We Are Not Proud.

Digital #002

Contributors:  John Schengber, TJ Rinoski

Hi folks,

 

Happy belated Independence Day. I hope you and yours had an enjoyable 4th of July weekend, full of summer and freedom and gratitude. I sure did. I went to the river, caught the fireworks grand finale, and sent up a prayer of appreciation for living in this country. 

 

That’s what the ‘patriotic’ holidays (Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day) have always been about for me — gratitude. The 4th of July, included, has always been a day to appreciate and celebrate a country that truly deserves to be celebrated. Of course, that country is my country, the United States of America, and if you’re reading this, it’s probably your country, too. But on this year’s 4th of July, I wasn’t feeling inclined to celebrate us anymore. As I opened myself up to that possibility, I was embarrassingly late to the realization that a lot of Americans feel the same way, and have felt that way for as long as these national holidays have been holidays. (More on that later.)

 

On this 4th of July, instead of feeling celebratory, I felt conflicted; concerned to say the least. I’ve been following — among a suite of despairing topics — the news that thousands upon thousands of Latin American migrants and refugees are being held in detention centers across our country. Many have done nothing illegal and are being detained there based on identity: Latin Americans immigrants. Adding insult to injury, the detention center conditions have been reported as dangerously overcrowded, sometimes squalid, by the governmental gatekeepers themselves. 

 

Owning up to this is to admit that the country whose statue of liberty promises to take care of the tired and poor has offered scant protection or genuine care for those who need it most. It means that, at best, this country — the melting pot, the land of the free and the home of the brave — isn’t walking the walk. And at worst, the whole U S of A is a giant scam. 

 

Of course, there have always been, and will always be, good reasons for any country to check its own self-congratulations, but our nation’s current chasm between professed values and taken actions felt, to me, like reason enough to reconsider celebrations entirely. But then something remarkable happened. 

 

I completely forgot. I moved on. I moved back into the space where, as a white male, I can choose what affects me. 

 

So on the 5th of July, I went back to work. Busy busy busy. On the 6th of July, I went sailing, before thunder chased me off the water and I retreated indoors to a barbecue dinner with coleslaw and watermelon. And on the 7th of July, I watched the final of Women’s World Cup.

I found myself kneeling on the hardwoord floor of my living room as we won — as our women won — the championship for the second time in a row. I cried. I care about no sport more. I barely care for sports, other than soccer. Quite un-American. But at this moment, very American. And I cried.

 

The tears weren’t shed for soccer. They were a rare leak in the pressure valve; the liquid spillover of constantly battling between feeling proud and grateful to be an American, but also incredibly ashamed. The pride of 4th of July and the World Cup seemed to coax out both polarities, simply due to exposure. Juxtaposed with our national politics, I started feeling a bit insane; scared to speak up and be less than patriotic, but knowing we’re not who we say we are. 

 

Resigned instead to sit back and not mention that I care less for the fireworks this year than ever before, I wondered if it’s cause I’m a lefty, or maybe it’s just an age thing. 

 

Part 2

 

It feels important in this media atmosphere to announce what my facts are and where they came from. To start, I’ve been following the crisis on the southern border through National Public Radio’s ongoing coverage of the issue, mostly through their Morning Edition and All Things Considered summary shows. Without having actually counted, it seems like an immigration story has aired on one of these shows at least every other day for the past 6 months. And I’m not just talking about immigration policy stories that come from Washington (e.g. Trump Administration made this rule change), but also plenty of “this event (often bad) happened at the border today and we’re down there covering it in person and in real time.” 

I’m no reporter but it seems like boots on the ground mean something’s happening down there. And the overall picture of that something, from what I’ve gathered, is as follows: 

  • Families and children from Latin America, especially Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador are fleeing their homes in unprecedented numbers for a variety of reasons: human rights abuses, deadly violence, climate displacement and economic despair

  • In addition to fleeing to the United States, Central American refugees are seeking asylum in other countries as well, including Mexico, Costa Rica, Belize, and Panama. Asylum filings in Mexico, for example, increased by over seven hundred percent since 2014. 

  • Partly because of changes to immigration policy by the Trump Administration, especially added restrictions to the asylum process and the Remain in Mexico Program, refugees who have done nothing illegal and are seeking US asylum arrive at the border and are either being detained in the US or refused entry. (The union that represents U.S. asylum officers joined a lawsuit seeking to block the Remain in Mexico program, arguing it is "fundamentally contrary to the moral fabric of our Nation.")

  • For those asylum seekers who enter into the US and are detained, border agents send them to detention centers run by ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or when it comes to the kids, facilities run by Health and Human Services.

  • In May alone, border agents apprehended more than 130,000 people, which is far more than the asylum process and detention facilities have been designed to handle.

 

This is the underlying pulse of the crisis as I’ve understood it. On top of that objective context is overlaid the unimaginable human consequence. As the DHS Inspector General reported in early July, the detention centers have reached dangerous levels of overcrowding, making living conditions inhumane and in violation of government standards. The following is a direct copy and paste from sections of DHS IG report, which can be found here:

 

  • “... at one facility, some single adults were held in standing room only conditions for a week and at another, some single adults were held more than a month in overcrowded cells. 

  • Specifically, when detainees observed us, they banged on the cell windows, shouted, pressed notes to the window with their time in custody, and gestured to evidence of their time in custody (e.g., beards) 

  • In these overcrowded conditions, CBP was unable to meet TEDS standards. (TEDS standards govern CBP's interaction with detained individuals.) For example, although TEDS standards require CBP to make a reasonable effort to provide a shower for adults after 72 hours, most single adults had not had a shower in CBP custody despite several being held for as long as a month.

  • At some facilities, Border Patrol was giving detainees wet-wipes to maintain personal hygiene. Most single adult detainees were wearing the clothes they arrived in days, weeks, and even up to a month prior. Further, although TEDS standards require agents to remain cognizant of detainees’ religious and other dietary restrictions, many single adults had been receiving only bologna sandwiches.

 

Keep in mind that all of this is from just one report, which, importantly, was a government report to the government. You wonder what’s not being said, don’t you? What’s not being seen? 

 

From the border patrol stations, detainees are eventually sent to other detention centers run by our country’s immigration arbiters, to include ICE, Customs and Border Protection, and Department of Health and Human Services. Each arbiter plays a similar but different role, apparently, though the differences are not very clear to me. I know that Health and Human Services takes all the unaccompanied children. But what’s not said, for example, is that many of the unaccompanied children, who have to be processed differently and thereby slow down the entire immigration system, originally came to this country with their parents but were isolated due to the Trump Administration’s policy of family separation. What’s also not said, is that many of the asylum-seekers-turned-detainees end up being lumped in with immigrants who came here illegally. In other words, the distinction between innocent and criminal is acceptably blurred, as long as the category of immigrant applies. 

 

This all feels like a far cry from the poem that accompanies the Statue of Liberty: 

 

“With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” 

 

Indeed — and here’s an American thing to say — it feels like treatment you’d expect in a far-away country that has no semblance of due process or humane treatment, and is flagged by a State Department travel advisory. Our immigration process and these detention centers are so disgraceful that, when I got up from the couch after the World Cup was over and I had to walk back into the country of my kitchen where the newspaper lay, I intentionally didn’t look at the headlines or open my favorite news apps. I didn’t want to inhabit that version of the United States at that moment. 

 

So I opened up Instagram instead, where everything is bright. I put up a quick picture on my story to celebrate the women’s victory, and scrolling down I stopped to watch a pre-made Nike ad congratulating the team and selling women’s empowerment. Scrolling some more, I saw fireworks upon fireworks upon fireworks burning up into the sky.

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Be bold and act like we’re invited, so that when they open those velvet barriers we walk right in with a nod. Lose sleep over the music we have forgotten, and leave if there is neither beauty nor sadness. Ask questions over dinner that require pencil and paper to answer. Print. Less screens and thicker calluses. Practice our dance while doing the dishes, and stay out there late. Unbutton around corners and fall off the bike, but stay on the ground and admire the mark we made on the street. Full burritos and well-worn maps. Wonder who designs salad dressing labels because we have some ideas. Load our words into a new canon, curse traffic, and show up unannounced because we know our friends. Get a double and see it twice. Fetishisize the past and be aliens together. Find a new way home. Kick ourselves for missing, clap for caring. Go wild with our look because we aren’t there yet. Speak with the flight attendants and hope that the runway below is full so that we can circle above the clouds at golden hour. Remember Ivan Ilyich and the favorite books of our friends. Tug hard on the tension between absolute narcissism and crippling self-doubt and find your dream in the middle. Push through and search abroad to see if this is there too. Go simple, go solo, go now. The world or nothing. Because if just one piece of this works, then this is forever.