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.

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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)

Guest Essay: Nancy’s Annual 2¢

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Our son, Benjamin, remarked that Jeffrey’s bike ride might be compared to the Odyssey. A courageous warrior, Odysseus helped conquer the Trojans. Then it took him ten years to get home.

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Odysseus, 1172 B.C.E.

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Nancy & Jeffrey, 1980 C.E.

One can feel for Odysseus’s wife, Queen Penelope. She worried for a decade while her husband wandered. The queen didn’t have a cell phone with which to call her spouse or an app to track him. Lucky me.

Our Jeffrey is on a quest to conquer the modern day Trojans who want to destroy our country and our core value as a haven for those who fear persecution abroad. Jeffrey’s latest clients are running from several Middle East countries where dictators and religious leaders want to kill them. Syria’s Assad, gassing and murdering civilians, is not too different from Hitler.

My own family ran from Hitler. My father has spoken about the luck of the gods – and a generous distant cousin who provided his parents the money demanded by the United States to ensure that the family would not be a “public charge.” Only then did a U.S. consul grudgingly issue visas to let the family escape the Nazis in 1937, in the nick of time.

My late mother left Germany in the middle of the night in April 1933. Her father told the family to take one last look at their home before fleeing to British Palestine, a step ahead of Hitler’s Brown Shirts, who already had blasted my mother’s house with gunfire.

The children – my parents – survived. Many others did not. Odysseus too reached safety – alone. The rest of his people died.

Now I’m among the very very lucky. Like our children, I was born a U.S. citizen. Our kids and I are German citizens too, because the Germans let us inherit the citizenship they stole from my father. With two passports, my family (except Jeffrey and Joey) can claim protection from two free countries. People seeking safety in America – or today’s Germany – don’t have even one protector.

For most of our history, immigration was open. Go to Ellis Island and see the posters welcoming newcomers to our country. You didn’t need a visa. You just needed guts.

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Odysseus, Jeffrey, now a guy with a torch … redheads!

The immigrants came. And most took their turn at being hated. We hated the Germans, the Irish, the Italians, the Chinese and the Jews. We hated and enslaved Africans. We hated, then banned, then interned the Japanese. Now we hate Muslims. We don’t seem to learn. Hating people who need a safe haven mocks the Statue of Liberty, our beacon to the downtrodden.

Immigrants make the United States wonderful and exceptional. It isn’t just being nice, it’s the law of the land to welcome those who are afraid. And thank heaven it is, because I would not be alive to write to you if the USA did not take those fleeing persecution.

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Many people in the USA claim to be religious. The Bible tells us to treat strangers like family, yet Americans talk about closing our borders and building a wall. It’s cruel. It’s nuts. It’s not in line with our values. People fleeing persecution need help and sympathy, not meanness, the same as when my family left Nazi Germany and moved to the USA.

I won’t have to wait ten years for my Odysseus to get home. But the worry for his return will be the same. May Zeus dispatch Athena to ensure J&J’s safe passage.

Please join me in reading the Joey-Jeffrey blog and donating to Human Rights First.

Thank you,

Nancy

Ride for Human Rights: Joey Goes to New Mexico

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Joey, in a Real Western Working Hat with Earflaps, contemplates new lands to explore. Chicago and Postville, Joey’s 2015 & 2011 destinations, are at the white and blue pins in the upper right corner.

Joey here.  Kangaroo Court Puppet.  One pound of 25-year-old, Australia-conceived, Korea-born, America-imported dead weight.  New Mexico bound.

Here’s my chauffeur, Jeffrey, acclimating to the Rajasthani desert in January under the supervision of Rocket the Camel, to prepare for the hot dry American Southwest.

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In our five annual Rides for Human Rights, Jeffrey and I have pedaled over 6,000 miles (10,000 km).  Our travels have led kind people to donate over $167,000 to Human Rights First to support their work to stop the violence that forces people to become refugees, and their work to help refugees who make it to our country.  Along the way, we have spoken about immigration and refugee issues to thousands of Americans.  The little red arrow shows where we started each journey: New York City.

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Everyone in these golden states to whom, face to face, we gently have explained the realities of immigration and asylum law, has agreed with the premise that—no matter what they think of immigration in general—America should welcome refugees and should provide lawyers to help victims of persecution plead their cases.

Our sixth Ride for Human Rights will test this precedent.

During the ongoing 2016 Presidential campaign, good, well-meaning Americans have been whipped into xenophobic anger by politicians who are ignorant of the facts and/or lie like rugs.  (We can’t imagine a third possibility.)

Politicians claim that people fleeing violence in Central America are lawbreakers when they come to the U.S. border to ask for refuge.  No!  Under American law, these people have the right to ask for asylum, and the right to have their cases decided by an asylum officer or an immigration judge.

Politicians claim that immigrants bring crime and disease and are a net financial burden.  No!  Immigrants, even unauthorized immigrants, have lower crime and disease rates, and higher labor force participation rates, than the America-born.  Their tax payments subsidize Americans.

Politicians claim that Syrian refugees are terrorists.  No!  Refugees are carefully screened before they are allowed to immigrate here.  Refugees are less likely to be terrorists than Americans are.  The 9/11 terrorists—just like the all-American 1995 Oklahoma City bomber—were non-refugees, non-immigrants.

It’s sad that lies have stirred up hatred of immigrants and resistance to refugees.

How much hatred?  How much resistance?

By riding deeper into the Heartland than we’ve ever gone before, maybe we can answer those questions.

Jeffrey and I listen to the people we meet.  We tell them our truth.  We hope, as before, it becomes our new friends’ truth.

On May 18, we will leave NYC by train.  On May 19, picking up where we left off in Chicago in 2014,

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we will pedal 1400 miles (2200 km) south and west on a new adventure.

Follow us to New Mexico.  Listen to what we hear along the way.  See whether, away from the foulness of 2016 politics, our fellow Americans are still the kind and generous people who welcomed us in the Rust Belt, in Appalachia, in the Deep South, in cosmopolitan places and in places where a stranger stands out.

Once we get rolling, as in past years we intend to post every night from the road.

Come back soon for more pre-departure news!