CONTEXT OF IMMIGRATION
In 2012, President Barack Obama published an executive branch memorandum which authorized persons, specifically children, who were brought into the United States through no fault of their own. The memorandum titled “Exercising Prosecutorial Discretion with Respect to Individuals Who Came to the United States as Children” was issued within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security led by Secretary Janet Napolitano. This memorandum provided a new label to these men and women as DACA Recipients who arrived in this country under the age of sixteen, who have lived in the country for five years without break, and not above the age of thirty years old. Two years later, President Obama chose to expand his memorandum to include any persons who did not access the legal means for immigration. During this same presidential administration of issuing the memorandum and expansion of DACA, the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (USICE) reported 409,849 persons were deported during FY 2012, 368,644 persons deported in FY2013, and 577,295 persons deported in FY2014. The USICE department was clear in each instance deportation was related to crimes committed by these persons.
In 2015, Donald J. Trump a Presidential candidate for the United States announced, “I would build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me. I’ll build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I’ll have Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.” As we all know, Donald Trump became President in November 2016 by winning the electoral vote over Democratic Presidential Candidate Hillary R. Clinton. Since his presidency, President Trump has offered much commentary in the form of tweets and interviews concerning immigration. A fair summary of his comments is his focus on what he identifies as the murders, drug dealers, and sex traffickers coming across the border.
Our current context and perspective on immigration and those persons who have specifically arrived here through means other than the Congressionally mandated process falls in to one of two descriptions, illegal or undocumented. If one possesses a strict understanding of immigration as a violation of federal law a description of these persons leads with the designation of “illegal” immigrant. Whereas, those persons who are strictly focused on the human needs and situations of these persons use the descriptor of “undocumented” immigrants. Where a person starts offers an insight on what policies he or she favors.
Finally, to conclude the context in which we exist regarding immigration and how it relates to the state of Arkansas, let's turn briefly to sanctuary cities. A sanctuary city refers to any municipality which limits through ordinance, resolutions, proclamation, or policy its cooperation with federal authorities charged with immigration enforcement. The Center for Immigration Studies, which is nonpartisan, reports the following cities, counties, and states which possess this identification: states (8), counties (143), and cities (34). The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) in 2018 reported a more extensive number of sanctuary jurisdictions at 564. FAIR reported sanctuaries grew from 11 during the presidency of George W. Bush in 2000 to 40 sanctuaries during the presidency of Barack Obama to 338 sanctuaries in 2016 and 564 sanctuaries in 2018 during the current presidency of Donald Trump. This is an increase of 5,000% over an eighteen year period.
THE ARKANSAS PAST
In 1868, the Arkansas Legislature debated passage of a law which would give Negroes the opportunity to participate in the voting process. During the debate, J.N. Cypert of Searcy located in White County, gave testimony against the enfranchisement of Negroes -supported by Republicans - on the basis of racial characteristics in comparison to Caucasians. Mr. Cypert stated, “They(Negroes) pick up more quickly whatever knowledge reaches the child through the natural organs of sight and hearing. But the mind of the Caucasian race expands, looks to the future; it leaves edifices behind it, it builds governments and kingdoms, it rears structures that stand forever as monuments of the race. When was that ever done by the African? I mean, the negro” In this discussion of citizenship and suffrage, Mr. Grey, a Black man of Phillips County rose up as representative of the freed persons in Arkansas. His response was multifaceted as he addressed the determination of citizenship among African descendants, the intelligence of poor Whites, and what he perceived as the inevitability of Negroes gaining citizenship and suffrage. Mr. Grey addressed the racism of Mr. Cypert,
“Settle once and forever the question of human rights, by giving us equality before the law.
Then, and not till then will peace come to our borders. I have no antipathy against the white people of this country, and am not surprised at their strenuous opposition. But time has a softening influence on all human prejudices. I am willing to forget the past, and to wrap the winding-sheet of oblivion over the sod that contains the bones of my wronged and oppressed ancestors…Give us the franchise, the right to protect ourselves, our wives, and children, and we are content”(p.159).
Is this what we saw and heard this week coming from the 92nd General Assembly? Are one group of people described with such racial antipathy?
THE ARKANSAS PRESENT
The 92nd General Assembly of Arkansas concluded this week. During the state legislature, Senator Gary Stubblefield introduced SB411, “An Act To Prohibit Municipal Sanctuary Policies.” The bill was introduced February 26, 2019, passed out of the City, County, and Local Affairs Committee on April 3, 2019, passed out of the Senate on April 5, 2019 with a vote of Yeas (24) , Nays(5), Nonvoting (5), and Excused (1). SB411 was then referred to the House Committee of the same name and passed out of committee on April 9, 2019, and passed out of the full house on April 10, 2019 with a vote of Yeas (71), Nays (24), Nonvoting (4), and Present (1). SB411 awaits Governor Asa Hutchinson signature.
The question I have for myself and for Arkansas is the following, “Was the SB411 rooted in racism similar to the opposition of Black citizenship and suffrage in Arkansas post-Reconstruction? Did politicians in the Arkansas Senate and/or House express racist thoughts and intentions regarding immigrants in Arkansas?”
Reviewing testimony on SB411 from the House and Senate which you can review much can be learned from the testimony and questions of the participants. During the House City, County, and Local Committee Hearing, SB411 sponsor Senator Stubblefield opened his testimony to address the bill’s foundation involved following the law and not discrimination against a particular ethnic group. Senator Stubblefield outlined three important elements of the bill to include sanctuary policies preventing law enforcement from protecting citizens, fulfilling oaths, and defying federal laws. Being consistent with his starting point of the legality of the immigration process, he did seek to justify his bill by appealing to crimes committed by persons who are identified as “illegal” as a need for this bill. Finally, Senator Stubblefield addressed all are immigrants, he believes the process should be followed, and welcomes all people.
In the Senate testimony, racial profiling was mentioned multiple times. Racial profiling involves targeting persons on the basis of racial characteristics, rather than an individual behavior. Those who were against SB411 made allusions to the state being racially insensitive or not a welcoming a place for entrepreneurial persons who are immigrants. In the same Senate testimony, those who supported SB411 proceeded from a law enforcement perspective. Therefore, in both the Senate and House Committees groups supported and opposed SB411 spoke passionately, clearly, and offered facts and anecdotes to support positions.
ARKANSAS MOVING FORWARD
It is very important we as Arkansans not repeat the mistakes of our past. The Arkansas Legislature post-Reconstruction testified with racially charged language consistent with the culture of the defeated Confederacy. I would hope to believe the state of Arkansas has matured from that period, matured from its failures under Faubus and the Little Rock Nine, to a point in which its capital city is led by a Black Mayor. When the charge of racism is leveled against a person or group-without fact- instead of engaging with the substance of an argument the opportunity for learning diminishes. To announce someone’s thoughts, policies, or legislation as racist resurrects horrible periods of our history to include lynchings, cross burnings, and segregated schools.
There is much we need to learn from each other regarding immigration. On both sides of this important debate are men and women who are talking past one another, placing important value in what it means to be a citizen, and desire to see persons have a new opportunity. Somewhere in the middle is the solution and we can only arrive at these solutions if we engage in honest and humanizing discussion. Clear or veiled charges of racism will only cause persons to double down on a position. Characterizing a group of people only in terms of legality, not their humanity, causes persons to double down on a position reinforcing a bias which may in fact may not be true.
I have served Arkansas immigrants for the last twelve years in my nonprofit work. These men and women have hailed from many backgrounds. I understand the perspective of those who advocate from the undocumented perspective. At the same time, I have sought to understand the perspective of those who hold the illegal perspective. There is a sincere desire for persons to abide by the law. Which is equally necessary in order to protect the humanity of all regardless of citizenship.
I hope better things for our state and our nation. I hope we see the progress we have made and at the same time recognize the work before us. Arkansas has the potential to be a great house and it will take all of us to recognize who we are as humans, agree to standards which protect this great house, and continue to create opportunities for all of us to flourish as Arkansans.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
8 Debates and Proceedings of the Convention which Assembled in Little Rock January 7, 1868, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=coo1.ark:/13960/t6sx6w64j;view=2up;seq=160;size=125 (p.151)
9 Ibid., p.159
I had a naive optimism when the election had completed in November a fresh wave of people would be elected and prepare themselves to act as waiters to serve our country. I had believed what would arrive at the dinner tables of America would be glasses filled with civility and we would all enjoy a meal which was to arrive at the beginning of 2019.
Needless to say, I was disturbed by what was brought to our tables. What we received was more of the same language and anger which has been characteristic of our nation since President Obama’s executive leadership. What do you say when a newly elected congresswoman calls President Trump, “motherfucker?” The response was reminiscent of my children when they were younger. “Well he did it first!”
The context of our nation’s uncommon decency did not begin in January 2017. Yes the executive leader of these United States demonstrates a lack of decorum in terms of language, a combative tone with those who would challenge his most off the wall statements, and an incessant penchant to tweet. This uncommon decency which washes over our country did not flow initially from President Trump but has been flowing out of the hearts of many persons regardless of party affiliation, ethnic community, or religious commitment. A Pew Research Study (Dimock, Kiley, Keeter, & Doherty, 2014) examined how uniformity along political ideology increased in a twenty year period between 1994 and 2014. The study sadly points to an increasing adversarial sentiment in which 38% of Democrats had very unfavorable views of Republicans, while 43% of Republicans had very unfavorable views of those holding Democratic positions. Therefore, the incivility we are experiencing has been growing through Democratic and Republican presidencies. Presidencies which have experienced impeachment, unfavorable wars, accusations of Islamic influence, and now Russian influence. President Trump is not the source but a symptom.
Sadly, these two parties have positioned themselves to dominate the public square, pitting family members, co-workers, and even persons of the same religious affiliation against one another. In the same period of 1994-2014, we also saw the rise of social media. Facebook launched in 2004 essentially eclipsing the outmoded Myspace. Two years later, Twitter and its 140 characters-now 280- would also position itself as a significant communication tool which the current President uses with fervor. The public square has now moved to the technological square where persons can hide on a phone or behind a computer screen communicating some of the most damning, damaging, and dehumanizing content without fear of reprisal.
We are all accountable for the lack of decency. This lack of decency pervades our communication devices and finds embodiment in those who position themselves as our elected leaders, whether political office or religious office. If we have arrived at this place because of our collective efforts, then it requires we as a people lay hands on the future to secure a common decency for our posterity.
Noam Chomsky, crafted an article entitled, “Humanity Imperiled: The Path to Disaster” in June 2013. In this article Dr. Chomsky examined the future of humanity considering if our path to disaster would be through ecological destruction or the penultimate of nuclear destruction. I would propose that these paths are chosen only if we continue to demonstrate an uncommon decency towards one another. If we are not willing to galvanize as peacemakers to claim decency towards one another, how much easier it is to devastate our soil or the soil of another nation for monetary gain or claims of democracy? A lack of common decency willing to dehumanize persons on social media is a slow steady descent towards more conflict, more war, and the most devastating event, mushroom clouds.
Imagine how a cup of common decency can be just what we need to stop a great dinner from becoming a food fight. We just need the waiters willing to serve.
Self-reflection has become a critical personal discipline for my life. This practice offers me the opportunity to examine actions I have taken, words spoken, and thoughts I have meditated on throughout the year. Self-reflection is a humbling practice as it allows an individual to face him or herself.
I think we are all in need of a little bit of self-reflection during this period of our societal history. We are not as holy as we make ourselves out to be on a daily basis. We are not as just and merciful to others as we would want others to be with our own actions and words. We are not as civil as we think we are in the 21st Century America.
What a strange word.
This word invokes images of peaceful interactions between persons. Persons who have equally chosen to place themselves in positions in which there are no religious, social, political, or economic hierarchies. I imagine civility as the embodiment of two human beings on a journey of questioning, discovery, and understanding.
Civility should produce friends.
Then I realized something. In order for civility to be embodied in human beings it necessitates the acknowledgement of a human being’s personhood. Rufus Burrow identifies a zeitgeist or spirit of the age in which persons are not appropriately given the consideration of their inherent worth. If I am not willing to acknowledge the dignity of the person with whom I am engaging within a form of communication the result will not be beneficial to either of us. If I desire to see civility I have to do something different.
As I reflect on this past year, I worked hard to provide a platform for people, primarily on social media, to discuss topics of race, poverty, and other social issues. Sometimes the topics went very well while other times I just shook my head and chose to delete the whole interaction. I realized I was contributing to the incivility I was seeking to reduce.
Breath changes people.
When a person feels, touches, and sees another person the opportunity for change is possible. That is what happened to John and his friends in first century Palestine with a Jewish Rabbi who embodied the breath of God. Social media is a poor platform for interaction because people are not face to face. Our ability to feel appropriately, touch a hand, and see facial expressions are significantly hindered. Social media many times creates opportunities for persons to diminish themselves through disrespectful and dehumanizing comments which prevent any type of meaningful engagement, discovery, and understanding. I have observed even the most encouraging statement can descend into ugliness.
So now as 2019 approaches I need to exhale in the presence of other living persons. I want people to recapture the power and beauty of inspiration through the virtue of human presence.
Noam Chomsky stated “freedom produces opportunity and culminates in responsibility.” I have a responsibility to people in the area in which I live to cultivate civility. Why? (Only God knows.) Whatever the case, I understand my small platform and will pursue opportunities to advance the dignity of persons.
What will this look like?
Join me for self-reflection, civility, and the opportunity to experience the breath of another human being.