Good news, bad news: The Biden administration and immigration in week 4

“Sen. Joe Biden campaigns in Ankeny” by IowaPolitics.com is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

We’ll start with the bad news. Very bad news. Last Friday we reported that the administration had agreed to a suspension of removal flights to Haiti. They were suspended for one day (Friday), On Monday the flights began again, and have continued every day this week.

Neither, Biden’s team at Homeland Security or at the Domestic Policy Council have provided any kind of convincing public answer about why they are continuing the flights to Haiti – just as they made no public commitment to the suspension to begin with. But where they have talked around it, the response is disingenuous at best.

The first suggestion is that they have no choice. Biden, they will say, attempted to launch a 100 day moratorium on deportation. It was announced on January 20th, implemented on January 22nd, and then blocked by a federal judge “in Texas” on January 26. The judge “paused our pause,” one Biden official explained on a policy call. There are two problems with this answer. Firstly, most of the people being removed to Haiti are in fact being expelled under Title 42; the moratorium was never intended to cover Title 42 expulsions. Which means, 90% of the people being removed to Haiti right now, all other things being equal, would be removed anyway under the terms of the moratorium. We note that during the five days the moratorium was enacted, there were still removal flights everyday except Sunday – Title 42 removals and others not covered by the limited moratorium.

Secondly, the administration has indicated that it is working on “new protocols” at the border that will take a few weeks to prepare. Until then, anyone crossing the border will be expelled. The “we are working on it, and just need time” answer seems reasonable, but provides little actual substance. The Quixote Center was one of 100 organizations to sign a letter to Biden asking for the revocation of Title 42, for example. The response from the White House was not particularly promising:

On behalf of the team at the White House, thank you to you and your signers for this letter. From day one, the President has prioritized taking urgent action to begin to create a more humane and just immigration process, including an executive order announced yesterday which included directing the Secretary of Homeland Security to review the Migrant Protection Protocols.

These measures are only the beginning and demonstrate the President’s commitment to addressing this issue in full. It is important to underscore that the situation at the border will not transform overnight, due in large part to the damage done over the last four years.

Of course, if the various policy reviews do lead to significant change, this will be welcome. But Biden has not been very clear on his vision thus far, nor a timeline. This is contributing to a great deal of confusion at the border. To be clear, if there is a crisis it is largely of Trump’s making. But a good lesson for Biden to take from Trump’s time in office is that a lack of clarity makes things worse.

One final word on unclear messaging about these removals. From Amy Goodman to the New York Times, another line of argument is that ICE has gone rogue, and is continuing to deport families and kids in spite of new guidance from the Department of Homeland Security to change enforcement priorities. This version of events misreads the January 20th memorandum from DHS acting director Pekoske – the same memo that included the deportation memorandum. The shift in priorities, like the moratorium, has nothing to do with Title 42 removals. We keep emphasizing this, and will continue to beat this drum until the policy changes. Title 42 denies people all due process. They are simply expelled. Period.

In the end, these expulsions to Haiti are not the fault of a judge in Texas or a rogue immigration agency. Biden has the power to stop them by either revoking Title 42 completely for everybody, or using the discretion allowed under the CDC order for humanitarian relief to stop the flights to Haiti. He thus far is refusing to use that power. 

So now, some good news! 

Yesterday, Buzzfeed reporter Hamed Aleaziz released details on the Biden administration’s plan to wind down the Migration Protection Protocols. The details of the “plan” from Buzzfeed:

The Biden administration’s plan, which will start slowly at three ports of entry, targets those who were pushed into the Remain in Mexico program and still have active cases in US immigration courts, according to a draft of the plan obtained by BuzzFeed News. Those who qualify after registering online should not come to the border, but instead wait for instructions to start the entry process, a source with knowledge of the plan said.

As they prepare to enter the US, the immigrants will be kept in so-called staging areas in Mexico, where they will receive a medical screening and a COVID-19 test. Those who test positive for the disease will be forced to continue waiting in Mexico until they test negative.

US Customs and Border Protection officials will also assess the capacity to intake those allowed into the US on a daily basis. Officials believe they can process up to 300 people a day within the first few weeks at two of the ports of entry for the initial phase.

“This is an effort that has been months in the planning. I think it absolutely shows that the administration was serious about this commitment,” the source said.

The initial effort will prioritize people based on when their cases were open, but there will be some opportunities for those who are particularly vulnerable to be fast-tracked, the source added. The US government estimates that 25,000 people in the Remain in Mexico program are still awaiting their court hearings.

Department of Homeland Security officials will not allow in people whose US asylum cases were terminated or who already have deportation orders. People who do not follow the reentry plan will also be turned back, in some cases using a public health law that allows for US border officials to quickly turn back immigrants at the border. This week, the White House also warned that most immigrants will still be turned away at the border. (Emphasis added).

The Migration Protection Protocols had resulted in 60,000+ people being forced to wait in Mexico for an asylum hearing. Since April, due to COVID-19, hearings have been suspended. Even when they were happening, they were a bit of a disaster. Setting in motion a process to help people get through this process quickly is thus huge. The devil is, of course, in the details as they say. And while 25,000 may still be enrolled and waiting in Mexico under MPP, January was the fourth month in a row that more than 60,000 people were expelled under Title 42 – and it seems clear that is not ending anytime soon.

Another bit of good news is that the State Department formally suspended Asylum Cooperation Agreements with Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. The Trump administration had negotiated these agreements in order to send asylum seekers back to one of these countries. The agreement with Guatemala was the only one operative when COVID-19 restrictions went into place. Hundreds of asylum seekers from El Salvador and Honduras were sent back to Guatemala to seek asylum in the first part of 2020 under that agreement.

 

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Political Crisis in Haiti

As many of you know, Jovenel Moise refused to step-down from Haiti’s presidency on Sunday, February 7, 2021. Moise is arguing that a delay in his inauguration (he did not take office until 2017) means he should serve until February 7, 2022. The United States government and Luis Almagro, OAS General Secretary are standing by Moise. Meanwhile, most of Haiti is not.

Woy magazine published one of the clearer explanations of the argument about Moise’s term, sighting the section 134-2 of the Constitution, as amended in 2012: The president elected enters into his functions on 7 February following the date of his election. In the case where the ballot cannot take place before 7 February, the president elected enters into his functions immediately after the validation of the ballot and his mandate is considered to have commenced on 7 February of the year of the election.

Moise won election in 2016 (following allegations of fraud during the original 2015 election), hence, his mandate is considered to have begun on February 7, 2016. Seems clear enough.

That said, another president might have garnered the benefit of the doubt. But not Moise. He has been the target of ongoing demonstrations since July 2018. At that point frustration with economic decline, revelations (some implicating Moise) of billions of dollars stolen out of PetroCaribe funds, and an IMF mandated cut in fuel subsidies all combined to send thousands of people into the street, and ultimately led to the collapse of the government and resignation of Prime Minister Jack Guy Lafontant.

Moise, however, survived.  Over the last two and half years, there have been ongoing protest cycles that have locked the country down repeatedly, the one consistent demand: Moise’s resignation. Another Prime Minister was forced to resign following protests in February of 2019, and a new government, at least one approved by Parliament, never materialized. Yet, Moise remained. Then in January 2020, the terms of the House of Deputies, and the majority of Senators expired. Since then, Moise has been ruling by decree and the human rights situation in the country has deteriorated even further.

Moise’s refusal to step down was not a surprise. He has been indicating that he intended to stay in power for some time now. He has proposed a constitutional referendum for this April, to be followed by two rounds of elections in the fall. The Electoral Commission he appointed to oversee all of this, was not approved by most sectors and is widely seen as illegitimate. The opposition, though divided in many ways, remains united in the demand the Moise step aside and allow a provisional president or council to oversee elections. There is precedent for this. Mosie’s predecessor, Michele Martelly stepped down in 2016 despite there being no replacement, to allow a provisional president to complete the electoral process (delayed for wide spread accusations of fraud) that brought Moise to power.

Timeline of activity this week

Events since Sunday have evolved quickly – too quickly to offer much detailed analysis (below the timeline I point to some resources that give a deeper understanding of the context of events). Here I simply offer a summary and highlight stories and statements

Sunday

Moise announces a foiled coup attempt from the airport, (on his way to Jacmel). 

Those arrested include a Supreme Court justice Yvickel Dabrésil and police inspector Marie-Louise Gauthier

Many are skeptical of the coup story.

Later in the day, Moise issues a pre-recorded message, declaring his intent to remain in office and hold a referendum on Constitutional changes. 

Opposition leaders select Supreme Court Justice Joseph Mecene Jean-Louis as provisional president. He gives a brief statement.

Monday

Monday morning, Haiti National Police surround the Supreme Court

Moise issues an order “retiring” three Supreme Court justices

Many are skeptical of the legality of this order,

The Haitian military (FAdH) release a press statement citing responsibility to “assure national security” and defend “democratic order.”

During protests on Monday, two reporters are shot (both still alive)

Tuesday

OAS General Secretary Luis Almagro Issues a statement expressing concern, but endorsing Moise’s position.

The United States Embassy issues a statement claiming to be “deeply concerned” about order to remove judges. However, the U.S. does not walk back form its support of Moise’s decision to remain in power.

Guerline Josef from the Haitian Bridge Alliance appears on Democracy Now to discuss the Biden administration’s resumption of removal flights to Haiti after only a one day suspension.

Wednesday

On Wednesday, students demonstrate in Port au Prince

The demonstration is broken up by the police, who once again target journalists covering the march.

Moise announces a new agroindustrial park – apparently on behalf of the Apaid family (apparel industry giants, among other business interests in Haiti)

Thursday

Supreme Court justice Yvickel Dabrésil, one of the accused in the alleged “coup” plot, is released from jail.

Demonstrations are announced for the coming Sunday

Resources/Background

Some reactions from Haiti’s civil society to the arrests and forced retirements from the last few days (List from Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti)

More Haitian civil society statements (most have been translated) on crisis on the new Haiti Watch blog

More back ground, see Mark Schuller’s excellent NACLA article,”The Foreign Roots of Haiti’s ‘Constitutional Crisis’”published online February 6, 2021

The Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti’s most recent report on the human rights situation

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Grepen Center Update

Aneus (striped shirt) & Teligene (black shirt) discuss the weevil free sweet potato program in Atrell

The Quixote Center supports the work of the Jean Marie Vinent Formation Center located in Grepen, just outside of Gros Morne, Haiti. Most know of our work in relation to reforestation efforts which have led to 2 million trees planted in the area since 1999. Accompanying the tree planting, however, is work with local farmers. The agronomy team at the Grepen center, travels throughout the region, working side by side with the parish’s Karitas network, and grassroots organizations such as the Peasant Movement of Gros Morne to identify problems, and work with small farmers to find solutions. We periodically report on some of this activity.

Seed Bank

The Grepen center has organized and supports a seed bank for local farmers. The seed bank allows for bulk purchases of seeds, often “off-season” when seeds are cheaper. Farmers are able to purchase the seeds at a discounted rate and deposit them with the seed bank until needed. During the spring we launched an emergency appeal to raise funds for the seed bank to ensure that there were plenty of supplies available to farmers for the summer planting season. We also received additional funds in mid-summer from Alternative Gifts International to further support the seed bank. The following is a report from the agronomy team on use of the funds:

From August until December, local planters usually plant a lot of beans, especially black beans, and vegetables in their gardens. This year the situation facing the planters was complicated. The year began with the locked country political debacle, and then descended into the coronavirus crisis. Ongoing political instability has increased market prices, and a drought during the last spring planting season, which is the largest of the year, caused a lot of problems. The sun destroyed many gardens without the relief of periodic rain. 

All of these things put the farmers in a difficult economic situation. This created difficulties for them to be able to plant on time in the spring, and farming is their principal economic activity.  With the support of Quixote Center, our seed bank at Grepen was able to help the farmers respond to these difficulties and move forward with their gardens. We provided seeds and technical support for the farmers in order to save the spring planting season and change their lives for the better.  

For this planting campaign, we were able to support 61 farmers in the zones that were ready to plant. These farmers all have gardens near Twa Rivye, which we consider to be the boundary that separates our diverse agricultural zones. Of the seeds that we distributed to the farmers, they will have to return a certain quantity to the seed bank after they harvest their crop. This is how we are always going to have good quality seeds available after each harvest.

Goat Program and mobile veterinary clinic

Three years ago the agronomy team launched a program to distribute goats. The program involved first doing training with “cohorts” of roughly 10 families, who would then receive a female goat for each family and one billy goat for the cohort. If the female goat has a kid, the family agrees to pass the kid on to a new family. Maintaining the health of the goats is an important part of the program. Integrated into the program is a mobile vet clinic, run by Roseline. She visits the cohorts on a regular basis. Here the clinic is visiting Perou.

Yam harvest in Grepen

Food insecurity is obviously a huge issue for all of Haiti, and addressing this is the primary goal of the program at the Grepen center. Toward this end, the agronomy team works with local farmers on techniques for growing cassava, yams, and, in the past several years, planting sweet potatoes that are resistant to weevils (which have destroyed many harvests in recent years). Below Teligene and Songé  show off some healthy yams grown in gardens in the community of Grepen.

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Political violence and U.S. policy in Haiti

Guns handed in at the start of a disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration program in Port au Prince 2017 (Photo: Sophia Paris/UN Photo, Creative Commons)

The notorious paramilitaries of the past, the Tonton Macoute and FRAPH may be gone today, but the people of Haiti are once again under the threat of the presence of armed groups acting with impunity.  The use of armed gangs by political actors in Haiti (and many other places, including the U.S.) to “keep order” is hardly a new phenomenon. However, over the last several years, as protests against the PHTK government have grown, these gangs have been mobilized in what seems a coordinated fashion. They are heavily armed, and have engaged in multiple attacks on communities.

At the moment, the spotlight is on former police officer Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier, who now fronts a gang confederation (the G9) that rules the Port-au-Prince neighborhoods of Delmas and Bel Aire. As a police officer, Cherizier was implicated in massacres at Grand Ravine and La Saline.

At Grand Ravine, in November of 2017, police attacked community members inside a school – killing 9 people. Some were killed execution style, and several appeared to have been shot in their homes nearby and then dragged to the school. The operation was supposedly launched by police in response to gang activity, but was clearly more complicated than that. UN units were present but did not intervene. The massacre was largely ignored outside of Haiti. In U.S. media, only Jake Johnston of Center for Economic and Policy Research covered the story in detail – in a piece published in the Intercept in January of 2018.  Johnston interviewed, Rovelsond Apollon, an observer with a local human rights organization working in Grand Ravine, who discussed the connection between the police, politicians and local gangs:

It’s not just that politicians exert control over the police, Apollon said — they are involved with the gangs themselves. His organization has interviewed young people with heavy weaponry that is not easy to acquire, he explained, and they said the weapons had been provided by politicians. “Politicians and authorities are not innocent in what happened, because they, too, play their part in the violence,” he said. The politicians, for their part, have not publicly addressed these accusations.

A year later, the neighborhood of La Saline became the sight of another massacre.  As in Grand Ravine, initial reports made the attack seem like an internecine battle between gangs trying to control the area. But further investigation laid out the role of the police who coordinated with gangs, allegedly operating with the support of Moise allies. It is now argued that the motivation for the attack on the community was at least in part retaliation for its mobilization in protests against the current government. According to a report on the attack following a Haiti Action Committee and National Lawyers Guild delegation, Cherizier publicly admitted taking part in the attack, with his police units blocking roads to keep people from leaving the community. The total number of people killed is not known. Many bodies were burned, some left in the street where remains were eaten by pigs and dogs. The Réseau National de Défense des Droits Humains (RNNHD) was able to identify at least 71 people murdered based on interviews with community members. 

Cherizier was forced out of the police in December of 2018. However, rather than end up in jail, Cherizier has re-emerged  at the head of the G9, a confederation assembled with the support of the current government. Journalist Etant Dupain wrote last week:

During an explosive radio interview on Radio Magik9, earlier this month, one of the most influential members of President Jovenel Moise’s commission for disarmament (known as the CNDDR), Jean Rebel Dorcénat, stated that it was his idea for several gang leaders to join together to form a federation, which has now become the gang named G9. He later walked back the statement, and clarified to say that he was not responsible for creating the G9, but he did, however, advise gang leaders to form an alliance in order to make the disarmament commission’s job easier.

When the alliance was announced, armed groups rallied in Port-au-Prince. The police were nowhere to be found – but their equipment was on display. The Washington Post reported, “When Cherizier’s men took to the streets in June, witnesses claimed to have seen them ride in the same armored vehicles used by the national police and special security forces. Justice Minister Lucmane Delile denounced the gangs and ordered the national police to pursue them; within hours, Moïse fired him.”

Dupain’s article was written in the context of the G9 engaging in massive attacks against the community in Bel Air over the last two weeks.  These attacks have displaced thousands of people, many of whom are now living in a soccer field in Solino.  Cherizier is not hiding – indeed, he regularly appears in the streets, and moves freely despite an active arrest warrant.  

Meanwhile, members of the national police have violently protested the arrest of police captain Pascal Alexandre, driving through Port-au-Prince setting cars afire, and even torching the office that archives voter registrations. This so-called Fantom 509 force has become a frightening presence in the capital, and remains unchallenged by Moise and his allies. 

For his part, Moise has responded to the moment by trying to consolidate his position. Ruling by decree since January – there are only 11 elected officials serving in office in Haiti right now – he has pressed forward with an electoral commission and set of constitutional reforms that would strengthen the presidency. The electoral commission is devoid of the usual representatives of civil society, and has been denounced by the opposition. Three weeks ago, the head of Haiti’s Port-au-Prince bar association, Monferrier Dorval, was assassinated in front of his home just hours after giving a radio interview in which he expressed doubts about constitutional reforms being proposed by the government. 

Into this setting the U.S. State Department has entered with the kind of patronizing rhetoric and threats we have come to expect. A State Department official stated “Frankly, I have to say I’m a little bit tired of every group, every opposition party in Haiti saying, ‘Well, I won’t appoint my person,’ or ‘We won’t have an election,’ or ‘We won’t run in this until you meet all of my political demands…That’s not democracy. And so we are quite insistent on this, and it’s going to start to have consequences for those who stand in the way of it.” So, the U.S. government’s position is that the opposition must allow the PHTK and Moise to consolidate its power, “or else.” The U.S. government, it is worth noting, is the chief bankroll behind Haiti’s national police: 

Earlier this month, the State Department notified Congress that it was reallocating $8 million from last year’s budget to support the HNP. Since Trump took office, the US has nearly quadrupled its support to Haiti’s police — from $2.8 million in 2016 to more than $12.4 million last year. With the recent reallocation, the figure this year will likely be even higher. US funding for the Haitian police constitutes more than 10 percent of the institution’s overall budget.

So, as thousands come to the street with vision, with hope, and, for some, in desperation, demanding a revolution of political and economic forces, they face not just the local bourgeoisie and their armed defenders, but the U.S. government, with it’s bankroll, weapons and saccharine imperial pronouncements about good government.  Pierre Esperance of the RNNDH told Etant Dupain, “The worst part is that the international community continues to support a government that is in bed with gangs and is responsible for nine massacres in the country. I have not seen anything like it since the departure of Jean Claude Duvalier.”

Finally, responding to the State Department, Bob Maguire said, “This thing about ‘It’s going to have consequences for those who stand in the way,’ well, it already has consequences….They are getting shot. They are getting beat up and they’ve been demonstrating in the streets for years about the lack of any kind of responsible democracy in the country. These are people who are already suffering the consequences of Haiti’s failure.”  This failure is bought and paid for by the U.S. government.

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Masak, Haiti: Fighting for the right to breathe

Just outside of Masak

Are we capable of rediscovering that each of us belongs to the same species, that we have an indivisible bond with all life? Perhaps that is the question – the very last – before we draw our last dying breath. Achille Mbembe, The Universal Right to Breathe (translated Caroline Shread)

Masak is a small village that straddles the border of the Northwest and Artibonite departments in northern Haiti. Over the years the division of Masak and surrounding areas across departments has underscored an intra-communal conflict going back generations. Young people today have no idea how it started, but from time to time, fighting will break out, and they get drawn in. Today, however, the intensity of the violence is magnified by the availability of high-powered weapons, and the general environment of insecurity driven by armed groups who operate in a space of impunity – often protected by political actors, or facing a police force ill equipped and unwilling to help.  

The latest round of violence was kicked off when a young woman from the north was robbed on one of the mountain trails that connect Masak to La Pierre and Mayombe in the communal section of Pendus. This was in March, and over the next several months, fighting led to the burning of nearly 50 homes in the area. In mid-August, during a particularly intense weekend, 22 houses were burned and at least five people were killed. One estimate of the total number of people killed in the recent fighting is 21. People have died from gunshot wounds and smoke inhalation. Some show signs of having been beaten. The armed groups have also stolen livestock, leaving displaced families with nothing. 

School in Masak, abadoned due to the violence

As a result of the violence, people have fled the mountain area near Masak for nearby La Pierre, the main population base of Pendus.  The refugees in La Pierre report preparing “go bags” so they can leave immediately with some basic items if the gangs come out of the mountain to attack. Father Sylvio opened St. Joseph’s Church to young people to use as a school over the summer, and has invited students to join with others at the parish grade school in La Pierre. As a result, the school has doubled the number of students in some grade levels. The school’s presence is taken as a positive sign, demonstrating Father Sylvio’s commitment to the area, and so the people are standing with Father Sylvio for now.

Three weeks ago Father Sylvio organized a conference on conflict resolution with community leaders from the mountain areas near Masak. Following the meeting, someone leaked the names of the attendees to gang leaders, and several were then attacked, including one who was shot. Many of the leaders are now ¨mawon¨ or hiding deeper in the mountains. 

Meanwhile, in early September, Father Sylvio made an official report of the violence to the local police. Geri Lanham, who works with Father Sylvio through an education program, reports, “When he described the guns that the bandits are carrying, the local PNH [Haitian National Police] said that they can’t do anything because they already know that they are outgunned.” Father Sylvio also approached a military police unit stationed in Gonaives. They were aware of the conflict, but noted the last time they got engaged, one of their officers was shot. They are said to be investigating, including links to weapons being trafficked across the border with the Dominican Republic.

St. Joseph’s Church in La Pierre

For now, the community waits. In Pendus, the sound of gunfire can be heard coming from the mountains most nights. The gangs seem to have plenty of ammunition. Meanwhile, in Pendus, as in much of Haiti, everyone else seems to be on their own.  There is little expectation that the state will step-in, and, even if it did, no one is particularly excited about inviting a large scale police operation. The struggle in Pendus is now one for recognition. For the lives lost, and more so for those that remain. A friend working in the community writes, “they want to have a resolution so that they can return to their communities up in Massak and Mawotye and not be afraid that they might have to run from La Pierre in the middle of the night under a hail of bullets. They want to be able to plant in their gardens and send their children out to play without the background noise of gunshots reverberating from farther up the mountain.” Put another way, the struggle is simply to have the right to breathe freely, to live, recognized and protected. 

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“The blue earth won’t perish,” 75 years after the bomb

The cloud in this photo is from the fires caused by the bombing of Hiroshima.

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.


Hiroshima after the bomb

Nagasaki after the bomb

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.”

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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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Statues, Stories and American Idols

(Source: Reddit: https://i.redd.it/ukyf7ju11a651.jpg

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).   

(Gustave Doré’s illustration of Chapter LII statue episode, Don Quixote, 1880. Source: Project Gutenberg

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.  

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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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Mazatlán Franciscans still providing food to migrants

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.

You can donate to support the work of the network here.

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Contact Us

  • Quixote Center
    P.O. Box 1950
    Greenbelt, MD 20768
  • Office: 301-699-0042
    Email: info@quixote.org

Directions to office:

6305 Ivy Lane, Suite 255. Greenbelt, MD 20770

For public transportation: We are located near the Green Belt metro station (green line)