Every Day Matters: Immigration in the Age of Trump

Steven S. Volk

For better, and often for worse, the U.S. story is an immigrant’s story. Narratives of those who came here and found shelter from persecution jostle with histories of indigenous displacement and forced African migrations. Yet when we encounter tales of migration in the Age of Trump, they are more likely to be horror stories, recounting journeys initiated by fear or hunger and halted by frequent, bitter, barriers. Each immigrant’s story is different, but they flow together to form a human river that has reached flood stage. Walls won’t stop what set this this tide in motion in the first place, but they do make life a misery for millions of people. Yet it is in our response to this inherently human desire to seek security and safety that we observe most clearly not who “they” are, but who we have become.

I.

Lampedusa-mapOctober 3, 2013: A boat carrying more than five hundred Eritreans and Somalis sank off Lampedusa, a small Italian island in the Mediterranean between Sicily and Tunisia. The boat went down quickly, but those who survived remained in the water for five hours, often clinging to the floating bodies of their dead companions. Among them was a young Eritrean woman, perhaps 20 years old, who literally gave birth as she drowned. Her waters had broken in the water. Rescue divers found the dead infant in her leggings, still attached by the umbilical cord. As Frances Saunders wrote in the London Review of Books, “The longest journey [was] also the shortest journey.”

Given that there are more than 70 million refugees and displaced persons in the world and almost 4 million asylum seekers, each day’s news is likely to yield disturbing, often heartbreaking, stories from the immigration front. Here’s a sampling taken from a single, almost random, day, January 31, 2020:

* Washington announced a ban on immigration from Nigeria, Sudan, Tanzania, Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, and Myanmar. The new measure, brazenly anti-Black in its conception, reflects Trump’s expressed contempt for Africa. It blocks immigrant (not tourist) visas for nearly a quarter Africa’s 1.2 billion people. Unlike the outrage generated by Trump’s original Muslim travel ban from early 2017, no large demonstrations protested the new ban. Continue reading

Book Burning and Confronting the Past

In 1973, I was a doctoral student studying in Santiago, Chile, when the military, led by General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende, a socialist. The September 11 coup was not a surprise: sectors of the military had carried out a (failed) dry-run the previous June and, in August, conservatives in Congress declared Allende’s Popular Unity government to be unconstitutional. But the utter ferocity in which it unfolded was. The military’s decision to bomb its own presidential palace (La Moneda), the massive roundup of Allende’s supporters who were herded into the National Stadium, the sight of bodies floating down the muddy Mapocho River which cut its way through the center of town, the hundreds of mutilated bodies I witnessed in the National Morgue – all these and more pointed to the brutality that would define the new regime.

This was confirmed with an act that unfolded on September 23, some two weeks after the coup. Photographs of soldiers tossing books onto a bonfire signaled Pinochet’s comfort with an act firmly associated with fascist Germany.  It was a clear indication that the impulse driving the military was far from a ”restoration of democracy,” as Allende’s conservative opponents had promised. But my own reaction to the event was more immediate – for among the materials consumed in the fire that afternoon were my own books.

Burning Books - Chile September 1973 (David Burnett/Contact)

David Burnett, Gamma

Early that morning, those of us living in the Remodelación San Borja, an apartment block close to the center of Santiago, were awakened by loudspeakers barking orders to remain in our apartments and not try to leave. Looking out my front windows, I could make out the machine gun nests that had been stationed around the complex. My apartment had been searched previously by army soldiers looking for foreigners without proper documentation. This time the search promised to be more thorough, as I could already hear the sounds of soldiers pounding on the doors of the upper-floor apartments. Continue reading

Reputation

I returned a few days ago from a trip to the South with my wife and four old friends. We visited important civil rights sites in Birmingham, Montgomery, Selma, Jackson, and Memphis. It was a deeply moving, deeply informative, deeply disturbing, and deeply uplifting trip. There were many highlights, with the Equal Justice Initiative’s museum and lynching memorial in Montgomery among the most moving. Both, in different ways, told the story of the hundreds of years of enslavement and racial terrorism that African Americans have endured in this country. EJI has documented more than 4,000 cases of lynching and underscored that one of the most important motivating factors behind the Great Migration of some 6 million Blacks from the South was the desire to flee racial terror and endemic violence. It is a history that most Americans either don’t know or choose to ignore.

HarrisOther sites and museums documented the astonishing efforts of hundreds and thousands of (mostly) unnamed individuals who fought enslavement, Jim Crow, and racial terrorism. In each city, we stopped to read the plaques and remembrances of those who were part of that struggle, soldiers in a battle for equality and dignity. In Montgomery, we read the plaque (left) dedicated to Charles Oscar Harris, African American Community Leader, who was one of the longest active Republicans in Alabama. “On March 11, 1875,” the marker noted, “Harris and other prominent Montgomery African Americans tested the Civil Rights Act of 1875 by purchasing tickets to the white-only section of the Montgomery Theatre. Being denied seats, they pursued their rights in court.” He raised 10 children with his wife, Ellen Hassell Hardaway, 9 of whom attended college (the 10th died in childhood). Mr. Harris, the plaque informed, attended Oberlin College.

EdmonsonIn the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, we learned about Emily & Mary Edmonson (right), who “were just 16 and 13 respectively in 1848 when they snuck aboard The Pearl in Washington DC,” hoping to sail north to freedom. They were caught, but “white abolitionists helped their father, a free black, buy their freedom before they could be sold into prostitution. Educated at Oberlin, the girls became abolitionists.”

Walking on, we came on a tribute to Dr. Anna Julia Cooper, “one of the first African American women to earn a bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degree.” Dr. Cooper graduated from Oberlin in 1884. Continue reading

Oberlin, Whose Oberlin?

“The nature of moral judgments,” Susan Sontag wrote, “depends on our capacity for paying attention.” A lot of horrors seem to compete for our attention these days, from Trump’s temper tantrums which are destabilizing the world’s economy and security, to the burning of the Amazon, which is undermining its climate. So, if I choose to attend to my home town, Oberlin, Ohio, and the college where I spent the last 33 years, it’s not because it is the most important of the many issues that demand our consideration, but because, in its own small way, examining events here can offer some insights on the moment we are living.

The students have begun to repopulate the town after a summer spent near and far. (There is no summer session at the College.) The sports teams are the first to return; my days of working out in a nearly empty gym are coming to an end. The first-years arrive in a few days, to be followed soon after by all the others. For the most part, they have been absent as the Gibson’s issue played out in a nearby Lorain County court room as well as in hundreds, if not thousands, of news reports, commentaries, and social media streams. Unlike most of those, and similar to my commentaries from earlier in the summer (here and here), I am more interested in exploring some broad contextual themes that can help us understand the terrain on which “Gibson’s” is playing out and not re-litigating the events themselves, including the trial. Continue reading

Begin by Listening

NOTE: Parts of this article were first published on Feb. 19, 2018. I wish I didn’t feel it necessary to bring them back again.

“I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge—even wisdom. Like art.”Toni Morrison (1931-2019)

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All images from Ogawa Kazumasa, Hand-Coloured Photographs of Flowers (1896). Public domain.

Students will soon be returning to classes across the country as well as in my hometown of Oberlin, OH. They will face the pleasurable prospect of a year of learning, the opportunity to reconnect with friends while making new ones, and the excitement of forming new communities. They also face a set of challenges that are rare, perhaps unequaled, in their intensity. They face well-known financial challenges. While the rate of increase in college and university tuition has eased significantly over the past 5 years (just below 2%, i.e., even with inflation), college remains a difficult reach for much of the population, particularly in light of four decades of attacks on wages and the unions that support workers. Tuition increases in the public sector have been driven by state cutbacks in their higher education budgets. Overall state funding for public two- and four-year colleges in the 2016-2017 school year was nearly $9 billion below its 2008 level after adjusting for inflation, with 44 states spending less on higher education in 2017 than they did in 2008.

Students will return to class in the face of a fierce partisan attack on the very idea of higher education. A majority of Republicans polled think it is having a negative effect on the country, which is one reason why they are gradually (or abruptly, if you’re in Alaska) defunding it in the states they control. At the same time, the data is unequivocal that those with a college degree do better in a large number of outcomes, especially the economic, than those without one. Students and their families know this, which is why they continue to pay for college and why student debt has soared over the years to its current $1.5 trillion level and climbing.

Continue reading

Where Does Democratic Engagement Fit on Your Syllabus?

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Study with Coffee, Wall Boat. Public Domain

When I was teaching, there was a point during the summer – usually around the third week in July – when my thoughts would gradually drift from research and writing to focus, once again, on the classroom. The time had come to reread (or read!) the books and articles I had tentatively assigned for my fall classes, to think more seriously about how to design the courses I had hurriedly plotted out the previous spring, and to reflect once more on what I hoped the students would gain from the semester. The “content-transfer” portion of the syllabus was probably the easiest to manage; the more years of teaching I had under my belt, the better sense I had both of what content would be appropriate for each course, and what chunks of that content I wanted students to hold on to long after the semester ended. In other words, I had become comfortable with the process of backward planning.

But I found it harder to settle on the specific skills and dispositions I hoped students would acquire; not because I didn’t have these in mind, but because my list for each swelled year after year. The skills I hoped they would gain in writing ability and proficiency at historical analysis were soon augmented by a host of others: speaking and presentation skills, the ability to argue on the basis of evidence, information literacy, statistical competence, self-reflection, the ability to read images as well as texts on multiple levels. The dispositional outcomes I desired for my classes rapidly accumulated as well, and I struggled to make them measurable, not just aspirational, goals: empathy, resilience, risk-taking, perseverance, perspective taking, ethical and moral reasoning.

In the last few years, I have become increasingly concerned with how to foster the skills of, and a positive orientation toward, democratic engagement. This should not be a surprise, in light of the country’s extreme polarization and the intensification of repellent messages emanating from a White House determined to gain political advantage by fracturing the country on the basis of race and a “radical renegotiation of belonging.” But I am also concerned because of my apprehension that many students, incensed by these appeals to the darkest elements of the U.S. soul and lacking a clear sense of how to respond productively and forcefully to the goading challenges – after all, who among us knows how to respond? — may take their anger out on easy, if inappropriate or insignificant, targets. Continue reading

After the Gibson’s Verdict: What Is at Stake

The jury’s massive $44 million award in the lawsuit filed by Gibson’s Bakery and the Gibsons against Oberlin College (reduced by the judge to $25 million and likely to rise again as lawyers’ fees are tacked on) continues to generate national attention as well as negative editorials slamming the College. I am dismayed, to say the least, by the media’s portrayal of Oberlin as a college that delights in bullying local merchants, condones thievery, and promotes what one editorial writer labeled as “cruel, malicious, and vicious mob tactics.”

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Students protesting in front of Gibsons, November 2016

Having lived in the town and worked at the college for more than three decades, I know Oberlin as an institution that tries to take its local responsibilities seriously. College administrators, faculty, and staff are certainly aware of the ways, large and small, that its nearly 3,000 undergraduates can irritate the residents of this small town. Students wander across the streets seemingly oblivious to on-coming traffic, ride bicycles on downtown sidewalks, walk shoeless in December snows, and, yes, shoplift. This is not a defense of those actions, certainly not of shoplifting which, as I wrote earlier, is an infuriating example of class privilege as performed by some students. College administrators have never excused stealing even if they lack the means of putting an end to it. Continue reading