that ICE had utterly failed to adopt practices consistent with Center for Disease Control and Prevention guidance. He wrote that ICE’s “systemwide inaction” has “likely exhibited callous indifference to the safety and wellbeing” of ICE detainees. It is worth noting that two guards, Carl Lenard and Stanton Johnson, are also among those who have died after contracting Covid-19 in ICE detention facilities. Both worked for Lasalle Corrections at the Richwood facility in Monroe, Louisiana. They, and others working in the facility, had been directed not to wear face masks.
Throughout this system of detention facilities ICE claims 44 people who work for them are confirmed positive for COVID-19. However, ICE does not report on the people employed by contractors. Carl Lenard and Stanton Johnson were never included in this count. So, again, ICE is engaged in spreading serious misinformation about conditions in detention facilities. Of the cases ICE will claim, the facility with the worst outbreak among staff is in Alexandria, Louisiana. This facility is one of several staging facilities used by ICE Air Operations for deportation flights. 15 people have been confirmed positive at this facility.
Over 100 people who have been deported through the same facility over the last month have tested positive once they returned home to Guatemala, Haiti, and Colombia. They may or may not have contracted the disease in Alexandria. They could have gotten it anywhere in ICE’s network of detention facilities. Why? Because ICE continues to transfer people within its network, carelessly spreading the disease by taking people from facilities with high infection rates and transferring them to facilities where there were none. For example, an outbreak at Prairieland, Texas was traced back to a transfer of people from hard hit detention facilities in the Northeast. When ICE was told by a federal judge to reduce crowding in facilities in South Florida – they simply transferred people. The result was an increase in cases at the Broward Transitional Facility from 3 confirmed to 19 over the weekend. All 16 of the new cases were among people transferred from the Krome detention center in Miami.
Under such conditions, ICE’s decision to continue with deportations demonstrates the “callous indifference” with which it views not only the people in custody but the communities from which they originate. The number of people held in ICE detention facilities has fallen from just over 38,000 in March to 26,660 as of May 16. Most of this decline is the result of continuing deportations while book-ins to ICE facilities have fallen off. In March, 20,000 people were booked into ICE detention facilities as a result of border arrests and internal removal operations. That fell to 8,500 in April, and 3,900 through the first half of May. Humanitarian releases have been relatively few and far between, as ICE has fought every effort in court to gain release of people. At the same time, ICE has continued to deport thousands of people.
Using flight information retrieved from FlightAware’s database, Jake Johnston with the Center for Economic and Policy Research has documented 273 likely deportation flights to countries in Latin America and the Caribbean since February 3, 2020. While the pace of flights has slowed somewhat over this time period compared to recent years, it is still an astounding number. Almost all of the destination airports for ICE charters are otherwise closed to international commercial flights, as countries seek to restrict travel and contain the spread of COVID-19. The efforts of governments in Guatemala and Haiti, in particular, to stop deportation flights after people have arrived testing positive, have only resulted in vague promises from ICE that they will be more careful, and pressure from the Trump administration, which threatened to sanction any country that refuses to accept deportation flights. And so ICE’s “callous indifference” to the people in its custody is now the world’s problem as well.
In addition to these deportation flights, 21,000 migrants have been pushed out of the United States into Mexico since mid-March as the Trump administration has used its war against the “invisible enemy” to shut the border. In reality, Trump’s administration has been trying to shut the border to asylum seekers and other immigrants since he took office. Currently, under the guise of a CDC order on restricting border crossings, people seeking asylum at the southern border are denied any hearing. They are simply deported back to Mexico. Many of those from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador are then picked up by Mexico’s immigration authorities, and bused to Mexico’s southern border. There they may be detained, deported, or released with temporary papers. The CDC order that Trump is using to justify this policy was extended indefinitely on May 19.
Others so removed join the tens of thousands of refugees already crowded into towns along the Mexico-U.S. border who have been waiting, in some cases over a year, for a chance to have their asylum cases heard by a U.S. immigration judge. The hearings they are waiting for have been suspended. The people jammed into border camps, overcrowded shelters, or scratching out a living in the streets of Tijuana, Matamoros and Ciudad Juarez are the unfortunate “beneficiaries” of the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols.
The impact of this policy has already been devastating. 57,000 people forcibly returned to Mexico over the last year to wait, with only a handful receiving asylum through immigration hearings that are a farce. With the border closure and summary expulsion of asylum seekers and others, the situation becomes more overcrowded, unhealthy and uncertain. This week, ProPublica and The Texas Tribune released a report on the impact of these border policies on children. The opening story is of two sisters, ages 8 and 11, who crossed the border at Brownsville after their father disappeared in Matamoros. The family had been waiting for a year for their hearing under the MPP. Instead of reuniting the girls with their mother, who is living in the US, they were held for two months by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, at which point ICE declared their intent to deport them back to El Salvador. As the result of a last-minute appeal, they were reunited with their mother, and are allowed to stay…for now. Other kids have not been so lucky. 1,000 unaccompanied minors have been summarily expelled at the border under the CDC order since mid-March.
“All I want is the truth”
The Trump administration’s approach to COVID-19 has clearly been to deflect attention and thus responsibility for its own very botched efforts to take the looming crisis seriously back in January and February, when concerted actions might have made a huge difference. In deflecting blame, Trump has rolled out a whole barrage of nonsense, from endorsing conspiracy theories, to popping hydroxychloroquine, to blaming China and Obama. Accompanying the nonsense has been a quieter war on people whose only “crime” is being non-citizens of the United States. On the frontlines of this war, people are also dying.
While the United States will struggle, perhaps for years, to reverse the damage done by the last two months of crisis, there are fairly simple and reasonable things that can be done today: Allow people to leave detention facilities in this country, reinstate asylum at the border, accompanied by health screening and care, and stop deportations. Aside from boosting capacity to screen and care for people at the border, none of these things really cost money. Indeed, a moratorium on detentions and deportations would save millions. More importantly, these steps would save lives and reduce the chances of infections for everyone.
There are efforts afoot to address all of this. We are facing an uphill battle to be sure, but you can weigh in and get involved. Here are a few of the efforts that are already under way:
The Trump administration has lost its mind. Really. During this pandemic, borders have been closed, airports shuttered and international travel generally restricted across the globe, all in an effort to contain COVID-19. The Trump administration has gone as far, or further, than most. It has shut U.S. borders to “non-essential” travel, which along the southern border means anyone seeking asylum is removed immediately to Mexico. 20,000 people have been expelled under this order. The administration has suspended most other forms of authorized migration as well, including the issuance of green cards, and restricting who can get work permits.
Meanwhile, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has continued to deport people throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. To be very clear, they are doing this, well aware of the concurrent risk of spreading COVID-19. The United States is now the global center of coronavirus infections with over 30% of confirmed cases across the globe and well over 25% of global deaths. Within jails, prisons, and immigration detention facilities, the rate of infection is much higher than among the general population. Inside ICE’s detention facilities specifically, the virus has now spread throughout the system – a primary reason being that ICE continues to transfer people within this network, guaranteeing its spread. The first confirmed death in custody due to COVID-19 has happened. There will be more. A Federal judge has mandated that ICE let more people out of detention – and in doing so, he noted ICE’s “callous indifference to the safety and wellbeing of the Subclass members [detained immigrants at risk]. The evidence suggests systemwide inaction that goes beyond a mere ‘difference of medical opinion or negligence.’”
The danger of spreading the disease is made that much worse by the fact that before being deported, people are transferred to staging facilities, where they are held for days and then put on airplanes. There is no way to safely deport people under these conditions. Indeed, as deportation flights have continued anyway, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has now been shown to have contributed to the spread of coronavirus to Guatemala, Haiti, Mexico and Colombia – and possibly elsewhere. Especially concerning are deportation flights to the city of Guayquil in Ecuador, which now has among the worst infection rates by population in the Americas.
For these and other reasons, hundreds of human rights organizations (here, here, and here), members of the Senate, the House of Representatives, and the editorial boards of Washington Post, Miami Herald, and Boston Globe have called for an end to these flights. The governments of countries receiving people being deported have tried to get the flights called off during this pandemic, but these governments have been threatened with sanctions by Trump if they do anything to halt or “unreasonably” slow the process down.
Amidst all of the controversy, the number of flights has actually increased. ICE has only promised to begin testing – but only of some people. When such testing will start for the general population of those being deported – or even if it will – is anybody’s guess. Testing within ICE’s detention network has thus far been minimal, despite the spread of the disease. Testing a handful of people of only those showing symptoms before a flight is wholly inadequate.
At this point, one might be thinking: “It can’t get worse, right?” But then this is the Trump team and things can ALWAYS get worse. Based on reports from attorneys representing clients scheduled to be deported to Haiti on Monday, May 11 and confirmed separately by the Miami Herald, ICE intends to include at least five people that ICE personnel know are COVID-19 positive on this deportation flight to Haiti – along with 95 other people.
This is insane.
Not only does this make a mockery of the idea that ICE is taking any kind of preventative measures seriously; it means that Haiti will be forced to quarantine everyone on that flight. Haiti has thus far seen relatively few confirmed cases. While this may very well be the result of few tests being given, it is clear that Haiti has been holding its own, thus far walking a very thin line of prevention, given the state of its public health infrastructure. If the pandemic were to take hold here, it would be devastating. ICE seems okay with helping make that tragedy happen.
The United States must stop all of these deportation flights for the duration of the pandemic. And ICE must release people from detention to prevent further deaths. People should be let out and allowed to quarantine with family members. For those without family in the United States, community organizations around the country have already been preparing for the possibility of mass releases, to ensure that people are taken care of. We are running out of time.
I know Trump does not care about these people; they are mere talking points to him, and for the sake of political posturing, he will let them die. That leaves Congress to force his hand by cutting funding, or the courts to suspend the flights and be bolder in mandating the release of everybody in custody. There are limits to effectiveness with both of these targets. But we must speak out.
Send a message to your member of Congress asking them to speak out against these flights!
The Quixote Center is a member of Detention Watch Network and has been taking part in the #FreeThemAll campaign. Below I share the latest monthly update from the Campaign. In addition to this detailed and resource rich update, I would encourage everyone to read this powerful Colorlines Op-ed written by Priyanka Bhatt and Azadeh Shahshahani of Project South about conditions in Georgia’s prison, jails and detention facilities.
“We are scared. Here, we cannot keep the distance of two meters that is called for. All of us are placed together, we are 76 people in every section… there does not exist a way to be able to avoid an outbreak. Please, we ask for help from everyone…We are human beings, we also need to be with our families to be able to help them.”These are the words of an immigrant detained at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia.
Though focused on Georgia, these conditions are replicated throughout the U.S. system of mass incarceration, as we have updated in recent weeks here,here and here
Update From Detention Watch Network
This is the first of a series of monthly email updates about the state of immigration detention. Now nearing two months since the administration declared a national state of emergency, it’s becoming even clearer that detention facilities cannot manage the spread of the virus.
On April 17th, ICE Acting Director Matthew Albence briefed the House Committee on Oversight regarding the agency’s response to the risks of COVID-19 in immigration detention. After weeks of pressure from public health experts, advocates, and elected officials alike for releasing people in ICE custody to best observe health and safety precautions, ICE admitted to having only released 693 individuals for virus-related concerns of the almost 30,000 people still in detention at the time.
Just days later, DWN members Southern Poverty Law Center and Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center succeeded in getting a preliminary injunction deeming this response seriously deficient and ordering ICE to re-evaluate custody determinations. And just days after that, another federal judge in Southern California ruled in favor of large-scale depopulation of the Adelanto ICE Processing Center until the facility can adequately follow social distancing recommendations. Instead, ICE is countersuing while the private prison company that runs this same facility is engaged in a separate legal battle to expand its capacity. To recall, the legality of the expansion request was in question after ICE truncated federal procurement processes to approve the expansion before state legislation that would have barred it went into effect in January. Both the agency and the private prison company, GEO Group, refuse to cancel the expansion despite the public health crisis and federal ruling, clearly demonstrating that they are unwilling to make necessary changes to keep immigrants safe in this moment.
State of Detention by the Numbers
As of April 25th, there are still 29,675 people in ICE detention. These numbers have been slowly decreasing – insufficiently so, and even then, we know that it is not as a result of ICE granting immigrants much needed relief. The administration’s menu of asylum restrictions has effectively closed our Southern border so that CBP is booking about 75% less people in to ICE custody. Meanwhile at a time when the agency is being advised to engage in mass releases, the average length of stay for people in ICE custody has increased 40% this month to 72.3 days. This means that since the start of this pandemic, ICE has actually been holding people for increasingly longer periods of time.
To be clear, when accounting for how the few releases ICE admitted to making contribute to the decreases in the detention population, it’s clear that the agency is not prioritizing the clearly outlined recommendation of release. The numbers do not mean immigrants are seeing relief but come in large part from denying people their right to seek asylum and continued deportations by the thousands – the true priorities of these agencies.
State of Organizing on the Inside
Since March, there have been at least 20 confirmed hunger strikes with nearly 2,000 people participating in detention facilities across the country, protesting their incarceration and demanding to be released. For reference, we recorded 13 hunger strikes in all of 2019. This is a nationwide trend of immigrants caged in ICE jails refusing meals, knowingly weakening their immune systems during the pandemic, because they understand that regardless of ICE’s response, release is their only option for true safety.
Folks are also protesting by refusing to work in the kitchen, laundry room, or commissary, as ICE is increasingly relying on the labor of people in its custody to operate its facilities. Immigrants in Georgia’s Irwin County Detention Center held up signs asking for help through video communications, while member group La Resistencia captured protesters at Washington’s Northwest Detention Center spelling out distress signals with their bodies. People in detention are putting their bodies on the line to fight for their lives and their demands are clear: only immediate release will keep them safe from exposure to the virus.
ICYMI: Resources from the Network
New media analysis and recommendations created in partnership with Immigrant Defense Project and in consultation with other DWN members to build an understanding of how the media has been impacted by this moment and how to adapt to still get our stories out there.
Two-part webinar series led by Latinx Therapists Action Network on building and sharing tools for healing (May 11th and May 24th). Register here.
Fact sheets, custody re-determination request templates, and other resources for folks seeking relief for individuals particularly vulnerable to coronavirus exposure under the preliminary injunction.
New advocate report based on interviews with 150 people detained at five privately run ICE detention centers opened under the Trump administration. It looks at how the immigrant detention system has grown since 2017, the poor conditions and inadequate medical care, and the due process hurdles faced by immigrants held in remote locations.
DWN’s #FreeThemAll toolkit with regularly updated calls to action from DWN members. Please reach out to our team to have any new calls to action included as well.