My House Representative, Rep. Darrell Issa (R) is the wealthiest member of Congress, reportedly worth $460 million. Before he was elected in 2000, he started a business called Directed Electronics Incorporated, the eventual maker of the Viper car alarm which has a recording of the Congressman's voice declaring, "Warning: you are too close, this vehicle is protected by Viper." As it turns out, Issa's immigration policies, detailed under the Homeland Security link on his website, both functionally & tragically mirror his famous product. Both are strong-armed, fear-based and expensive arrangements that portray anyone who comes near as the enemy.
But Issa's staffers insist that the Congressman is "for comprehensive immigration reform," and when pressed, that DREAMers, young undocumented immigrants who came to the States mostly before they were old enough to remember, "should absolutely be part of the conversation," as Issa's Director of Immigration Ellen Dargie told me on the phone last week.
This is surprising, given the Congressman's recent letter to President Obama signed by 30 mostly white male GOP House members, calling for the end of DACA, the executive order that allowed young undocumented students & graduates to be "legal" for 2 years with the option to renew (as long as Obama is the President). It is vital for DACA to be repealed, Issa wrote, "to send a clear signal to all individuals that our immigration laws will be enforced." Even though DACA did not apply to arrivals prior to 2007, Issa has blamed the rapid increase of Central American child refugees flooding our southern border on Obama's executive order, enacted by bypassing a highly polarizing & obstructionist House of Reps.
In regards to these Central American child refugees--more than 50,000 since October 2013--Issa is adamant that they are leaving their hometowns for economic opportunity and caught up in what Dargie calls a "new business model" for coyotes & smugglers, who are "getting into the communities" to exploit young people by convincing them that they have a guaranteed life of freedom & opportunity in El Norte.
Issa's analysis, backed by his 4-day trip to Central America to meet with school, religious leaders, mayors and NGOs, contrasts with reports from major American outlets like the New York Times which are consistently reporting bloated gangs & drug cartels recruiting and kidnapping teenagers (and even younger children). As Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez awkwardly proclaimed late last week at a press conference after a 90-minute meeting with Obama at the White House:
Washington must understand that if you have a Central America with violence because of the drug traffic crime, a Central America without opportunities, without growth in the economy, it is going to always be a problem for the United States.Indeed, coyotes have been wooing young Central Americans for quite some time and their omnipresence should not be schlepped off. But these exploitative actions are symptoms of a systemic injustice that leads to increasing immigration rates: massive cartel-infused violence created by American demand for illegal drugs, in addition to neoliberal deregulation, privatization & free trade policies that have disrupted or destroyed countless Central American communities of small landholders and subsistence farmers, beckoning them north to the factories and fields that will pay them what they now cannot possibly make at home. Ironically, when we dig down to the root of this crisis, we find Issa's social & economic policies fueling the dysfunction.
Darrell Issa, the 60-year-old former military captain, formerly indicted on grand theft auto and concealed weapons charges, bolsters his macho cred by tweeting marine hooahs (#MarineMonday) & puppy photos (#FridayPuppy). Earlier this year, he forcefully adjourned a House Judiciary Committee meeting while Democrat Elijah Cummings began to speak. Basically, the Congressman doesn't really need to face up to anyone who disagrees with his policies, while controlling the message through his offices and conservative media outlets.
So we are caught up in a national moment of highly dysfunctional immigration policy relegated to the status quo by a highly dysfunctional House of Representatives tacking further to the right to cater to Tea Party fear-mongering. Issa represents this state of affairs perfectly. He's the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, fixated on "scandals" like Obamacare, Bengazi, the IRS and executive branch overreach (DACA), sound biting that he cannot go down the road of immigration reform because the President cannot be trusted because he refuses to execute the immigration laws already on the books while proclaiming that, before anything happens, the border must be further militarized.
But the real scandal is that the President has to go it on his own to give young undocumented immigrants the freedom to come out from the shadows and pursue their future with dignity without the looming cloud of ICE around every corner. As it turns out, far too many House members, including plenty of Democrats, are virtually scared to death that "comprehensive" immigration reform might just make it to the floor of the House, an antagonizing point GOP Speaker of the House John Boehner heralded a few months back. A vote that provides any sort of path towards legalization for these 11 million undocumented immigrants will be risky business in regards to the feared backlash arising from nativist neighborhoods of their respective Districts.
It is virtually impossible for constituents like me, who pledge solidarity with young undocumented students and who simply ask for concise, clear answers about what their congressional representative is advocating for, to actually meet with the Congressman. I have simply asked for one thing: a sit-down 15-minute conversation in the District in early August with a group of school district superintendents, principals, teachers, undocumented students, faith leaders with the Congressman himself. After emails and phone calls and delayed (or a complete lack of) responses from Issa's District, press and immigration office(s), my request has been denied. Just a 15-minute sit-down with a dozen education and religious leaders who are deeply concerned about this issue. Seriously, is this the "democracy" we boast of?
Differing convictions about immigration policy are a given. But Issa's stance, despite more compassionate scripting to faith groups, is clearly a Viperized "get the hell away from our country" perspective. The two group of immigrants that he caters to are hi-tech workers ("55,000 visas per year for foreign students receiving advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics") and undocumented children of parents who have been killed in active duty while serving in the U.S. military. This is clearly not "comprehensive." His policy proposals do nothing to alleviate the fear and suffering of millions of undocumented young people and their parents who have filled "low skilled" jobs for cheap wages.
Rep. Issa, and many political leaders of his ilk, get by on immigration policy by dwelling in a land of generalities. Rule #1 is "Don't be specific about what to do with undocumented immigrants." Case in point, his Orange County Register op-ed from March, 2013:
Those who demonstrate the ability to contribute to our society in a meaningful way should have a path forward to guide them, be placed at the end of the legal-immigration line, meet the strict standards established and face a rigorous but fair application process. Those who are migrant workers should be put into a temporary guest-worker program. Those whose presence is not in our national interests should be immediately removed. The top priority should be identifying and removing criminal aliens.What does this even mean? Nothing in the op-ed refers to a path to citizenship or, specifically, to young undocumented students who came to the States under circumstances beyond their control and choice.
As it is with most U.S. political leaders, Rep. Issa's immigration policies flow with the demographics of his District, California's 49th, home of the Camp Pendleton Marine Base, "good schools," mostly white suburban staples like Evangelical Christian megachurches, beach resorts, fitness centers, microbreweries, Cheesecake Factories and a history of underground and not-so-underground racism. Rep. Issa's constituents and campaign contributors benefit from the Viperization of immigration policy, cloaked in the language of "comprehensive." He come across as tough-as-hell and seem reasonable at the same time. A white suburbanite's dream.
For the Eastern Orthodox Christian Darrell Issa, and all people of faith & conscience, an immigration policy fixated on Viperizing the border falls far short of the divine path of justice and mercy. When Central American children flee violence on the streets of their villages and are apprehended at the U.S. southern border, are we not vividly reminded of the undocumented Mary & Joseph, with their newborn DREAMer Jesus, who flee to imperial Egypt to escape the paranoid & persecuting wrath of Herod? It was a dream from God, not the homeland security policies of Egypt, that eventually led the holy family safely back to their home village. Our prophetic texts concretely and consistently call for the protection of orphans, widows and immigrants: the most vulnerable members of society. These scripts of peace & justice were designed to cast out fear. That's what nonviolent love does.
Love of neighbor, particularly those barely surviving south of our border, demands dignifying policies that actually do something to protect "little ones" caught up in American drug and free trade policies. We have much to learn from our failed experiments in a criminal justice system obsessed with toughness, punishment and vengeance. We need to summon the courage and creativity to advocate for nonviolent, humanitarian & restorative policies that we have always expected from countries, with the "burden" of geographic proximity, to enact for refugees fleeing violence, disease, famine and economic devastation (see Turkey, Jordan, Kenya, etc).
Recent psychological studies have shown strong parallels between how much power a man possesses and how coldhearted he is. This may be true. But a deep democratic movement of ordinary activists who are committed to critical consciousness and compassionate confrontation with Power can work to "comprehensively" end the spiral of violence for our immigrant population. Indeed, we do have a crisis in our system, as Jeffrey Stout in Blessed Are The Organized (2010) diagnosed a few years ago:
To maintain a position of dominance, even the most powerful people in the world rely on the inaction of others and the resignation that lies beneath it. The powerful became powerful by organizing others to work for them and creating incentives for profitably cooperative activity. It appears to be against the interests of the rich and the lucky for everyone else to be similarly well organized. The rich and the lucky benefit from making large-scale democratic reform appear hopeless. Paradoxically, they also benefit from making large-scale change seem easily achievable, for example, by casting a vote every four years for a candidate who promises something called “change.”This situation can only be overcome by people who commit to activism instead of apathy.
A Viperized Immigration Policy is terrible news for friends like Aida who is working full-time at an assisted living center to pay for nursing school or Ariana, an honors student at UC Riverside. They didn't know they were undocumented until they were a few months away from high school graduation. Aida & Ariana deserve to be advocated for. They shouldn't be placed in the back of some imaginary immigration line. They shouldn't have to pay a fee or a fine to become "legal." They should be just be legal. Period.
If someone has the creativity and business acumen to make hundreds of millions of dollars on a talking car alarm, he most certainly has the energy & resources to give these young people dignity & documentation. If he can't or won't (as appears to be the case), he shouldn't be allowed to get away with hiding behind "comprehensive" and "securing the border." What some cynically call "politics" is really just deception and it must be called out.
Give Rep. Issa a call and tell him to stop hiding behind generalities and Viperized policies, and, as a person of faith, to courageously advocate for our undocumented brothers and sisters. Isn't this what Jesus would do?