NORTH CHATHAM, New York — U.S.A.
On Christmas morning, something up the road from my creaky old weekend getaway house caught my heathen eye as I walked by: an invitation of a sort, posted outside the North Chatham United Methodist Church, a religious establishment for those amenable to the radical social agenda of a famous Nazarene carpenter—especially that part of the agenda about giving succor to The Stranger, so it seemed.
For lo, there appeared a banner alongside the church entryway, declaring: “Immigrants & Refugees Welcome.”
The banner still waves in this first month of the brave New Year 2021. It is a rather provocative pushback against a wretched phase of American history, in which a would-be king and his court of violent yahoos and dangerous sycophants have loosed upon immigrants and refugees the demons of tribal fear and racial animus.
Blinded by the disease of xenophobia and his ignorance of history, the little king is an odious man of color (orange) who shall soon be ejected from a big house (white). He understands neither America’s disgust with him, nor the intrinsic nature of our nationhood: The vast majority of us—including Donald J. Trump’s mother, grandfather, and two of his three wives—are either immigrants in our time or a few generations removed from arrival, voluntarily or otherwise; legally or otherwise.
Mr. Trump denigrates multiculturalism, an ideal as American as stars and stripes. He ignores the social triumph of fellow people of color (black, brown) who have survived ancestral misery. He disrespects the human impulse to gamble on the promise of a better life abroad—no matter the hardships. And he blinds far too many of us to another fact of American life: We owe our place in this land to wave upon wave upon wave of the outcast.
So now came the morning Christmas Day 2020, a time to respect the circumstances of outcasts from another time and place.
Two millennia ago in ancient Judea, there lived a poor Jewish woman great with child. She and her betrothed feared the insanity of Herod the Great, who commanded his brutal legions to slaughter male children of his kingdom below the age of two. The couple fled, toward refuge in Egypt where they would face a new language and new customs; such is the roiling story of the world.
The couple paused in their desperate sojourn only long enough for a son to be born—under cover of darkness, amidst the stink of animals in a barn.
—Although I am not a congregant of the good church up the road, nor a devotée of any other known flock or faith, I am familiar with the foregoing legend of immigrant struggle. Who isn’t?
About my creaky old house: It was built in the time of George Washington, first president of the United States, at the dawn of a U.S. Constitution inspired by the fiery essays of the immigrant Alexander Hamilton, revolutionist and among the founding fathers of America.
About my small town: It is but a flyspeck on maps, a hamlet of about six hundred and fifty souls, not counting horses and cows.
It greatly pleases me to be living here in this house, and in the vicinity of that bold banner up the road. Its defiance gives me comfort—even as it begs vandalism, or worse.
While the would-be king of America—busily sulking in his Florida mansion, sharing grievances via Twitter, and playing golf—his heavily-armed cult of true-believers is convinced that Dear Leader was cheated out of continued reign due to November’s “rigged election,” per the chant. They swan about the county surrounding my town in their pickup trucks, festooned with Trump flags. They fancy themselves holy deputies of the Florida sulker and golf cheat; they see a duty to intimidate, or worse.
Seeing the church banner on Christmas morning filled me with joy. My only wish was that a friend of mine could have been with me to share the pleasure. Here in North Chatham he is our friend, actually, not mine alone.
Alas, he was detained by Mr. Trump’s legions—agents of the U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement agency, known by the less than charming acronym ICE.
Our friend escaped want and deadly violence in his home country, only to be arrested on a November morning in the lead-up to America’s annual Thanksgiving holiday, commemorating a time in our colonial period when starving immigrants were given succor. Our friend missed the traditional feast. He spent Christmas in federal custody, where he is as I write, awaiting deportation. Perhaps the plague of coronavirus ripping through jails and prisons will strike him soon.
—In the interests of personal privacy and legal circumspection, I shall not discuss details of our friend’s case. Except to say that we have not committed the sin of hesitant mercy.
Truth spoken to unconscionable power over immigrants is heard in my favorite number from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop opera “Hamilton,” a smash hit on Broadway and in theatres worldwide. In the eponymous rôle of the aforesaid immigrant Alexander Hamilton, Mr. Miranda sings—
It’s a hard line when you’re an import
…It’s hard times
When you ain’t sent for.
Racists feed the belly of the beast
with they pitchforks, rich chores
done by the people that get ignored.
…Walk a mile in our shoes
Abróchense los zapatos!
…Y’all ain’t been working like I do.
I’ll outwork you, it hurts you.
You claim I’m stealing jobs, though.
Peter Piper claimed he picked them,
he just underpaid Pablo.
But there ain’t a paper trail
when you living in the shadows.
We’re America’s ghostwriters,
the credit’s only borrowed.
It’s a matter of time
before the checks all come.
We get the job done!
Look how far I come,
Look how far I come,
Look how far I come.
We get the job done!
On the eve of Christmas, Donald Trump settled his haunches atop a golden commode in one of the bathrooms of his gaudy Mar-a-Lago resort and mansion in Florida. He pressed thumbs to his well worn smart-phone, dialed up his Twitter account, and declared for the umpteenth time that his opponent Joe Biden “stole” the election in November, thanks to “millions” of illegal votes cast by undocumented immigrants the likes of our jailed friend. Thus reasoned the loser: On inauguration day, January 20, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. will be sworn in as America’s “fake president.”
Mr. Trump thumbed not a single tweet about the meaning of Christmas, nor the mounting U.S. coronavirus death rate, the result of cold ineptitude that should be prosecuted as negligent homicide. Nor a tweet of worry about the disastrous economy resulting from his further ineptitude. He did, however, send forth “poop tweets,” as his aides call them, announcing presidential pardons for his kind of folks: right-wing politicians found guilty of crime and corruption and traitorous fall-guys for his own crimes, and mercenaries employed by the Pentagon who used machine guns to mow down fourteen unarmed Iraqis—including nine-year-old Ali Kiwani.
There were certainly no Twitter concerns for immigrants and refugees caged in concentration camps, or “federal detention centers” as the Trump administration prefers to call the gulag of dungeons run by ICE. Established in 2003, following the American invasion and occupation of Iraq, ICE is an arm of the Department of Homeland Security. Its agents immediately began racking up abuses. When Mr. Trump took office in 2017, he proudly “unshackled” an already rogue agency.
Under Trump, non-criminal ICE arrests increased by 171 percent, and immigrant rights activists were routinely threatened with deportation “in order to silence them,” according to a pending lawsuit. Highlights of the agency’s conduct in the Trump era include—
• Separation of more than 2,700 child asylum seekers from their mothers and fathers. Youngsters were often raped by guards in concentration camps reserved for them. To date, the parents of nearly six hundred detained children cannot be located through government records.
• Laura Peña resigned as assistant chief counsel at ICE. She wrote in a press release, “I used to be an ICE lawyer, but now I’m going to defend immigrant parents and children. I didn’t become an attorney to prosecute and deport babies.”
• At least nineteen case investigators were dismissed due to priority changes under Trump that reduced emphasis on genuine threats to national security, e.g. trafficking in child pornography, in favor of rousting undocumented workers.
• A Kansas City lawyer who accompanied a three-year-old boy and his pregnant mother in travel back to Guatemala was thrown to the ground and beaten by ICE agents, according to a pending lawsuit.
• American military veterans, their non-white spouses and children are commonly threatened with deportation.
• The agency refused to deport Jakiw Palij, a World War 2 guard at a Nazi extermination camp in Poland where he oversaw the butchering of more than six thousand prisoners, mostly Jews, on a single night in November 1943.
• Agents routinely trespass on private property, conduct warrantless searches, engage in racial profiling, fabricate “evidence,” and even solicited a bribe in one instance, according to court filings in the wake of an investigation by the news outlet ProPublica.
• At one of its concentration camps, ICE countenanced involuntary hysterectomies of Spanish-speaking females.
• The arms, legs, and waists of ninety-three Somali deportees were shackled in iron to their seats during a forty-hour plane flight, forcing them to urinate in bottles—or on themselves.
• Jon Feere of the Center for Immigration Studies, a noted right-wing hate group, was hired a senior ICE policy adviser.
• The union for ICE agents endorsed Donald Trump for president in 2016.
Enough! Short of abolishing ICE altogether, the incoming Biden administration should drastically cut agency personnel and restrict its portfolio to serious crimes, such as illicit cross-border drug trade. The government in Washington, once cleansed of Mr. Trump, should see no need of harassing those who live and labor in the shadows, those who get the job done.
—Mr. Biden has promised to broadly alter or reverse Trump policy on immigration and asylum. We shall see.
Each year of the Trump era has seen a spree of crimes against the Constitution, against humanity, against common decency. Save for most deluded Americans, we know this. The gangster presidency shall cease, as noted, on Inauguration Day later this month. Simultaneously that day, hazmat-clad workers will fumigate the Petri dish of disease that has become the White House, where the outgoing president almost always refuses to wear a facemask—or allows anyone near him to do so. Thus far, thirty-six of his high-level officials, implicit or complicit in Trump crimes, have fallen ill to what the boss dismissed last January as “hysteria” and a “hoax” last February.
At question in these dwindling days is if and when il capo di tutti capi will be held responsible for crimes that have shamed my country before the world. Will he be prosecuted and imprisoned, as he should? Will he issue himself a presidential pardon? Will he continue to be granted moral impunity by the quislings of his Republican Party, and affable onlookers of the Democratic Party?
More importantly at question: How best may ordinary Americans process stains to the soul of our nation? How best to avoid allowing exhaustion to overcome a demand for justice?
Wherever we happen to in this holiday season, whichever religious or secular principles we hold dear, we must at least do this: examine, analyze, and archive the sins of the Trump reign.
Perhaps each of us should select one sin that most concerns us.
We must then think long and hard on its meaning to the wide polity. We must talk about it with our neighbors, and come to a decision on how to achieve Tikkun Olam, the Jewish concept of performing acts of kindness and unhesitant mercy meant to heal the world. One by one by one is the way.
I have made my selection.
So, too, the big-hearted townsfolk of North Chatham—where the quality of mercy is not strained.
No doubt many in church pews on Christmas morning were reading from the Old Testament of Deuteronomy 10:18-19—“[God] defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are sojourners, for you yourselves were sojourners in Egypt.”
The world rejoices at news of deliverance this year from The Plague of last year, thanks to immigrants. The first fully operational vaccine against coronavirus was developed by the married couple Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci, whose respective parents emigrated from Turkey to Germany.
Here in the U.S., we read of more and more progress in battling The Plague through science, thanks to the government’s “Operation Warp Speed,” headed by Moncef Slaoui, a Morocco-born immigrant.
These three take their place in a contemporary pantheon of immigrant innovation in public medicine. They are assisted by an army of what Mr. Trump and his cult disparage as “illegals,” sixty-nine percent of whom hold jobs deemed essential by Mr. Slaoui to fighting The Plague, according to a study by the pro-immigrant Washington lobbying group FWD.US, based on Census Bureau employment data.
Seamus Heaney (left), Frederick Douglass
Joe Biden is deeply proud of his Irish roots.
The new American president’s paternal great-grandfather, James Finnegan, arrived here as an immigrant child from County Louth, in 1850 at the height of famine known to Gaelic speakers as an Gorta Mór. All eight great great-grandparents on his mother’s side were born in Ireland in the first half of the nineteenth century.
None were received in the U.S. with tenderness. As Mr. Biden said in his visit lasts year to ancestral villages on the other side, many “looked down their noses on Irish Catholics like me, and people who [didn’t] have money.”
Worst to fare in America were Africans, first arrived here in 1619 as kidnapped victims of American slavery. When freed by the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, they were mocked as “smoked Irish.” Other slurs are popularly applied today to their descendants.
Mr. Biden, if true to his word in reversing official prejudice against our contemporary immigrants and refugees seeking asylum in America, must draw on the sting of recollected bigotry. He must heed the counsel of Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), the great American social reformer descended from African slaves: “There are such things in the world as human rights [and] when there is a supposed conflict between human and national rights, it is safe to go to the side of humanity.”
Mr. Biden must seize this moment of possibility, as suggested by Seamus Heaney (1939-2013), the great Irish poet he is forever quoting: “Once in a lifetime/The longed-for tidal wave/Of justice can rise up/And hope and history rhyme.”
—Thomas Adcock is America correspondent for CulturMag. His essays here.
Thomas Adcock — Jürgen Bürger