Sunday, May 2, 2010

Arizon Immigration Law and Buddhism - II

Was out hiking at a local state park yesterday, and enjoyed a computer free day. No e-mail. No blog. Nothing It was excellent!

Came back to find a comment challenging my post on the Arizona immigration law. I was surprised that there weren't more, but anyway, I'd like to address this comment.

You know it is easy to say that the new Arizona law is racist. Harder, I think, to back that up. What is racist about it? You are aware, of course, that the majority of the police officers responsible for enforcing this law and most of the Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police in Arizona are Hispanic, are you not?

Unfortunately, this is a issue that involves race. You can’t get around it. The problem is not that we have large groups of white Europeans flooding across our borders illegally. How else can you address this situation from a law enforcement standpoint without looking at a person’s race?

I am both a liberal and a Buddhist, and I have mixed feelings about this law. The feeling that seems to override all others is the sense that people are reacting to this emotionally and not rationally. How does this law go against Buddhist teaching? Tell me how.

Nagarjuna, in the Ratnavali, says: “Having examined and identified particularly hateful murderers, you should send them into exile without killing or harming them.”
What he is saying is that those who break the law should be dealt with, sans vengeance, and that compassion is not about turning one’s head and allowing people to break the law. What is compassionate about allowing people to engage in illegal activity? That is just as harmful.

Everyone is agreed that illegal immigration is a problem. Those who don’t like this law should come up with a better solution, instead of making things worse with emotional protests. I, for one, have always valued the right to protest. In this case, I just feel its distorting the issue.

First off, I have to say I find that too many "Westerners" reduce Buddhist practice to reason and rationality. I just don't buy that view. Human reason is a powerful thing, but it fails us more often than not. Anyone who has has studied koans would be able to attest to this, but I think there's enough mystery in daily life for all of us to see this, if we only bothered to pay attention.

You'll have to forgive me if this particular issue - immigration policy and how native born people treat immigrants - gets to me. It does. I'm not completely objective, but who the hell is? Objectivity is just another story in my opinion, something people like to think they possess, but which they don't. This doesn't mean that everything is relative, and that every viewpoint is equally valid. It's more about how flimsy our ability to grasp the vastness of life is, and how the narratives we have about it are always partial, pointing to the moons kind of narratives.

So, back to David's comments.

"Nagarjuna, in the Ratnavali, says: “Having examined and identified particularly hateful murderers, you should send them into exile without killing or harming them.”
What he is saying is that those who break the law should be dealt with, sans vengeance, and that compassion is not about turning one’s head and allowing people to break the law. What is compassionate about allowing people to engage in illegal activity? That is just as harmful."

Let's look at the definition of "illegal activity." If you're speaking about entering a nation without documents, it's true, undocumented people are breaking the law. However, you never hear anyone screaming about undocumented Canadians in the U.S., or undocumented Irish, just to give two examples of predominately white groups of undocumented people. When you add up the numbers of undocumented people from Canada, Europe, and Australia, all places white predominantly white populations, they probably represent between 20-30% of the total undocumented persons. So, the outrage we see against Latino/Latinas is skewed in my opinion.

If your looking at serious crime being committed by undocumented people in the U.S., you know, like the drug running, rape and murder variety that scares the shit out of people, the whole "illegal activity" argument falls apart. The view that undocumented people commit more violent crime than native born people is a myth.

But in all the furor, there is this hitch: The perception of high crime rates by illegal immigrants is pure myth. And it is misdirecting public policy about what we really should do to stop illegal immigration. A century of studies has consistently shown that recent immigrants are in fact less likely to commit a crime or be in jail than native Americans.

The last comprehensive national report, by Ruben G. Rumbaut, Walter A. Ewing and the American Immigration Law Foundation, found two years ago that while the number of unauthorized Latino immigrants in the country doubled between 1994 and 2005, violent crime during the same period dropped nearly 35 percent.

White Americans seem all too willing to ignore the past. My own Irish ancestors probably experienced the same kinds of stereotyping and discrimination during the 19th century, as did my Polish ancestors. U.S. immigration laws (or civil service practices, which often overrode the law) were stacked against Italians and Eastern Europeans for decades, and for many of these people, the only significant benefit they had in the U.S. was being white in a nation run by white people.

When it comes to people of color, regardless of country of origin, the U.S. immigration laws were always stacked against them historically, and currently are only friendly to chosen groups of refugees from nations we have either negatively impacted through war (Somalia, Ethiopia, Laos, and Vietnam come to mind), or which are considered nations providing well educated people who can more readily fit into our high tech, post industrial nation (India and China immediately come to mind). Of course, most of us rarely consider the brain drain effect when it comes to this kind of immigration, which is often fueled by U.S. corporate recruitment.

When it comes to Latin Americans, many of whom have experienced devastated economic and social conditions in their home nation, in part due to U.S. sponsored warfare and/or influx of U.S. multinational corporations, the immigration laws are basically a closed door in the face. Periodically, there is a short window open, such as when natural disasters occur, but usually this is a temporary opportunity with no guarantee of a path towards citizenship.

So, these are the kinds of reasoned out arguments I have made for years. And I think when people actually examine both our history, and what's happening now, they stand up for the most part.

But you know what, when it comes to this issue, most people just say I'm a fucking "bleeding heart" and call it a day. David wants people like me to be reasonable, and he is also acting reasonable in his comments, but what good does it do when emotional reactions rule the day?

Having worked in immigrant communities for over a decade now, I've heard enough stories about peoples' lives to know that it's all terribly complex, and black and white laws can never address the myriad of issues involved.

David asks me to be compassionate and stop people from breaking the law. Well, what about people making laws that are discriminatory in the first place? Shall I give them a pass. And what is true compassion in this situation?

I find that those who support these kinds of laws or who get uppity about "national borders" and "those black and brown" people "breaking the law" tend to have little or no experience with said people. They not only know little about the struggles, challenges - eh, absolute misery - involved in completely being uprooted from your homeland and moving to a foreign country where you have no idea who will offer a tiny bit of support and who is going to spit on you, shoot at you, and run you out of town.

And the same people aren't willing to admit that our country often has some responsibility for the destabilization of these peoples' lives, and that if we want to have move people from Latin America staying in their home nations, we have to be willing to change our business practices in their nations, and also change our love of military interventions (both overt and covert) in their nations as well.

Most people would rather stay home, not leave their families behind to go trekking through a deadly desert just for the opportunity to cross into the U.S. The dreams these people have of America are often dreams of desperation, fueled by basic human hope and dire poverty.

As to David's question of how this law goes against Buddhist teachings, I'm not sure if this is even the right question. We could go back and forth getting with witty citations of Buddha, Nagarjuna, and any number of others, but does any of that truly lead us to being more present to the people who are, right now, regardless of how they got here, our neighbors?

I could easily go on and on with various comments on teachings, stories of people I have met, statistics, and whatnot - spend hours trying to construct the perfectly balanced post that includes the rational, emotional, and spiritual elements of this issue, but in the end, I have to agree with you that the emotional is so ramped up that it drowns out everything else.

So, maybe instead of just saying "be more rational," which I think is more about being a certain well-loved Star Trek character than being human, maybe we should all slow down, reflect, and meditate on the roots of the emotionality on all sides of this issue.

The main reason I stand against laws like the one in Arizona is that they are reactive in nature, done out a desire to please and appeal to the reactions of others. If Buddha taught us anything it was to consider carefully both the situation at hand and the potential consequences of any actions being done to try and remedy that situation.


Richard Harrold said...

You really nailed that, particularly that often the driving force behind why many Latinos seek to come to the U.S. is because of U.S. foreign policy and its impact on their homes! Not sure of the numbers, but some of the largest groups from Latin American coming to the U.S. are from Central America, I.E. El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, three countries where we mucked things up.

People forget that a nation's policies can create kamma just as much as individual actions.

Nice job Nathan.

Unknown said...

I have been meaning to say thank you for all your comments. Yes, we deal with all kinds of difficult and muddy issues - personal, political or worldly. With every phase, different methods are needed. At every different times in history of a country or one person's life, different delivery methods of a remedy would be welcomed.

Algernon said...

In fact, getting into the emotions of this issue might help us address the "problem" of immigration in a more truthful way. If emotions are smoke, where's the fire and what kind of fire is it?

There is the emotion of wanting to honor human life, the emotion that recognizes that people who risk dying of thirst and hunger crossing a desert into an uncertain future, cannot be dismissed as simple miscreants.

There are the emotions caused by unexplored attitudes toward race and -- let us not forget -- social class.

There are the emotions that respond to violent crime and the perception that one lives in a danger zone and cannot easily relocate.

And more -- but I think that's enough to make the point. And all of these emotions interact with each other.

In my opinion, it would be constructive to acknowledge the emotions of this debate and discuss them clearly, rather than pretend some of us are having an objective argument about the facts.

The Arizona law, for instance, addresses an emotional craving without actually doing anything about illegal immigration itself. The law will have no deterrent value for undocumented travel into the country, but will subject documented Americans to further indignity and put police into an impossible position as far as community relations.

Helmut said...

As a Buddhist trainee I have to be very careful when I see myself setting aside, just for the moment, the teachings of the Buddha's and Ancestors for the sake of making an admittedly emotional point or following an emotional train of thought to its reasonable conclusion. The reasonable conclusion to an emotional train of thought is usually wide of the teaching.
Also, there is shared karma. The actual Native Americans had some stern views on illegal immigration.
Anicca and Dukka are nothing to get exited about. Acceptance is the key, and that is always very, very personal.

David said...

I am only speaking for myself and I am not an expert on this subject nor was I was not suggesting that anyone was engaged in serious crime, merely that they are in the country illegally, which I think qualifies as activity. My personal concerns about illegal immigration are not directed at any one ethnic group, and I said large groups. You tell me, how many undocumented Irish and Canadians are there?

I, too, am of Irish descent and I am not unfamiliar with the persecutions my ancestors and many other groups were subject to during this nation’s history. I think the racial component in this Arizona issue exists mainly in the public debate, which I was not really addressing as much as the law itself, as it is written. I can’t speak to the intentions behind the passage of the law, or to the local politics surrounding it.

What good does reason do when emotional reactions rule the day? That’s pretty futile attitude. I once got very irritated with the Bhante running the place I was going to at the time. I thought people were taking advantage of him and what was most frustrating was that he knew it and didn’t care. Anyway, I displayed some anger, but later I said to him, “Sorry, I get a little emotional sometimes.” He replied, “That’s what we trying to cure.”

You are right, too many "Westerners" reduce Buddhist practice to reason and rationality. They want to reduce it to their reason and their rationality. Bhante would probably say that we’re trying to cure that, too.

Daniel @ Campinas said...

I think most any law(s)/ legislation etc. are "done out a desire to please and appeal to the reactions of others."
What gets me is that this is a nation FOUNDED by refugees. I mean the Mayflower is a great example of "boat people" washing up on the shores of the US. What's worse: many of those (and again, not all, but many) of those who support this legislation like to thump their Bibles forgetting what it says:
Lev 19:34 [But] the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I [am] the LORD your God.

Deu 10:18 He doth execute the judgment of the fatherless and widow, and loveth the stranger, in giving him food and raiment.
Deu 10:19 Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Nathan said...

"What good does reason do when emotional reactions rule the day? That’s pretty futile attitude."

No, actually, it's seeing the situation as it is. Trying to present some dry, reasoned out analysis when everyone else is screaming and hollering doesn't work. I've tried it many times. Others have tried it on me when I'm flipping out. It doesn't work. So, when the situation is so wound up, we are called to develop something skillful - which probably includes reason, but can't be limited to it.


Thanks for pointing out those Bible passages. There's a strong theme of exile and being welcomed home throughout the Bible in my opinion. If only more could see this.