This Land Is Your Land
Dear Student of Our Town High School,
Don’t think of this as a rejection letter. Consider it a reason to rethink your role as a citizen in this inconstant-as-the-moon American society.
And may we suggest getting a head start on penning next year’s “I Can’t Keep Up With What An American Is Today” Essay Contest, sponsored by the Current?
As you know, the rights and duties of the American citizen are wobbly — our founding document, the Constitution, went from being a document protecting the propertied, white slave owner to the vehicle for delivering freedom to the enslaved. And in the spirit of finding another about-face, each year we seek submissions celebrating the latest modifications (e.g. Patriot Acts, detainee bills that apply to citizens too!) on what it means to be an American.
All of the essays we received were truly remarkable — choosing the best wasn’t easy. And please don’t be discouraged by the fact that the winning essays, included below, all come from our Current staff and contributors. Nepotism is an American constant.
This Land Is My Land
The Ballot Box Overseas
Spin back with me through time and space six years to Tokyo, where I was a young and foolish exchange student who believed that all the important things in life could be found in library books, on gallery walls, or purchased in bento boxes at the convenience store.
The 2000 presidential election was my first since coming of age, but I was so far removed from the Gore-Bush campaigns that I’d picked my candidate based on something flighty I’d read in a magazine: To relax and focus before a debate, Al Gore would lie on his back on an empty basketball court and shoot hoops. I could identify with that kind of Zen. That was my president.
Sigh. I never even registered to vote. The U.S. Consulate was sooo many subway transfers away and I was sooo busy being lazy and I figured that:
My state, Arizona, always backs the Republican, anyway.
An expatriate really ought not influence a government if he won’t be governed by it.
Of course, a day later the Florida debacle began. There was talk that overseas votes could’ve tipped it either way. In Arizona, George W. Bush won with barely 51 percent. Adding insult to idiocy, a few months later my visa expired, and I flew home.
Spin forward to 2004, and I’m overseas again, this time in England. Complacency had bit me on the ass once, and I’d made up for it by cutting my journalistic teeth covering Arizona state politics. This time, slightly less young and foolish, I was determined to fulfill my civic duty.
The deadlines were a bitch to decode and the absentee ballot never arrived, so I rush-mailed the write-in ballot with only a few days left before the election. It cost a tenner (or $18.50 US) and the postal clerk gave me 50-50 odds it would arrive in time.
In case I find myself in, say, Liberia in 2008, I contacted Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat, executive director of the Overseas Vote Foundation, which specializes in assisting expatriate voters.
She told me I wasn’t a special case. According to their post-2004 election survey:
• 43 percent of overseas voters received
their ballots at the last minute, late, or
not at all.
• 19 percent received the wrong ballot,
two ballots, or a crumpled ballot.
• 42 percent of those who did vote weren’t
confident it counted.
Expats on the whole care more now than they did in 2000.
“`The Florida debacle` was the absolutely turning point,” Susan told me, “because it brought profound awareness of the issue, and that overseas and military votes could be the defining factor.”
That said the chief difference comes from how U.S. foreign policy is affecting their lives.
“World patriots are in disbelief,” Susan said. “The world events of today and the wars we are propagating have significantly changed the warm reception of the past to a cautionary reception today. “
She said, “The global citizen may think twice about being a friend of an American. We can’t go around the world thinking our deeds don’t follow us.”
While election officials are scurrying around trying to plug holes, domestically and abroad, we’re not closer to solving the problem. Election officials are floating email and fax voting systems, but most require the voter to give up the fundamental right to anonymity. With more than 7,500 different election jurisdictions in the U.S. using varying levels of technology, it could very well be decades before anything happens.
You might echo my early statement that expats shouldn’t even be allowed to vote. That might be a fair point. But the U.S. is the only country in the developed world taxing its overseas citizens and Congress upped their tax rates in May. Taxation without representation has never been fair.
Citizenship: On Celluloid
Alien Nation (1988, dir. Graham Baker)
How thinly veiled do you take your immigration/assimilation conceits? Got a weakness for spotted noggins and sly double entendres? In 1991, 300,000 slave refugees from the planet Tencton came to Earth (what, you missed it?), integrated themselves into American society, and gained civil rights, only to contend with racism and prejudice.
Green Card (1990, dir. Peter Weir)
You know the drill: Andie MacDowell marries Gérard Depardieu for convenience, complications arise. Like your citizenship-cinema super saccharine? Sure you do. (Hey, it got an Oscar nomination ... )
Starship Troopers (1997, dir. Paul Verhoeven)
A society wherein only soldiers are granted full citizenship? Ribby lampoons of war propaganda? Criticisms of jingoism and militarism (and, perhaps, of Robert Heinlein’s original source material)? Oh, you betcha — Troopers has more going on upstairs than some might care to admit. (Plus, a veritable dickload of exploding bugs.)
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962, dir. Robert Mulligan)
Best Dad Ever Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) defends a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman in the Deep South in this three-Oscar classic.
Her Alibi (1989, dir. Bruce Beresford)
A struggling detective novelist (Tom Selleck) takes in a Romanian immigrant (Czech-supermodel-cum-Mrs.-Rick-Ocasek Paulina Porizkova) who’s suspected of murder; she provides him with fodder and inspiration, he lies to protect her from prison/deportation. Underappreciated, and funny.
In America (2002, dir. Jim Sheridan)
An Irish family immigrates illegally to the U.S., then struggles to cope and belong. Thrice-nominated film is bolstered by some seriously arresting performances — none more memorable than those of the two little girls through whose eyes the story is told. If they don’t melt your heart, then, brother, toss it out, ’cause the sucker’s busted.
Philadelphia (1993, dir. Jonathan Demme)
Tom Hanks plays a man who’s fired from a law firm for having AIDS. Denzel Washington is the skittish-about-gays lawyer who defends him; Antonio Banderas is Hanks’s lover. Nominated for five Oscars (won two of ’em).
Born in East L.A. (1987, dir. Cheech Marin)
Rudy, a Mexican-American U.S. citizen, is mistakenly rounded up in an INS raid and deported. Without friends or I.D. to prove he’s legit, he must sneak back in on his own. Throw in Cheech, and you’ve got one of the better-loved cult comedies of the ’80s. (Alternate: A Million to Juan.)
The Iron Giant (1999, dir. Brad Bird)
One of the best of that robots-as-people bunch designed to spur thoughts about tolerance and what it means to be human. See also: Blade Runner; A.I.; Short Circuit I-II; Bicentennial Man; I, Robot. And, aw, screw it: Pinocchio and/or Frankenstein.
North Country (2005, dir. Nicki Caro)
File under “Uncompromising Single Mothers Take On Corporations and Win Rights for the Individual.” See also: Norma Rae, Erin Brockovich.
The People Vs. Larry Flynt (1996, dir. Milos Forman)
Woody Harrelson’s Oscar-nominated turn as the eponymous pornographer-turned-unlikely-free-speech-hero. (Plus: a golden-vagina necklace. You know, for the kids.)
12 Angry Men (1957, dir. Sidney Lumet)
One room, 12 opinions: classic treatise on personal prejudices and the power of the vote.
Citizen Ruth (1996, dir. Alexander Payne)
When a judge offers poor, pregnant, paint-huffing mother-of-four Ruth Stoops a lighter sentence if she’ll get an abortion, Ruth becomes a focal point — and her uterus a battlefield — for pro-lifers and pro-choicers alike. Black comedy from Sideways helmer-scribe Payne.
V for Vendetta (2005, dir. James McTeigue)
Get past the silly mask and stilted dialogue, and V’s a pointed rumination on the power of the citizenry and the nature of democracy.
In the Name of the Father (1993, dir. Jim Sheridan)
Sheridan again: based on the true story of Gerry Conlon, falsely imprisoned for an IRA bombing, who fights to clear his name and his father’s. Seven (thoroughly deserved) Oscar nominations.
To the New York Islands
The Banished Americans, Call Them Ismail
The return flight home would not come until after three tries, five months, and the intervention of the ACLU.
Home was Lodi, California, the cow-patty and crops community south of Sacramento, where a cousin who plays a part in this story had worked as a cherry packer.
First, let’s be clear: the Ismails were never charged with a crime. And still they were banished.
Muhammad Ismail, naturalized U.S. citizen, disabled, in midlife, had gathered four of his immediate family — his wife born in Pakistan, and three children born in America — to return to the village of his birth outside Islamabad. Muhammad had been wearied by the new dual-defensive crouch he had taken since the months-old al Qaeda attacks. He hunkered down as an American, and crouched further still, hiding from possible brotherly reprisals against U.S. Muslims.
In the cloakroom at the Lodi Mosque, he told his brother-in-law, Umer Hayat, that he felt like a character from a book he found in the library’s international section, by a native Cuban raised in Italy. On one of his travels, the character buys a pair of slippers at a bazaar without trying them on, presuming one was the mate for the other.
“And when he wears the mismatched slippers,” Muhammad told Umer, as they sat on a bench next to shelves of shoes, “he thinks that another man must wear a mismatch, too. And he must also limp from one continent to the next.”
“Umph.” Umer was heavy-lidded, preoccupied with where to buy cheaper popsicles and ice-cream bars for the truck. His prices would still go up.
“And this other man, is, uh, unknown, but a companion in his misery.”
“They were both screwed by the merchant,” Umer offered.
“That is not the point,” Muhammad said annoyed, rising, and limping in the direction of excited shrieks coming from the men’s room, his 3-year-old no doubt.
Not long after, the Ismails were in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, where Jaber, the oldest, studied the Koran at his mother’s behest; where the daughter blossomed even under Hudood; and where they felt just as uneasy — through proliferating nuclear tensions with India, murdered U.S. journalists, earthquakes, and small wars on the border with Afghanistan and in Kashmir, home of the world’s highest battlefield, the Siachen glacier.
Just where did the Ismails belong?
Muhammad would later joke that sometimes the Department of Homeland Security helps you discover what you set out to find.
Hamid Hayat, 23, was convicted in April 2006 for attending a terrorist training camp in Pakistan. In a 2005 videotaped confession, when FBI agents asked the Lodi cherry packer who else went to camps, he answered, “I can’t say 100 percent, but I have a lot of, you know, names in my head.” The San Francisco Chronicle said Hayat had returned from a two-year trip to Pakistan, that he had been an FBI target after conversations with an informant who had infiltrated the Lodi Mosque. In his FBI interview, Hayat fingered Jaber Ismail, 19, saying his cousin went to a camp “like two years ago … I’m not sure, but I’ll say he went to a camp.” According to the Chronicle, he later said Jaber “didn’t talk to me about going to camps or anything. But you know, I’m sure they went to the camp … ’cause they memorize the Holy Koran.”
Add to that Hayat’s father, Umer Hayat, an ice-cream truck driver who was charged and sentenced to 330 days for lying to customs about the amount of money he was carrying to his native Pakistan — $28,000 in truth. Umer narrowly avoided more serious charges involving covering up his son’s involvement in a militant camp when a jury deadlocked.
Everything happens in threes, and the clincher was Jaber’s passport, on which, as the emergency contact, his uncle Umer Hayat is listed.
On April 21, 2006, when both Hayats were making the news, Muhammad and Jaber could not board the second leg of their trip, a U.S.-bound flight from Hong Kong. Airport officials said they had no record of their U.S. passports.
“I said, ‘I am a U.S. citizen. I was born there,’” Jaber told Reuters in August in a phone interview from Rawalpindi. “I showed them my birth certificate, my school ID. They wouldn’t listen.”
The mother and two younger Ismails boarded for America, while the two men paid for a return ticket to Pakistan, at the hottest time of the year, and waited two weeks for their lost luggage. At the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, a consular officer suggested booking a direct ticket to the U.S. (maybe connecting flights gave the system trouble). Weeks later at the Pakistani airport, they were told they still could not board: They were on the “No-Fly” list.
Jaber submitted to an FBI interview in Islamabad. Two months passed before he was asked to submit to further interrogation. The Ismails said they wouldn’t come without their lawyer, a condition rooted in the Fifth Amendment, along with the right not to be detained without being charged with a crime. (To date, being related to a person accused of a crime is not on the books.)
“The country has a history, in times of a national-security crisis, of compromising the rights of citizens,” ACLU lawyer Julia Harumi Mass told the Current, likening the Ismails’ case to the World War II interment of Japanese-American citizens, including her own mother’s detention in Wyoming’s Heart Mountain. Harumi Mass filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security on behalf of the Ismails in August, that said denying two U.S. citizens clearance to return to their home country, effectively detaining them in Pakistan without charges or being declared suspects, infringed upon their right to due process and to travel freely.
Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, wrote that because the Department of Homeland Security has a legal basis for denying the Ismails’ re-entry — the Immigration and Nationality Act says U.S. citizens can only use their passports within the rules prescribed by the president — you can add their case to the pile where the term “Islamofascists” lies. The American government is redefining the terms, and Pipes says we may one day see “the ‘nationality’ of radical Islam to be incompatible with American citizenship.”
It was not just an exercise in statelessness, Muhammad thought to himself over the many weeks he faxed letters back and forth to his lawyer, the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Sacramento, and other concerned people in the states. His trials had led to a breakthrough in his search.
“America is treating us like we are foreigners or something,” he would tell his wife, the crackle of 7,500 miles and phone line separating them.
The Ismails were allowed back in the country on October 1 and have not granted interviews. Therefore Muhammad’s thought processes, and the cloakroom conversation, were embellished, but the rest of this is true.
From the Redwood Forest
For the past 138 years, the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution has read: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”
That extends automatic U.S. citizenship to anyone born on U.S. soil, including the babies of undocumented immigrants. Critics call them “anchor babies,” because they enable immigrant parents and other family members to gain a berth in the U.S. as well: Undocumented family members can receive government benefits and eventually become U.S. citizens themselves. (Once children turn 21, they can petition for U.S. citizenship for their parents or other family members.)
And just who hopes to undo the continued constitutional guarantee that has for generations embraced our tiniest citizens? Congresses 106 through the current 109, whose session just may run out (January 2007) before it votes on the proposed Citizenship Reform Act of 2005.
Births among undocumented mothers now account for one in every 10 births in the U.S., or approximately 360,000 births per year. With hospitals across the country closing down and taxpayers left to flip the bill for hundreds of millions of dollars in unpaid health care, some speculation points to such figures as at least a partial cause. Between 1999 and 2003, the late Dr. Madeleine Cosman, a medical attorney who studied illegal immigration, said 84 hospitals in California were forced to close from the high cost of treating immigrants — including mothers in labor, which, under the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act, qualifies as an emergency service.
In San Antonio, Methodist HealthCare and University Health System hospitals do not track the number of undocumented immigrants who give birth, but Methodist Hospital’s spokesperson says immigrant labor (in the reproductive sense of the term) is neither a burden nor a crisis on its system.
Another departure from the conventional wisdom about so-called anchor babies happened on September 29. A group of 12 foreign-born mothers attended a naturalization ceremony at Trinity University’s Laurie Auditorium. After following procedures overseen by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a bureau of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, they became American citizens. All 12 had already given birth to children during their time in the U.S. — Mexico native Maria Medina has lived in the U.S. since 1998, and is pregnant with her third child. After the naturalization ceremony, Medina — along with her children, John Anthony, 3, and Jazmine, 2, both born in the U.S. — walked away with a certification of citizenship. Among the 11 other naturalized women the Current spoke with, all had at least one child prior to gaining their citizenship that day. None had ever heard the term “anchor baby” before.
To the Gulf Stream Waters
When ‘I Was Here First’ Should Count for Something
When I was young and impressionable, say 10 or so, I proudly wore a pair of those bronze “Precious Feet” 10-week fetal tootsies, given to me by my mother, an active member of Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life. The pins, designed to be worn on lapels and campaign ribbons, were a brilliant marketing move, quashing a complex debate with a basic emotional response — tiny feet ranking above even puppies and lost children in the heartstring-yanking hierarchy. Folks opposed to women’s reproductive equality have always had the primitive-brain upper hand when it comes to the abortion issue: fetuses are innocent (if only for lack of time and opportunity), and — if you imagine them cleaned of amniotic fluid, freed of the umbilical cord, and swaddled in a blankie — endlessly appealing as victims in need of protection.
Ah, but there’s the rub, for the umbilical cord is attached to a woman, a member of society — a “person” as the Constitution likes to style it — who is already entitled to the rights enumerated in that document, including the right to privacy thanks to the 1973 Roe v. Wade opinion. Or as the ACLU put it in a recent Texas appeals court ruling that overturned the conviction of two women who used drugs while they were pregnant: “Inherently personal decisions relating to individual autonomy are constitutionally protected, and women do not lose the right to privacy when they become pregnant.” Fetuses, on the other hand, may be developing humans, may possess that elusive human trait, a soul, but most certainly are not citizens.
Or are they? In 2004, Congress passed the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which says that a violent attack on a pregnant woman comprises two distinct crimes against two distinct victims. Under a relatively new Texas law, anyone who kills a child under 6, including the period between fertilization and birth, has committed a capital murder. A Tarrant County DA is currently considering what charges to bring against Jason D. Nash, who in August beat his pregnant girlfriend so thoroughly that she lost their five-month-old fetus. “I don’t think he was trying to kill the baby at all,” the 18-year-old girl told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, a conjecture that may be moot should the case go to trial. And is moot, as far as our emotional response is concerned. Kansas lawmakers who didn’t pass a fetal-protection bill were on the defensive in June after a man hired hitmen to kill his 14-year-old girlfriend, who was nine months pregnant. There’s a fair chance he’ll never be a free man again, but his family is nonetheless denied a little extra vengeance because he can’t be charged with the fetus’s murder as well as the mother’s.
But as appealing as it is to add another charge to the indictments of Nash or a monster like the infamous Scott Peterson (who inspired the federal bill), fetal-protection laws function as the legal equivalent of those brass fetal feet — circumventing rational discussion of important constitutional issues with a base appeal to emotion, obscuring for instance the fact that there are laws on the books to punish these individuals without adding the fetus to the mix.
If a fetus can be a victim of homicide or manslaughter, it can also be a victim of neglect and abuse. Many states now try to regulate a mother’s behavior while she is pregnant, providing for a variety of charges and penalties for drug abuse or other adverse behavior. In South Carolina, Regina McKnight was given 12 years for causing her fetus’s death by smoking crack, and a Utah woman served 12 months probation after her refusal to have a Caesarean section caused the death of one of the twins she was carrying. As we learn more about the intricate ways in which the behavior of pregnant women affects fetuses, the possibilities for infringing on women’s rights are nearly endless: How about enforced diets, criminal smoking bans, moderated moderate exercise, or forbidding pregnancies for women over 40?
Despite, or more likely because of, the legal battles it begs, six states added some sort of fetal and/or pregnant-woman assault laws to their books in the past year. Lynn Paltrow, executive director of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, summed up the atmosphere that is driving the latest legislative initiatives for McClatchy Newspapers: “What we’re seeing is a political trend in which the fetuses are coming first, and the rights of women … are coming last … I think 30 years of anti-abortion rhetoric — ‘women killing their babies’ — has led to a moral vilification that doesn’t just stick to those who seek to terminate a pregnancy. It’s spreading to all women.”
If the moral vilification is spreading, it has been checked till now by some reluctance to prosecute pregnant women for harm to their fetuses. Most of the states with fetal-homicide laws exempt the expectant mothers in addition to providing a loophole for abortions, so that a Virginia woman who shot and killed the fetus in her belly, for instance, could not be prosecuted. But Oklahoma, which passed an omnibus fetal-protection bill this year, illustrates the way in which these trends may be conflated to promote the interests of anti-choice activists. Oklahoma’s new law makes a fetus a person under the state’s homicide laws and allows a pregnant woman to be charged if she engages in an illegal act (i.e. taking illicit drugs) that results in the death of her fetus. The same measure also included a parental-consent provision, required pre-abortion counseling, and provided funding for alternative-to-abortion services.
All of which makes reproductive-rights advocates suspicous that fetal-protection laws are merely an incremental attempt to overthrow Roe by other means. A particularly gruesome Arizona murder prompted this letter from a reader of the The Arizona Republic: “Tiffany Hall, accused of killing a pregnant woman and her fetus, is charged with first-degree murder and ‘intentional homicide of an unborn child.’ Will someone please define abortion for me?”
It is this inherent conflict — between laws that appeal unwisely to our moral outrage and a woman’s autonomy as a full American citizen — that led John Kerry to vote against the federal Unborn Victims of Violence Act, saying, “the law cannot simultaneously provide that a fetus is a human being and protect the right of the mother to choose to terminate her pregnancy.”
It makes me (a proud mother/stepmother of four) want to send him a bronze cast of my feet.
This Land Was Made For You and Me
Let’s talk about felons and the formerly incarcerated and their right to vote. The laws vary state to state across this fine land. For example, in Maine and Vermont even people currently in prison can vote. Meanwhile, Alabama, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, and Virginia say once a felon, never a citizen again (except by special appeal). Texas is firmly in the middle: When a felon’s finished his sentence, visited his probation and parole officers for the last time, he’s automatically allowed back on the voters roll.
I went to a recent community summit on offender re-entry sponsored by KLRN-TV and Making Connections. Afterward, I caught up with the star of the forum, reformed 30-year criminal William “Pete” Duncan.
Shortly after his last release from the Baltimore Prison system, Duncan found himself presented with what he thought was a ridiculous question. It was 2004, and the director of his treatment center wanted to know who he was voting for in the presidential election.
“I said ‘C’mon man, you know how many times I’ve been convicted, you know I ain’t voting,’” he recalled. The director proved him wrong, and helped him register. Nine days later, his sister said she had a letter for him from the Voters’ Registry. Come election day, he had to ask for assistance at the voting booth.
“It was really an experience. It gave me a sense of belonging, that you `are` actually into something, you belong to something. I was getting counted as somebody important.”
Becoming politically active after (or during) a prison sentence is no anomaly. Malcolm X comes to mind. And theoretically speaking, an ex-con is less likely to reoffend if he feels like a member and a stakeholder in our community.
San Antonio is at the forefront of the “restorative justice” movement, a corrections system that calls for inclusionary rather than exclusionary methods of offender rehabilitation. A few local leaders, like Chuck Slaughter of the Texas Alliance for the Formerly Incarcerated, and LULAC’s Henry Rodriguez, have been registering ex-cons independently. Slaughter did hard time for marijuana possession and Rodriguez for murder without malice, an offense no longer on the books.
“I think it’s very important for a person to not just come back and get with society and reintegrate, but to say I’m a law-abiding citizen and I have been cleared of my sins,” Rodriguez said. “You come out and feel like you’re not part of society. Once you get back in the stream of being in society, you feel better.”
Slaughter added: “When you participate in the community as a law-abiding citizen doing your civic duty to uphold the law of the land, you’re doing what Americans are expected to do.”
A Devil’s Advocate would say that get-out-the-vote efforts should focus on the law-abiding political idlers, not criminals who’ve already proven their disregard for civil society. Registering ex-offenders is largely a Democratic effort, and Republican critics might cite this as an example of bottomfeeding; their opponents would court anyone if it meant power for Democrats.
There’s probably some truth to that, but the Double-Devil’s Advocate would rebut that Republicans are still spending money raised by after-the-fact white-collar criminals, (ahem, Arthur Andersen), and until they return every filthy penny they should shut their Beelzebub yaps.