April 17, 2008

Book Review - Enrique's Journey

There are 10 million undocumented immigrants in the United States today, give or take a couple million. That’s 10 million stories of individual human beings fleeing their homes, often leaving families behind, for the chance of a better life, even a life lived in constant fear of deportation, in the United States.

The American immigration debate can be overwhelming, but the individuals most affected by immigration policy are largely invisible – undocumented immigrants are, by definition, absent from public forums. In the absence of tangible people that represent the complexities of immigration to the United States, many of us are left with a very impersonal sense of what is a very personal issue.

Enrique’s Journey makes the impersonal personal. Author and journalist Sonia Nazario, spurred by a surprising conversation with her nanny, set out to shed light on the individuals at the center of American immigration debates. What follows is a book that tells the story of immigration in 21st century America in a way that illuminates the motivations and struggles of immigrants and the impact their decisions to come to America have both on our country and on the countries and families they leave behind.

Enrique is a Honduran teenager whose mother left for the United States when he was 6, promising to return within a year or two after making enough money to build a moderately prosperous life in Honduras. After years of promises that his mother will soon return, Enrique tires of waiting and sets out on a dangerous journey through Mexico, often atop freight trains and never more than one wrong decision away from deportation or death.

The journey itself is certainly mythic, but Nazario is careful not to mythologize her characters. Enrique and his mother are both human (and by human, I mean imperfect) and are attempting to struggle through a life that has presented them with difficult circumstances. In Honduras, they are poor. Enrique’s parents are separated and the Honduran economy provides little opportunity for women older than 25. Faced with the likelihood of an impossible life, Enrique’s mother opts to flee to the land of opportunity. From the United States, she is able to send money to her family that helps provide an education for Enrique and his sister, clothes, and food that would be impossible to afford otherwise. But the land of opportunity has its limits. Her savings are never enough to return to Honduras. When Enrique decides to attempt to follow his mother to America, it is clear that she has given up on returning.

It is incredible the lengths people go to reach our country for even the small opportunities Enrique’s mother is afforded. That millions of people flee their homes, often leaving family behind, for those opportunities says a great deal both about the allure of the American dream and the desperation felt by the impoverished in their home countries. These are not easy decisions and the life of an undocumented immigrant is consumed with the ambiguities and consequences of such decisions – consequences that affect families and nations alike.

Would Enrique’s family have been better off had his mother remained in Honduras or is the economic benefit they receive worth a life without a mother? This is not just a question for Enrique’s family. Immigrants send $30 billion a year back home – a not insubstantial portion of home country’s economies. Yet, in Honduras, huge numbers of parentless children, like Enrique, have fueled rampant growth in juvenile delinquency and gangs. These are impossible choices.

And obviously, undocumented immigrants make an impact on the United States as well. There is certainly room for debate on immigration policy and I don’t intend to tackle that here. However, in considering the questions raised by the presence of large numbers of undocumented immigrants, Enrique’s Journey provides readers with one family’s story, warts and all, to make that debate more personal. Even if Nazario didn’t provide a fascinating narrative (which she does), that humanization of the invisible makes the book worthwhile.

April 01, 2008

Supreme Court Notebook - Snyder v. Louisiana

In 1879, the Supreme Court heard a case regarding the murder trial of a former slave. The jury for that trial was, predictably and by law, made up entirely of white men. The defendant was convicted and sentenced to death. The Supreme Court was charged with interpreting the constitutional amendments adopted in the wake of the Civil War to determine whether American citizens, including emancipated slaves, had a right to a trial with a jury untainted by racial discrimination.

Justice William Strong answered with a rhetorical question: “How can it be maintained that compelling a colored man to submit to a trial for his life by a jury drawn from a panel from which the State has expressly excluded every man of his race, because of color alone, however well qualified in other respects, is not a denial to him of equal protection?”

On the grounds that the state had impermissibly excluded black citizens from serving on juries, the Court vacated the defendant’s conviction and remanded the case.

Fast forward nearly 130 years from that step forward for civil rights – a time period that has included many steps forward in American race relations. Last week, the Supreme Court offered up evidence that steps forward in American race relations are small and often followed by steps back. See if this sounds familiar.

In 2008, the Supreme Court heard a case regarding the murder trial of an AfricanAmerican. The jury for that trial – in Louisiana, a state that is more than 30% African American – did not include any African Americans, the prosecutor having eliminated through peremptory challenge all African Americans in the final jury pool. The defendant was convicted and sentenced to death. The Supreme Court was charged with determining whether the prosecutor’s conduct showed impermissible discriminatory intent.

Obviously, the two cases are different – one is a challenge to a deliberately discriminatory state law, the other a challenge to an arguably discriminatory state prosecutor – but there were sufficient echoes in the contemporary case to give even today’s conservative Supreme Court pause.

Writing for a 7-2 majority, Justice Samuel Alito described the prosecutor’s allegedly non-racial reasons for dismissing one of the potential African American jurors as “suspicious.” The prosecutor’s non-racial explanation for the dismissal of that juror, a college student concerned about missing too much school, was that he looked nervous and might be eager to end the deliberations quickly by pushing for the defendant’s acquittal or conviction for a lesser crime so that he could back to school. To ease the prosecutor’s – and the juror’s – concern, the trial court contacted the juror’s dean who assured them that if the student were away only a week – as anticipated by the prosecutor himself – then jury service would not be a problem. The prosecutor was unconvinced and struck the juror.

What made this conduct “suspicious” to Justice Alito was that the prosecutor did not show similar concern for potential white jurors who likewise expressed the desire to avoid prolonged absence from employment or other responsibilities. The prosecutor’s “pretextual explanation naturally gives rise to an inference of discriminatory intent,” Alito wrote, concluding that the trial court committed a clear error in allowing the student to be dismissed.

Comparing these two cases, there are signs both of the significant progress that has been made on the race front and of the often subtle ways the race problem continues to manifest itself today. No longer are there state laws that exclude entire classes of citizens from the full benefits of citizenship, yet there remain juries without black members that convict black defendants. No longer must the Supreme Court deem obviously discriminatory conduct to be against the Constitution, yet the Court continues to confront cases of less blatant, though no less pernicious, discrimination.

In 2008, no less so than in 1879, courts and citizens alike continue the project of, as Justice Strong wrote in the 19th century, “securing to a race recently emancipated, a race that through many generations had been held in slavery, all the civil rights that the superior race enjoy.”

Don't take my word for it - read the cases yourself.....

Strauder v. West Virginia – 100 U.S. 303 (1879)

Snyder v. Louisiana – 552 U.S. ___ (2008)