Famous Faces

Barack Obama, by Shepard Fairey
Barack Obama, by Shepard Fairey
Congressman John Lewis, by Michael Shane Neal
Congressman John Lewis, by Michael Shane Neal
Lily Tomlin, by Annie Leibowitz
Lily Tomlin, by Annie Leibowitz
Rosalynn Carter, by Rosalind Fox Solomon
Rosalynn Carter, by Rosalind Fox Solomon
The Return to Aztlan, Cesar Chavez, by Alfredo Arreguin
The Return to Aztlan, Cesar Chavez (with MIguel Hidalgo, Jose Maria Morelos and Dolores Huerta), by Alfredo Arreguin
Russell Means, by Andy Warhol
Russell Means, by Andy Warhol
Betty Friedan, by Aiice Maurkin
Betty Friedan, by Aiice Maurkin
Frederick Douglass, by George Kendall Warren
Frederick Douglass, by George Kendall Warren
Abraham Lincoln, by George Peter Alexander Healy
Abraham Lincoln, by George Peter Alexander Healy
Thomas Jefferson, by Charles Bird King
Thomas Jefferson, by Charles Bird King
Stuart's Red, White and Blue George Washington, by Sante Graziani
Stuart’s Red, White and Blue George Washington, by Sante Graziani
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Wildflower Sculpture Park

The Wildflower Sculpture Park sits on a modest stretch of open space in between the South Mountain Reservation Dog Park and the parking lot. I’ve rushed past hardly noticing being pulled by my dog, anxious to run and play in the enclosure. But when I did stop to take a look I found some pretty interesting works made by artists using all sorts of materials, even coat hangers.

The sculpture park was opened in 2012 by the South Mountain Conservancy. It got its name from the nearby Wildflower Preserve. There are a number of permanent works and four new pieces are added each year. South Mountain Reservation is an Essex County, N.J., park.

Catamount, Wendy Klemperer, salvaged steel
Catamount, Wendy Klemperer, salvaged steel
Almost, Lisa Sanders, bronze
Almost, Lisa Sanders, bronze
Wave, Baker Allen
Wave, Baker Allen, aluminum and steel (that’s the dog park in the background)
South Mountain Bird Tower, Ben Pranger, concrete and steel
South Mountain Bird Tower, Ben Pranger, concrete and steel
The Essex Column, Eric Beckerich
The Essex Column, Eric Beckerich
Flying Canoe, Harry H. Gordon, black granite
Flying Canoe, Harry H. Gordon, black granite

New in 2021

Sprore, Oki Fukunaga, coat hangers
Sprore, Oki Fukunaga, coat hangers
Spring, Christopher Spath, granite and glass
Spring, Christopher Spath, granite and glass
Ascend, Lee Tribe, steel and paint
Ascend, Lee Tribe, steel and paint

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2021 Movies Reviewed in Five Words or Less

The Best

Power of the Dog — intense and engaging with surprises

Belfast — great story, humanity transcends politics

Summer of Soul — joyous performances, best music doc

Jockey — a tough life, brilliantly filmed

Pretty good

A Hero — not really, just misperception

The Worst Person in the World — not really, just being independent

Drive My Car — long, slow and deeply thoughtful

Passing — true to novel, well acted

Julia — one of a kind, appetizing

Not So Bad

House of Gucci — imperfect but holds your interest

Spencer — a one-note song

Velvet Underground — more music please

The Lost Daughter — uncomfortable flashbacks and bad mothering

A Time to Die — standard all-action Bond unreality

The Many Saints of Newark — not on par with Sopranos

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain — barely remember it

Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn — weird, explicit, timely and interesting

Not So Good

The French Dispatch — starts fast, fades faster


Being the Ricardos — a disappointingly unconvincing Lucy

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The Best Books I Read in 2021

First of all, the usual disclaimer. These books may or may not have been written or published in 2021 (most weren’t). I just happened to read them this past year. They are roughly in order, starting with the best.

Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens

Where the Crawdads Sing cover

Where the Crawdads Sing is a love story. A crime story. A coming of age saga. A courtroom drama. And a celebration of nature. It is an emotional, engaging, amazing novel that I ripped through.

It is about the life of Kya Clark. She lives in the marshlands of North Carolina in a town called Barkley Cove. Her mother walks out on the family when she is ten. She had four siblings but they all walked as well, the result of an abusive, violent father. The old man eventually disappears as well. Kya is left to fend for herself with only a ramshackle shack and a small boat at her disposal. She collects shells and feathers, feeds the gulls, keeps herself alive by harvesting and selling muscles and stays one step ahead of the truant officer and anybody else who tries to find her in the woods.

There are other characters. Chase Andrews is at one end of the socioeconomic ladder of Barkley Cove, son of the owners of the Western Auto store and star quarterback of the high school football team. At the other end is a black man known as ‘Jumpin’ who runs the marsh equivalent of a gas station convenience store in a section of town called ‘Colored Town.’

To say too much more about the plot or the characters involved would spoil a novel that provides a surprise at every turn. There are philosophical questions the book raises about how coming together with nature affects an individual’s desire and need for human interaction.

The author has a PhD in animal behavior. She is an award-winning nature writer having previously published books about wildlife and ecology. Add brilliant novelist to her credentials.

How Beautiful We Were, Imbolo Mbue

How Beautiful We Were cover

A great novel! The story of a small African village that sits atop a reservoir of oil and how an American oil company, complicit with the local government, befouled the air, poisoned the water and laid barren the land.

That’s not a new story but this is. It is written not just from the standpoint of the villagers but within the context of their world as they see it. This is a land where in one lifetime, slave traders came and seized them. In another lifetime, a rubber plantation enslaved them to work on their own land. And now they are free, free to watch their children die from the toxic environment.

This is a story of how they fight back. The people of the fictional land of Kosawa have no education, no resources and only machetes to face off with guns. What they have is guile and resolve. And a leader, an extraordinary woman whose life story unfolds as part of this tale.

The “we” in How Beautiful We Were is the villagers. The “were” is about a way of living with no future. Kosawa has medicine men and spirits. The villagers can seem superstitious. They can seem wise. They are indeed beautiful.

Shuggie Bain, Douglas Stuart

Shuggie Bain cover

Shuggie Bain grows up amidst poverty, domestic violence, alcoholism, and bullying. He lives in government housing in a mine town where the mine is closing up shop. The neighborhood is so bad the neighbors ridicule Shuggie and his desperate, alcoholic mother Agnes as being posh. It’s 1980’s Scotland. You’re Celtic or Rangers. Protestant or Catholic.

If you’re looking for a story of peace, love and understanding, this is not the book for you. It is the definition of gritty. Hopelessness is another word that comes to mind. Shuggie gets routinely kicked around in the schoolyard. Agnes gets kicked around by just about every man she encounters.

There are two central themes. One is alcoholism and it’s brutal. If you think you drink too much, read this. You’ll probably quit. The other is the relationship between Shuggie and his mother. While somewhat short of heartwarming, it perseveres.

This is a terrific novel that deserves all the praise it has gotten. It is partly written in a working class Scottish dialect which helps create the atmosphere. (Children are weans, as in wee ones.) There are no heroes in this story. Just a lot of humans. 

Boom Town, Sam Anderson

Boom Town cover

It’s hard to explain why I bought a book about a city that I have no connection with, had no particular interest in and that I only really expected to flyover. But I’m glad I did.

Boom Town is simultaneously a snapshot of Oklahoma City in 2013 and a history of what Anderson calls “one of the great weirdo cities of the world.” Oklahoma City was started with a “Land Run.” What’s a land run? It’s when a collection of settlers, prospectors and opportunists gather near the train tracks and, at the sound of a bugle, hustle out to lay stake to a piece of land, dry, windy and sweltering though it may be. Somehow that land run seems to explain so much of what would happen over the course of the city’s history.

Boom Town really booms and busts. Most of the booms have something to do with the oil industry. Some of the busts do too, though there’s also the grandiose and failed plans of various municipal officials, like the urban renewal project that ended up turning most of downtown into a parking lot.

There is a rich history of characters. Wayne Coyne, the lead singer of the rock band Flaming LIps, once organized a paint bucket brigade to walk through the streets of the city with leaking paint cans of every color of the rainbow. Clara Luper was a history teacher who with her 15-year old students sat in at every eating establishment in the city until, one by one, she had almost single-handedly ended segregation in Oklahoma City. For some 20 years, the town planner was a transplanted Australian who bemoaned the fact that to Oklahomans, something as simple as zoning laws was considered communism.

This is also a place where black soldiers heading off to World War I carried signs saying “please don’t lynch our relatives while we’re gone.”

There’s also a whole lot of basketball in this story, specifically the Oklahoma City Thunder. For a city with an inferiority complex, a city that feels a desperate need to prove it is major league, the town’s only big time professional sports team has a level of importance beyond what you will find in most places.

Anderson also has penned a stunning and heartbreaking description of the 1995 bombing of the government complex. It is not something I’ll soon forget.

“I had come to believe in Oklahoma City as a radical experiment in something– an expression of American democracy or American foolishness,” Anderson says. Whatever, this is a well-written and interesting book. You never know, I might end up booking a trip to Oklahoma City after all.

The Falcon Thief, Joshua Hammer

The Falcon Thief cover

In May of 2010 at an airport in Birmingham, England, a janitor alerts security to a man who has been in the shower of an airport lounge for 20 minutes without ever turning the water on. Counter-terrorism officers corral Jeffrey Lendrum and when they force him to take his shirt off they find eggs rapped in socks taped to his midsection. A call goes out to Andy McWilliam of the National Wildlife Crime Unit who heads to the airport where he identifies the eggs as those of the rare and endangered peregrine falcon. Lendrum is arrested. He will be prosecuted, found guilty and jailed.

The Falcon Thief is the story of these two men and how they got to this moment. Lendrum is from a part of Zimbabwe which when he grew up was called Southern Rhodesia. Even as a boy, Lendrum was climbing trees and stealing eggs out of birds’ nests. As an adult he has a checkered career that flirted above and below the line of legality. He tried various hustles like selling aircraft parts and importing African crafts to England. But where he saw his money was in poaching the eggs of raptors. He did this in Europe, in Africa, in Canada, in Brazil. We read of his exploits in the Canadian north climbing down a rope dangling from a helicopter to reach falcon nests on the side of cliffs.

McWilliam is a career law enforcement agent. After 31 years as a cop in Merseyside, he decided to make a change and would become part of the National Wildlife Crime Unit when it was launched in 2006. McWilliam would go on to have a noteworthy career uncovering egg collectors, rhino horn robbers, badger baiters and various other enemies of wildlife.

The third part of the puzzle is more of a mystery. Who makes this a potentially lucrative venture? The money comes from rich Arab sheikhs, who at one time courted birds of prey for hunting parties, but after nearly driving the prey extinct, became obsessed instead with raptor races. Convinced that wild birds would be faster and more aggressive than any they could breed, they were the bankrollers of Lendrum and presumably others’ operations.

This is a meticulously researched story, told with enough detail to make any detective envious. It uncovers a world that most of us don’t know too much about, making it all the more interesting.

The story doesn’t really end with the Birmingham arrest. I don’t think it spoils the book to say that the aftermath of that incident suggests that this kind of egg poaching is not just an obsession but maybe even an addiction.


The Best Books I Read in 2020

The Best Books I Read in 2019

The Best Books I Read in 2018

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Operation Sojourner: Spies in the Pews

“PIlar Martinez, a Catholic lay worker in El Salvador, accompanied Archbishop Oscar Romero to the chapel where he was murdered in 1980. She later worked with Jean Donovan, one of the four American churchwomen who were killed there later that year. Pilar herself was seized by the military and tortured for three months, during which time she was handcuffed to her four-year-old daughter Mila. Finally, both were thrown atop a heap of bodies on the back of a truck and driven to a burial site. They threw themselves off the truck, escaped and began a trip north. In early 1983, they found sanctuary at the University Baptist Church in Seattle, Wash. Mila, still suffering the psychological effects of torture, has improved with psychiatric care. Last summer, Pilar’s sister-in-;aw Elba, 26, and her two small children, 10 and 12, escaped from El Salvador after Elba’s husband was shot by a death squad. Secretly crossing the Arizona border, they found refuge at the Southside Presbytrian Church, a sanctuary in Tucson. The children were hidden in a trailer on the ride to Los Angeles, the next leg of the trip. Jesus Cruz, an engaging older Mexican-American who helped out around the Tucson sanctuary, kept them company. Eventually, the family was reunited in Seattle and settled anonymously in a private apartment. 

“In late December, Cruz called the University Baptist Church and asked for the childrens’ address so he could send them a Christmas present. The receptionist said she didn’t know the address but gave him the phone number. Cruz called the apartment and the children answered. They told him where they lived. On Monday, Jan. 14 at 8 a.m., the present arrived in the form of three agents of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. They threw the door open and took the two women and the children to jail.” (LA Weekly, Feb. 7, 1985)

(Image by Andrew Schultz)

In the early 1980’s, the Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua were beset with civil wars, bloody coups, gangs, death squads and ruthless dictators. The result was a steady stream of escapees like Pilar Martinez and her family. They made their way through Mexico to the U.S. border where they hoped to be granted asylum.

But the bloody dictators who ruled those Central American countries were considered allies by the Reagan Administration because they were fighting leftist insurgents, or, in the case of Nicaragua, they had just toppled a socialist government. So the government was loath to concede the nature of the regimes they were supporting. Rather than acknowledge the violence and human rights violations the migrants faced, they were pronounced economic refugees and as such were not qualified to be granted asylum. All but about 3 percent of the asylum applications of Salvadorans and Guatemalans were denied.

This situation gave rise to the Sanctuary Movement. It started at the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, the one where PIlar’s sister-in-law Elba originally found refuge. During the 80’s the movement grew rapidly, eventually including some 500+ congregations that included Catholics, Jews and multiple denominations of Protestants. The Sanctuary Movement did not operate in secret, they were openly challenging the way U.S. immigration and refugee policies were being implemented and were working to change those policies.

immigration posters

Operation Sojourner was a joint project of the FBI and Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). It was the brainchild of INS Commissioner Alan C. Nelson who thought it was a way to crush the Sanctuary Movement. And Jesus Cruz was just the guy he needed.

Cruz and a man he described as his nephew, Saloman Graham, according to the Miami Herald (Nov. 7, 1985), “became informants in 1980 after being implicated in an alien-smuggling ring run by two Bonita Springs, Fla., contractors. According to depositions, Cruz and Graham agreed to work for the government in exchange for immunity from prosecution.”

The two befriended sanctuary workers and Central Americans. The Herald reported that “The informants ate in their homes. They attended sanctuary strategy sessions. Cruz even transported refugees from border safe houses to churches along the underground railroad.”

The Rev. John Fike, pastor of the Southside Presbyterian Church and one of the founders of the Sanctuary Movement, told the Herald, “Jesus showed up at my church one afternoon. Jesus presented himself as this nice little man eager to be helpful to refugees. I took him at face value.”

U.S.-Mexico border
U.S.-Mexico border, Campo, Calif. (Image by Greg Bulla)

What he was doing was recording church meetings and religious services and copying license plate numbers from cars in the churches’  parking lots. He also joined a Bible Study group of Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees at the Arizona Lutheran Church in Phoenix, another sanctuary church. 

According to an AP story on Oct. 24, 1985, ten congressmen sent a letter to Nelson urging him not to prosecute Sanctuary Movement personnel. Nelson responded, “There will not be any special targeting of any particular individuals or groups for prosecution. Consistent with past and existing policy, INS ordinarily does not enter churches.‘’ In other words, he flat out lied.

Based on the evidence Cruz and other informants gathered, 16 individuals were indicted on charges relating to transporting and harboring illegal aliens. They included Fife, Sanctuary Movement co-founder James Corbett, two priests and a nun. Also included were about half the members of the Lutheran Church Bible Study group.

In a paper published in the University of St. Thomas Law Journal by Law Professor Kristina M. Campbell, she called the case “a startling example of government overreach and overzealous prosecution of non-violent people of faith and conscience.”

James Oines, pastor of Arizona Lutheran Church, said from the stand that he no longer holds Bible study classes because some members of his congregation are afraid to come to the church. “They no longer have faith that the person sitting next to them is revealing his true heart. The deepest aspect of their faith and trust was violated. It turned out that we were as gentle as doves but not so wise as serpents.” (WashingtonPost, June 14, 1985)

Six of the defendants, including Fike, were found guilty of conspiracy to smuggle Central American refugees into the U.S. Three were convicted of lesser charges and two were acquitted.

The judge in the case was bombarded with letters urging leniency in sentencing. They included letters from 47 congressmen.  He ended up giving them all suspended sentences.

Operation Sojourner not only failed to upend the Sanctuary Movement, it made it stronger and increased public awareness and support.


Other immigration and refugee posts:

Welcoming with One Open Arm

The Forty-Eighters: Immigrants for Social Justice

‘I Know Nothing.’ The Politics of Xenophobia in the 19th Century

Morality, Sexism or Racism?: The Page Act of 1875

Is This the Most Discriminatory Act of Congress Ever?

Ethnocentrism and the Roaring Twenties

FDR’s Black Eye

‘There are the right kind of boat people, it seems, and the wrong kind.’

1980: Good Times/Bad Times for Those Seeking Asylum in the U.S.

It All Started at a Little Church in Tucson

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It All Started at a Little Church in Tucson

The Southside Presbyterian Church is located in a barrio, about a mile outside of Tucson. It was founded in 1906 as a church for the native Tohono O’odham people. But it also served Chinese and Mexican people. To this day it prides itself on its diversity. The church website describes its congregation as “a diverse mix of Native Americans, Latinos, Caucasians, African Americans and others.” It also prides itself on being ground zero for the Sanctuary Movement.

Decades later, in an interview with Reflections, a publication of the Yale Divinity School, Southside’s minister at the time, Rev. John Fike, recalled: “I was pastor in a borderlands community in Tucson. The context was clear. This was when Central American refugees were escaping the death squads, yet our government was deporting them back to those countries and back to those death squads. Personally it took some prodding from a Quaker friend before I could really see the situation. My friend reminded me of the churches’ failure to protect Jewish refugees in the 1930s, and he said we can’t let that kind of human rights failure happen on the border in our time. I realized it meant I had to accept responsibility as a pastor to talk about the ethics of sanctuary to my congregation.”

Garita de Otay border crossing
North of Garita de Otay border Crossing, US Side, 1997.

The Quaker friend who Fike referenced was James A. Corbett, a Harvard-educated rancher living in Tucson. The two are credited with being founders of the Sanctuary Movement. In March of 1982, two banners were hung at the Southside Presbyterian Church. One read “This is a Sanctuary for the Oppressed of Central America.” The other “Immigration: do not profane the Sanctuary of God.”  

Speaking to Arizona Public Media decades later, church elder Leslie Carlson recalls the moment: “One day somebody said, ‘We need help,’ and I knew that people’s lives were at stake, and I knew that it was something I could do, and I felt the call to do it.”

Overall, the volunteers of the Southside Presbyterian Church aided some 13,000 Central American immigrants, providing food, shelter and transport. The church’s website notes “the Sanctuary Movement sought to remind the United States government of our core values and hold up the truth, that the US was directly supporting with arms, money and training the dictatorships and death squads of Central America.”

Mexican-American border at Negales, Mexico and Negales, Arizona
Mexican-American border at Negales, Mexico and Negales, Arizona

The movement spread quickly. In another part of town the Sacred Heart Catholic Church of Tucson worked with the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico to get refugees across the border and shelter them. The Dominican Sisters of the Congregation of the Sacred Heart announced that they would provide sanctuary to undocumented aliens. Five congregations in Berkeley, Calif., declared their commitment to protect and defend Guatamalan and Salvadoran refugees.

In all the Sanctuary Movement would include more than 500 congregations of all denominations. They were Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists, Jews, Catholics, Mennonites, Quakers and Unitarians. Corbett told the New York Times (May 6, 1986): “The fact that it has grown as much as it has is a reflection that we’re drawing on the most deep-seated religious traditions in Western civilization.” They established a kind of modern day underground railroad, shuffling refugees from one church to another until they reached safe houses in Canada. Some 44 Salvadorans lived for several years in the University Baptist Church in Seattle where two babies were born. By 1987 there were 440 declared sanctuary cities as well as the entire state of New Mexico.

Several national religious organizations put forth statements of support. The Rabbinical Assembly in 1984 announced that it “endorses the concept of Sanctuary as provided by synagogues, churches and other communities of faith in the United States.” That same year the American Lutheran Church “Resolved, that The American Lutheran Church at its 1984 General Convention offers support and encouragement to congregations that have chosen to become refugee sanctuaries.”

Fike, Corbett, Father Padre Ramón Dagoberto Quiñones, the head priest of the church in Guadalupe, and several other Sanctuary members were indicted and found guilty of alien smuggling charges in 1986. Fike declared at a press conference afterwards: “”I plan for as long as possible to be the pastor of a congregation that has committed itself to providing sanctuary.” Most received suspended sentences.

The Sanctuary Movement faded in the 1990’s, having largely achieved its goals with Congress passing legislation allowing Central Americans in the U.S. to apply for permanent residence. However, a New Sanctuary Movement sprung up during the Obama Administration in response to a growing number of deportations. It continued to grow due to the border policies of Trump. Speaking with Arizona Public Media in 2017, Fike, who is now retired, commented: “Here we are again. Our responsibility as people of faith, here on a border, is to learn from that history and to protect the victims as much as we can.”

Southside Presbyterian, recalling that history, says on its website “That legacy continues today, as we work within the present-day Sanctuary Movement to resist policies that target, criminalize, and deport undocumented immigrants.”

Sign outside First Congregational Church, Montclair, N.J. 2017
Sign at First Congregational Church, Montclair, N.J. 2017
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1980: Good Times/Bad Times for Those Seeking Asylum in the U.S.

1980 was a landmark year for refugees seeking asylum in the U.S. It turned out to be the beginning of what might be called the modern era of American refugee policy. The year began with legislation that greatly expanded the number of refugees that could be admitted. But it also was the start of a continuing trend of slamming the door on certain ethnicities, particularly Central Americans.

The Refugee Act of 1980, signed by Jimmy Carter, was a legislative response to the hundreds of thousands of refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia who came to the U.S. in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. It raised the annual ceiling on refugee admissions to 50,000 from the previous 17,400. It also established regular procedures for the adjustment of that ceiling in the event of an emergency. With these changes, the U.S. would for the next several decades (until the Trump Administration) be the world leader in accepting refugees.

The legislation refined the definition of who is a refugee, bringing the U.S. in line with the UN Convention and Protocol on the Status of Refugees. A refugee was defined “as any person who is outside his or her country of residence or nationality, or without nationality, and is unable or unwilling to return to, and is unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of, that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”

Sonadores, Sedrick Huckaby
Sonadores, Sedrick Huckaby

At the same time unrest, violence and civil war were rampant in many Central American countries. The year before in Nicaragua, the socialist Sandinista government had been ousted by brutal right-wing autocrat Anastasio Somoza. A year later Archbishop Oscar Romero was gunned down at the altar by assassins believed to be associated with the El Salvador government. Romero had ordered Salvadoran soldiers to stop killing civilians. The assassination inflamed the civil war in that country.

The Migration Policy Institute stated “In El Salvador, the military and death squads were responsible for thousands of disappearances and murders of union leaders, community leaders, and suspected guerilla sympathizers, including priests and nuns. In Guatemala, the army’s counter-insurgency campaign focused on indigenous communities, resulting in thousands of disappearances, murders, and forced displacements.” And this says nothing of the violent criminal organizations in those countries specializing in the trafficking of drugs, weapons and people.

Ronald Reagan was president at that time. And as president, he was a Cold Warrior. Foreign policy was largely defined as the good guys vs. the bad guys. The anti-Communists vs. the Communists. Thus the right wing dictatorships of El Salvadore and Guatemala, both of which were fighting leftist insurgencies, came up as good guys in the Reagan White House. So too, Somoza, who had overrun the socialist Sandinistas.

Thus, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, very few of the nearly one million Salvadoran and Guatemalan asylum seekers were approved. Using 1984 as an example, only 3 percent of the cases from those two countries were granted asylum. By contrast, in the same year, 60 percent of Iranian refugees and 40 percent of those from Afghanistan were approved. They, of course, were fleeing from countries whose governments were not on friendly terms with the U.S. (Afghanistan was controlled at the time by the USSR.)  Refusing to acknowledge the true nature of the governments we were supporting in Central America, the refugees from those countries were tagged “economic refugees” and denied admittance. (If you read last week’s post about the Haitian boat people, that may sound familiar.)

Border Crossing, Luis Jimenez
Border Crossing, Luis Jimenez

The Migration Policy Institute claims that: “The Justice Department and INS actively discouraged Salvadorans and Guatemalans from applying for political asylum. Salvadorans and Guatemalans arrested near the Mexico-U.S. border were herded into crowded detention centers and pressured to agree to ‘voluntarily return’ to their countries of origin. Thousands were deported without ever having the opportunity to receive legal advice or be informed of the possibility of applying for refugee status. Considering the widely reported human rights violations in El Salvador and Guatemala, the treatment of these migrants constituted a violation of U.S. obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention.”

There were a number of legal challenges to the government’s actions against the Central American immigrants. Most notably, a class-action case known as American Baptist Churches v. Richard Thornburgh. (Thornburgh was the U.S. Attorney General at the time.) It resulted in 1991 in a district court approved settlement that allowed some of the denied asylum cases to be revisited and provided some protection against deportation for the class members. There was also some language about not having foreign policy considerations determine asylum case judgements.

But have things changed? The stats on the outcome of asylum cases for 2020 would suggest not. Last year 11,500 Guatamalans applied for asylum. 86% were denied. 82% of the 10,500 asylum seekers from El Salvador were denied. Hondurans were denied at a rate of 87% and Mexicans 86%. By contrast 77% of the Chinese who applied for asylum were approved.

(Images in this post are of works on display at the Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas, Austin.)

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‘There are the right kind of boat people, it seems, and the wrong kind’

In 1980, after Cuban President Fidel Castro announced that anyone who wanted to leave could do so, the Mariel boatlift brought upwards of 125,000 Cubans to the United States. Then President Jimmy Carter called it an “unprecedented emergency” and ordered the Navy and Coast Guard to assist boats in distress. They did. About 1,000 times.

A decade later some 40,000 Haitians tried to reach the U.S. by boat. They were fleeing the military rulers who had overthrown the democratically elected president Aristide, as well as the Tontons Macoutes police force whose existence dates back to the era of Francois Duvalier, aka Papa Doc. Many of the refugees perished at sea. The boats were not permitted to land in the U.S. and were instead directed to Guantanamo, the U.S. base in Cuba. Guantanamo soon filled up and President George Bush ordered the Coast Guard to intercept the boats and send the refugees back to Haiti. His successor, Bill Clinton, continued that policy.

Boat people from Haiti
Haitian migrants wait to be evacuated from a sailboat by the U.S. Coast Guard. They were sent back to Haiti. (April 2005)

Both groups would become known as “boat people.” Both were fleeing autocratic, brutal, and corrupt regimes. Why the difference in how they were treated? The official U.S. government explanation is that the Haitians were “economic” refugees, fleeing poverty and looking for jobs. As such, they cannot be granted asylum like the Cuban refugees fleeing from their government. But the real reason has to do with two factors that have been and continue to be key determinants of U.S. immigration policy.

One is ideology. Those fleeing Communist governments, whether from Cuba or Vietnam or the Soviet countries, are almost automatically granted asylum and those three groups make up the majority of the refugees that were admitted to the U.S. during the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. On the other hand the Haitians, much like the Guatamalans and Salvadorans, were fleeing from right wing governments, no less oppressive and corrupt, but friendly to the U.S. 

The second reason is racism. It has had an influence on U.S. policy toward refugees and immigrants since the very first efforts to develop a policy. In the late 19th century it was behind the creation of the Chinese Exclusion Act. In the 20’s the U.S. tried to make the ethnic and racial makeup of the country look like it did in 1890. The ethnic quota system that was to govern U.S. policy on immigration for 40 years was, quite simply, an attempt to keep America white and protestant. What differentiated the Haitians from the groups of refugees that were readily being granted asylum? They were black.

Coast Guard intercepting Haitian refugees
Coast Guard intercepting Haitian refugees

A Washington Post story from April 19 1980, Haitian Boat People: Flotsam in an American Sea of Plenty, written by Ward Sinclair, describes an example of what awaited the Haitians when they came to these shores: “Like guileless waifs they had sailed, 29 of them in a rickety boat for 11 days, crossing 700 miles of ocean from Haiti to a land where men breathe free air and walk streets paved with gold.

“When this contingent of America’s ‘black boat people’ innocently hove to on sparkling Miami Beach last weekend, U.S. immigration agents swooped in and arrested them as aliens attempting illegal entry.”

Why? “The government insists that they are here for ‘economic’ reasons, which means they cannot stay. The Haitians and their defenders argue they are political refugees, entitled to asylum and the federal benefits that go to political immigrants.

“The point is that in a society such as Haiti’s, where the Duvalier family has reigned for decades and where the average annual income is $225, there is no good way to separate economics from politics, as the INS has attempted to do.”

Sinclair concludes: “…because of the Haitians, the thesis that the United States is the ultimate haven and protector for the world’s tattered underdogs is facing its most severe test.”

Haitian refugees

UPI syndicated columnist Mary McGrory opined: “There are the right kind of boat people, it seems, and the wrong kind.

“The right kind come from Vietnam. They flee an oppressive communist regime. We raise money for them, offer them asylum and weep for them in world councils.

“The wrong kind come to our shores from Haiti, but they are fleeing an oppressive fascist regime. When they try to land here, we send them back or throw them in jail. The human rights administration ignores them.”

McGrory calls this ”the great paradox of our immigration policies: victims of left-wing tyrannies are automatically ‘huddled masses yearning to be free;’ people like Haitians, who live under a fascist bully who governs with extortion and torture, can’t be let in because their admission would ‘open the floodgates’ to the merely greedy.”

Things have not gotten appreciably better for Haitian refugees seeking asylum in the United States. According to the AP, Haitians are granted asylum at the lowest rate of any nationality with high numbers of asylum bidders.

This past July, the Haitian president was assassinated. A month later the island nation was hit with a devastating earthquake. By September, some 14,000 displaced Haitians were gathered at a small Texas border town hoping to gain admission to the U.S. Most were put on planes and deported back to Haiti. The image that most will remember from that time is one of a U.S. border agent chasing down a Haitian immigrant on horseback and brandishing a whip.

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FDR’s Black Eye

Franklin Roosevelt is the greatest American president of the past century. He led the country through and brought it out of the Depression. He led us through the Second World War. During his administration America’s infrastructure was rebuilt, Social Security was created, the banking industry was brought under control, and jobs were provided for everyone from construction workers to artists.

But there is a stain on FDR’s legacy. It’s about how he handled, or rather how he didn’t handle the German Jewish refugees hoping to come to America to save their lives.

The most well known, and notorious, incident involves a ship called the St. Louis, which was carrying 937 German Jewish passengers seeking to escape the Nazis when it sailed to Cuba. The refugees hoped to be admitted to Cuba from which they would later make their way to the U.S. When the Cuban government refused entry, the St. Louis sailed to Miami. But under the immigration quota system that had been put in place in 1925, no more German immigrants could be admitted, so the St. Louis passengers were not allowed to disembark. 

Jewish refugees

A group of the passengers made a direct appeal to Roosevelt: “Cabling President Roosevelt, repeating urgent appeal for help for the passengers of the St. Louis. Help them. Mr. President, the 900 passengers of which more than 400 are women and children.”

Roosevelt’s response? There was none. Turning away, the St. Louis carried its passengers back to Europe. Fortunately several European countries stopped up: Belgium took 250 of the refugees, the Netherlands, 194 and France 200. The rest were accepted in Britain. As Hitler conquered some of the countries where the refugees were relocated, 254 of them are known to have died during the Holocaust.

What is less known, is how an effort to save Jewish German children failed due to lack of support. In 1939, Sen. Robert Wagner (D-NY) and Rep. Edith Nourse Rogers (R-Mass.) introduced legislation in both houses of Congress that would have allowed 20,000 German refugee children into the U.S over a two-year period. The Wagner-Rogers Bill was backed by the American Federation of Labor, the American Friends Service Committee and the U.S. Department of Labor’s Children’s Bureaus.

Jewish refugee children

The Camden (N.J.) Morning Post (April 25, 1939) wrote: “Both those who believe that we should intervene in Europe and those who are against intervention can join in support of the Wagner-Rogers bill which will permit 20,000 refugee children from Germany to enter this country. Here is an opportunity to express, in  a practical way that harms no one, the humanitarian instincts called forth by Nazi persecution.”

The St. Louis Star-Times (June 14, 1939) said: “The most logical proposal by which this country can meet the common obligation of mankind to the helpless and oppressed is embodied in the Wagner-Rogers bill, now pending in Congress…The Wagner-Rogers Bill should be passed. Until some such measure is adopted, American protests against Nazi savagery will remain in the category of empty rhetoric.”

But the bill never made it out of committee. The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle (April 28, 1939) explained where the opposition came from: “Opposition springs from a fear that a precedent will be established in opening the immigration gates now tightly controlled by the present quota laws; that the children, although none over 14, will eventually become seekers for jobs and thus further intensify the unemployment situation; that they will thus compete with American citizens; that they will constitute an unbalanced and unfair ratio to immigration from other countries whose quotas are very small; that they will become a ‘problem of assimilation;’ and that they will encourage the dictatorships to further persecutions because of the greater prospects of asylum for their victims elsewhere in the world.”

What the newspaper doesn’t mention in the anti-Semitism. You have to go back to Marie Antoinette to find a quote as insensitive as this one from Laura Delano Houghteling, FDR’s cousin and wife of Immigration Commissioner James Houghteling:  “Twenty thousand charming children would all too soon grow into 20,000 ugly adults.”

The Wagner-Rogers Bill never made it out of committee and never came to a vote in either house of Congress. It also never got any support from the president, despite the support of his wife Eleanor. Nor was it popular with the American public. A 1939 public opinion poll that posed the question of whether respondents would support admitting 10,000 German refugee children revealed that 67% were opposed.

It is hard to understand how a country that sent some 2 million soldiers to the European front during WWII, a country that lost 500,000+ lives fighting the Nazis in Europe, was not willing to save 20,000 German Jewish refugee children by simply opening its doors to them.

(Photos from New York Public Library public domain collection.)

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Ethnocentrism and the Roaring Twenties

The movies and literature tell us the 1920’s was a time of gaiety, prosperity and freedom. A time for speakeasies, jazz and flappers. A respite in the history of America between the Great War and the Great Depression.

What is not so celebrated in the chronicles of the era is the growing emergence of nativism and xenophobia and how that led to major changes in how America would deal with refugees and immigrants.

While the European immigrants to the U.S. in the 19th century primarily came from northern and western Europe, with the turn of the century more immigrants were arriving from eastern and southern Europe. As always, there were objections from labor, fear that the new immigrants would take jobs from Americans and would reduce wages in a rapidly industrializing country because of their willingness to work for less.

But the case against these new immigrants, the Italians, Jews and Slavs, was not merely economic. It was also racist and anti-Semitic, based on a desire to keep America white and Protestant. This was also a time when the phony science of eugenics was taking hold in some quarters. A bastardization of Darwinism, eugenics talked about superior and inferior “stock” in pseudo-scientific terms. It was exactly the type of thinking that led to Hitler and the Nazi movement.


Already by the 1890’s, groups like the Immigration Restriction League were urging restriction of what they called “undesirable” immigrants. The group was founded by three Harvard graduates from prominent Boston families who derided the new immigrants as racially inferior and their proliferation as a threat to the American way of life.

In response to the lobbying of groups like this Congress appointed the Dillingham Commission in 1907, chaired by a Republican Senator from Vermont, William P. Dillingham. They were charged with studying the impact of recent immigration. Four years later their conclusion was that immigration from southern and eastern Europe should be restricted, as should all Asian immigrants. The rationale was that these immigrants were a threat to American culture and society. “The former (immigrants) were from the most progressive sections of Europe and assimilated quickly… On the other hand, the new immigrants have come from the less progressive countries of Europe and congregated separately from native Americans and the older immigrants to such an extent that assimilation has been slow.”

The first attempt to slow immigration occurred in 1917 during the war years. Congress required a literacy test to be administered to all incoming immigrants and raised the tax which these folks would have to pay to gain admittance. Also, expanding on the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the 1917 Act blocked immigrants from what was called the “Asiatic barred zone,”

It was in 1921 that legislation was passed that was to define U.S. policy on immigration for the next 40 years. In an attempt to preserve the existing ethnic makeup of the U.S., Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act of 1921. It established quotas for each European nationality at 3% of the number of people of that nationality in the U.S. as of the census of 1910. 

immigrants luggage

This editorial, from the Oklahoma City Times of May 7, 1921, offers a glimpse of the thinking behind these restrictions:

“How faulty is our system of distribution is made plain by the fact that of the heavy immigration of the past year, but 2.8 percent have gone or intend to go on the farms. That means that a vast majority of them are gathered in overcrowded tenements and segregated in colonies of their kind, usually amid unwholesome surroundings. Such congestion is not beneficial to America, and Americans will not be made of those permitted to dwell in that fashion. Also, education of the foreign born will not succeed until greater facilities are provided to include the adults as well as the children and attendance is made compulsory if citizenship is desired.

“Of all factors bearing on the question, selection probably is the most vital. Scientists warn us to give greater attention to that, unless we want the race that made America great to dwindle and deteriorate, and lose control of the land they wrested from the wilderness.  One of these scientists, Madison Grant, warns America that the nation is headed for a racial abyss, unless we cease to shut our eyes to racial differences; unless, in brief, immigration is restricted to our kind of people. Such selection would not be easy. It would meet the opposition of undesirable nationalities already here. It must be handled with consummate tact, unless it is to create animosities abroad. But it is a matter deserving study. It is time to realize that America is no longer a sparsely populated vastness with room for all. It is time for America to think of the future of Americans, and less of the oppressed of other lands.”

In 1924, the quotas were lowered to 2% and in an effort to dial back the clock to a time that preceded much of the influx of southern and eastern Europeans, the Immigration Act of 1924 quotas were based on the census of 1890. In addition, it banned immigration of anyone who was not eligible for naturalization, which meant the door was closed on all Asians. The national origins quota system established by this legislation would not be abolished until 1965.

Here’s how the 1924 act impacted quotas from some countries:

Italy — based on the 1910 census Italians made up 11.75% of the U.S. population. The quota set in 1921 was 3% of that population, 42,057. That was the number of Italians who would be admitted to the U.S. annually. But in 1925 the quota were based on the census of 1890 when Italians were only 2.34% of the U.S. population. That change, in addition to reducing the quotas to 2% meant that only 3,854 Italians would be admitted to the U.S. annually, barely more than 10% of the earlier quota.

Germany — In the 1921 census, persons of German descent made up 18.90% of the U.S. population and the 1921 quota for Germans was 67,607. While the quota in 1925 went from 3% to 2%, this was partially offset by basing it on the 1890 census when Germans made up 31.11% of the U.S. population. So in the 1925 act, 51,227 Germans would be admitted annually.  

Overall immigration from Europe had totaled 800,000 in 1921 when the first quotas were enacted. By 1924, that number was reduced to 700,000. But by 1930, six years after the more restrictive quotas were enacted, European immigration was down to 100,000 per year.

The ethnic quotas also had some unintended consequences. This report appeared in the Oklahoma City Times on May 9, 1922:

“Laurel Galle, Red Cross nurse from Belgium, promised to marry Camile E. Asp, a soldier wounded in France. They planned to wed when he recovered. Since then, circumstances, the red tape of law, and fate have prevented every attempt of Camile to make Laurel his wife.

“Circumstance–in the way of the Belgian immigrantion quota–thwarted them again yesterday.

“When their ship docked, Camille was informed that the immigrantion quota for Belgium was exhausted and that his sweetheart would not be admitted.”

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