Joyce Phipps, Esq. is the founder and director of Casa de Esperanza–a non-profit legal aid and social service organization in Bound Brook, New Jersey, created to serve immigrants and refugees. I met her last February at the vigil for immigrant detainees I described in an earlier post.
We met more or less by chance: lost in thought, I wandered away from the vigil to prowl around the perimeter of the facility, and poke at its edges; Joyce, who was doing the same thing, noticed me, and struck up a conversation. It took just a few minutes of conversation to convince me to invite her to Felician to talk about her work defending the rights of immigrants and refugees. It took less time for her to accept.
We finally set the date of her presentation for this past week, as part of a unit I’m doing with my Phil 380 class on immigration enforcement. ICE came by on Tuesday to represent the claims and interests of the government; Joyce came by on Thursday of the same week to represent the claims and interests of those on the receiving end of government action. It was an education for all of us. The Dean of Arts and Sciences called her a “badass,” no less.
The agents from ICE had given us a presentation that was relatively legalistic and narrowly focused: immigration is a complex legal process; those who enter this country or remain in it in violation of that process have violated federal law; it is ICE’s legal mandate to enforce the law by forcibly removing them. The bulk of their presentation aimed to demonstrate continuities in policy across presidential administrations, and to demonstrate the efficacy of ICE operations at deporting individuals who pose a danger to the community.
Joyce’s presentation took a broader view that might be summarized this way.
Would-be immigrants have to fit a relatively small set of narrowly-defined categories to apply for entry into the United States. A person who doesn’t fit such a category cannot legally enter, and is subject to removal if he does enter. The predictable result is a huge backlog of would-be immigrants who, despite being honest, hard-working, and desperate to enter the United States, lack any legal means of entry. Another predictable result is that huge numbers of such people either don’t try to enter (and languish or worse in their home countries), or enter illegally for lack of any better alternatives, putting themselves at risk of deportation upon discovery by ICE. The design of our immigration system incentivizes the illegal behavior that generates the widespread outrage against “illegal immigration.”What’s true of immigrants generally is particularly true of applicants for asylum. Applicants for asylum must provide “documentary evidence” of persecution in their home countries, persecution that must be governmental in nature and target the victim by race, religion, ethnicity, political affiliation, or membership in a specially targeted social group. (Domestic violence has now also been accepted on an ad hoc basis as grounds for asylum.)
But a great deal of persecution abroad takes other, private or quasi-private forms–or at any rate, forms that can’t easily be tied back to government action in any documentable way. Hondurans, for example, face clear-cutting of the Honduran rain forest on the part of private corporations in search of palm oil. Those who protest their actions face privatized persecution–up to and including murder–that does not qualify as grounds for asylum. I was struck by one story Joyce told, of protesters whose remains were scattered and put in the street for display; the tactic comes straight out of Machiavelli’s Prince. I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t know who Berta Caceres was before Joyce’s talk, but I do now.
It’s obvious, or should be, that people only leave their homes and march thousands of miles to immigrate to a foreign country under conditions of duress and desperation. It behooves us (you’d think) to ask why they suffer under those conditions. Arguably, a large part of the explanation lies with American foreign policy toward Central America (or in the case of Syrian refugees, toward the Near East and Persian Gulf). If our policies causally explain why–or in significant measure explain why–refugees are leaving their countries en masse to come to ours, then it’s arguable that we owe them safe harbor from conditions we ourselves have imposed on them, or have at least helped impose.
At a minimum, we have an obligation to look into the facts to determine what responsibility we have for their situation, and if we are responsible, to temper our application of the black letter of the law accordingly. Our Constitution makes justice a part of the law (read the Preamble); if so, no flagrant injustice can ever be legal under our laws (slavery, internment, Jim Crow, the disenfranchisement of women…). The question then becomes how flagrant an injustice it is to put people in a condition of abject misery and keep them there indefinitely because one idiosyncratically partisan interpretation of immigration law demands it. It sounds pretty flagrant to me.Joyce’s presentation was more explicitly political than the one we’d gotten from ICE, and helped put the micro-level situation in a broader and more intelligible context. The migrant caravan, on Joyce’s view, is not an ad hoc assemblage of people who’ve inscrutably decided to wake up one day, and breach the Mexican or American borders; like the Syrians before them, they are the victims of an international refugee crisis produced by intolerable conditions at home. And like the Syrian crisis that preceded it, it’s arguable that our policies are the root cause (or one of the main causes) of the crisis they face–a fact obscured by our fixation on narrow legalisms (“they broke the law!”), as well as by our obsession with the micro-level optics of rock throwing and tear-gassing (whether of men, women, or children). The real question is not what’s happening at the border, but why so many people are headed there in the first place.
Having given us the broader context, Joyce offered some useful advice, legal and otherwise.
- The best thing you can do to help an undocumented immigrant is to guide them to a lawyer and to a reputable social service organization; it also helps to listen to their stories without feeling the need to give advice. (As she pointed out, the new pro-immigrant gubernatorial administration in New Jersey has dedicated some $2.1 million to legal aid for immigrant legal services.)
- Don’t trust non-lawyers for immigration advice of any kind, in particular public notaries (known in Spanish-speaking communities as “notarios“), well-known for their total ignorance of immigration law along with their tendency to scam the unwary.
- That said, familiarize yourself with the basics of immigration law, as described at the website of USCIS.
- If taken into custody by ICE (or any associated agency), a detainee should invoke and exercise her Fifth Amendment right to remain silent–a right everyone enjoys, regardless of immigration status. (That said, ICE often relies on biometric data, like fingerprinting, which is not protected by the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. On the other hand, I was gratified to learn about the passage of these legal protections for immigrants, care of a previous guest speaker at Felician.)
I was surprised to hear her insist that immigrants have certain duties as well as rights, two of a negative character, one positive.
- Immigrants, she argued, have a duty not to use fake Social Security numbers, as their use is not “victimless,” and if discovered, guarantees deportation without hope of return.
- They have a duty not to use a fake driver’s license.
- They have a duty to pay state and federal income taxes, not only to avoid being a free rider on any services they may use, but to create a documentary record of one’s presence in the country. As she put it, the IRS doesn’t care about your immigration status; it only wants your money. Every immigrant, documented or not, should obtain a tax ID number and file a W7 form. The point is not to imply that tax payments are literally a path to citizenship (a common misconception), but that they help document one’s presence in the country so as to prove the right to legal residency.
High minded, to be sure, but it strikes me as a tough sell.She ended with a paean to the Statue of Liberty, and a peroration to immigration and immigrants. “Plan for a day trip,” she said, “and spend half of it at the Statue of Liberty, and the other half at Ellis Island.” And on immigration itself:
We’re all immigrants. On my father’s side, I’m a Finn. They came in 1909. On my mother’s side, I’m a mutt–circa 1709. But the point is, we’re all immigrants, and every single one of us has some kind of heritage that’s important to us. And that’s what you need to lock into–whether your ancestors came because they were fleeing persecution, or whether they were dragged here in chains, or whether they just came for a better life: every single one of us has a connection with that kind of immigrant past.
I guess the question she left us with is what we intend to do with it.
Thanks to Professor Lavina Sequeira for merging her Phil 250 class with my Phil 380 for both Joyce Phipps’s talk as well as the ICE presentation.