Presidential stupidity and the need for patriotic immigration reform
When I moved back to New York City as an adult in the late 1990s, the job that got me here was as an inspector for the Immigration and Naturalization Services. I worked at J.F.K. airport stamping passports and processing immigrants, refugees, tourists, celebrities, and anyone else that came through my line.
In some cases the job could be very humbling and inspiring. For a short time I worked at the federal building in downtown Manhattan interviewing refugees and asylees who were applying for green cards. I met people who would rather be fry cooks in America than engineers in their native country. I met a woman who had seen her family murdered, a man who did time in jail for being gay, and young guy who faced prison time for simply protesting for his rights.
I also saw first-hand how our system is completely broken and is largely not at all in keeping with the traditions of what we consider our great American heritage of immigration. Our immigration laws and policies are a patchwork of corporate influence and ethnic lobbying. There is no comprehensive consideration of the national interest in how immigration is handled in the U.S. and it’s been that way for decades.
In New York City, you know something crazy is going on when people are voluntarily going to JFK Airport when they don’t have to. This past weekend thousands of people flocked there to protest the detention of a handful of travelers by order of a hastily drawn up Presidential executive order travel ban that affected a handful of Muslim-majority countries.
Travel bans like the one issued are done at times when there is a potential immediate terrorist threat. Others that have been cited have been President Carter’s restriction on Iranian travel during the hostage crisis at the time and President Obama’s temporary ban on processing Iraqi refugees in 2011. But those were limited and in response to events happening at the time. There aren’t corresponding crises that would equate to the recent Trump travel ban.
President Trump’s ham-handed executive order is like everything else he has done: a dramatic show without any planning or thought and with no understanding of the issues. He managed to make life difficult for those border and airport inspectors on the front lines of our national defense and energize the opposition. He’s helped open-border advocates position their agenda as more mainstream than it is.
Trump won the election based largely on the strength of his opposition to illegal immigration and within the first week of his administration he’s undermined his greatest political asset.
And the biggest tragedy is that now real patriotic immigration reform is going to be even more difficult to achieve, because any attempt to enact a common-sense agenda is going to be linked to Trump’s bone-headed travel ban.
This weekend’s move also hurt the fight against Islamic terrorism. Keep in mind that our best allies in the fight against Muslim extremists are Muslims from those afflicted countries. Trump’s attempt at a show-business presidency punishes some of the people who worked alongside our military in Iraq and Afghanistan, truly deserving refugees that risked their lives for our servicemen and women.
The decay of our immigration system began in 1965 and it’s had more than 50 years to morph into the mess it is today. It will take years to pass the laws needed to make sensible immigration policy stick. If Donald Trump is serious about really making a lasting change, he would stop his senseless showboating and start drafting legislation with Congressional leaders. That would require time away from TV cameras and social media. That requires real work. Start now!
New York Taxis: no English required
Years ago, I was helping someone move apartments and we took a cab. We were calling for gypsy cabs as this was in uptown Manhattan where it was difficult to hail a cab. The driver had zero English. Even when my friend wrote the address on a piece of paper and handed it to him, he thought he was going to 124th Street because the number of the building address was 124. He called his dispatcher on his cell phone and him interpret this address.
We don’t expect everyone to speak the King’s English in New York—what native New Yorkers speak is far from the King’s English—but driving a cab or working with the public in this town in any official capacity should require English and until recently that was the case for having a license to drive a cab (colloquially known as a “hack license.”)
New York City taxi drivers are no longer required to pass an English language proficiency test. This regulation had been on the books for a while but not stringently enforced. Ask any New Yorker who has taken cabs in the city regularly and they have had drivers with little or no English. Now it’s just official.
And it’s a bad idea. We don’t have a lot of things that hold us together here in New York or America anymore for that matter. If we’re going to perish in a suicidal cultural bouillabaisse, then I guess descending into a hellish Babel is part of the deal. But the interest of public safety can’t be abandoned so quickly and recklessly.
What’s motivating this in New York is not a lack of drivers who are willing to learn English, but the medallion cab companies losing drivers to startup hailing app companies like Uber and Lyft. It’s not a matter of public policy or politicians’ hearts breaking for destitute non-English speakers, but the cold hard cash that fuels what remains of our “democracy.”
It’s amazing that you can get a driver’s license in the U.S.A. without knowing English, but at least let make sure that those who drive other people professionally know the language. New Yorkers come from every part of the globe and whatever your opinions of our current immigration question, most people agree that people who live and work together need to know the same language.
Technology that’s shaking up the taxi industry will enable drivers who are restricted in language to only deal with clientele they can communicate with. Since you can order any kind of vehicle to pick you up with a ride-sharing mobile application, you can also specify that language proficiency of your driver. Thus the balkanization of the U.S. is advanced further, and all in the name of helping and fairness.
I have never been a frequent user of cabs but in my days of hard drinking and late nights that became early mornings, I would take a cab. Since most cab drivers in New York are from other countries, I enjoyed speaking to them about where they were from and learning about what was going on in the world from people who had a closer connection to it.
New York has survived for hundreds of years in part because people have learned to work with one another despite enormous differences. A common language makes that possible.
My friend Poppy, a better New Yorker
This past weekend, my wife and I took our three girls to the Cradle of Aviation Museum not far outside the New York City border in Nassau County, Long Island, New York. The museum is located on the spot where Charles Lindbergh took off on his historic first trans-Atlantic flight in 1927.
The museum is a nice one and wasn’t too crowded even though it was a Saturday. There is a play room for children that our older girls enjoyed as well as plenty of airplane and helicopter cockpits they enjoyed climbing into and pretending to fly.
As we were busy wrangling our children and enjoying the exhibits, I saw people I recognized. I saw my friend Poppy and his son Mike there at the museum. It was a great coincidence.
I worked with Poppy years ago when I first moved back to New York City and worked as an immigration inspector at JFK Airport. Even though I was only on the job for about two years and left it more than sixteen years ago, it remains the most interesting paying job I’ve ever held.
The immigration service attracted an interesting mix of people, and most of my fellow immigration inspectors were excellent people. Some of them, particularly some of the supervisors, liked to put on airs even though they did little but order people around and make things easy for the airlines. Some people like to inflate themselves or wear needless tactical gear and pull power trips on passengers or other inspectors.
Poppy didn’t have to yell at people or strut around pretending to be tough. He’s a decorated veteran of both the U.S. Army and the New York Police Department. He saw combat in Vietnam and on the streets of New York as a housing cop during some of the most violent times of the city’s history. Rank-and-file inspectors like me respected the retired cops like Poppy because they had real and more impressive law enforcement experience and had no use for the petty politics of the federal bureaucracy. There was nothing that a paper-pushing supervisor could threaten him with that was going to scare him. He’s fought off Vietcong and hardened criminals. He’s seen humanity at its worst, repeatedly, and retained the ability to laugh at it.
His ability to laugh at bullshit that would otherwise drive a normal person insane is one of the qualities makes him so valued. After I left the airport to work in journalism, I worked with Poppy to write a book of funny stories about his time as a police officer. He gave me some recordings of conversations he had with fellow retired officers so I could write them up. I decided to listen to a few minutes one day before heading out, but these stories were so funny that I couldn’t stop listening and sat in my apartment listening to these stories and laughing out loud.
Among all the people I am in touch with from the airport, Poppy is the central figure in our network of friends. He is the one we will plan to meet for dinner months in advance, the one we’ll call when we make our one pilgrimage to a wrestling show for the year, the one we want to go to opening day at Yankee Stadium with. Some of the most memorable dinners I’ve had were with Poppy and other JFK friends at Two Toms Restaurant in Brooklyn.
Poppy has faced his share of troubles. He has faced health problems, his house burned down, and the useless airport bureaucrats held up his retirement paperwork. But despite that he has lost none of his humor or his ability to make you feel like you are one of his crew. My discussion with him and at the museum lasted only a few minutes, but it brightened my entire weekend.
We live in troubling times and we’ve seen New York and America enter difficult times that strain our concept of survival. But I take comfort that our country produces men like my friend Poppy, who is strong enough to face any danger and help you laugh at the absurdities of life.
We have had too much God in America
In James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the novel’s protagonist Stephen Dedalus is listening to an argument his father and aunt Dante are having with a Mr. Casey about the place of the clergy in Irish society. The talk was prompted by the scandal surrounding Charles Stuart Parnell, an Irish nationalist leader who was condemned by the Catholic Church. This condemnation set back the movement for Irish independence considerably.
—God and religion before everything! Dante cried. God and religion before the world!
Mr. Casey raised his clenched fist and brought it down on the table with a crash.
—Very well then, he shouted hoarsely, if it comes to that, no God for Ireland!
The passage came to mind as Pope Francis, traveling in Mexico, commented that political leaders who wanted to build barriers to illegal immigration were not truly Christian. He was referencing Donald Trump, the current front-runner for the Republican Party’s nomination for president, who has made opposition to illegal immigration a central part of his campaign.
Who are we to argue what is Christian with the Pope? We’ll take him at his word: building walls instead of bridges is not the Christian thing to do. Trump is a big phony and a blowhard who is not a good Christian. Sure thing, Francis.
Let’s not jump on the Trump bandwagon, but let’s also be fine with giving Christianity the boot in the ass out of public life that it richly deserves. Let’s be absolutely fine with America not doing the Christian thing; we’ll be a better and stronger country for it.
Building a society around a holy book isn’t a recipe for success. And like many other religious documents, the Gospel of Christ is full of a lot of very bad ideas. Loving your enemies is masochistic. Turning the other cheek only gets you hit twice. The current Pope comes from the Kumbaya school of Christianity that holds that if we all just love everyone enough, we can create a just and peaceful world. Christianity has (in theory at least) been trying this for more than 2,000 years, I think it’s safe to say it doesn’t work.
Where are the secular social-justice warriors telling the Pope to butt out of our national debate on immigration and sovereignty? Where are all the self-proclaimed “male feminists” objecting to the import of thousands of the unenlightened?
The Christians who are promising love and world peace are just as delusional and self-righteous as the ones threatening fire and brimstone. Both camps will gladly lead us to ruin, if not by the Christian right’s aversion to science and obsession with gays and abortion then by the Christian left’s naïvely embracing those who would destroy us.
Donald Trump is a fraud and a buffoon, and he’s not the answer to our national question. But for all Trump’s idiocy, his campaign understands this simple fact: if you don’t have real borders, you don’t have a real country.
We cannot solve the world’s problems by inviting people from all corners of the world to come live with us. There are other ways to help that won’t harm our country. Any charitable efforts ought to be tempered with a measure of rational self-interest.
Our well-meaning religious friends think that they are doing God’s work and that the magic of their good intentions will somehow turn bad people good and make everything OK. I wish them luck with that, but these beliefs are not a basis for a responsible immigration policy. As a country we need to be the adult in the room.
The Queens ethnic supermarket shuffle
When a local supermarket closes down, people scatter like ants seeking safety. Our area of Queens is seeing two stores close down over the next few weeks. It will be interesting to see where shoppers will go before these stores are reopened.
The scene in the Waldbaum’s on 20th Avenue in College Point, Queens was a sad one. More than half the shelves were empty. Where abundant displays of vegetables once stood were now vacant. Everything was on sale. Products in the aisles were consolidated onto a few shelves. As I was checking out, a woman asked if she could have my shopping basket when I was done; she couldn’t find another one anywhere.
Local supermarkets throughout Queens are being sold or closed after the A&P, which owned several supermarket chains, declared bankruptcy earlier this year. The local ones near where I live are supposed to be reopening. The Waldbaum’s will reportedly reopen as a Shoprite later this year. The Pathmark near our home is supposed to reopen as a Stop & Shop. Both are closing down in the meantime leaving people wondering where they are going to shop.
Food shopping, like much else in New York City, is a generally ethnically segregated affair. There was a Key Food in the shopping center right behind our home. It closed and is now Good Fortune, a grocery store that mainly caters to Chinese shoppers. All the announcements on the PA are in Chinese and many of the people who work there speak no English. Some of our neighbors refuse to go but it’s not a bad store. If you’re looking for fresh fish they have a lot of it, and they even kept a real deli, but if it’s too early in the day and the deli person isn’t there, none of the multitude of Chinese workers will help you other than to tell you in the best broken English they can that you are shit out of luck.
One thing I noticed when I first visited Good Fortune is that there is no cash register #4. The cash registers skip from register #3 to register #5. The Chinese believe that #4 is bad luck. The word for the number four is similar to the word for death in Chinese, so Chinese will go through great lengths not to have the number four in their addresses or phone numbers. Similarly in western cultures there is often no 13th floor of an office building because of bad luck associated with that number.
A few blocks down the street is the H-Mart, a Korean grocery store. It’s smaller and does not have a wide selection, though on Fridays you can go through there and practically eat an entire lunch’s worth of food in the form of free samples. This supermarket also has odd sections of electronics and other things you don’t normally find in a grocery store; maybe that’s a Korean thing. Their selection of non-Asian foods is pretty dismal and we rarely go there. A few years ago supermarket union workers protested outside of this store asking people to boycott it because it had no black or white employees. I haven’t seen these protesters in a while. I don’t normally go to this store but I’ve never seen a black or white employee there to this day.
So some people are not going to shop at the Asian supermarkets and they’ll soon get the chance to shop at their old stores, renovated and under new management. Some have taken to shopping at some of the smaller stores in Whitestone and some will shop at the nearby Target.
New York’s ethnic cauldron will continue to boil and churn. Luckily I don’t mind shopping among the Chinese and will stay well fed.
Go Beyond Your Politics to Help the Climate
This past weekend saw a very large demonstration in New York in favor of addressing climate change. Support for helping the environment is widespread and spans a lot of political and cultural chasms. You don’t need to be a climatologist to know which way the wind blows.
Even if the case for climate change is oversold, and I’m not convinced it is, the kinds of policies that are most often advocated are policies that we already largely agree are good on their own merits. It is good to lower carbon emissions because pollutants are bad and oxygen is what humans and other animals breathe. Moving towards greater adoption of renewable energy sources is a good idea from a cost savings and energy conservation standpoint already.
Real policy solutions are always going to involve embracing policies you don’t like. No political ideology have a monopoly on the facts, and one of the things that make science so great is that it will never fall completely in line with the preconceived notions of any activist party line.
So it is with climate change. If we are going to improve the environment, it’s going to mean that friends on the left and the right are going to have to embrace or at least tolerate policies that would normally be anathema to them.
Here are five points that people should look at that will be sure to irritate the normal politics of right and left, but will be important to making environmental change.
Invest in public transportation. New York is able to be the size that it is population wise because we have a real public transportation system. It is often a nightmare of ineptitude and maddening lateness and overcrowding, but it exists and millions of people are able to use it each day. Take a look at cities that have had no planning and lack a suitable public transit system for their populations. Atlanta is a morass of strip malls and traffic jams. Los Angeles is a smoggy land of idle chrome and gas fumes. New York is more competitive than these cities because it can attract people and move them around even if they don’t have enough money for a car. That cuts pollutants and allows for more economic growth.
Limit immigration. Immigration, legal or otherwise, increases carbon emissions because it increases the population of the largest carbon emitting countries. Some environmentalists understand this but in the U.S. only the most marginalized political groups are calling for any meaningful immigration reform.
Agree to expand the use of natural gas and nuclear power. Wind and solar energy are great, but we don’t have the time or the money to increase its use enough to meet our current energy needs. Even in European countries where renewable energy is at its greatest use, it still accounts for a relatively small percentage of power use. Nuclear energy allows for maximum power generated with a small amount of fuel and carbon emissions. Also, natural gas deposits in the U.S. can now be tapped with hydro-fracking. Natural gas is cleaner and it holds the possibility of making the U.S. an energy exporter.
Start holding corporate polluters accountable. If I threw a dirty diaper over the fence and onto the White House lawn, I’m pretty sure I’d be held accountable and not only charged criminally but made to foot the bill for cleaning up my mess. Yet BP took a giant oily dump in the Gulf of Mexico and it is still in business. If the U.S. Coast Guard says you still have a mess to clean up, finish the job or go broke trying. There’s nothing socialistic about asking someone to clean up their own mess. If personal responsibility is good for me, it’s good for BP and like corporate polluters.
Keep money local. Embrace capitalism and consumerism in the best way possible and support local farmers. Buy American when you can, and that includes in the vegetable isle. I’d rather keep as many dollars as I can in the U.S.A. as long as they are still worth something. Also, it takes less energy and carbon emissions the shorter distance the food has to travel to you. It may sound like some real hippie shit, but in this case the hippies are right.