19 April 2017

Lost In America: Camilla And Her Search For Refuge

Lost In America

I have to say I never once in my life imagined that I would be driving our friend, an undocumented immigrant from another country, to an immigration lawyer an hour away from the farm. The country is now bitterly divided on the question of immigration, and the humanitarian catastrophe that threatens millions of working people in our country if they are arrested, pulled from their jobs, jailed and sent away. Deported.

On some issues, it's impossible to hide from the raging stream, you just have to take a stand, so I have taken mine. Maria too.

The descendant of immigrants myself, I will stand with the good and hard-working people caught in a raging storm between many forces they cannot control, seeking mostly to work hard and make enough money to care for their families and children and grandchildren back home.

I must work here, she says, there is no work back home, my family would go hungry.

Camilla (not her real name) is living like some Jew or gypsy or gay man or woman in Eastern Europe on the eve of World War II. She is frantic, living partly in hiding, working hard seven  days a week, sending her money home for her daughter and 10 grandchildren to live on in their impoverished village, driving on back roads to avoid the police, shopping in small grocery stories and convenience stores to avoid the big chains like Wal-Mart, where  everyone believes agents from the dreaded ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) hide in wait for people like her and spring on them and then, they simply disappear, their things left behind and are not seen again by their friends and family or the people they work for.

They are disappeared, she says. She worries about her boyfriend, they have never been apart. What if he is taken?

I heard these same stories from my grandmother, I am struggling to absorb it. Now I am hearing them again, and in my own country. Will this disheartening chapter be in someone else's novel down the road?

In a few days, it is learned that the disappeared have been deported. What will they do for work?

The rumors are everywhere about everything. The ICE is hiding at the courthouse, at the police station, even in hospitals and nursing homes, anywhere people who work hard for low wages doing the jobs Americans don't want might be. They are raiding the farms, staking out the Western Union portals where money is sent back home. Everybody has a story about someone who is gone. Everyone is afraid.

Camilla's friend was beaten by her boyfriend, but she will no longer go to the police, they might surrender her to the ICE.  Another agricultural worker was robbed in her trailer, her money and cell phone stolen, but no one will report robberies any longer.

Everyone is afraid to drive, no one knows what the local police chief will do. Camilla's care has a broken muffler, it makes an awful racket and she is terrified to drive it for fear of being stopped. Her boyfriend is trying to patch it up with duct tape.

Some farmers and I will take up a collection and figure out how to pay for it.  We all know Camilla and love her. She is gentle and honest and no one works harder.

I hear these stories as we drive to meet a new lawyer, an immigration lawyer I will call Susan,  and I wonder if we could possibly be talking about America when I hear these stories. It just doesn't sound like my country.  But I suppose that's what they say about all countries when they change. I hope the lawyer can help.

Susan  speaks Spanish, so she and Camilla can talk freely and openly. We are prepared to pay this lawyer a retainer, so that Camilla will have a lawyer to call if she is arrested – it can happen anytime, anywhere.

Camilla, who doesn't speak much English, is mostly quiet on the way, thoughtful. She looks worried, no surprise.

She wants to buy lunch for Maria and me to help pay for our time, we decline, we say we are not hungry. We find a spot, park and go into the lawyer's office, it's a swanky new building.

We all like the new lawyer instantly, I will call her Susan, she welcomes Camilla, shakes hands, takes us to a conference room. She asks me to go over Camilla's history and I do, with Maria's help. I ask her a dozen questions about current immigration policy. She is patient, she explains the law carefully to me.

She turns to Camilla and they speak in Spanish for a half an hour, Susan taking note.

She goes through each of the shrinking options now open to agricultural workers and undocumented immigrants. They want the government to leave their workers alone.

She says some of the rumors are true – the ICE raided a Wal-Mart store in nearby Hudson where immigrant workers go to find day jobs and shop. Some of the big  dairy farms have been raided. Some of the South American workers have already fled for other farms or other countries. Some are slipping over the border into Canada.

Some of the farmers are already struggling to get help for spring planting. Susan shakes her head about how aggressive the ICE agents have become. She asks Camilla if there was a deportation order against her. Camilla says no. She asks Camilla if she was persecuted in her country, if it was dangerous for her to go back, she pursues this perhaps to claim asylum.

Camilla, who is honest, shakes her head no, no persecution. She asks Camilla if there was a husband or parents or children who would suffer hardship if she was deported. No, says Camella, no one like that. Just a boyfriend, they are not married.  Susan says some people are desperately getting married to seek grounds for admission, but that is fraud, she says, she cannot support it. Camilla laughs, no, she says, she is not going to get married or tell any lie.

Has she been the victim of any crime, sometimes that can  help, Susan asks?  No, says, Camilla, no one has ever bothered her or harmed her. Has she committed any crime in the United States, she asks? No, says Camilla, I have never committed a crime anywhere.  I am reminded of how honest and direct Camilla is. It would be devastating for her and her family if she were deported, but she will not lie to stay here.

She has worked every day of the more than 10 years she has been here, she pays taxes every year, she obeys every law.  She came her after she turned over factory job to her daughter, so her daughter could work. She then left her country to send moneh back. When she came into America, she was intercepted by border patrol agents who took her fingerprints but let her enter, she said.

Other than that, she has committed no crime or broken any laws. She describes the jobs she holds every day, and Susan shakes her head, how hard you must work,  how difficult she says. Camilla smiles.

But there are no good options  immediately open to her, Susan says, she is not eligible for any kind of visa or temporary work permit, and ICE agents are on a rampage all over the country, they are unleashed now and show up anywhere they want, and at any time. They are increasingly aggressive and confident.

It's my turn and Susan and I talk for nearly another hour. I pepper her with questions about how the ICE works, what legal options Camilla might have now, or four or five years from now. What would happen in four years if a different president was elected, what are the best options for Camilla to stay out of trouble and away from federal agents and aggressive local police officers?

But I see hope for Camilla, more than before. If she can hang on for a few years, things might change.

I ask Susan if we can retain her to be available of Camilla is arrested, or if ICE agents try to question her or approach her home. Susan says she will represent Camilla, she will be there if needed and there may be new court orders or rulings or policy changes that might help her. I prefer for her to be on retainer, I said. She will get back to me. She understood, I think.

So far, she says, the government is not generally pursuing the young Dreamers, who were born here in the United States or who came when they were very young. Some have been arrested, but there is no serious  or sustained effort aimed at them. That is good news, she says, they would suffer terribly if they were forced out of their lives here, most have never been to Mexico or any other country.

She says there are no reports of ICE agents working in our immediate area, but that, of course could change at any time, she says.

Susan instructs Camilla on what to do if agents come to her home or stop her on the road. You don't have to speak to them,  she says. You don't have to tell ICE agents anything unless they have a warrant. Undocumented workers are often terrified when agents come to their doors, they are afraid to not co-operate. You don't have to let them in without a warrant. You don't have to answer their questions.  You can tell them you have a lawyer and won't speak until the lawyer appears.

Do not open the door to them without a warrant, do not try to appease them  by speaking and offering information. If they do not have a warrant, they cannot hold you or arrest you or come into your home and search it. Do not show them any documents of any kind. Do not run from them or try to hide. Do not challenge or threaten them in any way.

Susan said her best advice was to lay low and live quietly.

In three or four years, the government might change, the terror might be over, she said They might run out of money, or clog the system so badly it can't function. With luck, you will still be here and by then, there may be some sanity in the immigration system, Congress and the country might realize how desperately urgent it is for there to be some immigration reform.

I told Susan I was now working with RISSE, the refugee and immigrant center  in Albany, and with refugees and some other agricultural workers.  She was intereted in that, I felt we connected with one another. It was very sincere and real, but I hoped that might help Camilla as well. She wanted to get the URL for my block. I hope she is reading this.

We agreed to talk later about other ways I could help, and other ways she might eventually help Camilla.

When we left, all of our heads were spinning. It was a good meeting, Camilla left clutching Susan's phone number – call anytime, day or night, she said – and a red card from the ACLU in Spanish listing her rights and things to say to the police of she was questioned or if they came to her home.

So now, I said, I know what to tell people about their rights, about what to do when and if the ICE comes.  I can advise others. I am surprised to know about that.

I felt relieved that Camilla had someone to call, a number to carry with her.

As a reporter, I often saw the miracles much-maligned lawyers could work. The best ones often do the impossible, they know every loophole there is. And laws are always changing, judges are always issuing new rules, Congress is often meddling in things.  Susan would know all about that, and she seemed to really care. Camilla might get the break she needs.

But still, said Susan, who is as honest as Camilla. It's never been like this, it's never been so grim. I hear you, I said.

Sometimes it matters to have a lawyer she says, sometimes it's too late by the time the lawyer arrives. They are supposed to always wait for the lawyer, she says, they very often do not. They are getting more arrogant by the day.

It was still disorienting for me to be doing this  and hearing about this in my country, I felt like I had slipped into an old movie, that London was about to be bombed, or Poland invaded by the Germans. There was fear and confusion everywhere, there wasn't much anyone could to help anyone. Could this be our lives in 2017? It was hard not to shake off the idea it was just a bad dream.

I shook off that creepiness and gloom.  She would make it, I told her, I feel good about it.

Camilla offered to buy us lunch as we passed a Dunkin Donuts, but we said no, remembering the last time when three older women were glaring at Camilla suspiciously and reaching for their cell phones. They were listening to our conversation, we were not used to being cautious in fast food franchises, and so we left early. I stopped and bought a tuna sandwich for lunch for me, Maria wasn't hungry.

I bought a batch of daisies for Camilla and said she was the heroine of the hour, the star of the show.

Camilla was quite shocked by this. Was it a birthday present, she asked? Her birthday is Sunday.  She can't take the whole day off, she will be gathering eggs and shoveling manure until noon. She will be 64.

She will not go out for dinner this year, they are eating at home, in the trailer they share with some others behind the old farmhouse in the woods.

Posted in General

The Quality Of Mercy: When No One Cares About Crazy People

Mercy Strained

Yesterday, I wrote about the complexity of mercy, an idea that almost every mainstream religion preaches, but few of the faithful seem able or willing to practice.

I was wrestling with this idea as the tragic and unsettling story of two very different men – Robert Godwin and Steve Stephens converged in the maelstrom that is modern media and contemporary life.

Stephens, a long-time counselor of troubled youth, seeking to send a message to an estranged girlfriend, shot Godwin, who he did not know,  and killed him as the 74-year-old grandfather was leaving an Easter dinner with his family. The killing was broadcast live on Facebook's new live video channel, created, said the company, to help bring us all closer together.

There is much to consider in the fact that if the awful killing had not been broadcast on Facebook, we might not ever had heard either of their names. And if it could not have been broadcast live,  the killing might not ever have even happened. It seems that was the point.

Two days later, Stephens shot himself in the head after trying to order fast food and fries at an Erie, Pa, McDonalds.

He had said in one message that he was ashamed of what he had done. There was new information revealed today that Stephens was seriously ill, a friend, a mental health advocate,  had urged him to get help. The story did not get much attention.

There was a civil, revealing and touching conversation on my blog's Facebook Page yesterday, it went on all day and it was a good and thoughtful conversation by social media standards, balanced and civil. It revealed the great uncertainty and confusion about the idea of mercy and the difficulty so many people – including me – have when it comes to practicing it.

It is increasingly difficult for many profoundly polarized Americans to talk about so nuanced an idea – or any idea – without arguing about it. We no longer have a common value system, we are forgetting how to listen and think, there is only a left and a right. But I don't see this issue as an argument for me. It is something that is very personal, and very important for me to come to terms with.

Mercy is hard for anyone to feel, even though every spiritual leader preaches it and every major religions embraces the idea of a Merciful God. We are encouraged to forgive, to embrace what we most fear and hate, to understand what is most uncomfortable for us. Those messages have not gotten down to the faithful.

On Facebook, and all over the media, it was clear enough. We show mercy for what we like, not for what repels and offends us.

Mercy

Two books have come out recently which greatly affected my thinking about Steve Stephens. Each helped me to understand my own feelings about mercy in completely different ways.

One was Anne Lamott's  Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy, and the other is a brilliant, searing and very powerful book by author Ron Powers called "no one cares about crazy people," a chronicle of a family – his family – living with two sons who suffered from schizophrenia.

One of them committed suicide. The other will be recovering for the rest of his life. The New York Times said that if everyone read this book, the world would change, and he was correct. It changed me.

I liked the Lamott book very much, and it was universally fawned over, as such books usually are. Who, after all, is publicly against mercy, or even asks penetrating questions about it?. That is, at least until they are called upon to feel it for a murderer.

Lamott's book was haunting and beautiful, I confess that it did read a bit like a sermon to me, something you leave church nodding your head about and forget in the unrelenting crush of disturbing news. As you know, good news is not considered news.

No one cares about crazy people was like a sledgehammer to the heart, angry, powerful, bristling with feeling and truth, unforgettable. In its own way, the best argument for mercy that there could be. Each of these books bracket the Godwin killing in the way that only books, fine writing,  and big ideas can do.

The  response to the chilling and especially  de-humanizing murder of Mr. Godwin – killed for absolutely no reason at all –  reminded me that mercy is lovely as an idea to aspire to. But the book stops well short of pleading for mercy or guiding us about how to handle the violence and mayhem of the modern world. Faith often seems to stop at the temple door and our sensibilities are offended almost every minute.

No wonder people are so angry, why so many hearts turn to stone.

It is just very easy for people like me and Lamott to call on other people to be merciful (I don't actually, people can make up their own minds about it). Powers takes no prisoners in his book,  does not ask us to be merciful to him or to ourselves.

"I hope you do not "enjoy" no one cares about crazy people", Powers, writes in the introduction. "I hope you are wounded by it; wounded as I have been in writing it. Wounded to act, to intervene. Only if this happens, and keeps happening until it needs to happen more, can we dare to hope that Dean and Kevin and all their brothers and sisters in psychotic suffering are redeemed; that they have no suffered entirely in vain."

I hope they have not.  I was wounded by the book.

___

Justice And Vengeance

Human nature seems to pull us in the opposite direction away from mercy when evil  strikes. Vengeance seems the more common response. An eye for an eye, said one poster on my Facebook page. Justice done.

Another complained that my suggestion that Stephens was clearly mentally ill was "speculative," he was probably just stressed,  she said, and then just snapped, and was thus completely responsible for what he did and deserving of his fate. This kind of illness is not excuse.

At the end of the message, she posted some unrelated thoughts about her dog.

Another woman, a thoughtful person, said justice was served, that was that. I replied that I could not quite grasp how justice was served when one innocent grandfather and a severely disturbed young man both lost their lives for no rational reason I could see. Healthy people, I wrote, don't just gun people down in the street, broadcast their own faces on Facebook,  and then shoot themselves in the head two days later.

"He is where he belongs," Karen wrote on Facebook, "it's sad that he stooped that low and murdered innocent people. But justice is served." In general, justice is defined as a legal or philosophical system by which fairness is administered equitably. Justice involves fair play, fair-mindedness, impartiality, even-handedness.

Did Stephens "stoop so low" or was he another broken human being, in a country where nobody seems to care? There are so many. Karen seems to know, I can't say that I do.

I understand Karen's feelings, but I can't find justice anywhere in this story, only madness and cruelty and a culture adrift.

A Wreck Of A Life

I have been stressed all of my life, it never occurred to me to murder someone for no reason and broadcast it live. The idea that stress turns us into psychotic killers is a grave injustice to stress and the millions and millions of people who feel it every day.

I seek to understand mercy and incorporate it into my consciousness. It is hard. Not always possible initially, I concede. Revenge and anger are a reflex, mercy is not.

But the more I thought about it this week, the more empathy – and mercy – I felt for Mr. Stephens. What a wreck of a life, in a sense, he was murdered as well, and by himself. And perhaps by governments and people who don't care about people like him. The story made no sense to me until I saw him as a victim as well. Then it fell into place.

Lamott is right, mercy is a powerful gift to those who can feel it.

"I can't feel any mercy for him after what he did," posted Nancy, "he murdered someone in cold blood." So is this, I answered, the standard for mercy: We only feel it for people who are good that we like, never for those we hate and fear? That is not the message of the Merciful God, who whom so many of us pray.

"I'm not sure I even recognize the ever presence of mercy anymore," wrote Lamott,  "the divine and the human: the messy, crippled, devastating presence of mercy. But I have come to believe that I am starving to death for it, and my world is, too."

Really? If we are starving for it, why has it vanished from our media, popular culture, political system and social media? If so may people are so hungry for it, why don't they feel it? Why does it appear so rarely? Why does a gifted author have to write a book pleading for it to re-emerge?

Why are so many sick and tortured people in jail, or sleeping on sewer grates, and not in hospitals or treatment centers?

"Mercy is radical kindness," writes Lamott. "Mercy means offering or being offered aid in desperate straits. Mercy is not deserved. It involves absolving the un-absolvable, forgiving the unforgiveable." Mercy, put another way, means forgiving Steve Stephens.

For anyone who is serious about exploring the boundaries and realities of mercy, I would suggest  reading both books and reading them soon,  one after the other. If you only have the time or money for one, read Ron Power's unforgettable story and plea for genuine mercy.

No one cares about crazy people.

"No one cares about crazy people" is one of those perfect,  awful storms of life coming together in a book. A gifted writer face to face with a horrific tragedy set against a profound injustice – the way in which society has long abandoned the mentally, persecuted them, left them on the streets or in jails, punished them for their illness and hated them for being so sick.

The book is a memoir of a family's struggle to cope with schizophrenia, a disease that afflicted their beautiful and gifted sons in adolescence, took one of them from them and altered the live of the other. Truthfully, it altered the lives of everyone. Powers explores at length the roots and mystery of schizophrenia, a devastating illness doctors and scientists are just beginning to understand.

But the heart of his book is the awful disease that engulfed his two sons and their family. That's the part that will get into your stomach and turn it upside down. Your heart too.

Our country, like other countries, has never really wanted to come to grips with schizophrenia, even though it is often on the news in the most brutal and unthinking of ways.

Untreated, it causes paranoia, disorientation, delusion and sometimes violence. You can see it on the news every day.

Many of the ugliest encounters police have had on those dreadful videos have been with schizophrenics. These are too often people who need to be under intense medical care, not sleeping in the street or gunned down by officers ill-equipped to understand or handle them, they are often hated and feared by a feckless public that wants nothing to do with them.

Was Steve Stepens mentally ill?

Consider the testimony of one of his closest friends, a mental health worker. Are you surprised to learn that he worked with disturbed and disadvantaged youth as a counselor for more than a decade, helping them to get help and find work? I was surprised to find this story in the Cleveland Times.

It didn't seem to show up in the stories I read about him. Oddly, it wasn't until I read the Powers book that I saw how completely the symptoms of schizophrenia fit this man who some people thought was simply evil, or "stressed."

Social workers believe that the great majority of America's homeless are mentally ill.

Punishing The Sick

When the federal government decided to end the asylum system in the 1960's, writes Powers, the plan was to fund a national network of mental health centers. The project was never funded, and hundreds of thousands of sick people were eventually released out into the world with no place to live and little or no help for their illnesses. Caring for the poor or the ill seems out of fashion politically, no national political leader even talks about it.

We most often see these people on social media or news videos, in confrontations with the police or harming themselves or others.

The mentally ill, once housed in cruel and oppressive asylums, now often end up in cruel and oppressive prisons. We still blame them for being sick. "No one cares about crazy people" is one of those rare books that will make you see the world differently, it is so honest, thorough, credible and painful to read. It is also beautifully written. There is perhaps no more poignant poetry than the cries of a shattered parent.

Reading this book this week, I recognized Steve Stephens again and again, it was at times as if he emerged from one of the chapters. The dysfunctional life, the delusions, the youthful acts of cruelty and hospitality, the demons in his head, the dementia – if I kill you in cold blood,  and for all the world to see, my girl friend will feel badly, and perhaps come back to me.

I ought to state that I have suffered from mental illness – not schizophrenia, blessedly –  for much of my life, and only recently have found my path to recovery. Ron Powers is a brave and loving prophet, he speaks nothing but the truth, and it is hard to absorb this story on many levels: as a parent, as a son, as a father, as a  citizen and as a human being.

How could any feeling person conclude that Steve Stephens was a rational or healthy human being, and cheer for his death and call it just?

Awful things happen when no one cares about crazy people. When voices appear in people's heads, children die in their classrooms, people are murdered on the streets and in their offices, families are forever broken.

Lamott calls upon us to absolve the unsolvable. Powers and his children call upon us to be merciful and humane to the sick. They need help, not jail, they need medicine, not a bullet or a beating, they need understanding, not the righteous howling of the mob calling at every turn for blood, more blood.

Pure Speculation. Just Stress.

There is no justice or mercy in the persecution of the sick, mercy is forgiving the unforgivable. On Facebook,  Bethany said it was just theory that Stephens was ill: "I believe it's purely speculative that Steve was mentally disturbed prior to the event. It seems to me that he likely just snapped."

Pure speculation. Just stress.

So yes, that is where I have landed, and as Lamott and Powers both know, there is no easy way through this, no safe and crystal-clear place to land. I do feel mercy for both of the men in this story, and I will take Powers message to heart, if we are judged by the way we treat our animals, how will be judged and measured by the way we treat the sick and the voiceless?

We are humans, all of us are flawed, anyone of us could have been walking in Robert Godwin's shoes that night or holding Steve Stephens gun and looking to get someone's attention, someone to answer the demons screaming in our heads.

Mercy

I do feel mercy.

To me, the evocation of evil is not a possible or fair judgment for a broken mind. Shame on all us for turning the mentally ill into monsters. There is no justice in the death or killing of innocent people, no matter how they die. Lamott says mercy is our only salvation. I don't have a better idea than that.

This issue of mercy is not an argument for me, and I am not telling anybody else what to do or feel.  Some things just have to be felt, not argued.

All I can hope for when my turn comes to be face to face with the true nature of life,is  that there is someone on the other side, someone waiting and willing to show me some mercy.

Mercy for me, mercy for you.

Posted in General