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Saturday, November 3, 2018

Birthright citizenship, fascism, and Trump

This is about birthright citizenship — how my family was nearly wiped out for the lack of it and was saved by a country that had it. But of course, this is really about Donald Trump and his threat to end birthright citizenship in the United States by executive order. Yes, I know, he can't really do that; it's an election-season stunt. But it's nevertheless important to understand what he is saying, why he is saying it, and to whom it's meant to appeal.

Trump and his followers would have you believe that this is a simple numbers game — that it's about the right of a sovereign nation to protect itself from an overwhelming number of immigrants becoming a burden on society. But what it's really about, now and historically, is not numbers of citizens, but kinds -- as in, keeping out the wrong kinds. If you doubt it, look at the 1898 Supreme Court decision in United States v. Wong Kim Ark, which established that the 14th amendment should be applied to all people born on American soil: “The Fourteenth Amendment, in clear words and in manifest intent, includes the children born, within the territory of the United States, of all other persons, of whatever race or color, domiciled within the United States.”

Justice Horace Gray recognized that the case before the court was aimed at making it possible to withhold American citizenship from non-white people by excluding them from the birthright defined by the 14th Amendment. In fact, the 14th Amendment was a Reconstruction measure guaranteeing citizenship rights in response to to questions about the status of former slaves following the Civil War. Whatever specious arguments are brought against birthright citizenship today, in reality, the attempt to end it is still about giving the state the ability to keep out certain kinds of people. In promising to end it, Trump is telling his followers that he will stop at nothing to keep America white and Christian. The moment we require American-born children of non-citizens to apply for citizenship rather than be automatically granted it, we open the door to denying them citizenship for reasons like “race or color.” Trump’s followers get that, loud and clear.

Which brings me to my own family history.

My father arrived in the United States on July 4, 1939, with his parents and brother, refugees from Nazi Germany. It was a miracle they made it — and the lack of birthright citizenship in Europe played a major role in their harrowing tale. You can hear my father tell the whole story in the video below, but here are the key elements as they pertain to the citizenship question.

My father’s father’s parents were Poles who emigrated to Austria in the 1880s, where my father’s father was born. Since there was no birthright citizenship, my father’s father was a Polish citizen by virtue of parentage. He grew up in Vienna. He spoke German and learned no Polish. As an adult, he moved to Budapest, where he married, and where my father’s brother was born. He, too, was a Polish citizen — no birthright citizenship. Eventually, the family moved to Berlin, where my father was born — also no birthright citizenship.

In the 1930s, there were tens of thousands of Jews who were Polish citizens living in Germany. I don’t say Polish Jews, because many of them, like my father’s family, had never been to Poland, spoke no Polish, and had no affinity for that country. After all, they had fled what had been, until the Nazi era, the more virulent anti-Semitism of Poland for the greater tolerance of Germany.

But as Nazism took hold of Germany, Poland anticipated that all those Jews with Polish citizenship would come flooding back from Germany, and they weren’t too keen on the prospect. They announced that they would require any Polish citizen who had been out of the country for an extended period to obtain a special note from a Polish consulate before being admitted to Poland. But Jews couldn’t get that note. Essentially, Polish Jews in Germany were left stateless. Germany, meanwhile, was interested in ridding itself of as many Jews as possible. Deporting Polish Jews seemed like a good place to start.

On October 28, 1938, the SS knocked on the door of my grandparents’ apartment in Berlin, handed my grandfather a deportation order (pictured here), took him away, and put him on a train bound for Poland, a country totally alien to him. The Germans had decided to deport all Polish Jewish men over a certain age, whether the Poles wanted them or not. My father was too young for the deportation. His brother, while old enough, got away with lying to the SS about his age, and was not taken. But my grandfather was given a few minute to pack some belongings, forcibly removed from his home, and deported within hours.

German persecution of the Jews always took place within the framework of its own laws. The Germans prided themselves upon being a nation of laws, as we do. But laws can be made to serve evil ends. The targeted, anti-Semitic deportation of Polish Jews was simply the selective enforcement of a sovereign nation’s right to expel non-citizens, most of whom were Poles simply because birthright citizenship did not exist.

Months earlier, my grandparents had begun a desperate attempt to obtain visas to the United States. Miraculously, they succeeded — but only after my grandfather’s deportation. My grandmother, father, and uncle were in Berlin. Four American visas were at the embassy in Berlin. But my grandfather was stuck in Poland. In order to receive his American visa, he had to appear personally at the embassy in Berlin. Had he not devised a risky scheme to re-enter Germany, rejoin his family, pick up the American visas, and hightail it out of there, it’s likely my grandmother would have elected to join my grandfather in Poland rather than emigrate to America without him. The whole family would probably have perished in the Holocaust. How they managed it is a long story (which my father tells in the video below, if you’re interested), but suffice to say, they did. That’s how it came to pass that my father had his first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty on the Fourth of July, 80 years ago.

By awarding citizenship based on blood line rather than place of birth, European nations in the 19th and early 20th centuries were preserving their ability to enforce a narrow, exclusive idea of nationality — of who belongs and who does not. It was the perfect tool for fascists. Trump’s backward nationalism is a throwback to that ideology, and it’s no wonder he landed on the issue of birthright citizenship as a means of telegraphing that. Make no mistake: Trump is signaling a promise to preserve white, Christian dominance of the United States. Given his fear-mongering and dog whistles about immigrants, non-Christians, and non-whites, who can doubt it? His rabid base know exactly what he’s getting at -- and they love it.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Would you believe me?

This is about what we remember and what we don’t; what we say and what we don't; whom we believe and whom we don’t. It’s about something that happened to me. It is 100% true, but I could not prove it if my life depended on it. It’s also about Christine Blasey Ford, Brett Kavanaugh, Donald Trump, and Me Too.

Forty years ago, the summer I was 16, I took a trip from New York to California with my older brother, traveling partway by car with friends and the rest of the way by bus, mostly putting up in cheap motels and campsites along the way. That’s how we came to stay one night at a campground in Monterey, California. I couldn’t tell you the date, or the name of the campground, or its exact location. It was, after all, 40 years ago.

We struck up a conversation with the guy at the neighboring campsite, who was alone. I don’t remember his name. We agreed to pool our food and have dinner together. At the time, it seemed like one of those nice things that happen when camping — helping each other out, being neighborly, sharing. My brother and I contributed Hebrew National hot dogs. I don’t remember what he contributed. We ate together by the fire in our campsite, chatting. When we were done, my brother volunteered to go wash the dishes at the outdoor faucet by the bathrooms.

As soon as he was gone, the demeanor of our new “friend” changed completely. I don’t remember what he said, or if he said anything. I just remember that he shoved me across the picnic table, pinned my arms above my head, and smashed his mouth against mine. I remember the feeling of the hard wooden table under my back. I remember our teeth clicking together. I remember being scared. Kicking and squirming, I managed to get out from under him and flee. I ran to the bathrooms and found my brother. I told him what had happened.

I don’t remember my brother’s exact words, but I know he was angry and wanted to confront the man. I told him not to. I didn’t want to make a scene. I told him to just stick with me and not leave me alone. We returned to our campsite. The guy was nowhere to be seen. Presumably, he had retreated to his tent. We got into ours and went to sleep. The next morning, when we got up, he and his tent were gone. There was no sign he’d ever been there. We ate breakfast, broke camp, and continued on our way.

It never occurred to me to report the incident to the authorities. I wouldn't have wanted to disrupt our trip, let alone my life, but I probably didn't even consider that. I simply didn’t think one reported such an event — a near miss. I didn’t think a crime had been committed. It would have been like calling the cops to say that a car whose license number you didn’t get had almost hit you on the highway, but you’d swerved and avoided the collision. It would have been reporting a non-event.

I never mentioned the incident to my brother again. It would have just made him uncomfortable, and anyway, what would have been the point? Nothing had happened.

Except something had. It didn’t damage me in a profound way. I didn’t become phobic, suffer PTSD, or develop an anxiety disorder. But I became much more cautious about being alone with strange men in isolated places. Like all New York girls, I had been raised with the usual warnings: Don’t walk alone at night; don’t get off the subway at the wrong stop; carry your keys sticking through your fingers; don’t walk too close to the buildings where someone can pull you into an alley or doorway; don’t hitchhike; don’t make eye contact; don’t wear revealing clothes; don’t go into bars alone; don’t go to the wrong neighborhood; always carry cab fare; boys only want one thing. So even though I was the sort of person who liked adventure and risk-taking, I took this experience as a check on my reckless nature -- a lesson in sensible precautions. I followed all of the self-defense advice. I cultivated a tough “Do not fuck with me” face, which I wore around the city, especially in the subway. I showed no fear, believing that to show fear was to make oneself vulnerable.

As time went on, I frequently thought about what might have happened if I hadn't gotten away, about what I had narrowly escaped, my understanding of the event increasing as I learned more about the world. Still, I didn’t tell anyone about it. It made me uncomfortable to think about. I probably mentioned it to no one for at least 20 years; the only person I recall specifically telling, even then, was my husband. But it was only recently that I came to think of it explicitly as what it was: an escape from an attempted rape.

When I began writing this, I messaged my brother, asking, “The summer we traveled cross-country, we spent a night at a campground in Monterey. Do you remember anything about that?” His reply: “I certainly remember Monterey but I don’t remember a campground.” And why should he? I’m sure that, at the time, he would have seen the incident much as I did: a close call, a non-event. Since it didn’t happen to him personally, with the accompanying fear and adrenaline, it didn’t impress itself on his memory. And I never mentioned it again. So today, he doesn’t remember it. To him, it never happened. I understand that. I can only imagine how many incidents people have told me about that were significant to them, but that I’ve forgotten completely.

To review: I don’t know the name of my attacker. I don’t know the exact location, other than a campground in the vicinity of Monterey, California. I don’t know the date, other than the summer of 1978. I don’t know details like the time or the weather. I can’t describe the man beyond a vague sense of his height, build, and age. The only corroborating witness I can name doesn’t remember the event. But it happened. As surely as I am alive, it happened.

And if I DID know who that guy was, and if that guy were nominated to the Supreme Court, or ran for president? I’d do whatever I could to make sure people knew what he did that night in 1978.

Would you believe me?

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Are we heading toward an American version of Romanian orphanages?

The cruel, inhumane, “zero-tolerance” Trump immigration policy, under which children are taken from their parents at the border, has already been much compared to Nazi Germany. I don’t object. It ought to go without saying that there’s absolutely no point to “Never Again” if one isn’t allowed to invoke the Holocaust until there’s an all-out Holocaust.

The problem I have with the comparison is that it’s too broad to be instructive. Yes, it’s part of Trump’s campaign to vilify and dehumanize a vulnerable population in order to stir ultranationalist sentiment. But what, exactly, does this particular chapter in our history say about who we have become and where we’re headed? I’d like to offer what I think is a much closer and more useful comparison: Romanian orphanages.

In 1991-1992, my husband and I spent nearly a year in Romania, which was just emerging from a Communist regime that was even more brutal and bizarre than what most of the Soviet bloc had experienced. My husband was a newly minted pediatrician when the news reached the West of more than 100,000 Romanian children living in squalid conditions in so-called orphanages. (Many, if not most, were not actually orphans, but had been institutionalized by parents who couldn’t or wouldn’t care for them, but had not relinquished custody.) Worse still, a pediatric AIDS epidemic had spread through those institutions. My husband joined a small group of pediatricians who scraped together some funding for a study, and that’s what brought us to Romania. He gathered data for the study and provided medical assistance in several orphanages and hospitals in Bucharest and Galati; I served as a woman Friday, providing logistical and administrative support to his efforts, alongside my own writing projects.

Perhaps you’ve heard the stories: tens of thousands of children warehoused in facilities where they were, at best, neglected, and at worst, abused. Children up to age six or seven or even more, small with malnutrition, spent their days in white metal cribs, rocking and banging themselves against the bars in an effort to self-stimulate, because no one interacted with them, no one held them, no one played with them. Infants had flattened heads because they spent their whole lives lying on their backs in those cribs. Eerie quiet hung over rooms full of children who never cried, because crying brought no response; no one ever came for them. Children with AIDS were transferred from bleak orphanages to even bleaker hospital wards, where they died not from the disease, but from exposure, because their fatal illness became an excuse to deprive them of even the most basic necessities like clothing, food, and heat.

It’s all true. I was there. I saw it. It was a nightmare of inhumanity.

By all reports, the American institutions where immigrant children are being held today are very different. They are, for now at least, only temporary, and the children receive food and clothing and have access to toys, television, and activities.

But here’s the thing: Once upon a time, the Romanian orphanages weren’t that bad, either. There was a long history of orphanages in Romania, and even in the early Ceausescu years, they had not yet become hellholes. But government policy, dictated by an unhinged megalomaniac with his own strange agenda, created the crisis the world saw when the Iron Curtain fell. Dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, determined to increase Romania’s population in order to grow the work force, banned contraception and abortion, causing a spike in unwanted births and the mass abandonment and institutionalization of children. As children poured into the overburdened system, conditions deteriorated. In a nation where propaganda and rumors replaced facts, where people lived in fear, and where resources were scarce, the disaster inside the orphanages went unchecked.

It seems like a stretch right now to compare Trump’s America to Ceausescu’s Romania, but there are important similarities. Trump is another pompous, self-serving, reality-denying leader who implements inhumane policies to further his own bizarre agenda. He rose to power by stoking fear and hatred of immigrants, particularly those from Muslim and Latin American countries. He believes that, by playing the strong man at the expense of vulnerable immigrants, he’ll reinforce his popularity among his virulently xenophobic base. He’s not interested in what happens to the system as a flood of children hits it, and like the Romanian dictator, he lacks the empathy to concern himself with the effect on the children. Also like Ceausescu, he’s demonstrated a singular willingness to pick the pockets of the masses in order to line his own.

Still, these detention centers, which were originally created to house unaccompanied minors who crossed the border before Trump even became president, provide only temporary shelter and are well supplied, right? No one is going hungry, and the kids eventually move on. What’s the fuss?

As many have already pointed out, any forced separation of a child from a parent is traumatic and can have lasting impact. Dr. Colleen Kraft, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said in no uncertain terms after visiting a facility in Texas that what the children there had been subjected to was “a form of child abuse.” No amount of food, toys, or TV change that. These aren’t children whose parents don’t want them or who have hurt them. In many cases, they haven’t even committed a crime (seeking asylum is not a crime, which is why previous administrations didn’t prosecute people for it). The practice of separation, in and of itself, temporary or not, is both unethical and damaging to children.

But more than that, numbers tell the story about where we could very well be headed. Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy is bringing more and more children into an already overtaxed system. From October 2017 to April 2018, 700 families were split by the Trump administration, and from April 18 to May 31, 1,995 children were taken from 1,940 adults. The temporary housing facilities are bursting at the seams. The government has already opened one tent city in Texas; more will surely follow. While the policy is to eventually release the children to family members, many of those relatives are undocumented themselves and are afraid to come forward to receive the children, lest they run the risk of deportation. Foster care is an option, but that system, too, will inevitably max out. Now there’s talk of deporting the parents without their children. How long before we see in America the beginnings of Romania’s nightmare scenario: an explosion of institutionalized children left parentless due to stupid government policy, with conditions deteriorating due to underfunding and neglect? It’s not hard to imagine. We’re already hearing about staff who believe they’re not supposed to pick up or handle young children, who are being left to cry inconsolably for their absent parents. Maybe it would never become the living hell that Romanian orphanages became, but how close is too close for comfort?

And then you have to wonder: Who would work in such places, and how would they treat the children?

When we first arrived in Romania, my husband and I were plagued by one question: How could anyone treat children like this? The caregivers, administrators, and medical staff came to work every single day and maintained a status quo that made outsiders sick to their stomachs. We didn’t personally observe any physical abuse, but what we did see was more than enough: rows of cribs filled with undersize children with vacant eyes who were permanently developmentally delayed and whose most basic needs were not being met.

Not only did orphanage workers fail to show any tenderness or compassion toward their charges; many stole what little they had. Again and again, we heard the stories from foreign aid workers. One in particular stands out. Soon after the fall of Ceausescu, a group of Dutch nurses arrived at a hospital in Galati to work in its pediatric AIDS ward, where HIV-positive children were transferred from the local orphanage to live out their final months. The nurses brought with them many donated supplies, which they stored on the premises, and they retrained the Romanian staff, who began to demonstrate a more caring attitude toward the children. But early on, the nurses made a critical mistake: The entire group traveled to the Netherlands for several days to attend a conference. When they returned, everything they’d brought was gone: medicine, clothing, blankets, even the electric washing machines. They had to start over from scratch.

Eventually we, like all the other aid workers we encountered, began to understand the twisted logic by which this world operated. First, there was the process of self-selection. The people who worked in the orphanages for any length of time lasted precisely because they could tolerate it. No one was there to advocate for the children; everyone worked in service of the system, which demanded only that these unwanted children be kept out of sight and out of mind, and at very little cost. Meanwhile, Ceausescu was busy perpetrating countless other violations of the rights and dignity of the entire nation, sowing terror, demanding absolute fealty, and creating a society where the social contract had entirely broken down. It was every man for himself. Theft and black-marketeering were a way of life in every workplace, and no one hesitated to put their own needs and those of their family ahead of others. And if there were some really horrific bad actors who would commit even worse abuses in the orphanages, we had no doubt that blind eyes would often, if not always, be turned, because no one wanted to rock the boat, attract attention, or cause trouble that could cost them their jobs and even their personal safety.

If you think none of that could happen in America because of some higher moral standard, you’re kidding yourself. Trump’s law-and-order rhetoric has given the stamp of approval to those who value blind obedience and fatuous patriotism over fairness and the rights of individuals. Already, Americans relegate the poor and the mentally ill to prisons and to the streets. We allow health care and education costs to bankrupt families. We shrink our social safety net, leaving kids without food security. Is that so far from warehousing children in inhumane conditions? As detention centers for immigrant children multiply, and as Americans become ever more distracted by our financial troubles, addictions, culture wars, and manufactured fear of the Others who are supposedly stealing our jobs and threatening our security, the separation of immigrant families will become background noise, and the children will be treated in whatever manner the Trump administration sees fit. Not only could it happen; it could happen quickly. This is no time for complacency.

UPDATE: Just hours after publishing this piece, I read this: "The former head of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement told NBC News that migrant parents separated from their children at the border are sometimes unable to relocate their child and remain permanently separated." And so it begins...