House of Representatives to environment: Screw you, secure the borders.

The House of Representatives just passed HR 2578, an omnibus piece of legislation including HR 1505, the National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act. The final vote was 232-188, with most Democrats opposed and most Republicans in favor. The roll call vote tally is here.

This sneakily named bill gives the Secretary of Homeland Security authority to manage federal lands within 100 miles of both the U.S.-Canada border and the U.S.-Mexico border. This power is an expansion of Section 102 of the Real ID Act, passed in 2005, which gives the DHS Secretary authority to waive any federal laws during the construction of border enforcement structures, including the border wall. Because of that act, all major pieces of environmental legislation, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act (which mandates review of all environmental projects) and the Endangered Species Act have been waived during border wall construction and other border enforcement activities. Perhaps most insidiously, the law explicitly states that DHS waivers cannot be subjected to judicial review.

HR 2578 would extend essentially the same powers to all federal lands within 100 miles of either U.S. land border. It prohibits the Secretary of the Interior (responsible for National Parks and Bureau of Land Management Land) and the Secretary of Agriculture (National Forests) from interfering with Customs and Border Protection activities within this 100-mile area.

Let me say that again, really clearly. This law gives the Secretary of Homeland Security the authority to waive all environmental legislation within 100 miles of U.S. land borders.

Apparently, it’s not good enough that our border enforcement is killing hundreds of people every year. We also have to make sure that things like preserving wilderness areas don’t interfere with catching and deporting people trying to make it to the U.S. And lest you think this is about border security–the Department of Homeland Security and the Border Patrol have stated that this law is unnecessary for border security. The current system of interagency land management is working just fine for them.

The Senate still has to vote on this (it’s S.803, introduced by Arizona Senators Jon Kyl and John McCain). You can read up on the bill here, get the Sky Island Alliance’s talking points here (PDF), and go hereto take action and contact your Representatives and Senators.

Immigration reform and invisible costs

Friday’s immigration announcement by President Obama was a great moment in a lot of ways. Seeing the reactions to his announcement that the Department of Homeland Security is stopping the deportation of DREAM Act eligible students was a good reminder of the spectrum of opinions that the U.S. population holds on immigration issues. Many people were celebrating, knowing that they might have an opportunity to work or continue their studies. Others were decrying the fact that this was done via executive action rather than Congressional legislation, claiming that this was nothing more than a political decision to appeal to Latin@ voters.

All of this has put me in a reflective mood about border and immigration policy, especially in the context of the massive wall that I cross at least twice a day now. One of the rallying points behind No More Deaths is that these issues shouldn’t be political—they’re human rights issues. I firmly believe that thousands of bodies piling up in southern Arizona’s deserts are a human rights issue. And in March, when I was here doing work in the desert, it was easy to see immigration in only those terms. The people I interacted with on a daily basis weren’t policymakers or strategists. They were people like me, except that they needed work and had the misfortune to be born on the wrong side of the line.

Perhaps the clearest part of being out in the desert was how visibly wrong and ineffective our border enforcement was. It seemed clear that people weren’t being deterred by the militarization or the wall itself. Crossing numbers are certainly down in recent years, but there’s no real way to tell if this is because of the U.S.’s poor economy, increased border enforcement, or both. What is clear is that plenty are still choosing to cross—it’s just that more of them were dying in the process. A week out there convinced me that our currently policies couldn’t continue for much longer, because they were inherently unsustainable. I figured that they would collapse under the weight of their own inhumanity, that reform could happen if enough people knew what was going on and called for change.

Now, I’m in an urban area, talking to tons of different people on a daily basis and hearing dozens of stories from migrants. A lot of them have left desperately poor town in central and southern Mexico, where a good wage is $30 a week. Some of them are my age, except instead of attending a liberal arts college and blogging about politics, they have a three-year old child at home who they need to support. Most of them aren’t coming to the U.S. to pursue higher education. Many of them don’t want to live there permanently or assimilate into U.S. culture. The majority are simply looking for work, having run out of options at home.

I was speaking to a group of women in the Migrant Resource Center where I’ve spent the past week working. They were discussing the poor wages in their home states that had led them to try to cross the border, while I chimed in occasionally with questions.

One of them turned to me and asked, “If you were in my position, if you couldn’t find any work at home and had four children to support, would you try to cross into the U.S.?”

I looked at her and froze for a moment, unable to answer because the circumstances of my life had never forced me to consider something like this. Eventually, I said, “I don’t know. But maybe. Probably.”

She nodded, looking satisfied. “Until you’ve been in this position, you don’t know what you would do,” she said.

In the desert, I heard stories like this and wished people safe passage. On the Mexican side of the line, though, these stories carry an entirely different meaning. The people who tell me these things have just been deported, and, with very few exceptions, most of them are headed back to the towns they came from in Mexico’s interior. Having seen the reality of the desert or the brutality of the Border Patrol (nobody I’ve spoken to who was in custody overnight was fed more than one meal, and most of them were housed in detention facilities where sitting down was impossible because of crowding), most of them are giving up and heading home.

From a political perspective, this is a win. Comprehensive immigration reform has been discussed for a long time in U.S. politics. All of the strategies I’ve heard rely on essentially three actions—providing a path to citizenship for the undocumented immigrants already here, changing our visa system to grant temporary work visas and possibly increase quotas for nations like Mexico with high demand, and increasing enforcement on the border to prevent unauthorized crossings. No matter how people feel about Mexicans or what to do with the undocumented folks once they get here, everybody seems to agree that preventing migrants from crossing illegally is a good thing. Policy, as much as it could aim to provide better jobs for Mexico or legalize those who’ve already made it here, is going to favor border militarization.

Out in the desert, it seemed like this couldn’t go on forever. The degree of suffering was so great, the injustices so stark, that I knew a better world couldn’t be too far off. From the city, though, abuse becomes mundane. The people I talk to everyday who come in dehydrated, forced into the back of vehicles which look like they’re designed to carry animals, crying because they can’t find work at home and don’t know what to do—all of them fade together, human casualties in a policy system which doesn’t care about their suffering. Which isn’t going to care about their suffering.

In the midst of all this, it’s good to know that the undocumented migrants who have already made it to el norte, who have lived there for years and built lives there, might be able to stay. But immigration reform which only tweaks our visa system isn’t going to solve the issue. Reagan’s 1986 comprehensive immigration reform—the last large-scale legalization we’ve had in the U.S.—was supposed to provide enough border enforcement to make sure people stopped crossing. And we all know how that worked out.

As long as there are people who are desperate to find work, I have to believe our border wall won’t make a difference. If we build a twelve foot wall, they’ll find a thirteen foot ladder, or so the saying goes. But being here makes me afraid that our awful policies are working in some twisted way, that the suffering I’ve seen this week is simply supposed to be another form of collateral damage.

The physical border is a space often forgotten in political discussions. We talk about who ICE chooses to deport in the U.S. and what it’s like to live life undocumented, always afraid that one misstep could get you sent back to a country you don’t remember leaving. We don’t talk about the border militarization in real terms, what it means for the people who live on either side of the line, who conduct their day-to-day lives perpetually in the shadow of that fence. We say we’re adding enforcement and agents, and people see it as a good or accept it as a necessary compromise to push for reforms in the system. We’re sold a specter of drug cartels and devious migrants sneaking across our borders, and we don’t often pause to consider what that added enforcement will mean or how many more bodies will pile up in the Arizona desert because of it.

I want comprehensive immigration reform, and I’m so happy to learn that many of the people I know won’t have to live with the specter of deportation hanging over their heads, at least for the next two years. I hope, though, that we can bring these spaces into our national dialogue too, that in our push for legalization of those already here, we don’t forget about those who would still come. I want us to see the human rights side even as we acknowledge its political dimensions. I don’t want the suffering in the desert, the costs on the Mexican side of the line, to forever remain invisible.

In which I respond to the people commenting on the NYT article about Obama’s executive order on immigration

So this morning, President Obama announced that undocumented students who would be covered under the DREAM Act will no longer be deported. This policy applies to people who are under 30, arrived in the U.S. before they turned 16, have been here for at least five years and have no criminal record. They also must be currently in school, have a high school diploma or served in the military.

Obama is essentially shifting policy through executive action, and while it’s similar to the DREAM Act, it doesn’t provide a path to legal citizenship for undocumented students. Instead, it grants a two-year “deferred action” during which an individual is essentially safe from deportation. People who are granted this deferral may then apply for work permits.

While this isn’t citizenship and doesn’t solve the immigration problem in the long term, it’s an important short-term step towards a more humane immigration policy. I was really excited reading the New York Times’ article about it, and then I decided to look at the comments. Where, naturally, I lost most of my faith in humanity.

Every time immigration comes up, people respond with all kinds of xenophobic, racist and just plain factually inaccurate stuff to justify their opposition to treating people like human beings. And I’m getting pretty sick of it. So, I’m going to pick a few choice comments from the NYT’s article and respond to them here. (Trigger warning: racism)

1) These people are illegals and by definition, criminals. Therefore they should all be deported as soon as possible.

Okay, first of all, “illegal” is an adjective, not a noun. So a person can’t be an “illegal.” But I digress.

U.S. immigration laws are civil, and violating them has historically been a civil offense, not a criminal one. Until very recently, it has been federal policy to apply prosecutorial discretion when criminally prosecuting people for violating immigration laws. This means that, except in rare cases where an undocumented immigrant committed a more serious crime, people are generally deported with only a civil infraction (the equivalent of a parking ticket) rather than a criminal conviction. Most people here illegally have never been convicted of any crime, in violation of immigration laws or otherwise.

This is now changing, as federal initiatives like Operation Streamline seek to criminalize unauthorized immigration to dissuade people from trying to come to the U.S., which brings me to my second point. Pointing out that someone has broken a law has no bearing on whether or not the law itself is just. Nobody is disputing that people who came to the U.S. in violation of its immigration laws have broken those laws. People are arguing that those laws are unfairly applied and have many, many unintended consequences which are bad both for the individuals affected and the nation as a whole. These consequences include familial separation, as well as large numbers of bright, ambitious students who are unable to attend college and contribute to the U.S. because they can’t afford tuition and aren’t eligible for financial aid because of their immigration status.

Which brings me to the they should all be deported line. As for that, I offer only this article. Next?

2) I am naturalized citizen who patiently and painstaking waited on line and went through the whole legal process. This is going to encourage more illegal immigrants crossing the border with children in tow and more anchor babies. This makes me sick to my stomach!

So, you waited in line and got legal residency. Good for you. (Seriously, good for you.)

Here’s the thing, though. U.S. immigration works on a quota system, where each country in the world has the same cap on the number of people who can get immigrant visas each year. In order to apply, you need to have a close relative, generally a sibling, parent or child, who is already a U.S. citizen (this is called an F4 application). If you’re from a country with very few applicants, like Iceland, awesome–you can get a visa pretty quickly. If you’re from a country like Mexico or the Philippines, you’ll be waiting a while. The wait for Mexico is currently somewhere between 15 and 20 years if you already have a close relative in the U.S. Waiting in line simply isn’t an option for many people, least of all those who were brought to the U.S. by their parents and have been living and going to school year for years.

In order to be eligible for Obama’s “deferred action,” someone must have already been living in the U.S. for five years. Trust me, this isn’t going to encourage anyone to cross the border who wasn’t already going to cross. And if you’re really concerned about more people crossing, your best bet would be to advocate for job creation programs in Mexico.

Finally, I’m not sure how some undocumented immigrants gaining legal rights in any way hurts or affects your status as a legal permanent resident.

3) Why don’t we just give them everything ELSE we’ve worked so hard for!
I was adopted from Italy years ago. And my parents had to spend time and money making me something I could be proud of.
And ” American Citizen.” It use to be an Honor to be an American Citizen. You use to have want it so bad you could tastes it.
Nowerdays Just dump the kid on the white houses door step say “I no speaka the english.” And wham! you an American Citizen. No questions asked.. But now They don’t have to work for it.

Nothing in this decision will make anybody an American Citizen. First of all. And many people who come to the U.S. without documents don’t want to be U.S. citizens–they simply want to come and work.

Second of all, there is nobody who came to this country without documents who didn’t work for it. Nobody. I’ve spent the past week in the Migrant Resource Center in Agua Prieta, Sonora. We help people who have just been deported get back home and provide food, water, clothing and basic medical care. I’ve heard dozens of individuals stories, each distinct, but with many common elements. People generally pay thousands of dollars to hire a pollero to bring them to the U.S.–this in a country where making less than $30 a week is common in many central and southern states. People walk for a week or more through the brutal heat of the Arizona desert to come to the U.S., and thousands of them have died in the attempt over the past decade. So don’t tell me people don’t work for this.

I’m going to ignore the racism in the comment about people not speaking English, except to point out that the U.S. doesn’t have an official language. But it is currently the exact opposite of easy to become a U.S. citizen, or to even get legal permanent residency.

Finally, and again, I’m not sure how some people getting more legal rights in any way diminishes or cheapens your citizenship.

4) So Obama is giving 800,000 illegal immigrants work permits. All US citizens who are out of work or have to work part time should figuratively spit in Obama’s face, since he is spitting in yours.

Ah, the jobs argument. First of all, undocumented students who apply for deferred action still have to apply to get a work permit, and I highly doubt all 800,000 of them will qualify.

With regard to the larger jobs issue: this is a pervasive anti-immigration argument, but I think it’s fundamentally flawed. First of all, a work permit isn’t a guarantee of work, so all this would do is give some undocumented students the same chance that U.S. citizens have to apply for the few jobs that are out there. I personally don’t believe that U.S. citizenship should magically confer a person with any more of a right to work than a non-citizen resident would have.

Even if you disagree, though, I would again point to this article. Often, the consequence of undocumented workers being removed is that produce is left to rot in the fields. Many other standard complaints, like that immigrants don’t pay taxes, are patently absurd as well. Immigrants pay sales tax, and those who work under fake social security numbers pay into both Social Security and Medicare, without being able to benefit from either of those programs (effectively subsidizing the rest of us).

There’s been a longstanding argument that immigrants do jobs U.S. citizens aren’t willing to do, and I think that’s often true. But the counterargument to that–that if we enforced immigration laws and cracked down, wages in agricultural labor would rise–seems compelling as well. So what do we do?

I’m not an economist and I don’t have an answer to that. My support of immigration reform and more visas is rooted in human rights, not economic arguments. I believe people have a right to migrate where they want to and to be treated like human beings while doing so. That said, I think it’s worth pointing out what is made visible and what is made invisible when we talk about immigrants “stealing American jobs.” The rise in immigration over the past few decades, specifically to the U.S. from Mexico and other Latin American countries, is largely due to trade liberalization agreements. Agreements like NAFTA and organizations like the WTO have lifted many international barriers to trade in the name of efficiency. One effect of this has been the collapse of the rural Mexican economy for many small farmers, pushing them to migrate north. Another has been the shipping of U.S. jobs overseas, largely to Asia, where labor is cheaper.

Regardless of how you feel about trade liberalization, I think the anti-immigration argument overlooks the structural nature of free trade. It’s telling that those who decry the effect immigrants are supposedly having on the U.S. economy, notably Republican (and many Democratic) policymakers, are much more silent on the free trade agreements which encourage U.S. jobs to be shipped overseas, as well as the factors which push migrants to the U.S. These are all complicated economic questions with room for debate, but a knee-jerk, “They’re taking our jobs!” is not going to lead to sensible policy on this issue.

5) The president does not have the constitutional authority to do this. Congress makes the laws.

There’s a legitimate conversation to be had here about the limits of executive power, and there’s certainly a problematic history of presidents using executive actions and policy shifts to do what they want. However, while Congress does make the laws, it’s the executive branch’s job to enforce them. Part of that means prioritizing certain methods of enforcement over others, which to my mind, is exactly what this is doing. The President has decided that applying U.S. immigration laws to students who have been in the country for years is not the best use of the government’s resources. Given the impossibility of deporting all 12 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S., I’d have to say I agree. (There’s another conversation to be had about the construction of “good” vs. “bad” immigrants as it relates to the DREAM Act, but I’ll save that for later.) In the fact of a Congress which has thus far failed to pass any immigration reform laws, I think this action was both warranted and necessary.

6) What Mr. Obama did is pure politics. What kind of leadership is that?


Have we elected President Romney today?

We might have. Everybody is focused on the every growing population of Hispanics and as an article in the Times mentioned this week, they are forgetting that it is 2012 and not 2050.There are still many more non-Hispanic voters than Hispanic voters. A lower percentage of Hispanic people vote than do whites and blacks.

First of all, non-citizens can’t vote in elections. Which means nobody who is directly affected by this policy can vote. As far as the larger Hispanic community goes, of course this is a political act. Because everything the president ever does is a political act. Because he’s a politician. It’s entirely possible that President Obama realized that same-sex couples should be able to get married of his own accord, and that’s awesome. But the decision to announce that at the time he did was a political act. Pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq was a political act, just as George’s Bush’s decision to invade was a political act.

Just because something is a political act doesn’t mean it’s wrong, or corrupt, or immoral, or shallow. Politicians are always going to consider the potential effects on voters when taking stands on issues. I would argue that they probably should consider that, since they’re elected to serve voters. That doesn’t mean that Obama’s action was only about getting votes, and it doesn’t make his action any more or less valid.

Finally, I would like to point out that Hispanic and Latin@ people are not and should not be the only people who care about this issue. There are plenty of people who are concerned about undocumented immigrants who support this action wholeheartedly. As much as I’m critical of Obama, and the entire U.S. political system, I’m happy that we were able to make this small step forward, and I trust that many of my fellow non-Hispanic/Latin@ and white Americans are as well.

There you have it. I think I touched on all the major arguments I saw in the comments, though if I missed any, somebody should let me know. Immigrant rights are human rights, and while stopping the deportation of students isn’t enough to solve the problem, it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

My latest paper: The Rhetorical Construction of Ecoterrorism

One of the classes I took this semester was Environmental Communication, a rhetoric class focusing on environmental issues. Our final assignment, which we worked on for about half of the semester, was to write a final paper focusing on a specific topic. Because of my interest in radical activism, I chose to write about “ecoterrorism,” looking at how that word had evolved to refer to acts of environmentally-motivated property destruction and sabotage.

A lot of my research involved reading court documents, the Congressional Record, FBI reports and laws like the USA PATRIOT Act. Over the course of this research, I realized just how repressive, insidious and relatively unknown a lot of these policies are. And it’s with that in mind that I’d like to share my paper with more people.

Regardless of your opinion on the legitimacy of environmentally-motivated sabotage as a tactic, or your thoughts on the ethics of taking illegal action, the ways in which the U.S.  government has responded to these actions is profoundly repressive and should concern anyone with a vested interest in activism, protest and true democracy.

You can read and download the paper here (pdf).

Six stories from the borderlands

One short week, spent sleeping nestled between mesquite bushes and barrel cactus, driving nearly impassable dirt roads by day, and here I am back in Tucson. I have ideas and issues and ideology to wrestle with, and if you’re at all interested in immigration or politics more generally, you’ll have a lot of reading to do in the next few weeks. But for now, while I’m still here, I wanted to share a few short stories from the Arizona borderlands.

1) I meet a man in Nogales. Not a man, I suppose—he’s more or less my age, though substantially taller. Sarah introduces me to him, saying that he’s from a town near my college. We talk for a minute—I’m always excited to meet people who have heard of Walla Walla, Washington. I ask him a few questions about where he grew up, and we part ways.

Later, Sarah tells me that he grew up near me, but was deported last year—caught in a traffic stop. He has no legal way of getting home, no means of re-entering the U.S. I cringe at the thought that in a few days, I’ll step onto a plane and be back home in a matter of hours. There’s a bitter taste in my mouth for the rest of the afternoon.

2) I find myself cooking dinner with a group of anarchists. It’s much like cooking dinner with any group of young people. We have the radio cranked to play the latest in terrible pop music, and we relax into the ease of self-deprecation while waiting for the onions to brown. Any time our limited camp kitchen resources create a challenge, someone feels compelled to blame hierarchical systems of oppression.

“You guys, the patriarchy is burning the quesedillas again.”

Someone else chimes in. “Fucking patriarchy ruins everything.”

We all laugh, and someone suggests adding noodles to the soup. I’m not a huge fan, so I cross my forearms in an x front of my chest—a block. It’s used in consensus circles to indicate irreconcilable disagreement with something being proposed. Here, though, we’ve resigned ourselves to the irony of having a trip run by leaders (or “facilitators”) who don’t believe in hierarchy. The noodles go into the soup. I have a bite, and find to my surprise that it’s not so bad after all.

3) Walking, I notice suddenly that the signs are all in Spanish. I turn to my right.

“Sarah, are we in Mexico?”

She nods.

I’ve walked into Nogales without being asked to stop, show my passport, prove my citizenship or answer questions about my intentions.

On the way back stateside, standing in line, I snap pictures of the trucks lined up and waiting to enter. A Customs and Border Patrol agent snaps at me, telling me to stop. I apologize, saying I didn’t know. I assume this is the end of it, but I reach the front of the line. The man waves me forward and takes my passport.

“What were you taking pictures of?” he demands.

“Signs, the trucks…nothing much.”

I shrug, hoping my casualness will deflect his concerns about homeland security, but it doesn’t work. He motions for me to show him. I turn the screen on.

“You’re not allowed to take pictures of the port,” he tells me, shaking his head. I wonder what I look like to him, greasy hair pulled back into a knot, Chacos covered in Mexican dust. I pause, waiting for him to say something, but he doesn’t. I ask if I need to delete the photo, and he says yes.

The first one is of a sign—no agricultural products may enter the country. He doesn’t check for agricultural products in my backpack, but he makes sure I hit the delete button twice. The next photo shows two trucks under a sign that says “open” in green lights. I hit delete. We continue this for twenty images until I reach one of the border wall, framed by construction work.

“The wall is okay,” he tells me grudgingly. I put my camera away, ask if he needs anything else, and walk back into my country.

It didn’t occur to me until after I’d crossed that I could have refused. It didn’t occur to me until later that night how low the stakes are for me when I choose to cross a border.

4) The two Border Patrol agents are joking with each other, but I can barely hear them over the rattling of chains. To my left are forty or so detainees—people picked up near the border in the last few days. They’re here in court to plead guilty en masse to criminal offenses—entering the U.S. not through an authorized port, re-entering the U.S. after being deported. Six at a time, they go up to the microphone and the judge questions them.

“Are you a citizen of Mexico?”
“Were you found in Arivaca, Arizona on the 22nd of March of this year?”
“Were you previously denied admission, excluded, deported and removed from the United States on April 2 . . .”

And together, as a group: Culpable. Culpable. Culpable.

“All guilty,” says the translator to the judge.

Those six file out, and another six are up. Some of them were previously deported earlier this year. I can’t imagine making the journey through the desert twice in a lifetime, much less twice in one year. Those who have never been deported before will be back on a bus to Mexico this afternoon. How many of them will try again? How many of them will end up back here?


5) Heading back into town, we pass through a Border Patrol checkpoint. They’re stationed strategically throughout the Southwest to pick up migrants who have survived the desert. We roll down the window, and he sticks his head in the car.

“Everyone a U.S. citizen?”

Marcel, our driver, says no, he’s German, and starts to hand the man his passport. The agent glances at the cover, doesn’t open it, and hands it back.

“I’ve seen all I need to see,” he says to our four white faces. “You folks have a nice weekend.”


6) We’re out on water drops, delayed a few hours because I noticed the car needed gas right before we’d reached the remote washes where we put supplies out. It’s our second stop on the route, and each of us carries a gallon of water in each hand. On the caps, we’ve drawn hearts. The sides say Suerte or Buen viaje in black marker.

We follow the migrant trail, but when we get there, we find almost a dozen full jugs of water. The Samaritans have been here recently. I tell myself it’s a good thing that the water isn’t being taken, hoping that it means people don’t need it, not that they aren’t finding it. We rearrange the jugs, placing them directly on the trail, since the coyotesdon’t always let people stop to grab supplies when the groups move at night. On the side of one, in pink marker, is a wish: Hasta un mundo sin fronteras.

Until a world without borders.

NOW AVAILABLE: Mining and democracy in Intag, Ecuador

For those of you who’ve been waiting for it (probably no one), I’ve finally translated my final study abroad paper into English. You can view and download the entire thing as a PDF here.

It’s a thrilling tale of mining companies, small-scale farmers turned activists, betrayal, lies, possible illegal cyanide dumping, long speeches at regional assemblies, journalism and constitutional law, and all for the low, low price of FREE!

Occupy Wall Street, cynicism, and power

Wall Street has been occupied for over three weeks now. (If you’ve been living in a cave and are unaware of the existence of Occupy Wall Street, you can read up on it here.) That sense of rage, the slow-burning knowledge that things are not ok, has finally come to the surface. I’ve been praying for this for almost a year. Watching the Arab Spring unfold, seeing the protests rippling across Europe in the wake of austerity measures, I asked again and again, “What will it take for us to wake up? What will it take for Americans to take to the streets?” I wanted our moment of revolution, the rejection of existing methods of expression, a truly grassroots expression of uncompromised anti-establishment action, desde abajo y a la izquierda.
I want to believe so much that this movement can accomplish something, that there are policy changes which would meaningfully address the growing wealth gap. I want to let this be the re-growth of my idealism, my faith that a group of committed citizens can spur lasting changes in the power structure of the state. I want to believe that the state is not irredeemable. Even President Obama said that the protesters were expressing legitimate grievances, that growing inequality is an unfortunate fact of our society. And for a split second, I thought that might mean things would change.
But there’s always reality, and power. Or more accurately, the reality of power. And the reality of power is that the United States government, regardless of the party the president happens to belong to, exists primarily to defend the interests of business and capital. The government does not exist to protect your family, or ensure access to health care, or protect your grandchildren from the accumulation of toxic chemicals in their food. The government exists to defend existing power structures.
In this case, that means setting forth new trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea. Specifically, the agreements submitted by the Obama administration to Congress yesterday would allow foreign companies to be bailed out by the US government if changes our environmental and labor laws cause them to lose money. These agreements are literally the antithesis of everything that Occupy Wall Street stands for, and their timing seems like cruel irony. In the wake of the State Department’s approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, these things have ceased to shock me. But my lack of shock is in itself, surprising to me. Every time Obama does one more thing I disagree with, every time I shake my head and say, “It figures”, I can’t help but wonder—when did I become this cynical? And more disturbing than my cynicism—which has reached levels more appropriate for a 70-year old man than a young college student—is the fact that it exists in spite of my best efforts to the contrary. In spite of spending months trying to find reasons for hope, trying to believe that the abuses of those in power were not systematic and deliberate, that government could be redeemed—I can’t help but feel that the deep level of cynicism I’ve sunk to is nothing more than an accurate assessment of reality.
Even Ecuador has failed to provide a safe haven from the cruel reality of power. My host dad just returned from the Amazon, where he works as a petroleum engineer (he spends twenty days in the field, then ten days back home in Quito). Upon his return, he told me that he had talked to some indigenous people who live in Yasuní National Park. Yasuní sits on top of ample reserves of tar sands oil, which President Correa says he’s willing to leave in the ground if the international community pays Ecuador half the value of the oil—$3.5 billion over a ten year period. German delegates just visited Ecuador to see Yasuní, and have committed millions to the proposal. Correa went to the UN to raise support, and has $55 million pledged (he needs $100 million by the end of the year, or else he says he’ll open Yasuní).
I asked my dad about the Yasuní initiative. He said the indigenous people he talked to told him that there are already wells in the ground in the park, that the oil sitting underground has already been sold to China. He said that Correa’s efforts to raise money for the proposal amounted to nothing more than political theater, that he will be shocked if Yasuní doesn’t open for oil extraction eventually. I wish I could say I was surprised, but after everything I’ve heard about the Ecuadorian government, this seemed inevitable. Of course we’re going to take the most biodiverse place on earth and extract oil from it. Correa may succeed in painting himself and his country as victims of capitalism at the hands of Western neo-imperialist powers. “We wanted to save Yasuní,” he’ll tell the cameras, “but we needed money, and since the rich countries wouldn’t pay us to not destroy the rainforest, we had no choice.” I’ve never met the man; I can’t say whether he truly cares about conservation or just pays lip service when he knows it’s politically expedient to do so. But given that oil accounts for at least 50% of Ecuador’s export earnings, 15-20% of GDP and 30-40% of the government’s total revenues, the Ecuadorian government is logically going to defend extraction. Correa, unlike Obama, at least has the justification that the revenues are going to finance social programs to benefit the poor (at least in theory).
Knowing all this, I’m paralyzed by inaction. I know the Keystone pipeline cannot be built; I also know that I’m powerless to stop it. Even the group that’s organized to defeat it, Tar Sands Action, doesn’t seem to have a plan B. I asked them on Twitter, “Do you have a plan besides asking Obama nicely not to kill our planet?” Their response: “Yes, two weeks of sit-ins [at the White House] in August”. Then they linked to their action proposal, which included demands that the pipeline not be built, but no tactics beyond asking those in power to act against their own perceived self-interest. I tweeted back, “Sit-ins seem like a slightly more militant form of asking nicely.” I never received a response.
Putting faith in the state is an ineffective strategy for activism. If your entire plan consists of getting Congress to pass some piece of carefully-crafted legislation, what do you do when they refuse? If Obama’s State Department can say with a straight face that the construction of a major oil pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast will have “no significant adverse impacts” on the environment, how can any reasonable strategy for action rely on asking them to change their mind based on rational argument? Sure, you could tie a project up for years with lawsuits, but if you make it all the way to the Supreme Court and lose, what recourse do you have? Yet even knowing this, I can’t come up with plan B. We need the same critical mass that was willing to get arrested sitting peacefully in front of the White House to go sit in front of the bulldozers that break ground for the pipeline. We need a steady stream of cynics and idealists who care about the living planet to put themselves between power and the things it seeks to destroy. We need people willing to sabotage the pipeline. But as much as I believe in defending our earth, I have to wonder if we can win at all, even if we’re willing to break the law. Stand in front of bulldozers, and you will be arrested. Fight back, and you will get shot. Attack the pipeline, and you’ll shut down production for a little while, causing an oil spill in the process. And then it will be fixed. You’ll have to attack it again, and again. You will be caught and arrested. You’ll get a life sentence for domestic terrorism, if you’re lucky. In Ecuador, they don’t always bother with sentencing you. Assassins can be hired in Coca, an oil town in the Amazon, for less than $50. Naturally, oil companies have made use of this fact get rid of problematic activists. One way or another, you will be silenced, and maybe someone will follow in your footsteps, but the overwhelming odds are in favor of power. They always are.
I have to believe that some of the people who are occupying Wall Street know this. And perhaps that’s why they’re out there, day after day, without a cohesive platform or leader or proposal for action. If I were home right now, I’d be in the streets too. I’m angry and cynical and exhausted just trying to keep track of the latest abuses and casualties of those in power. But I don’t have a plan for fixing it all. There are reforms that would help, that would put sufficiently large Band-Aids over the gaping holes in our social structure to make the lives of average people better. I’m in favor of anything that marginally improves the lives of average Americans, that helps to close the gaping wealth gap. I’m in favor of job creation programs and more progressive taxation and the whole laundry list of liberal reform goals. But it won’t be enough. It never is. And knowing that scares me unspeakably. It makes me terrified for the future, not so much for myself, but for indigenous communities and the working poor and the rare species of amphibians that live in Yasuní. It makes me want to do something, anything. It makes me want to take to the streets, placard in hand, chanting about democracy and wealth distribution and power, because I don’t know what else to do. I’m hoping that someone will figure that out before it’s too late, and I say that knowing that hope, just like putting faith in the state, is the antithesis of meaningful activism.

Reflections on a decade

I spent a long time thinking about what, if anything, I wanted to do on the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Both of the Ecuadorian families I’ve lived with have asked me about the attacks, have told me that they remember that day, that they watched it thinking how terrible and sad it was. I remember that morning with a combination of striking clarity and inexplicable haze. My dad had a business trip scheduled. He got to the airport, was told that all air traffic was grounded, came home and turned on the TV. I remember watching after the first plane hit, when no one was sure what was going on. I remember that I was watching when the second plane hit too, though reflecting on this now, I question the clarity of my memory, now a decade old. The second plane hit before 10am in New York, meaning I would have been up unusually early for school on the West Coast. Still, I remember seeing it, my dad sitting next to me, our whole family silent with disbelief. When the first tower fell, my dad sat shaking his head in his hands, murmuring, “Oh my god, oh my god…” I thought I saw tears in his eyes—to this day, the closest he’s ever come to crying in front of me.
I remember asking my parents if this was a Big Deal, thinking in my head that the events of this morning would come to define my generation, would be a story I would recount to children and grandchildren. I remember thinking I was the perfect age—old enough to understand what was happening, but young enough that someday, I would be part of a select group of really old people, the last generation alive when September 11 happened, and my great-grandchildren would come interview me for middle school history projects. After I had these thoughts, I remembered that people were dying and immediately felt guilty for thinking of posterity before human suffering. In the following years, I would feel validated in my predictions, proud that my ten-year old self understood politics and history well enough to grasp the significance of that moment. I would later sit alone in my room on March 17, 2003, crying silently after watching President Bush’s speech announcing the beginning of combat operations in Iraq. I thought about the bombs falling on Bagdad, and part of me wondered if we weren’t just re-creating the horrors of that September morning for another people in a far-away land.
Soon enough, Iraq faded to the back corners of my mind. I was, after all, in middle school. I was preoccupied with reading, gossip, depression, boys and environmental problems. I let my outrage on that night in March fade into the back of my head, alongside the sadness and gravity I felt on the morning of the attacks.
Since then, I’ve re-opened those emotions a handful of times. Junior year of high school, I did a project for my American history class on pro-war and patriotic songs, and spent a few hours watching and re-watching videos of the attacks set to music. I was transfixed by one in particular, set to the Requiem for a Dream score, which had video of the planet hitting the towers interspersed with photos of people jumping and falling from the burning buildings. What stuck in my head the most was the 911 call made by a man stuck in one of the towers seconds before it collapsed, the call that ends with him screaming, “Oh god!”, followed by the sound of debris falling, and then silence. I watched that video again and again in the name of “research”. I was transfixed. I thought about the people jumping and the man on the phone, imagined what must have gone through their heads. I cried and cried and cried. And then I became numb. After enough consecutive viewings, I couldn’t summon the horror, the sadness, the sense of connection. I compartmentalized, stopped caring. Eventually, I recognized that this wasn’t healthy. I stopped. I didn’t let myself think about it too much.
With all the buildup around the tenth anniversary, I thought about reliving that morning again. I read opinion pieces and commentary about the US’s reaction to the attacks, with several commentators on Al-Jazeera English arguing that the US should have chosen to prosecute the attacks as criminal acts, rather than giving the attackers what they wanted—a war based on ideology with no end in sight. I thought about readings for some of my classes, about discussions I’ve had with friends about the morality of pre-emptive war, about the way our culture fetishizes and immortalizes the victims of 9/11 while forgetting so many other who’ve died because of our foreign policies. I remembered reading Osama bin Laden’s Speech to the American People for my international politics class and feeling disturbed by the clarity of his logic, the legitimate grievances he cited against the American government. I thought about imperialism and Iraq and Afghanistan. I thought about anything but what actually happened on September 11. I didn’t want to go down that rabbit hole again. But then the TV in my house was on, and I ended up watching half an hour of an overly dramatic re-enactment of what happened inside the first tower on that morning, awkwardly dubbed in Spanish, with my host mom. I read a story about the forgotten victims of 9/11—the airport workers, the woman who checked in Mohammad Atta at Logan International Airport, the flight attendant who called in sick for American Flight 11 the night before. I thought once again about the human costs of that morning, the people who are still suffering, who will suffer for the rest of their lives. I wanted to cry, but couldn’t find it in myself. And I wondered why we feel compelled to do this every year, why as a nation we insist on re-opening old wounds every year in the name of remembrance.
So now here I am, once again picturing bodies falling from a flaming tower, silently thanking gods I don’t believe in that I have the option to walk away, largely unaffected, that I don’t know anyone in New York City, that no one in my family is a flight attendant. I want to honor the victims and remember them, but I’m not sure all the TV specials and longform stories are helping anyone heal. As an aspiring journalist, I’ve always believed fervently in the value of holding people’s eyes open, forcing them to look misery in the face and grapple with their inner demons. Now, I find myself wishing we would all close our eyes and say a prayer instead. I can’t help but feel that all this remembering and collective suffering is what begat our ill-fated foreign policy in the wake of the attacks. I can’t help but wish that we would stop picking at scabs, that we would learn to separate emotion from policy. I know that the feelings I had on the morning of those attacks is the most common ground I’ll ever have with so many Americans, and I wish so much that that could be different.
I wasn’t going to write anything about 9/11, because I didn’t think I had anything important to say. I still don’t think I do, it’s just that after thinking about that flight attendant calling in sick and the families of people who chose to jump, I have so much sadness and regret inside me that I had to get it out somehow. I feel guilty knowing how much emotion 9/11 can well up inside me, a feeling that the horrors we’ve inflicted in Iraq and Afghanistan will never hold a candle to. Mostly, I sit silently, still trying to decide if it’s ok to close my eyes when so many would keep them open, knowing that it does no good, knowing that it just keeps your heart aching for longer. I don’t know if I can cry anymore, so I pray instead, hoping that for something as important at this, God won’t mind that I’m an atheist. I pray for forgiveness, for healing, for remembering without reliving. And then, I pray once again to forget.

The politics behind language

Every Spanish-speaking country has its own linguistic idiosyncrasies, its own words that have filtered in from indigenous cultures, shared history and a dozen other small things that seem insignificant. As I’ve been learning Ecuador’s own particular breed of Spanish and re-learning vocabulary I’d forgotten, I’ve realized how much culture and politics shape language.

My first week working on the farm at Hacienda Ilitio, I was talking to Marcelo, the dad of the family that lives and works on the farm. I was trying to figure out the word for farmer, so I asked him what the word was for someone who works on a farm. He said it was trabajador (worker). I said no, specific for someone who works on a farm. He said empleado (employee). I tried again, and he said there weren’t any other words. There’s definitely a Spanish word for farmer. Several, in fact. But I realized that his answer was reflective of the history of agriculture in many Latin American countries, including Ecuador. Ecuadorian farm society has historically consisted of large landowners who control enormous plantations and have workers working under them. The American concept of a small-scale, self-sufficient, back-to-the-land sort of farmer doesn’t really exist here. “Farmers” in Ecuador are either giant, rich landowners (the bosses) or poor laborers who don’t own the land they cultivate.

Similarly, Ecuadorians don’t say <i<¿que? (what?) when asking someone to repeat something. Instead, they say ¿Mande?”, which is the third person command form of the verb mandar, to demand. I talked to Sebastian, the owner of Hacienda Ilitio, about this, and he said it goes back to the same agricultural system. Workers on giant plantations would say ¿Mande?” to their bosses when they didn’t hear them because it basically means, What did you want me to do? </i>

This week, I did a short (three day) homestay in Plaza Gutierrez, a tiny town in the middle of Intag, which is a cloud forest region to the north of Quito. I was explaining to my host mom that back in the States, I’m a cashier in a grocery store. I asked her what the word for someone who worker in a grocery store was, and she suggested vendedor (seller, with a connotation of someone having a degree of autonomy) or another word I don’t remember, which meant someone who owns/runs a small store. Again, there is a Spanish word for cashier that’s distinct from the ones she suggested. But in her mind, someone who sold food at a supermercado was one of those things. People who sell stuff in stores are sellers or store owners. They’re not cogs in a corporate wheel whose main job is to do math for the store and make sure things ring up properly.

Ecuadorian Spanish is also laced with words from Kichwa, the main indigenous language spoken by people here. Which means it’s very likely that I’ll travel to another country later and forget that saying “¡Ah chay chay!” to mean “it’s cold” wouldn’t be understood by anyone in another Spanish-speaking country. It’s a little frustrating knowing that you have to re-learn Spanish a bit every time you cross a border. But it’s also so cool to notice how much seemingly little things can shape a language.

Fixing grazing policies

This entry is part of my journal from Semester in the West. For all SITW journal entries, click here. For all SITW posts, including blog posts I wrote while on the program, click here. To learn more about the program, click here.

camp: Greenfire, Idaho
I think I know Jon Marvel is right, but I still can’t bring myself to agree with him. Subsidies as a matter of something I pay for have stopped bothering me. But Eric is right—a subsidy makes otherwise marginal land profitable, causing it to be ranched when it shouldn’t be. Ranching already has externalities, so theoretically it should be taxed. But taxes and subsidies get more complicated when the government is the one selling AUMs in the first place. And I don’t want to have to tell people their way of live isn’t viable. I’d rather kill a grassland than look Todd Nash in the eye and tell him the truth. What does that make me?
So maybe the solution is a gradual phase-out. Buy out willing ranchers, push for conservation easements, revoke corporate allotments (because who’s going to lose sleep over J.R. Simplot?) And I’ve just proposed the most politically infeasible solution since Carter tried to cut all those dams from the appropriations bill. But the gradual buy-out, maybe? Why is it so hard to get Congress to act when the economics are so clear? Ok, I know why, but I wish we had more fearlessness in Congress. More idealists—a critical mass so they wouldn’t have to sell out and swap favors to get anything done. More people like Alan Grayson. And god, I wish they would overturn Citizens United. But that won’t fix it. The system is inevitably going to work slowly and inefficiently and that’s ok. But not too stupidly. Maybe the 16thamendment was a bad idea. Maybe the people have too much power. But…grazing. I feel like smaller policy changes—fixing the tax incentives for conservation vs. ranching, allowing smaller cattle numbers to be run, retiring willing allotments—would help speed up a seemingly inevitable tide. Ranchers are growing old and getting out. And I don’t want to see the lifestyle go away, but it doesn’t make sense—economically or environmentally—in the West. Cows should stay east of the 100th meridian and all of us should probably eat less beef.