Thursday, March 30, 2006


When my wife and I had our second child, twenty years into our marriage and ten years after our first son was born, we were not in our “first youth” as the French say, and we were looking for a mother’s helper to assist us with the care of a demanding, colicky infant. Gloria, a Hispanic woman who worked as a housekeeper for a family in our apartment building, hearing of our need, told us that she had a “cousin” – Esperanza -- newly arrived from Bolivia – who needed work. And so we arranged to interview Esperanza. I call her that, although it is not her real name. I am not trying to hide her identify for any legal reason but to protect her privacy which she values.

A tiny young woman dressed in a rough woolen sweater of vivid Indian design, Esperanza came to the interview wearing a long shining black braid, luminous dark eyes, a short turned down nose; hers was the profile of a Mayan goddess found in a frieze in an ancient ruin. Her few words of English were fortified by a great smile, and her bright eyes trained themselves on the books in my library with what appeared to be a wonderful curiosity about a world larger than the one she had known. With the help of her cousin Gloria – who had a fine command of English – and my own wretched high school Spanish – Esperanza informed us that she knew a great deal about child care, loved children, and had infinite patience– and although she arrived with no references other than Gloria’s testimony, it was all proven to be true in the next five years that she lived with us. Later we would learn that in the culture of Hispanic household workers “cousin” was a description of friendship and common geographical origin, and had little to do with actual blood kinship. Slowly over time, as Esperanza mastered English, and she came to trust us, we learned how this young woman had come into the country.

Esperanza, at eighteen, had been hired in her native Bolivia to act as the nursemaid and housekeeper for one of the Bolivian diplomats working at the UN. Eager to escape the relentless poverty of her life at home, and determined to help her impoverished family with her wages, she readily agreed to accompany the diplomat and his family from Bolivia to New York. After months of working for the diplomat, cleaning his house and caring for his small children, with no wages paid, she was advised that none would be paid. She was told that she was lucky to live in a clean room and eat three meals a day, and to stop bothering the diplomat and his wife about a salary. Didn’t she know that there were thousands of young girls like her back home who were eager to work under these conditions? Her job turned out to be a twelve hour seven day a week employment. She soon understood that she was being held in virtual slavery by the diplomat and his capricious, demanding wife, and that there was no one to turn to for help but the network of fellow countrymen whom she met on a grocery shopping expedition. She longed to escape from her unpaid bondage, but Esperanza was without a visa, a passport, or a green card, the diplomat had held on to her visa to keep her from escaping: she was as “undocumented” as a human being could be, and she knew she risked deportation if discovered. Her options were few. She could not return to her impoverished family in Bolivia, indeed, the diplomat might have made it difficult for her if she had, since he was a man who might seek to punish a girl who had fled his home.

In the course of a few years, while she was living with us and caring for our young son, Esperanza attended English classes at night, mastered the language both as a speaker and a writer, obtained her GED High School degree, cut her hair, learned to dress in a fashionable style, fell in love, and upon discovering that she was pregnant, married her lover. The marriage failed. The machismo of the husband was offended by his wife’s desire to improve her education, and she grew tired of his abuse and unfaithfulness. He moved on, leaving Esperanza alone and pregnant again. The right to life people found her on the way to a clinic, and convinced her to have her second child. They provided her with a crib, but nothing else in the way of support over the years. Alone, she continued to work to support her children, finding employment as an aide in a nursing home where she cared for the elderly, emptying bedpans and often lifting the aged into and out of wheelchairs, injuring her back, but continuing to work. During this time, she advanced her education with college courses and found work in an inner city nursery school as a teacher. By the time her son was in High School she had been voted Mother of the Year in her city. Her son went on to become a schoolteacher/coach, her beautiful daughter the editor of a Spanish language fashion magazine, and Esperanza herself found work as a liaison between the Hispanic community and the local school boards. She was never far from the poverty level, but she had raised two splendid children, and entered middle age a woman of accomplishment with loving friends and family. And she had made an important contribution to the Hispanic community in her city, and one to my children, my life and my wife’s.

This story might have had a very different ending if not for the intervention of some caring people. Tired of living in the half world of the undocumented, Esperanza tried to legalize her status and she applied for a green card at an immigration office. She naively reported herself believing that this would help to resolve her status. This only led to an order of deportation. She called my wife and told her what had occurred, fearful that her son and daughter, who had been born in America, and raised as Americans, were going to be forced to return to a Bolivia that they did not know, one in which they could not prosper. My wife, determined to prevent this, contacted the Governor of the nearby state where Esperanza lived, told him of this woman’s life and struggle, and he offered to help. Nevertheless, even with a Governor on her side, Esperanza had to make an appearance before an immigration Judge, and my wife and I were asked by the public defender to testify in her behalf. We swore to all that we knew that was good and true about her. But it was her six year old son, who arrived in court with a flute, and played it for the Judge, who clearly won the day for her. Music hath charms more powerful than friendly rhetoric. After much paper work by the lawyers, and months of delay, Esperanza’s status was legalized, and this country eventually obtained a remarkable citizen who added immeasurably to the good of our society.

I write this not because I want to glorify an exceptional woman who would much prefer that nothing was said about her, although she deserves whatever glory she has earned, but because I am confident that there are thousands of Esperanzas in our country, men and women struggling to make a good life for themselves and their children, fearful of deportation because they are “undocumented,” and swept into the generalizations about illegal aliens who break our laws, drain our resources and offer nothing back to our country but cheap labor.

There is an element of nativist racism in the argument against a more open and humane immigration policy. If the eleven million undocumented aliens were not brown, but fair haired Canadians from North of the border, would there be such an outcry? The problem of the undocumented is deeper than people being smuggled across the border into our country to pick strawberries and work our restaurant kitchens. If they willingly take low paying jobs that Americans refuse to take, is it the nature of the job, or the low minimum wage that is behind this refusal of our citizens to work at minimum wages? If the undocumented use our hospitals and schools, are they the problem for struggling hospitals and overcrowded schools, or is it the lack of universal health care in this country and the way funds for schools (derived from real estate taxes) are distributed? We can blame only so much on the undocumented before we are obliged to look at the documented failures of our own society and the Bush administration in the field of health care and education.

I know the downside of a guest worker program or one of amnesty; it appears that it is rewarding illegal behavior. Yes, true, but our society does that time and again. We reward a President who violates our constitution by refusing to censure him, we reward a Congress who squanders our treasure with pork barrel legislation designed by lobbyists; none of which is an argument for rewarding the undocumented, but it does help to put some perspective into this problem of what constitutes illegality. I herewith make a modest proposal. Why not return Texas and California to Mexico so that all the undocumented were citizens again? What would we lose? Some bad politics and some bad films? Best of all, gone from our republic would be the two states that gave us George Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger? And if we throw in Arizona, we might be spared the Presidency of a John McCain, wildly careening ever rightward towards the Republican nomination. Best of all, the undocumented would find themselves legal residents of a greater Mexico, and the problem would disappear overnight. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

Wednesday, March 22, 2006


When I was a boy in the nineteen forties, my friends and I played a street game called “war,” while the real WWII was waged in faraway Europe by fathers and older brothers. In this game, a large chalk circle was drawn on the street, divided into as many segments as players, each segment marked with the name of a different country: Germany, France, England, Japan, China, Italy – the main players in the world’s war and ours. A “spaldeen” – a small hard pink rubber ball - was placed in the center of the circle. Each of the players put a foot on one of the countries, representing a piece of the known world. When the designated caller shouted “I declare war on France” the kid with his sneaker on France raced for the rubber ball as all other countries fled. As soon as France, grabbed that ball he shouted “freeze” stopping the other players in their tracks. I dimly recall that the next move was about throwing that ball at one of the frozen players, and if hit, someone would lose points or face or a turn. The arcane rules of the game elude me sixty five years later, but one thing remains perfectly clear. War was about countries – not concepts. Every child alive knew that. Countries at war could defeat other countries, draw up peace treaties, pay reparations, there were losers and winners, but no sane adult or wise child would believe that you could declare war on an idea or a social problem.

Who in that simpler time would possibly think of declaring war on crime? Or imagine the current and forever war on terrorism. Criminal acts by small groups were distinguished from martial ones by countries, the criminal to be pursued by law enforcement– for which we boys had the FBI, Captain America and Superman. The word “war” meant that one had to fight another country to safeguard one’s very own existence and the territorial integrity of one’s country. Anything else was labeled a crime to be pursued by intrepid crime fighters but without exaggerated rhetoric.

Many of the horrors of the twentieth century occurred when a criminal act was taken for an act of war. When an Austrian Archduke was murdered by a Serbian assassin in Sarajevo in 1914, the major European powers had a choice. They could treat this as the criminal act it was, exchange diplomatic protests and apologies, while pursuing those who might have collaborated with the assassin, or, as happened, they could unleash all the forces then in play; European xenophobia, competition for colonial territories, possession of the Balkan oil fields, and allow this to lead them into history’s bloodiest war; one that took more military and civilian lives than any conflict that preceded or followed it. Nothing was too vile for this war: poison gas, aerial bombing, machine-guns and grenades. Just as the murder of that hapless Archduke provided an excuse for WWI, the mass murder of 9/11/ allowed our sleeping leader to create a war instead of the police action that was clearly required. It cannot be repeated too often, 9/11 was an act of mass murder – but it was murder – requiring police action to find the surviving culprits and bring them to justice. It did not have to be treated as an act of war.

Some wars must be fought. WWII was unavoidable once the Axis powers began their genocidal march through Europe and Asia. As much as one might call it a war against fascism, it was, in fact, a war against distinct totalitarian powers, national entities: Germany, Italy, and Japan, nations that could be defeated in battle and brought back to a peaceful world. Even today, there are real wars waiting to be fought against real powers in the genocide in Africa. But Bush’s White House has never met a humanitarian reason it liked enough to act upon. Whatever one might think of Clinton’s compromised presidency, at the end of the day he helped put a stop to the genocide in Yugoslavia – fighting it as a police action in concert with other nations – not as a war. When Lincoln was assassinated we did not summon up a new Union Army to invade the South once again, we called it a crime and we pursued and punished the guilty. When Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols the right wing zealots and discontents behind the Oklahoma City bombing of the federal building committed their heinous act, we sent in the FBI to find the conspirators, not an army of Commandos to fight all the white separatists and right wing nuts living in our hills. Until George Bush, we were very good at distinguishing between a crime and an act of war and excellent at protecting ourselves from foreign and domestic enemies.

` After all the warnings were received by the FBI and the State Department that terrorists were planning to fly airplanes into our tallest building, and these warnings were ignored by the Bush Administration - preoccupied as it was by cutting taxes for the very rich and the surgical removal of the New Deal – the administration went into its war mode, ignoring all other options. President Bush faced by the enormity of 9/11 and the need to do something, anything, after his inescapable negligence, his having fallen asleep on guard duty, sent our forces into Afghanistan. That action was designed to vanquish the Taliban and arrest or kill bin Laden and those responsible for the murder of three thousand innocents in the World Trade Center. It was more a police action than a war – supported by the rest of the democratic world, and for that reason, something of a success. This action seemed clear, necessary and somewhat effective. A wobbly new government was established, the Taliban retreated into their mountain strongholds chastened but undefeated, ancient statues were no longer defiled, the opium beds flourished once again, and bin Laden, protected as he was by our allies in Pakistan and his own Afghan friends crept out of sight only to reappear in those “Where’s Waldo?” commercials for al-Qaeda. But for Bush and company, failure to find bin Laden meant it was time for switch and bait. If the elusive Osama was too hard to locate, there was the very conspicuous figure of the evil Saddam in Iraq, quite gettable. In the White House there was the need to declare war on someone, somewhere, the sooner the better, and where better than a country like Iraq, ruled by that loathsome dictator.

If war was the answer to avenging 9/11 and protecting America, logic and justice would have led to our invasion of Saudi Arabia whose support of extremist religious sects spurred on the terrorists most of whom came from that kingdom. But the Saudis being our providers of oil were protected by their greasy shield of petroleum, and their long term amorous relations with the Bush family. Who can forget that hand holding of the President and the Saudi Prince as they tip toed through Texas? It was our Brokeback Mideast policy. And so this administration, fearing and failing to deal with the guilty Saudis, and feeling that it needed a war to assuage our national pride - a war to justify the deaths of those 9/11 innocents - gave us a war in Iraq to protect and control the price of oil of the Middle East, while claiming to bring democracy to that benighted country. In the words of that cynical 19th century diplomat, Prince Metternich, it was worse than a crime, it was a mistake. And that mistake has led to thousands dead in Iraq, and an America that is fractured and disheartened.

Fighting a war, as opposed to pursuing criminals in a police action is more than a choice of words. War allows our government to suspend the very civil liberties that we are allegedly fighting to protect, it allows the administration to break the rules of a civil society, violate the Constitution, and in this case sets open-ended goals that cannot be reached – the elimination of terrorism - which can only prolong human suffering and the power of this President. Bush has given us a dreadful legacy – a permanent state of war, one with no end in sight, when a police action, vigorously pursued, could have devoted its resources to finding and bringing to justice those very men who had caused 9/11. One of the causes of this may be the President’s deaf ear to the nuances of language. A war and a police action may mean the same to him. We need to understand the meaning of words to speak truth. And worse for him, and for us, like a schoolyard cheat, Bush keeps moving the finish line and changing the rules of the game as he goes along.

We can no longer rationalize the behavior of our government and seek good reasons for bad decisions. We are governed by demagogic fear mongers and corrupt power brokers who call their most egregious failures successes, and trumpet their terror-mongering from Maine to the cornfields of Kansas, all this while Mr. Cheney’s Halliburton pockets millions from this war. Never in our history have such a pack of rascals and profiteers been abusing such power without the checks and balances in place to stop them. We have a President who still claims to believe that he has done the right thing invading Iraq, absent W.M.D and any true sign of a connection between Iraq and bin Laden. He can still turn to the American public and describe the dreadful consequences of the rising Civil War in Iraq as a challenge, but one we will overcome if we stay the course. That staying the course means the death of someone else’s son or daughter – deaths that appear to mean so little to this man. At last, the country seems to have caught on to his game. If one of the kids who played “war” in my street game had taken that “spaldeen” and hurled it at a passerby whose looks he didn’t much care for, instead of one of the “designated” player-countries, there would have been a general outcry of “Are you nuts, get out and go home!” Alas, we can’t shout “Are you nuts, get out, go home!” at Mr. Bush and hope for that to happen, but we can speak out clear and loud and focus our attention on his cohorts in Congress in the coming election. With the elections of ‘06 we can hope to restore the balance of power and through that the rule of law in this country, and if luck is with us, perhaps learn from the hard lessons of the last five years and the common wisdom of childhood. Tell the truth and play fair.