Why is this night different from all other nights? It is different because tonight President Obama will give his last State of the Union address.
Yet, there are news today of another unceremonious, undemocratic and without due process event, “ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] personnel have entered homes—sometimes without a warrant or consent—and roused children from beds before taking families into custody.”
The painful dissonance that frames this day was underscored as I heard on NPR this morning about the deportation of these children and mothers asylum seekers, and at the same time I read an appealing and democratic email from the much admired First Lady Michelle Obama, “Tonight, Ayala, Barack gives his final State of the Union speech, where he’ll talk about his vision for this next year and beyond.
Everything we’ve accomplished…is possible only because of the incredible support we’ve seen from people like you, Ayala.
So I want to say thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for standing by our President’s side for the past seven years. And I want to make sure you’ll be tuning in tonight at 9:00 p.m. ET, so you can hear for yourself, one last time, what Barack has to say about how, together, we can keep moving our country forward: Thanks for standing with us, Ayala. Now, let’s finish what we started — together.”
It is a moving and heartfelt email and it is factual because like millions of Americans I am a supporter of President Obama. I have already written that while I know that these emails from the White House are mass-produced, the use of our personal names is appealing, it deepens democracy as it momentarily minimizes the actual power relations between presidents and citizens
It is in the spirit of democracy that I am responding to the first lady to say that I have written to President Obama on December 29 asking him, “before the ball drops and we close the books on 2015 to join us JWCR (Jewish Women for Child Refugees) to save the lives of these children and mothers” and judging by the news we have heard today, it did not happen.
I have no way of knowing whether the first lady knows that these children and mothers asylum seekers are fleeing unspeakable violence. They have risked their lives to come here, because remaining in their countries of origin is a death sentence. One of the lawyers who we (JWCR) funded to go to Dilly Texas to represent these asylum seekers told us, “Every single woman I spoke to (approximately 30 or so) described a terrifying journey to the US, including rape and other sexual assault, violence, robbery, exhaustion, and near starvation. They are incarcerated because they want to live here, and have risked their lives to get here. One woman said, ‘America is the only country on earth where people follow the law.’” She added that the mothers “all felt that deportation was a death sentence.” One mother described swimming the Rio Grande with her baby on her back to get here.
The lawyers from Rochester NY who went to give legal representation to the children and mothers described the process of asylum seeking at the detention center as far from democratic and rather chaotic and arbitrary. Adding to the chaos is the fact that all encounters with U.S. officials take place in translation. The officials don’t speak Spanish and the process of applying for refugee status depends on translation.
So much is at stake in the process, the lawyers said, since the first step is an interview with an asylum officer called a “Credible Fear Interview.” It is an interview in which mothers and children have to make a compelling case that they have a credible fear of serious physical harm or death if they return to their home countries. The sense the lawyers got was that ICE made little effort to make the process organized, coherent or fair, and that the underlying goal was to discourage the refugees, most, if not all, of whom had relatives who would provide a bond.
The future for the deportees is frightening. The children and mothers who the ICE is rounding up all know too well the threat that waits at the end of deportation. The Guardian recently reported “that several U.S. deportees were killed after American customs agents returned them to the Central American countries from which they fled. Some of them were killed within days of their return.” The report noted that Human rights experts warn that our US government is not fulfilling its obligation “to provide asylum to those genuinely in peril in violation of international law.”
It not surprising, according to the Atlantic that “Gregory Chen, the director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said he was ‘shocked that the administration is resorting to these really aggressive enforcement tactics.’”
According to Politico, “Democrats and immigrant-rights groups have turned against the Obama administration in an uproar over recent deportation raids.” Others like Frank Sharry, executive director of the immigration advocacy group America’s Voice, calls it ‘repugnant’ and ‘outrageous’ and as “something we would expect from a President Trump.”
We who support President Obama anticipate an important and memorable last State of the Union address tonight. Yet, it will be tinged with great disappointment because it is taking place on the same day that the president’s administration is deporting children. The fate of the deportees has been framed in an ugly legal murkiness and in the absence of human compassion. It is not too late to do the right thing, the president has another year.
In the year to come we wish the president much success and we hope that the president will make sure that all the names of children and mothers will be, as we say in Jewish tradition, inscribed in the book of life b’sefer he-ḥayyim.
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