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)

Ride for Human Rights: Joey Goes to California

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We’re crossing Your Land, we’re crossing My Land, to California, from the New York Island.  “Surfin’ USA!”

The star.

Joey here.  Kangaroo Court Puppet.  One pound (1/2 kg) of Australia-conceived, Korea-made artificial fiber.  Bicycle passenger for over 7,500 road miles (12,000 km) through 1 Canadian province and 29 of the 48 contiguous American states.  Symbol of an immigration adjudication system in desperate need of overhaul.  For the seventh consecutive year, riding for human rights.

The crew.

Puppets need a puppet master.  For travel, they need a chauffeur.  My person, Jeffrey, does dual duty.

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Jeffrey, with the sign he carried on the 400,000-strong Women’s March in NYC:  obverse and . . .

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. . . reverse.

We travel on a 2014 ICE Sprint 26.

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100% human powered

We ride alone.  But we aren’t alone.  Once again, Nancy will be our ground control, watching over us from the East.

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Nancy is Jeffrey’s Favorite in the World.

Kind words from family and friends, and from friends of human rights, give us the courage to keep going.

And we roll with the blessing of Human Rights First as we introduce people to the organization’s 39 years of support for human rights, their programs for refugee protection, and their efforts to stop the violence that forces refugees to leave their homes.  Nancy and Jeffrey pay all expenses of the Ride, so 100% of your donations go to Human Rights First (rated 4 of 4 Stars by Charity Navigator).

The plan.

On the road, we talk with people about our rights and responsibilities as Americans, how best to be generous and fair in the spirit of our faiths and our laws.

The world has dangers.  We recognize the human tendency to exaggerate those dangers.  A Cato Institute report puts the odds of being killed in America by an immigrant terrorist at 1 in 3.6 million; by a refugee terrorist at 1 in 3.64 billion; by an unauthorized immigrant terrorist at 1 in 10.9 billion.  The National Safety Council says 1 in 114,000 will die by dog assault, 1 in 3,400 will choke to death on food, 1 in 358 will be shot to death by a criminal, 1 in 114 will die in a car crash.  Banning refugees doesn’t keep us safe.  We’d be smarter to ban dogs—or hot dogs!

The people we meet teach us.  Their worlds are not entirely ours.  Jeffrey often is clueless, but he’s willing to learn.

We teach our new friends, too.  Jeffrey is a country boy who adapted to the city, a family man, a teacher, a student, a lawyer, a nurse, a driver, a cyclist, a caregiver, a cook.  He finds something in common with almost everyone.  His experiences often give him an angle that a new friend hasn’t considered.

We daresay most of our Ride encounters are fun all around.

The route.

Past destinations include Iowa, Tennessee, Florida, New England, and Chicago.  Last May we returned to Chicago and biked from there to New Mexico.  This April, we’ll pick up where we left off and continue to California, adding 1300 miles (2100 km) and three states to our list, and completing our crossing of North America.

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We’re starting this leg at the big green dot, in Rio Rancho, New Mexico.

The atmosphere.

Since we ended last year’s Ride, false and hateful things have been said about immigrants and refugees.  The tone of our national conversation leads us to wonder whether we still can have the fruitful exchanges we enjoyed on our previous Rides, with people of all backgrounds and political bents.  Will we still be welcomed?  Will we still find sympathy for refugees?

Once again, we’ll take the temperature of part of America.  We hope you’ll come along.

We’ll post in this space occasionally until our journey begins.  We’ll post every night when we’re on the road.

This Odyssey Ends

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The six Rides have now gone to 29 states.  NYC is at the little red arrow at right.

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Sunset tonight, seen from my window.

Jeffrey here.  As every year, Joey allows me the last word.

Before embarking on this Ride—on which I pedaled 1,416 miles, for which kind people have so far donated over $27,000 to Human Rights First—I wondered, after months of vile xenophobic political rhetoric, how people in rural Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico would react to the idea that asylum seekers deserve more help than our American community (through our government collective) provides.

The right-wing Chattering Class stirs the Heartland pot, exploiting ignorance (and why shouldn’t ordinary people be ignorant of asylum issues?); up boils hatred. The left-wing Chattering Class regards people of the Heartland as hopeless blockheads, a lost cause.

Yet once again, The People came through.  Farmers, students, oilmen, veterans, merchants, truck drivers, devout Christians, members of First Nations, supporters of Trump and of Clinton—everyone I met—wants America to do right by refugees who follow the law and apply for asylum after they reach the United States.

Every one approves of the work of Human Rights First.  Every one engaged in real discussion: always friendly, usually as nuanced and sophisticated as you might find in Manhattan.  Every person, every single one, wished me well, and/or invoked Divine blessings, and/or handed me cash for Human Rights First.

As an ambassador of cycling, I cycle responsibly and wash, shave, and wear clean non-Spandex street clothes.  As a representative of NYC, I speak softly and smile at everyone.  As an advocate of human rights and of Human Rights First, I listen respectfully and advocate gently.  And people respond.  I feel welcome everywhere.

Heartland people take their beliefs as seriously as anyone.  I watched a man eating a Tex-Mex dinner in front of a TV; when the national anthem came on before a basketball game, he removed his cap; when the music finished, he replaced his cap and continued eating.  That song and the flag on display are that man’s objects of worship as much as any token of the Divine.  To awaken this man to the plight of refugees, and to show him that helping asylum applicants is an American’s duty, one must understand and respect where he’s coming from.  A citified country boy with a foot in both worlds, I understand a little, I show respect, and I have some small success in finding areas (such as a fair shake for refugees) in which we Americans, as different as we are, can agree.

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I like stories, too.  Do you?

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This sculpture was installed in a nearby park while I was on the Ride.

If—like Homer and me—you like stories . . . and if like Reverend King, you believe that if we live, we cannot be silent about things that matter . . . I hope you will listen to, and tell, stories from these Rides, from other sources, and from your own life.  Good people, our American people, are eager to hear true stories so they can understand what is right, then do what is right.  Then those who are forced to flee persecution will find a true American welcome home.

On these Rides, I talk, listen, write.  You sit, read, think.  Now, together, let’s do.  And if you are so moved, please donate to Human Rights First.

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I can’t thank enough the people from Chicago to Rio Rancho who treated me with generosity and kindness.  Thousands of heavy motor vehicles passed me; only a handful scared me.  Face to face, and from behind the wheel, good cheer and support were the norm.

My friends at Human Rights First, first among them Ellen Kim, backed me every mile.

Special thanks to daughter Deena and her David for welcoming me in Chicago, and to them and to friends Jeffrey O., Julie W. O., and Ruth W. for the warm sendoff.  Terri W. and Kay L. met me in St. Louis to buoy my spirit.  Thanks to Elisa E. and Irene S. for introducing me to Peggy and George, who opened their beautiful home to me at the end of the road in Rio Rancho.

Daughter Rebecca, her fiancé Andrew, and son Benjamin sent words of love and encouragement when I needed them most.

To each of you who commented, emailed, or otherwise conveyed support, you flattened the hills, smoothed the pavement, calmed the winds, more than you can imagine.  I am grateful.

I’m grateful also to the family, friends and professionals who have helped my recovery from the leg-shattering head-on collision between me (dutifully stopped on my bicycle at a Brooklyn traffic light) and a criminally negligent driver (driving on the wrong side of the street and not watching where she was going) in October 2014.  On this Ride, I had more power than on the 2015 Ride to New England.  But the story isn’t over.  Next week, the surgeon will remove these screws

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and two more like them, in the hope that this will reduce the pain when I walk.  (Cycling is less uncomfortable.)  Surgery scares me.  But I am determined to restore my former strength.  It’s hard to get stronger when something hurts.

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To even begin to convey the richness of experience of any of the Rides, I would have to compose you a symphony. A symphony?  I can’t compose a simple piano tune.  I can think only of music I’ve already heard.  So I do my best with photos and prose.

I have the same shortcoming regarding Nancy.  She is symphony-worthy.  Yet I am forced to resort to clumsy words.  Her brains and leadership constantly save me from myself, on Rides and at home.  And as Olga (the St. Petersburg native in Texas) said, Nancy has a special love for me, because while it can be frightening to do what I do, it’s much worse to be at home imagining things.  Nancy is at home, her imagination is powerful, she hardly sleeps, yet still she supports me every mile, every year.

And she’s beautiful.

I get into a rhythm on the Rides.  Life is simple.  I awaken, I bike, I write, I sleep, I do it again the next day.  I lose myself on the wide open land.  But where is Nancy, is home.  She is this Odysseus’s Penelope and his Siren too.

So I come home. ❤️❤️❤️

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