Keeping Secrets: Pushback

L to R: Joey, Jeffrey, clad in matching Liberty ties.

Joey here.

Nancy took this photo before she & my chauffeur left the U.S.A. for two weeks. Then Nancy took a selfie, with Jeffrey in a seahorse tie (symbolic: seahorse dads carry the babies). Jeffrey flies in ties because others fly in pajamas.

L to R: Jeffrey, Nancy. Jeffrey doffed the Liberty tie; he thinks it’s in poor taste to flaunt one’s national symbols when abroad.

They travel light and fast. There was no room for me. And no need. They will tread quietly, as guests, to see and to learn. Not like on the Rides, when our goal is to see and to learn . . . and to be seen and to teach.

At month’s end, I hope Jeffrey will be allowed to come home.

“What!?” you ask. “Why is that in question!?”

Because, Dear Reader, our America the Brave has become America the Fearful.

I’ll explain.

Jeffrey is a New York lawyer, duty-bound to protect his clients’ secrets.

Like most Americans, Jeffrey carries a password-protected mobile phone. It contains slices of the lives of Jeffrey and his clients.

Jeffrey may not, without his clients’ permission or a court order, disclose to third parties the texts, emails, documents, calendar entries, and other particulars of his clients’ lives, that reside on Jeffrey’s phone.

Empowered and encouraged by White House edicts, supplied with guns and jails, U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP) agents have begun to demand — allegedly for our protection — mobile phone and social media passwords from many of the people arriving at U.S. borders. They seize phones and upload data. They “detain” even U.S. citizens until the passwords are divulged.

CBP hound and gunbelt.

America is beginning to look like a barnyard of sheep led by chickens.

Jeffrey posts on social media only to promote the Rides. He has nothing subversive to hide. So why resist?

Because the protections of our Constitution weaken if they’re not observed.

Jeffrey concedes the right of CBP to search for contraband at the border. He acknowledges that foreigners’ rights at the border are limited.

But Jeffrey is a citizen of the United States. He has the right — not the privilege, but the right — to enter our country. He does not accept CBP’s claim of right to read the contents of a U.S. citizen’s phone. He declines to give to government agents the password to his phone or to this blog.

CBP rifles and trigger fingers.

Citizenship aside, the client secrets on Jeffrey’s phone are not his to divulge. If CBP demands access to those secrets, Jeffrey will decline to provide it, the same as if CBP demanded to copy a client’s papers.

Benjamin Franklin said that he and his colleagues had created “a Republic — if you can keep it.” Like you, Jeffrey is determined to keep it.

Jeffrey’s determination never has been tested. Not really. He was bruised and his suit torn when he peacefully refused to obey an illegal order of an unarmed immigration court rent-a-cop in Manhattan. He resigned from the New Jersey bar rather than obey the unethical order of a judge who threatened Jeffrey with a fine or jail. These were little low-risk pushbacks. In contrast, his asylum clients from around the world have stood up for principle in the face of death.

Chances are my soft spoiled native American chauffeur won’t be tested this time either. People who look like Jeffrey — and like Mem Fox, a 70 year old Australian children’s author who recently made her 117th visit to the United States — generally pass under CBP radar.

I expect that Jeffrey and Nancy will return home without incident on March 31.

Yet if Jeffrey is detained, now you will know why.

CBP handcuffs.

Then — please — scream bloody murder!

As we should be screaming to Congress and the White House about every American subjected to CBP’s privacy-violating citizen-bullying unAmerican demands.

CBP bullied Fox. And an American rocket scientist. And a French Jewish Holocaust scholar. And thousands like them. Do you feel safer now?

Hunting Fugitives, Then and Now

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In 1851, Bostonians whose “crime” was escaping slavery were warned to avoid local police.  The president now wants local police to capture people whose only “crime” is BWF (Breathing While Foreign).  Déjà vu?

Joey here.

The 1787 U.S. Constitution didn’t mention slavery.  Not outright.

One must read between the lines.

Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3 (substituting “Slavery” for the original “Service or Labour”):

No Person held to [Slavery] in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such [Slavery], but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such [Slavery] may be due.”

The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act decreed severe punishment – fines ($30,000 in today’s dollars), payment of restitution, and imprisonment – for Americans who did not deliver escaped slaves to their masters.

Today we are disgusted by the people who obeyed the law (and the Constitution) and returned slaves to slavery.

We honor people like Harriet Tubman and Luther Lee who defied the law.  Good people hid and harbored escaped slaves.  They pushed back against the Dred Scott Supreme Court ruling (1857) that no one of African ancestry could be an American citizen.  They were part of the Underground Railroad, transporting people to freedom in Canada.

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The image of Harriet Tubman, an escaped slave who helped dozens more slaves reach freedom in Canada, will appear on a new U.S. $20 bill.

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From The Autobiography of Rev. Luther Lee (1882), pastor of the Wesleyan Methodist Church of Syracuse, NY:  “I never had obeyed [the Fugitive Slave Act]—I never would obey it. I had assisted thirty slaves to escape to Canada during the last month. If the United States authorities wanted any thing of me my residence was at 39 Onondaga-street. I would admit that they could take me and lock me up in the Penitentiary on the hill; but if they did such a foolish thing as that I had friends enough in Onondaga County to level it with the ground before the next morning.”

Jeffrey has defended refugees from countries where slavery still exists.  His clients suffered from physical and psychological atrocities as horrifying as what American slaves endured.  So forgive us if we see parallels between America’s slaves and their descendants – who were deprived of citizenship until after the Civil War, deprived of human rights for 100 years after that, and still suffer the effects of this persecution – and today’s refugees and other desperate migrants.

We ask ourselves:  In 1850s America, would we have hunted down fugitive slaves?  In 1930s America, would we have rejected refugees fleeing the Nazis?  In 1940s Europe, would we have ignored or betrayed innocent Jews and others whom the law declared were enemies?

We hadn’t thought that Americans would be faced with such questions in our own era.  The application of our immigration, refugee and asylum laws, in fits and starts, has tended to become more humane since 1980 . . .

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Jeffrey created this clipart montage to evoke a government (!) poster he recalls from (perhaps) the second Bush administration, showing the American eagle sheltering refugees.

. . . until now.

The new president has tried to bar refugees from the United States.  That is illegal and immoral.

He has ordered the arrest and expulsion of millions of our neighbors, friends and families.  That is legal and immoral – like the Fugitive Slave Act.

We will not turn our backs on the new slaves, the new Jews, the new refugees.

We denounce presidential orders that lie about refugees, that slander and ban refugees as mysterious and dangerous.

We will not cooperate with those who hunt down peaceful members of our community, to take them from the people they work with, worship with, do business with, and love.

Since years before I joined Jeffrey and Nancy in 1991, they and their children have housed and transported and fed and supported refugees from Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas.  They do it because . . .

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. . . Jeffrey’s and Nancy’s people were refugees . . .

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. . . the Bible says to welcome and protect the stranger, to treat the stranger the same as the citizen, to love the stranger . . .

. . . if they didn’t help, they’d be ashamed . . . and because they are Americans.

Let’s say NO to enforcement of the modern version of the Fugitive Slave Act.  Let’s fight it, however we can.

To start, let’s stop the slurs against people who exercise their moral and legal right to come to the U.S. and ask for refuge.  Let’s stop the slurs against unauthorized immigrants who have settled here.  Let’s gently explain the destructive power of careless language, to friends and neighbors who are cruel without realizing it.

Listen to Nobel Peace laureate and Holocaust survivor, the late Elie Wiesel:

“You, who are so-called illegal aliens, must know that no human being is illegal.  That is a contradiction in terms.  Human beings can be beautiful or more beautiful, they can be fat or skinny, they can be right or wrong, but illegal?  How can a human being be illegal? … [O]nce you label a people ‘illegal,’ that is exactly what the Nazis did to Jews.  You do not label a people ‘illegal.’  They have committed an illegal act.  They are immigrants who crossed illegally.  They are immigrants who crossed without papers.  They are immigrants who crossed without permission.  They are living in this country without permission.  But they are not an illegal people.”

And let’s band together, through groups like Human Rights First . . .

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. . . to stop the president from reinstating torture; to stop the villification of women, Mexicans, Muslims, refugees, Jews, immigrants, Democrats, Syrians, the LGBTQ, the press, and others, who do not conform to a ruler’s idea of the “norm”; to stop refugee bans that violate our laws and morals; to stop seizing and deporting people whose “crime” is living and working and caring for family; to stop propaganda that encourages the misinformed to bully our neighbors.

Let’s put Human Rights FIRST.

Javert or Valjean? Which Side Are You On?

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Joey Valjoey, clad in a sack, feeds stolen bread to a starving youth. The penalty for bread theft can be eternal banishment from the U.S.  The same crime put Jean Valjean in a French prison.  But Valjean was not banished from France.

First, a reminder:

As every year since we planned the first Ride in 2011, we post occasional essays in the weeks before our departure.  This year, we will leave NYC on April 18.  Once we are on the road, we will post every night so you can share the adventure.

*     *     *

In Les Misérables, Victor Hugo’s Jean Valjean went to prison for stealing bread to feed a starving child.

A boy in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath risked jail too: “Last night I went an’ busted a winda an’ stoled some bread. Made [my pa] chew ‘er down. But he puked it all up, an’ then he was weaker. . . . He’s starvin’ to death, I tell you!”

These fictional characters reflected real life in an 1830s French monarchy, and during the 1930s Great American Depression.  People were severely punished for committing minor crimes even to save a life.  It had been worse.  In Merrie Olde England, stealing bread was punishable by death.

Modern criminal penalties are, for the most part, more proportional.  And most crimes have an expiry date.

Here’s how to get away with armed robbery in (for example) hang-’em-high law-‘n’-order Texas.

Load your gun, rob your victim (you may pistol-whip her, just don’t kill her), stay in Texas, and don’t get indicted.  After 5 years, you’re untouchable.

Not only Texas forgives and forgets.  For most crimes, American law has statutes of limitations.  The state recognizes problems of proof and of justice.  It declines to pursue or punish perps of long-ago crimes.

For American criminals, there’s another way out.  Juries (and to a lesser extent, judges) have discretion in verdicts and sentencing.  Like any discretionary power, it can be abused.  Yet when the letter of the law is unjust – as when a trespasser seeks shelter from a storm, or an abused spouse clubs her abuser, or a starving person steals a loaf of bread – discretion can set things right.

And who among us has not exceeded the speed limit, cut across someone else’s land, or violated some aspect of the Internal Revenue Code?  In NYC, letting your dog pee on a sidewalk can get you a $25 fine and 10 days in jail; how often is that enforced?  States and cities have tax amnesties: tax cheats pay up, sometimes at a discount, and all is forgiven.  The driver who shattered Jeffrey’s leg in 2014 was not issued a ticket, despite her lawyer conceding that she was 100% at fault.  Amnesties and discretionary enforcement let citizens get away with stuff.

For noncitizens, it’s different.  Immigration law rarely forgives and never forgets.  Something you did decades ago, even if a new law made it a “deportable offense” after the fact, can get you banished from the United States.

Uninformed people say, “The law is the law.  Foreigners are here illegally.  Get rid of them!”

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These laypersons – including the president, who shows no knowledge of the law and does not vet his remarks with knowledgeable people – speak without understanding our complex immigration system.  Most immigration violations are civil, not criminal.  Many people facing removal from this country would qualify to stay if they get their day in court.  Federal agents have arrested, jailed, and even deported U.S. citizens.  On our first Ride in 2011, we ourselves met a U.S. citizen who had been jailed illegally by immigration cops.

What happened to common-sense fairness?  A person who lives and works here, supports her children, participates in the economy as producer and consumer, pays taxes that enrich the commonwealth, joins religious and civic groups that help the community, becomes one of us . . . at some point, justice demands that we recognize that America is her home.

Years ago, an immigration judge – a refugee who became a U.S. citizen – told Jeffrey that we need careful border controls, but that after someone has lived here and become part of our society, we owe that person compassion.

The judge was right.  All laws, criminal and civil, Biblical and Constitutional, require interpretation.  Law making, interpretation, and enforcement, are human enterprises.  Immigrants are human.  Are they not entitled to humane treatment, in light of all the circumstances?

We say yes.  We say that immigration law must be changed to reflect our universal moral values.  Temper justice with mercy.  Make the punishment fit the offense.  Don’t criminalize normal constructive human behavior.

Until then, common-sense discretion should temper enforcement.  There is no excuse for cruelty to individuals, families, communities.

Consider this,
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation; we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.
William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, scene 1, line 196

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Say it ain’t so, Joey! (With a nod to the 1919 Black Sox scandal)