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Voyage of the S.S. St. Louis

Everything old is new again.

Please bear the following facts in mind.

If you and your family are trying to escape the Chinese government’s coercive population control policies — if, for example, you are a man, and your wife has been forced into an abortion by threats or violence from the government, and even if you, yourself, have been threatened with government-forced sterilization; or if you are a woman, and you have been forced into an abortion by the government, but you don’t want to be forced to live apart from your life partner — if, that is, either you or your life partner has been held down, under threat of violence, and had your reproductive organs cut into, against your will, by order of the State, and it’s perfectly likely to happen to you again if you go on living in China — well, then, I’m sorry, but that just isn’t a good enough reason for the United States government to consider you and your family Officially Persecuted by the Chinese government, and thus not enough for them to get out of your way and leave you alone to live your life peacefully within the borders that the U.S. government claims the right to fortify. They are especially unlikely to consider your persecution important enough to merit asylum if the Chinese government, as part of those same population control policies, refuses to write down a legal record of your marriage to the man or woman that you wed years ago and have lived with ever since. In fact a panel of comfortable American judges will sneer down at you, from their politico-moral high ground, that legal marriage reflects a sanctity and long-term commitment that other forms of cohabitation simply do not. Your actual, real-life marriage doesn’t count, because the government that is persecuting you won’t recognize it. Your suffering and the violation of your body, or your spouse’s body, by a violent government, don’t matter to this government, because it won’t count them as real persecution. So instead of leaving you alone, this government will roust you up out of your new home, and march you out at bayonet-point, and ship you out of the country, back to the tormentors in China who you risked everything to escape.

If you are a woman from the Republic of Guinea, and, when you were a child, you were held down and had your clitoris cut out with a knife, without anesthesia, and if, after being forced to suffer this painful and traumatizing mutilation of your body, you make a deliberate decision to get out of the country, perhaps because it hurt you, and perhaps because the effects still hurt you, and perhaps because you didn’t want it and now you just can’t stand to live in the place where it was done to you, and perhaps because you don’t want your daughters to be forced into the same thing — well, I’m sorry, but according to the United States Department of Homeland Security and the United States Department of Justice [sic], that just isn’t a good enough reason to consider you Officially Persecuted in Guinea, and thus not enough reason for them to get out of your way and leave you alone to live your life peacefully within the borders that the U.S. government claims the right to fortify. Because, hey, you’re damaged goods now and you don’t have any clitorises left for them to cut out. Your suffering and the violation of your body, by certain violent members of your community, don’t matter to them, because it won’t count them as real persecution. So instead of leaving you alone, this government will roust you up out of your new home, and march you out at bayonet-point, and ship you out of the country, back to the tormentors in Guinea who you risked everything to escape.

If you and your family are from Iraq, and, because of the crushing poverty and the tremendous danger to your life and limb which you face — due to the United States government’s own war and bombing and occupation in Iraq; or due to threats from the government-backed and freelance ethnic-cleansing death squads, which have flourished under that occupation; or due to the crossfire in the endless battles between the United States government’s occupying forces and Iraqi insurgents — if, because of all that, you are one of the 2.5 million Iraqis who have fled the country in order to try to find a new home (either temporarily or permanently) where you can live your life free of fear and starvation and unspeakable daily violence, and now you find yourself stuck — like 2.4 million of your fellow Iraqis — in some hellhole refugee camp or urban ghetto in neighboring countries like Syria or Jordan, where conditions are awful, where you are surrounded by suffering, where you cannot legally work for pay and have little or nothing to do other than take hand-outs and fill out paperwork for UNHCR, while you watch your life savings drain away in the effort to keep yourself alive for a few more months while you wait, and wait, and wait, and if you don’t happen to be one of the 500 people per year who are eligible for Special Immigration Visas in return for collaborating with the U.S. government’s occupying forces in Iraq, and you don’t happen to be one of the quota of only a few thousand Iraqi refugees that the U.S. government has agreed to accept each year — well, then, I’m sorry, but according the United States government that just isn’t a good enough reason to get out of your way and leave you alone to travel to the United States and live your life peacefully within the borders that the United States government claims the right to fortify. Your suffering, and the danger to your life or the lives of your loved ones, by any one of the countless armies and armed factions rampaging through Iraq, don’t matter enough to them for them to reconsider their immigration quota policy. So this government will keep you penned up in your hellhole ghetto, where you can die for all they care, or, if you somehow get to America, this government will march you out at bayonet-point, and ship you out of the country, back to the ghetto conditions or to the tormentors in Iraq who you risked everything to escape.

This is life, such as it is, under government immigration controls. It is life as it always will be, as long as politicians and bureaucrats have the power to pick and choose whose reasons for wanting to cross an arbitrary line on a map are good enough, and whose are not.

But it is criminal that there is even one single refugee in this world who cannot immediately find asylum and a chance to make a new life and a new home for herself in a new country.

It is inexcusable that, in the name of the ethno-political system of international apartheid, the governments of the world continue to collaborate in violence against women, in forced starvation, and in ethnic cleansing, by forcing peaceful women and men into refugee ghettoes or, worse, by forcing peaceful women and men back into the maws of the very governments or violent factions who intend to devour them.

It is obscene that a bunch of politicians and unaccountable bureaucrats from the United Nations or the U.S. government would be invested with the power to sit in judgment, from their comfortable offices, on the most marginalized, the most exploited, and the most oppressed people in the world, so that they put all their conventional prejudices and political blinders to work in picking and choosing whose suffering should count as real, in the eyes of the governments of the world, or whose suffering, if acknowledged as real by the government, is important enough to let them into a tiny quota that the government will allow to cross an arbitrary line on a map.

The S.S. St. Louis still sails the seas today, a ghost ship with ghost passengers, without rest and without safe harbor. It will haunt the world forever, as long as this system of international apartheid is enforced.

And all for what? To avoid the voluntary co-mingling of people from different countries? To ensure that the people of the world hear only one language, live and work with people of only one nationality, remain segregated, either by penning them up in their government-appointed place or else by making sure you can monitor all their movements according to a government-created system of passbooks and minders? The idea would be laughable if not for all the ghosts–the ghosts of millions upon millions of real, living, irreplaceable and unique individual people, who were turned back, ruined, persecuted, mutilated, tortured, starved, and murdered for the sake of that idea.

There is another way. A way in which the living can finally live, and the dead can finally rest, in peace. But that other can only become a reality when people are free to move from one place to another, and their reasons, their suffering, and their lives cannot be measured and found wanting by entitled strangers with the power to turn them back and force them back to the tormenters that they risked everything to escape. It can, that is to say, only become a reality with the immediate, unconditional, and complete abolition of all government border controls, and with universal amnesty for all currently undocumented immigrants.

There's no room for compromise or moderation in the politics of immigration when real people's bodies and real people’s lives are hanging in the balance. As they are all over the world today.

See also:

Well, thank God #6: Raed Jarrar and ostensive definitions

Posting has been light lately thanks to a combination of moving to a new apartment, catching up on backlogged academic writing, and having to wait until September for my Internet access to be set up at home. I have been coping by catching some Internet time through the local library’s WiFi and by playing a lot of Tetris. While I’ve been away, though, our august State has certainly been busy Securing the Homeland. Consider, for example, the case of Iraqi-American architect Raed Jarrar:

The next day, I went to JFK in the morning to catch my Jet Blue plane to California. I reached Terminal 6 at around 7:15 am, issued a boarding pass, and checked all my bags in, and then walked to the security checkpoint. For the first time in my life, I was taken to a secondary search . My shoes were searched, and I was asked for my boarding pass and ID. After passing the security, I walked to check where gate 16 was, then I went to get something to eat. I got some cheese and grapes with some orange juice and I went back to Gate 16 and sat down in the boarding area enjoying my breakfast and some sunshine.

At around 8:30, two men approached me while I was checking my phone. One of them asked me if I had a minute and he showed me his badge, I said: sure. We walked some few steps and stood in front of the boarding counter where I found out that they were accompanied by another person, a woman from Jet Blue.

One of the two men who approached me first, Inspector Harris, asked for my id card and boarding pass. I gave him my boarding pass and driver’s license. He said people are feeling offended because of your t-shirt. I looked at my t-shirt: I was wearing my shirt which states in both Arabic and English we will not be silent. You can take a look at it in this picture taken during our Jordan meetings with Iraqi MPs. I said I am very sorry if I offended anyone, I didnt know that this t-shirt will be offensive. He asked me if I had any other T-shirts to put on, and I told him that I had checked in all of my bags and I asked him why do you want me to take off my t-shirt? Isn’t it my constitutional right to express myself in this way? The second man in a greenish suit interfered and said people here in the US don’t understand these things about constitutional rights. So I answered him I live in the US, and I understand it is my right to wear this t-shirt.

Then I once again asked the three of them : How come you are asking me to change my t-shirt? Isn’t this my constitutional right to wear it? I am ready to change it if you tell me why I should. Do you have an order against Arabic t-shirts? Is there such a law against Arabic script? so inspector Harris answered you can’t wear a t-shirt with Arabic script and come to an airport. It is like wearing a t-shirt that reads I am a robber and going to a bank. I said but the message on my t-shirt is not offensive, it just says we will not be silent. I got this t-shirt from Washington DC. There are more than a 1000 t-shirts printed with the same slogan, you can google them or email them at wewillnotbesilent@gmail.com . It is printed in many other languages: Arabic, Farsi, Spanish, English, etc. Inspector Harris said: We cant make sure that your t-shirt means we will not be silent, we don’t have a translator. Maybe it means something else. I said: But as you can see, the statement is in both Arabic and English. He said maybe it is not the same message. So based on the fact that Jet Blue doesn’t have a translator, anything in Arabic is suspicious because maybe it’ll mean something bad!

Meanwhile, a third man walked in our direction. He stood with us without introducing himself, and he looked at inspector Harris’s notes and asks him: is that his information?, inspector Harris answered yes. The third man, Mr. Harmon, asks inspector Harris : can I copy this information?, and inspector Harris says yes, sure.

inspector Harris said: You don’t have to take of your t-shirt, just put it on inside-out. I refused to put on my shirt inside-out. So the woman interfered and said let’s reach a compromise. I will buy you a new t-shirt and you can put it on on top of this one. I said I want to keep this t-shirt on. Both inspector Harris and Mr. Harmon said No, we can’t let you get on that airplane with your t-shirt. I said I am ready to put on another t-shirt if you tell me what is the law that requires such a thing. I want to talk to your supervisor. Inspector Harris said You don’t have to talk to anyone. Many people called and complained about your t-shirt. Jetblue customers were calling before you reached the checkpoint, and costumers called when you were waiting here in the boarding area.

it was then that I realized that my t-shirt was the reason why I had been taken to the secondary checking.

I asked the four people again to let me talk to any supervisor, and they refused.

The Jet Blue woman was asking me again to end this problem by just putting on a new t-shirt, and I felt threatened by Mr. Harmon’s remarks as in Let’s end this the nice way. Taking in consideration what happens to other Arabs and Muslims in US airports, and realizing that I will miss my flight unless I covered the Arabic script on my t-shirt as I was told by the four agents, I asked the Jet Blue woman to buy me a t-shirt and I said I don’t want to miss my flight.

… The woman went away for 3 minutes, and she came back with a gray t-shirt reading new york. I put the t-shirt on and removed the price tag. I told the four people who were involved in the conversation: I feel very sad that my personal freedom was taken away like this. I grew up under authoritarian governments in the Middle East, and one of the reasons I chose to move to the US was that I don’t want an officer to make me change my t-shirt. I will pursue this incident today through a Constitutional rights organization, and I am sure we will meet soon. Everyone said okay and left, and I went back to my seat.

— Raed in the Middle (2006-08-10): back from the mideast

Well, thank God, says I. If government spooks didn’t partner with corporate pencil-pushers then who would protect white American airline customers from men wearing t-shirts with offensive scripts that they can’t read in languages they don’t understand? What Raed didn’t realize is that Homeland Security had to be on the look-out for Arab-American men wearing a shirt saying We Will Not Be Silent, because it has a compelling State interest in providing the tax-paying public with an ostensive definition of irony.

Incidentally, I am now taking bets on how quickly all those Red Staters and professional blowhards who spent the past couple decades railing against restrictions on offensive speech and against the culture of enforced sensitivity will be rushing to Raed Jarrar’s defense.

Good night, and good luck.

Further reading:

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