DACA, bigotry, and democracy: Our Ross Douthat problem

Dear Rebecca:

A few months ago, I asked what you’d trade to get a deal on DACA.

You responded with what I like to call “The Godfather Part II counteroffer“:

So where are we at?

Let me gently suggest that the “no compromise” option looks a bit iffy at this point. While President Trump has said he’ll sign whatever bill Congress gets to his desk, the signals coming from the White House are both confused and straightforward: Confused, in that every Trump statement on the issue gets immediately walked back by his aides; straightforward in that what they want — and what they’ll get him to accept — will involve some combination of increased border security and reduced levels of legal immigration.

It’s worth asking again in light of today’s Ross Douthat column in the New York Times, in which he suggests the Stephen Millers of the world are going to have a seat at the table that crafts that compromise.

Miller is the White House’s point man for immigration policy (and for strange and strident encounters with the press). He is also an immigration restrictionist: He wants a policy that favors skills-based recruitment over extended families, and he wants a lower immigration rate overall. He says he’s concerned about assimilation and crime and native wages; his critics say he just wants to keep America as white as possible, and that by even bringing him to meetings Trump is making a deal impossible to reach.

Yeah. Miller’s odious. But Douthat says he’s essential.

Americans have become more pro-immigration since the 1990s, but there is still a consistent pattern when you ask about immigration rates: About a third of Americans favor the current trend, slightly fewer want higher rates, and about a third, like Miller, want immigration reduced.

The present view of many liberals seems to be that restrictionists can eventually be steamrolled — that the same ethnic transformations that have made white anxiety acute will eventually bury white-identity politics with sheer multiethnic numbers.

But liberals have been waiting 12 years for that “eventually” to arrive, and instead Trump is president and the illegal immigrants they want to protect are still in limbo.

Douthat’s remarks have received derision in the lefty Twittersphere for what I think are understandable reasons.

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Here’s the problem: In crucial respects, Douthat’s not wrong.

Presidents going back to George W. Bush have sought a grand bargain on immigration. They’ve failed, because the immigration hawk faction has always had enough power to block any agreement. And that faction isn’t fringe: They’re, um, running the country right now. Try as we might, we can’t wish that away, or factor them out of the equation.

Underlying Douthat’s column is an attempt to wrestle with a question liberals haven’t answered very well since 2016, but which we’re going to need to answer soon. Let me put this as succinctly as I can:

How do we do democracy when so much of the electorate seems, plainly, animated by bigotry? 

Democracy isn’t just about who wins elections: It’s also frequently marked by compromise.  (Or was, at least.) Sometimes the minority gets a voice because it has leverage; sometimes, people in the majority realize that elections will eventually put them back into the minority and so want to pass legislation that won’t be repealed immediately when the other side takes power. Steamrolling isn’t always an option, and it’s an option probably less often than you’d think.

When it comes to the Trump Administration and immigration, the options, it seems to me, are twofold:

• Shut down all cooperation and wait for 2018 — or maybe even 2020.

• Hold our nose and strike an imperfect deal.

The former route is tempting. But it leaves DACA recipients in limbo, maybe even deported.

The second part maybe saves the DACA recipients, but leaves us feeling soiled. It maybe also gives the Trump Administration a victory that signals to middle-of-the-road voters he’s not so bad after all. Which might give us eight years of Donald, when one has already been exhausting enough.

Neither route is perfect.

Since we bring a Mennonite perspective to the blog, it’s worth noting there’s a longstanding tradition of the church of staying out of politics altogether, in part because it requires compromising oneself to get anything done.

Understandable approach. I sat out the 1996 elections because I thought it correct.

In this case, though, there’s the “Dreamers” to think of. And my own sense is that the worst act is to leave them in limbo or see them deported; the best act is to secure their future to help the live full lives that can contribute fully to our communities and country.

My own answer to the problem of democracy is this: Work for compromise where you can — as long as you don’t compromise your way into, say, half-genocide; know where your limits are — while working to convince as many people in the electorate to boot the Stephen Millers of the world from power and influence.

I’m mindful, writing all this, of Dr. King’s well-known contempt for “white moderates.” I’m not interested in being one. But I am interested in securing the future for the Dreamers, and I’m not sure how else to get there. Maybe this is a failure of my own imagination, but I don’t see anybody out there offering a magical option where we get that result without compromise.

It’s easy to get mad and call Ross Douthat a racist, I guess. It’s less easy to get a solution to the DACA situation without dealing with the people we think are racist. And it doesn’t offer us a way to do democracy in a country where racists get a vote too. It’s a terrible conundrum, but it exists nonetheless.


The sad, lonely hyperindividualism of Trumpism

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Technically, he’s white.

Dear Rebecca:

I don’t think this is one of those blogs where we should post a paragraph of some other piece, then add “read the whole thing” at the end, but:

I’ve mentioned a few times around here about how Trumpist immigration enforcement disrupts communities more than it protects them. Elizabeth Bruenig makes a similar case in today’s Washington Post, but applies it to a broader array of Trumpist policies.

What unites workfare, the annihilation of DACA and the war on unions is a totalizing individualism — the belief that people are essentially isolated individuals. That we are alone before we are together. That we are more and not less ourselves in total isolation. From that view flow policies that disregard or deny that people are, in fact, embedded in families, communities and industries, and that their bonds and obligations are powerful and ought to be respected and protected by the state. No politics issuing from that view can ever cultivate unity.

What Trump offered as an answer to the aching aloneness of Americans was nationalism, the exchange of an imagined community for actual ones, the promise of a mystic bond with people you’ll never meet even while the ones you know and love are deported, abandoned, dying. It was supposed to bring us together, supposed to make us strong. But his policies stand to leave us more alone than we’ve ever been, and in our solitude, weak.

 Emphasis added. Read the whole thing.
— Joel

Why ‘amnesty’ is a misnomer in the immigration debate

Dear Rebecca:

Webster’s Dictionary defines “amnesty” as…

(Wait. Stop. Let’s try that again.)

Ahem. Hey Rebecca, you’ve seen that President Trump has offered a (bad) deal to allow the so-called “Dreamers” a path to citizenship? Here’s how Breitbart took that.

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Notice a theme?

Immigration restrictionists like to say that any path to citizenship for undocumented migrants amounts to “amnesty.” It’s supposed to offend our sense of justice, but that’s precisely why the word doesn’t seem quite right. Why?

It implies that a crime has been committed. Very strictly speaking, one does not have to have committed a crime to receive an amnesty, but colloquially, yeah, I think a lot of people hearing that language would assume that a criminal is getting off without consequence.

For the so-called ‘Dreamers,’ though, that’s not the case.

When we checked with the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, Michele M. Taylor, the group’s associate director for communications, pointed to the 2012 Supreme Court case Arizona vs. United States. The majority opinion found that “as a general rule, it is not a crime for a removable alien to remain present in the United States.”

Experts agreed. Unlawful presence is neither a felony nor a misdemeanor, said Ilya Shapiro, a senior fellow in constitutional studies at the libertarian Cato Institute. It is a civil infraction that results in removal and a bar on re-entry for a certain period of time.

That said, it’s also important to distinguish between “unlawful presence” and “unlawful entry,” said Kermit Roosevelt, a University of Pennsylvania law professor. Improper entry by an alien is indeed a misdemeanor, Roosevelt said.

That’s an important distinction, because.

• Even if a Dreamer’s presence in the United States involved a crime, the Dreamer didn’t commit it. Here’s what the common law tradition underlying our legal system says about juvenile “crime”:

At common law, one accused of a crime was treated essentially the same whether he was an infant or an adult. It was presumed that a person under the age of seven could not entertain criminal intent and thus was incapable of committing a crime. Allen v. United States, 150 U.S. 551, 14 S. Ct. 196, 37 L. Ed. 1179 (1893). One between the ages of seven and fourteen was presumed incapable of entertaining criminal intent but such presumption was rebuttable. Id. A person fourteen years of age and older was prima faciecapable of committing crime. Id.

The DACA folks — people brought here has youngsters by their parents — were too young to make their own decisions about whether they crossed the border; their parents did it for them.

A lot hinges here on my interpretation of “amnesty” in this case as meant to convey the understanding of crime unpunished. Technically, you can give “amnesty” for parking tickets, which don’t rise to the level of a crime.

The bottom line is this: Immigration restrictionists believe the sins of parents should be visited upon their children. It’s an ugly notion, one buttressed by the language of “amnesty.” We shouldn’t agree with it. If crossing the border is a wrong act, the right response to it is not to increase the amount of injustice in the world. But that’s what immigration restrictionists seek.

— Joel

How many times can Tony Perkins forgive Trump? At least 70×7.

Hi Joel,

Thanks for drawing our collective attention to Tony Perkin’s total failure to understand the heart of Christianity. In an interview with Politico this week, Perkins argued that Trump was a hero to Christians, who are “finally glad that there’s somebody on the playground that is willing to punch the bully.”

Did you detect a little David and Goliath allusion there?

You pointed out the Perkins seems to be ignoring one of Jesus’ most famous teachings: that when struck in the face, we turn the other cheek. Then Perkins delivers this theological gem: “You know, you only have two cheeks.”

Well, that’s a clear case of textual abuse. But he’s wrong in more than this: turning the other cheek isn’t about (as Perkins later says), being a “doormat.” It’s about strategically challenging your oppressor. For the oppressed Jews who looked to Jesus as savior, a slap from a Roman soldier was a backhanded slap–an insult not just because of the violence but also because it was not violence between equals but between a superior and someone who couldn’t fight back. (This is why many parents, unfortunately, feel that the backhanded slap is an appropriate response to a child being sassy. It’s injury isn’t in the physical violence but in the assertion of authority.)

When Jesus says to turn the other cheek, he’s challenging the hierarchy by saying that the oppressed have equal worth and dignity as the oppressors. Turning the other cheek would have forced the soldier on his victim as if the victim were his equal. He’s caught in an uncomfortable position: using violence to assert his authority requires him to recognize the equality of his victim. And you don’t need more than two cheeks to make it work.

But just because Tony Perkins doesn’t understand the Bible doesn’t mean he doesn’t understand some parts of Jesus’ teaching. For example, he seems happy to follow Jesus’ command to Peter that we forgive “until seventy times seven” when it comes to Donald Trump’s list of sins. In fact, Trump isn’t even sorry about his sins, doesn’t see them as sins, didn’t do them anyway, wouldn’t do them with women that unattractive, and has never asked God for forgiveness for them, and, still, Perkins is happy to give him “a Mulligan,” a theologically insightful term for saying that Perkins doesn’t care what Trump does as long as his fingers can operate a pen to sign whatever terrible legislation Perkins supports.

Evangelical theology doesn’t have to be lazy, but under leaders like Perkins, it sure gets treated that way. In Perkin’s view of forgiveness, mercy flows from God to wipe away the sins of Donald Trump (sexual assault, marital infidelity, pressuring his mistress to have an abortion, then bragging about it on the radio when his daughter was a teen), but it’s not something we offer to others. Jesus has something to say about that, too. 

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Above, Eugene Burnand’s The Unmerciful Servant examines the parable of the servant whose debts were forgiven but who fails forgives to extend grace to those who owe him. 




Quakers Kicked Out of Israel

Hi Joel,

Kansas Mennonite Esther Koontz isn’t the only one facing difficulty because of her views on boycotting items made in contested zones of Israel-Palestine.

The American Friends Service Committee, the Quaker organization that won the 1947 Nobel Peace Prize for its work, along with the British arm of the organization, supporting and rescuing more than 22,000 victims of the Nazi regime, has been blacklisted by Israel. Along with leadership from 19 other organizations, the senior leaders of the AFSC are no longer permitted to enter Israel because of the organization’s support for targeted boycotting, divesting from, and sanctioning businesses that violate human rights in the region. Critics argue that the BDS movement is anti-Semitic.

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Above, Quakers serve post-WWII Europe

The blacklisting seems to have surprised the organization.

It also, I think, complicates questions about how organizations can approach the question of using member power to sway the politics of other nations. Currently, the American Studies Association is facing a lawsuit from some former members who accuse the organization of changing its mission from an educational to a political one after ASA formally moved to participate in BDS. And the Modern Language Association just saw  past president Margaret Ferguson resign her membership over the issue; the MLA recently passed a resolution that, according to Ferguson, “closed the door in a constitutionally unprecedented way on future debate about the Palestinian call for boycott of Israeli academic institutions,” thereby sending “the message to the world that it wants protests about the conditions of teaching and learning in Palestinian universities off the table.”

Who to deport first? How about Sebastian Gorka?

Hi Joel,

You read this week that former Trump national security advisor Sebastian Gorka, who flaunts his connections to an anti-Semitic group, had a warrant out for his arrest in Hungary during the time he served in the presidential administration?

Gorka is a naturalized American citizen but lived for years in Hungary, during which time he tried to launch an extremist rightwing party there. The warrant is for unspecified firearms charges, which seems believable given that, just two years ago, he carried a gun into Reagan airport. Please remember that a man too stupid and disrespectful to remove a gun from his person was had significant responsibility for keeping us all safe.

Above, Gorka and his wife at Trump’s inauguration. He wears medals signaling his support for an order that allied with the Nazis during WWII. 

In other words, Trump is right: we have a problem vetting our immigrants and removing ones who break the law.


Tony Perkins: Even Jesus had some goddamned limits


Dear Rebecca:

I give you Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, explaining the Trumpism of American Christians:

Evangelical Christians, says Perkins, “were tired of being kicked around by Barack Obama and his leftists. And I think they are finally glad that there’s somebody on the playground that is willing to punch the bully.”

What happened to turning the other cheek?, I ask.

“You know, you only have two cheeks,” Perkins says. “Look, Christianity is not all about being a welcome mat which people can just stomp their feet on.”

Yes, I remember well the verse:

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[a] 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.

 After that, Jesus said, punch the motherf**ker in the jaw.