Jose Antonio Vargas, Gaza and the New Checkpoint Children

Two major global news events — apprehensions of child migrants on the Texas-Mexico border and the latest flare up of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict — converged for me this week in a prescient piece by by journalist/activist Jose Antonio Vargas in Politico. Vargas is the undocumented reporter whom we’ve written about here (and who, full disclosure, blurbed Amor and Exile).

He wrote an essay about being “Trapped on the Border,” presaging his detention at the McAllen, Texas airport four days later. In the piece, Vargas quotes an immigration attorney friend who messaged him, asking, “I am so glad you are visiting the kids near the border. But how will you get through the checkpoint on your way back?”

Jose Antonio Vargas defines American.
Jose Antonio Vargas defines American.

Meanwhile, half a world away, Israel, another land of checkpoints, was preparing a ground invasion against the people of Gaza.

These two stories, and their portrayal in the media, share a number of critical themes. Vargas’ rude introduction to immigration checkpoints in the American South, reminded me of the long-standing Israeli use of checkpoints to control, humiliate and persecute Arabs. The checkpoint is a blatant symbol of Israeli occupation, just as it was of South African apartheid. And as it’s become along our southern border.

The checkpoint presupposes the ID card, which allows governments to place people into winner and loser categories: Israeli/Palestinian, black/Indian/coloured, documented/undocumented, immigrant/native.

The checkpoint puts law enforcement, or soldiers, or national guard into the position of suspecting everyone; their job, by definition, is to impede human progress, not to promote progress.

The checkpoint is a militaristic metaphor that has no place in a participatory democracy like Texas.

The checkpoint breeds fear, as Nicole dramatically describes in her passage in Amor and Exile on crossing into Mexico.

The checkpoint dissolves essential freedoms, like the freedom of movement, the right to presumed innocence, protections against search and seizure.

A line from the Jasiri X video below sums up the ethic of the checkpoint: “criminalized without a cause at the checkpoint.” (Note the apparent handcuffs on Vargas in the photo above.)

This gets close to the issue here, and the larger notion of our broken immigration system. We are so far from the ideals of the 1965 revisions to the Immigration and Nationality Act that we no longer have any moral bearings on the meaning of immigration in the United States.

Vargas continues to ask us to Define American. In lobbying for abolishing the discriminatory quota system that the 1952 INA had cemented into law, then-President John F. Kennedy told members of the Italian-American community in 1963 that immigration to the U.S. was both a family affair and a way of building a nation:

We hope the Congress of the United States will accept these recommendations and that before this year is over we will have what we have needed for a good many years, which is the recognition that all people can make equally good citizens, and that what this country needs and wants are those who wish to come here to build their families here and contribute to the life of our country. — via The American Presidency Project

Vargas visited with child migrants at the border, kids who had come to the U.S. alone, like he did, in search of family and better fortunes.  “I don’t think you can look in the eyes of these children and not know the kind of hell they’ve been through,” Vargas told The Guardian. “I don’t think you can look at them in the eye and tell them they have to go back to where they came from.”

The volunteer in the short video below, posted by Vargas’ organization, Define American, defines American:

The Border Patrol held Vargas for most of the day on Tuesday and released him, as a low-priority detainee, according to the New York Times, with a notice to appear before an immigration judge.

Amor and Exile argues that at least, at least, the American public (and elected officials) should see the plight of U.S. citizens like Nicole, who are forced into exile because of the arbitrary immigration status of their spouses, as a starting point for reforming the system. But apparently, we can’t even see the plight of children — small children fleeing gang violence and poverty as a starting point for compassion. Instead, our model policy for these children, for leaders like Vargas, for our historically fluid international border is the command and control model of the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, barriers and walls, militarization, suspicion and ethnocentrism and classism.

This is not the America (nor the Israel, for that matter) that I know. Our best hope is to take Vargas up on his call and really do the hard work of defining American, because I’m not sure I recognize her anymore.

Auspicious Coincidences and the Widening Circle

Sharing my story and my opinions about immigration and reform has always created a haphazard mix of cynicism and optimism. Cynicism due to the lack of political will in Washington for so many years to create humane immigration policies. Optimism because no matter how many people I talk to, I always meet people who are outraged to hear our story and what happened to us as a result of draconian immigration laws.

My experience during our two most recent events in Mexico — in Patzcuaro, Michoacan and in Guanajuato, GTO — were no exception. Given the fact that Amor and Exile was a moonlighting project for both of us authors, we have limited amount of time to devote to its promotion, beyond social media. And being an individual affected by the “broken immigration system,” I take the lack of forward progress in these affairs particularly personally. So as invitations started to come during 2014 to give talks in different parts of Mexico, I was super delighted to know that this issue is important to others beside my immediate family and allies.

The trip to Patzcuaro was sponsored by the Patzcuaro and neighboring Morelia book clubs, hosted by Victoria Ryan of Hotel Casa Encantada, with Dara Stillman organizing. Although the list of incidental benefits to anyone in exile is short, for me, this trip ranked high on the list — 3 nights in an incredibly gorgeous B & B in the heart of a quaint Mexican mountain town known for its Dia de los Muertos celebrations on Isla Janitzio in Lago Patzcuaro. In addition to the official event on May 9th, Margo and I spent countless hours discussing the issue with dozens of expats who were extremely interested in the issue and our story. Many people expressed a lot of disgust and frustration with U.S. immigration policies for their inflexibility and inhumanity. The event with this crowd was seminal for me in a way because both individually and collectively, they encouraged me to “let loose” a little more in my political opinions on the issue. In the past, when in the public eye, I tend to make a lot of effort to frame things diplomatically, for fear of being considered inflammatory or controversial. But at the Patzcuaro event, since the people in our audience asked me to, I felt free to express my true feelings about a specific issue without worrying about how I said it.

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Nicole and family with Dara Stillman and Victoria Ryan in Patzcuaro, Michoacan.

A few uncanny coincidences also occurred in Patzcuaro. The first was that we were taken to a place that my family and I had stayed in the year before our daughter was born. We had the opportunity to converse at length with the owner, a Mexico City born intellectual who is an artist in his own right. Next, I found out that the Buddhist monk/author who had greatly helped me during my first years in Mexico had stayed across town while writing one of his books. I was invited to visit the retreat center, Casa Werma, and its amazingly beautiful grounds the day before we left. My hosts, Rine and Kai, direct the center and also offer workshops on meditation. After receiving a private session on meditation, I couldn’t help but wonder what forces were at work in the universe to introduce me to my husband 15 years ago, to the works of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche 13 years ago, to relocate to Mexico, struggle with relocation and more deeply understand the meaning of Buddhist wisdom as a direct result of the exile 8 years ago, begin to write of my own journey in exile 3 years ago, and then walk the same grounds where Rinpoche had written about the wisdom of “groundlessness” on Mexican soil this year. Rine called them “auspicious coincidences.” I fancy that something is going on beyond what I’ve directly perceived, and this kind of knowledge fuels my resolve to continue with this path.

In Guanajuato this past weekend and yesterday, although the events were less coincidental than Patzcuaro, they were no less auspicious. It was our first invitation to speak to a law class, and we were pleased to discover that the professor, Beth Caldwell, had found out about our book from the ImmigrationProfBlog last year and assigned parts of our book as reading. Caldwell is an Associate Professor at Southwestern University and is teaching a class in the Summer Law Institute at the University of Guanajuato during June attended by law students from the U.S. and Mexico. Upon meeting this past weekend, I was delighted to find out our families have some things in common, and appreciated how proactive Caldwell, who also has a background in social work, was about exposing her students to real-life stories that potential clients grapple with as a result of U.S. immigration policies.

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Nicole and family with Prof. Caldwell at University of Guanajuato Summer Law Institute, June 16, 2014

During the talk, one of the students asked whether I thought that wider awareness or better access to information would have somehow impacted our life choices in the past. It was a really hard question to answer because it can be analyzed on so many levels — the personal for both Margo and I, the political (in terms of whether greater public awareness could influence policy). Looking back, I think my answer was more cynical than I would have liked. But then many questions later I continued to make optimistic comments, especially regarding the importance of outreach. I explained that the issue is often painful, but that sharing our story was ultimately therapeutic because it ceased to become just our own personal cross to bear. By externalizing the issue, it becomes available for others to take up — or not — and I am eternally appreciative of the compassionate souls out there who righteously recognize this issue as one of universal concern and worth shouldering along with those of us who are directly affected.

Exploring the many sides of this issue reminds me of discourse regarding evolving scientific matters — when something can be spun so many ways, and affects individuals, families and societies in so many ways, there aren’t really any simple answers. Discussion of the many facets of an issue can sometimes slow forward progress toward consensus. But one thing that is clear, and I knew this since before we even started writing the book, is that as long as so many people are in the dark about the very nature of our country’s immigration policies, and with so many people wanting to know the truth about the direction our country is headed in and how to steer it in a more humane and just direction, my moral obligation to speak out on the issue continues. I may not have the resources to bankroll political candidate’s campaigns in order to enact policies that are convenient to me, but I can keep participating in this discussion until I am unable, with whoever wants to join me.

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Stained glass window at University of Guanajuato

Perhaps auspiciously, a message in a stained glass window at the University of Guanajuato states, “La verdad os hará libres.” The truth will set you free. A mantra for us all.

$0.99 Sale Days | Amor and Exile Celebrates 1 Year Since Publishing

The authors of Amor and Exile are commemorating the first year since publication by hosting an Amazon Kindle Countdown Deal today, Saturday, May 31st, through Monday, June 2nd, 2014.

We never would have guessed that a YEAR after delivering 635 books to Congress, immigration reform STILL wouldn’t have passed! But the fight still continues.

To help get the word out there to the American public who can help us win this fight, we’re practically giving it away copies of our Kindle version for $0.99 today, $1.99 tomorrow, and $2.99 on Monday on the Kindle store. Regular sales price is $7.99. Kindle apps are available for almost every mobile device and laptops.

Please tell all your friends why you think they should download a copy. Or if you haven’t yet, now’s a better time than ever to learn more about the laws affecting American families with undocumented spouses and their heartbreaking stories.

Amor and Exile 3-day Amazon Kindle Countdown Deal
Amazon Kindle Countdown Deal for Amor and Exile

Thanks!

The Spring 2014 Window—Fast Closing

It will soon be a year since Amor and Exile’s publication in May 2013, and although more people than ever are speaking out and making their stories heard as to why they need immigration reform, the political scene has not advanced much in 2014. At the end of December 2013, we posted a 2013 year-in-review that summarized all the happenings in immigration reform since we had completed our book manuscript. As we go on the road several times during late spring and early summer of 2014, and celebrate a year since our publication, it’s a good idea to take a look at where we’ve come from since January and where we find ourselves now.

January

The word on the street in January was that “late spring” was going to be the moment for immigration reform. But maybe September too. Wasn’t this what they said last year? http://www.politico.com/story/2014/01/comprehensive-immigration-reform-congress-senate-house-2014-101612.html?hp=l2

In light of the renewed attempt to get immigration back into Congressional debates and to help American voters participate in the movement and inform themselves, the coauthors of Amor and Exile gave away nearly 1,500 copies of the Kindle version of Amor and Exile during 3 days in January.

John Boehner hired a shiny new immigration policy analyst for his office, and announced that a new House plan on immigration would be revealed soon: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/26/us/politics/house-republicans-to-offer-broad-immigration-plan.html?_r=1. Unfortunately, we never saw any results from that grand plan.

A big name in online media was getting pretty irritated by the delays in immigration reform four months ago. I wonder what Kos would have to say now? http://www.dailykos.com/story/2014/01/28/1273128/-Republicans-still-being-dicks-on-immigration

American Families United, one of the advocate groups that helped draft HR 3431, traveled to D.C. to lobby on behalf of family-based immigration reform, and got four new co-sponsors for the bill. The hopes had been that less controversial, less overarching bills (a.k.a. piecemeal legislation) could pass the House more easily. But we still have no word on when and if debate on this bill could occur: http://americanfamiliesunited.org/news?mode=PostView&bmi=1510580

February

In the month of love and valentines, Amor and Exile went on the road a few times and met with broad support for reforming family-immigration. If only Congress could reflect what the majority of people seem to want.

Amor and Exile had the honor of being hosted in La Penita de Jaltemba, Nayarit for a reading, and a week later, a lively discussion of Amor and Exile was held at the Cabin in Boise, ID.

Some analysts seemed to think immigration reform was inevitable in February: http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2014-02-07/the-end-of-the-immigration-debate

Nicole’s family joined her to speak about the Amor and Exile project to a group of Mexican fourth-graders at the Instituto Thomas Jefferson in Queretaro, Mexico. Even the eleven year olds “got it” better than some politicians seem to.

March

In a boost to its literary credentials, Amor and Exile was featured on TheRumpus.net, reviewed by Alison Parker: http://therumpus.net/2014/03/the-sunday-rumpus-feature-love-and-immigration-in-amor-and-exile-by-nathaniel-hoffman-and-nicole-salgado/

April

This seemed to be the month of debate where no one could really take responsibility for this mess. Obama and Congress kept tossing the hot potato back and forth to each other, as deportations, family separations, and the living in fear and hardship for millions of families continued.

Perhaps in foreshadowing to what might end up a series of painful-to-observe theatrical performances by politicians with an immigration issue prop in upcoming elections (at least for those of us affected by it), even Jeb Bush stepped out with his take on immigration, calling it an act of love: http://thinkprogress.org/immigration/2014/04/07/3423496/jeb-bush-act-of-love-border-crosser/. As if these ladies don’t know that all too well.

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Nicole and three friends in exile in Mexico. Photo by Jose Membrila.

Nicole was the hostess of a reunion of four American women in exile in her home in Querétaro, Mexico—one newly exiled in January and the rest exiled for more than seven years.

The Washington Post weighed in on Obama’s refusal to take resounding action on the immigration impasse: http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/few-rewards-for-the-obama-administration-in-its-rigidity-on-deportations/2014/04/08/e5423db6-be9a-11e3-b574-f8748871856a_story.html

And in the winner of all ironic politics, despite Obama having the closest family ties to immigrants of recent presidents, he is the toughest president in history on immigration, with a whopping 2 million+ deportations since taking office—and yet, despite this record, for certain members of Congress, it’ll never be enough: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/24/gop-immigration_n_5206390.html 

May

And in May, it looked like the right hand doesn’t even know what the left hand is doing… Boehner griped to Ohioans about the immigration impasse: http://www.chron.com/opinion/editorials/article/Immigration-impasse-5449547.php. I wonder what he wanted the Madison Rotarians to do about this—invite the Party over for Tea?

After so many people’s hard work on this issue, it’s really getting overshadowed by endless obstructionism. To say that cultivating optimism for a positive resolution this debate is challenging would be an understatement. In our book, and in conversation with the public, we’ve seen where we’ve been, and what we currently face. The part about where we go from here is to be continued.

The Sunday Rumpus Feature |Amor and Exile Reviewed in The Rumpus

Amor and Exile made the front page of The Rumpus.net, a popular online literary magazine, in today’s The Sunday Rumpus Feature. Allison Cay Parker gave it a great review, here are some excerpts:

“Although I can now boast intimate familiarity with many infuriating aspects of our country’s immigration system, the truth is that in relative terms our process was an emotional and logistical cake walk compared to what Amor and Exile coauthor Nicole Salgado, her family, and other bi-national couples represented in this timely, urgent book are experiencing. The crucial difference impacting their cases: the “undocumented” status of their foreign-born partners.

Amor and Exile: True Stories of Love Across America’s Borders reads as one part memoir, penned by American expat Nicole Salgado, and one part journalism, researched and written by Nathaniel Hoffman (editor of TheBlueReview.org). Combining forces, the coauthors have produced a story that is in turns informative and deeply resonant, and that captures the complex, often contradictory set of laws and emotions that govern the lives of immigrants and their families. […]

At its heart, Amor and Exile is a plea for the reunification and repatriation of American families. The book’s unique contribution is that it illuminates the ways in which our increasingly punitive immigration laws, designed to criminalize and remove migrants in the name of national interests, in fact force many ordinary Americans into financial and emotional hardship and deprive them of rights otherwise considered inviolable in our society—chief among them, the “freedom of personal choice in matters of marriage and family life,” which the U.S. Supreme Court defends under the Due Process clause of the Constitution.”

The review says many more great things about Hoffman and Salgado’s writing and the impact the book can have, but you’re better off reading the review in entirety yourself, here. Thanks to Allison Parker for the review, and to The Rumpus Sunday editor, author Gina Frangello, for selecting Amor and Exile for this Sunday feature review.

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Amor and exile in the eyes of a fourth-grader

As a follow-up to my post about our visit to ITJ Campus Queretaro to talk about Amor and Exile, I thought I would post a couple of lovely reports from fourth-graders at ITJ from the closing ceremonies of their unit on migration. I had to work this morning but a friend who has a child at ITJ sent me the photos of the reports via Facebook message.

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Report on Amor and Exile from fourth-graders at ITJ Queretaro. c. 2014 by the report authors

It was interesting for me to see how our story is viewed from the eyes of 10 or 11 year olds. It’s cool how they picked up on things that we didn’t even say. And even cooler how they were able to inspire me back with their reflections on our story.

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Another report on Amor and Exile from fourth-graders at ITJ Queretaro. c. 2014 by the report authors

Thanks again to the teachers at ITJ Queretaro for including us in your great, reality-based education model. And thanks to the students for your great reviews. Now if only you could export your learnings up north…

**Errata noted since publication: the students are fourth-graders, not third-graders as originally posted. My apologies!

Amor and Exile goes to Nayarit, Mexico

Nicole Salgado will present Amor and Exile on Tuesday, February 4, at 11 am in La Penita de Jaltemba, Nayarit. Nathaniel Hoffman will Skype into the conversation. 

The reading/discussion is sponsored by Writers Who Love Mexico, and will be held at the Xaltemba Restaurant and Gallery in La Penita de Jaltemba, near Rincon de Guayabitos, Nayarit. Hoffman will be available for questions via Skype. Books will be available for sale or to be signed. We hope you will join us! For inquiries about the event, please email Susan Cobb at susan@susanjcobb.com. Visit the Writers Who Love Mexico Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/pages/Writers-Who-Love-Mexico/176439342391052 for more information.

For attendees who would like to obtain a Kindle version of the book prior to the event, visit http://amzn.to/11dNDPd

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Migration Talk at ITJ Campus, Querétaro

Margo and I visited the Instituto Thomas Jefferson, an American school in Querétaro, on Monday, January 27th. We went to discuss our experiences migrating between the United States and Mexico and the Amor and Exile project. Our talk was part of a bigger cross-curricular unit for the fourth graders at ITJ, headed up by my friend and colleague Heather Ruark.

Some stats on the talk:

  • 104  4th grade students
  • Throughout the migration unit, students are asked the following driving question: What is it like to move to another country?
  • The unit includes the following topics:
    • Geography, specifically Mexicans who move to the States, and human migration in general;
    • Writing – non fiction, biographical essays;
    • Reading – The Circuit, a juvenile autobiography by a former migrant worker in the fields of California.
  • At the end of the unit, students create a final project consisting of a photo essay gallery of Migration Stories to and from Querétaro

Margo and I had given a similar talk to high school students at the PrepaTec de Monterrey (ITESM Campus Queretaro) prior to the publication of Amor and Exile. But I was particularly impressed by these young students’ level of interest and thoughtful reflection on the topic, particularly considering their age—ten and eleven years old. The kids really enjoyed the book trailer, and had dozens of questions for us, ranging from what our favorite foods and colors are, to what the name of the law that prevented Margo from legalizing in the U.S. was—we had a field day spelling out the IIRIRA of 1996. 🙂

Heather commented that it was a really great experience to be able to get into the subject in such depth. By inviting many speakers from different countries who live in Querétaro and by allowing the students to explore both sides of the issue, they enable students to analyze the complex reasons for illegal immigration and the societal impact of migration in both directions. She also mentioned that the unit is well received by parents, even to a extent greater than she imagines it might be received in the United States.

We were glad to have this opportunity to share our story on a personal level with the students at ITJ, and help foster awareness of this complex issues amidst our next generation of global leaders.

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Nicole and family after ITJ Talk, January 2014