Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Holy Family: Migrants in a hostile land

(To the left is "The Flight Into Egypt" by the 14th century Italian painter Giotto)

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to the followers and readers of this blog! Below is a column I wrote for Christmas 2010. It still is timely, however, because sadly the issues have not changed. Today is also the anniversary of the death of St. Frances Cabrini, the Patroness of Immigrants. Best wishes to all!

They were descendants of immigrants who themselves became immigrants.

Soon after the baby arrived, a dream came to the father that the little family would have to leave their homeland if they were to survive. Even the life of an innocent child was in danger in their homeland.

So the three of them—father, mother and child—left their tiny village and embarked on a treacherous journey through the desert wilderness. They were very poor and had little more than the clothes on their backs.

They traveled by day and by night, ever fearful they might be captured or attacked, until they finally crossed the border. They brought no documentation with them, only their humility and the father’s willingness to work hard to support his family.

He was a trained craftsman, good with his hands, and his work was valued even if he was paid so little he could never hope to rise out of his poverty. With his teenage wife tending to their baby, he went out among the people to earn bread and shelter for them.

He heard the whisperings among those in this new land. They called him and his family foreigners, outsiders, and even illegal aliens, as if they had come from the moon and their very existence was something less than human, a violation of not only the law of the land but also God’s law.

“They’re just here to take our jobs, to feed, house, and clothe themselves at our expense,” he heard one of them say.

“They don’t even take the time to learn our language,” said another.

“Why are they even here? Is their own country not good enough for them? Perhaps they’re spies,” said yet another.

“The way people like these spawn they’ll soon be everywhere, expecting their new offspring to be treated equally just because they were born here, like so many little anchors for their illegal parents. Anchor babies, that’s what they’ll be.”

Some of these whisperings came from the very people who benefited from his labors. They would say these things as soon as they walked away from the worksite and rejoined their neighbors and friends. Local leaders heard the comments, too, and saw an advantage in such fears, prejudice, and suspicions. So they began to talk among the crowds and, being leaders, talked loudest of all, loud enough for everyone to hear.

Even the priests joined the chorus, invoking God’s judgment from their pulpits, condemning the strangers for breaking the law and taking advantage of people’s hospitality.

The father and mother, already homesick, longed for their faraway families and friends. They knew many did not welcome them in this strange land, but they also feared for their child’s life if they returned home. Did their little child have any idea of all the troubles that surrounded them?

The father remembered how his ancestors had been immigrants to this very land many generations before and had prospered here, but then a new leader had turned them into slaves and they had left. Now he and his wife and child had returned because their own land had become hostile. When would it all end? Where was there a refuge?

Eventually the father, whose namesake had been a dreamer and an interpreter of dreams, had yet another dream, and this one told him the time had come to return home. So he and his wife packed their belongings, wrapped up their child to keep it warm, and journeyed back to their homeland. They had to be careful. Dangers still lurked, but at least they were home.

And back in the strange land where they had sought refuge, some indeed missed them. “He did good work,” one said. “You know, they never really bothered anyone,” another said.

But these voices were quickly drowned out by the leaders and their priests who cried “Good riddance!” and then looked for others to condemn.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The U.S. Gulag: Incarceration and the "immorality" of private prisons

(To the right is a 1911 photograph of prisoners at Mississippi's state penitentiary in Parchman)

JACKSON, Miss. - Mariachi guitarist Johnny Mora’s bout with drugs was years in his past, but the legacy of jail time it led to is as much a companion as his guitar when he travels to perform in clubs and restaurants around Mississippi.

“I was afflicted, and by the grace of God I am here today,” Mora said at the recent “Crimmigration: The Tragic Consequences of U.S. Drug Policies on Families and Youth” conference in Jackson sponsored by the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance and Southern Christian Leadership Conference. “It wasn’t because of the jail system.”

Mora was one of several speakers who talked of a painful past that included incarceration in what has become the world’s largest gulag: the U.S. prison system, which holds 25 percent of all prisoners around the globe. After losing his insurance business in California, Mora turned to music and moved to Mississippi to find work.

Kevin Elders is another Mississippian with a jail record because of a past drug conviction. “It was difficult for me to get a job,” said Elders, son of former U.S. Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders. “So many doors slammed in my face.”

An estimated 65 million people in this country have a criminal record, more than one out of every four adult Americans. One out of every three black males now in their early teens will spend time in jail, according to the Justice Department. For Latino males, it’s one of out of every five.

Not even Cuba, China or Russia put as many people behind bars as the United States.

Mora picked one of the worst states in the country for a man with a record to start a new life. Mississippi ranks second in the nation in incarceration—behind Louisiana, a state once described in the New York Times as “the world’s prison capital”—with more than 26,000 inmates behind bars or in custody at a cost of $339 million to taxpayers.

Fueling incarceration rates in Mississippi and around the country is the private prison industry—an “immorality” in the words of Father Jeremy Tobin, a Catholic priest who gave the invocation at the “Crimmigration” conference. Close to 50 percent of all immigrant inmates are in for-profit prisons or facilities. The nation’s two largest private detention companies—Corrections Corporation of America and The GEO Group—spent $25 million lobbying politicians and contributing to their campaigns over the past decade.

“They want to keep an indentured class,” Tobin said. “This country was built on slavery. They (immigrants) were asked to come and do the jobs nobody wanted to do, and they came and did it, and now we want to screw them. Think of all the African Americans out there who can’t vote (because of criminal records).”

For a state with as ugly a record on criminalization and racial prejudice as Mississippi, you’d think political leaders would think twice before turning to profiteering private companies with a vested interest in crime and punishment to handle what is morally a state responsibility.

Yet their failure is why the Mississippi prison system today is as bad as it was a century ago when racist demagogue Gov. James K. Vardaman got so frustrated he compared it to the Spanish Inquisition.

Here are a few examples:

- Last June, the American Civil Liberties Union and Southern Poverty Law Center called conditions at the privately run East Mississippi Correctional Facility “barbaric and horrific” and in a class action lawsuit spoke of rat-infested cells and feces-and-urine-covered floors.

- In May of this year, Mother Jones magazine listed the Walnut Grove Correctional Facility in Leake County, when run by the GEO Group, as one of “America’s 10 Worst Prisons,” a “cesspool” in the words of a federal judge where young children were subjected to sexual abuse and solitary confinement for long periods of time.

- In late July 2012, a riot broke out in the Hinds County Detention Center after an inmate protested his 11 months behind bars without an indictment on a marijuana possession charge.

- In May 2012, the undocumented migrant workers imprisoned in the privately run Adams County Correctional Facility got so sick and tired of conditions that they rioted, leaving one guard dead and 19 injured.

- Two years ago, the state Penitentiary at Parchman shut down its Unit 32, which housed death row inmates, as a result of lawsuits decrying conditions that allowed several killings and a suicide.

The first step Mississippi should take to rid itself of the “immorality” in its prison system is to get rid of private prisons. “If you’re getting paid per head, you want to keep ‘em coming in there,” Kevin Elders said about them.

The next step is to decriminalize minor drug offenses and migrant work.

Like usual, Father Jeremy was right. It’s a question of morals. Either you have them, or you don’t.

(This column recently appeared in the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Miss.)

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Remembering the late Mississippi populist Gov. Bill Allain preaching social justice to 3,000 Pentecostals

More than 3,000 Pentecostals had gathered under their giant tabernacle in Raymond, Miss., that July night back in 1985. It was what one preacher called an “old-fashioned, God-sent, Holy Ghost camp meeting,” and on the stage was Mississippi Gov. Bill Allain, a devout Catholic.

Allain died at the age of 85 this past week, and it brought back memories of that long-ago Mississippi District United Pentecostal Church Revival Camp Meeting.

It was a night of foot-stomping, hand-clapping and palm-waving. Choirs sang songs like “He Ain’t Never Done Me Nothin’ But Good” and “I’m So Glad Jesus Lifted Me”. As 74-year-old Christine Craig told me that night, a man has “got to have the Holy Ghost, speak in tongues and be baptized in Jesus’ name” to get into heaven.

“Y’all better sit down,” the governor told the crowd as he stepped behind the microphone. “I might preach a little.”

Just two years before, Allain had suffered through the dirtiest campaign this reporter has ever seen in a nearly 40-year career as a journalist.

A fiery former state attorney general who had shaken Mississippi’s political elite to its core, Democrat Allain was coasting to an easy victory over Republican Leon Bramlett when just weeks before the election, deep-pocketed Republican financiers went across the state in an effort to tar brush him as a man who not only kept pornography in his Jackson apartment but who had paid for sex with three black male transvestites.

The Republican operatives held press conferences and dumped hundreds of pages of so-called “testimony” by Allain’s accusers on reporters. Television journalist Geraldo Rivera even came to the state to report on the sordid accusations, which evoked all the ghosts of Mississippi’s tortured past of race, prejudice and demagoguery. The Mississippi people didn’t buy it, however. On election day, 55 percent of them voted for Allain. He won 74 of the state’s 82 counties.

I’ve never been prouder of Mississippi. The prostitutes later recanted their stories.

“If you are not clapping your hands … I said if you go out there and you’re not clapping your hands, you either took the wrong road and are on the wrong campgrounds or you are spiritually dead inside,” the Catholic governor told his Pentecostal audience that night. An organ played in the background, and cries of “Amen” came from the crowd.

Jesus “fed the hungry, clothed the naked, healed the sick and infirm,” Allain told them. “That is the standard by what we must love one another.”

As much as any political leader in Mississippi’s modern history, Allain tried to live by those rules.  “Many times I sit in my office and think I only have four years,” Allain said. “Then I think: Jesus did what he did in three short years. Look at all the good things that can be done.”

As a young assistant attorney general in the early 1960s, Allain found himself on the wrong side when he had to represent the state in such cases as segregationist Gov. Ross Barnett’s fight to keep James Meredith from becoming the University of Mississippi’s first black student.

However, as attorney general and later governor in the early-to-mid 1980s, Allain fought the good fight – taking on the big utilities and the all-powerful state Legislature, led as it was then by entrenched pols such as state House Speaker C.B. “Buddie” Newman from the Mississippi Delta. Allain succeeded in getting legislators kicked off executive branch committees and winning approval of successive terms for governor (although he himself declined to run for a second term). He also appointed women and blacks to important positions. That includes appointing Reuben Anderson as the first black member of the state Supreme Court.

“He overcame a lot of stuff,” said Faye Moser, a 52-year-old housewife from Jackson, at that camp meeting back in 1985. “When a Christian has a trial and they overcome it, it makes them stronger.”

Allain did overcome his trial, and he helped Mississippi become stronger, too.