Home Again

There are many reasons why people want to emigrate to the United States.  One oft cited reason is abundance of economic opportunity.  Where one is perhaps stymied in his attempts to set up shop on a street in Bangladesh so that he will be able to make enough to support himself and his family, he will have no problem doing so in the United States.  Work hard, play by the rules, and the rewards will come your way.  This is the capitalist myth, aimed especially at immigrants, that has endured for as long as Ford has been making cars.  And it has worked — at least in luring immigrants to the United States.  What happens to most of them after they arrive and settle here is a different story.

I often wonder whether some immigrants now in the United States would not have been better off staying in their home countries.  Of course, there are many places that are not liveable even for the most resourceful and optimistic individuals.  I cannot tell you where those places might be from personal experience but if news accounts are to believed modern day Syria seems like an example of such a hellhole.  But what about other places where living conditions might be considered harsh but not unbearable to the point where one is in constant fear of being indiscriminately shot at, kidnapped or tortured?

It is true in many of these places you cannot have a house with a yard and two cars.  You are lucky if you can get a one bedroom apartment with your own bathroom and a separate kitchen.  You will either have to walk or to ride crowded buses and trains to most destinations you’d like to go to throughout the day.  What you eat for the day will be limited to what’s being served at the local food stand or cafeteria or what’s in stock at the local market.

Such living conditions certainly seem shabby when described in the abstract.  And all the more so when considered in tandem with images, littered all over the internet and publications, depicting homes in the West of uncompromising luxury.

The mindset of the immigrant who decides to escape such shabby living conditions in search of the gold-flecked frontiers of the United States is akin to what goes through the mind of a high schooler who is about to leave home for college.  For the student it is the excitement that she will no longer be bound by the rules and conventions that she had to observe while living at home.  No more curfews; no more dinner table rituals; no more lectures; no more chores.  It is the excitement of imminent freedom.

The same goes for the immigrant.  No doubt that with shabby living conditions come more rules and conventions that are meant to prevent conflict and maintain a certain level of social harmony.  To be able to free oneself from these social norms is understandably exciting.

But as is often the case, the immigrant eventually comes to his or her senses, as does the college student  It dawns on the immigrant that living in a place without the constraints that are often placed on one’s conduct in places that present more crowded, inhospitable living conditions make living a very lonely and purposeless endeavor.  And it dawns on the college student that life at home wasn’t so bad after all; that perhaps all those rules and conventions were in place for reasons, even if  some of those reasons never really made sense, and perhaps never will.


Jimmy Carter

‘Nuff Said.

Jimmy Carter for Cancer Survivor by Mike Lukovich

Padilla Retroactivity Making Another Trip to the Supreme Court?

Earlier this month the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the case of United States v. Chan.  That case involves a longtime U.S. green card holder and British national who is trying to get her prior convictions for perjury overturned.  The argument is that the lawyer who represented the green card holder misled her on what would happen to her immigration status if she decided to plead guilty, which she ultimately did.

The convictions at issue are old, dating back to 1993, but they are surfacing now because the immigration authorities recently initiated deportation proceedings against the green card holder, relying on the 1993 convictions.

The issue in the case is whether the green card holder is entitled to postconviction relief because her former attorney misled her about the immigration consequences of her prior convictions.  If she does, then there is a chance she may also be able to avoid deportation.

The district/trial court said no but the appeals court disagrees.  The appeals court rules that the green card holder is allowed to rely on and benefit from a Ninth Circuit decision that came out after the green card holder was convicted of perjury.

Generally, decisions that are issued after the event for which one seeks relief cannot be applied retroactively.  But there are exceptions to this rule, and in some cases the rule just doesn’t apply.  Here, the green card holder convinced the appeals court that the rule of non-retroactivity did not apply to the decision that she says is her key to overturning her perjury convictions.  That decision is United States v . Kwan, 407 F.3d 1005 (9th Cir. 2005).

There was a smattering of opinions in this case among the three judges who were on the appellate panel.  One judge (Bybee) agreed that Kwan could be applied retroactively but said that the green card holder could still benefit from Kwan on the basis of stare decisis — the latin phrase for “to stand by things decided” — because the two cases are identical.  When applied to court decisions this principle signifies that prior court decisions should control cases that come after it.  What Justice Roberts once likened to a judge who just calls balls and strikes (Roberts placed himself in that category of judges).

Another judge (Ikuta) disagreed with the majority’s retroacitivity analysis.  Ikuta acknowledged that the case before the court was a “sympathetic” one but thought the majority came out wrong in its legal analysis.

In any event, the significant aspect of the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Chan, aside from the benefit it confers to our green card holder, is that it deepens the split among the federal appeals courts on whether decisions making it unlawful for an attorney to affirmatively misadvise a client on immigration consequences can be applied retroactively.  I know, an issue that sounds like something only a lawyer, or a lawyer’s lawyer, would get excited about.  But its implications are considerable given that immigration continues to remove record numbers of foreign nationals from this country come hell or high water.  Right now, one appellate court has said yes to retroactivity (the Second Circuit), and another one has said no (the Seventh Circuit).  If you’re keeping score, that is 2 for retroactivity and 1 for non-retroactivity.

The existence of a circuit split also means that it makes it more likely that the Supreme Court will eventually step in to resolve the disagreements among the courts.  It did so once already on a very similar issue and ruled against retroactivity.  Might it do the same thing this time around?

It’s Such a Good Feeling

Not too long ago I transcribed for this blog a piece George Orwell wrote for Tribune, a British newspaper to which he was a regular contributor.  Orwell had his own column in the paper which he called As I Please and the piece at issue was one that Tribune thought best captured Orwell’s character and outlook, so much so that it re-printed the piece as its official obituary for Orwell following his death, one that came all too early.

At the end of this piece, Orwell quoted the following passage from The Thoughts of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius:

In the morning when thou risest unwillingly, let this thought be present — I am rising to the work of a human being.  Why then am I dissatisfied if I am going to do the things for which I exist and for which I was brought into the world?  Or have I been made for this, to lie in the bed-clothes and keep myself warm?  — But this is more pleasant — Dost thou exist then to take they pleasure, and not at all for action or exertion?  Dost thou not see the little plants, the little birds, the ants, the spiders, the bees working together to put in order their several parts of the universe? And art thou unwilling to do the work of a human being, and dost thou not make haste to do that which is according to nature?

There is a modern equivalent to this passage, and it comes from everyone’s favorite “neighbor” and TV personality Fred Rogers, more commonly known as Mister Rogers.  Among the many rituals Mister Rogers used to have on his television show was the one where he would sing a little tune while he changed his shoes and jacket as he came into and out of his television home.  The songs signaled to the audience the beginning and the end of another episode of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, and always left the viewers with a sense of anticipation — to see what would be on today’s show, and when that show was over, the one after that.

The song Mister Rogers sang when it came time to leave and to say goodbye to his audience went something like this:

It’s such a good feeling to know you’re alive.
It’s such a happy feeling: You’re growing inside.
And when you wake up ready to say,
“I think I’ll make a snappy new day.”
It’s such a good feeling, a very good feeling,
The feeling you know that
I’ll be back,
When the day is new,
And I’ll have more ideas for you,
And  you’ll have things you’ll want to talk about,
I will too.

I miss Mister Rogers, and George Orwell for that matter.

On Same-Sex Marriage

In 1952 William Rehnquist, the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, wrote a memo he called “A Random Thought on the Segregation Cases”.  At that time, Rehnquist was clerking on the Supreme Court for Justice Robert Jackson, and the memo was apparently addressed by Rehnquist to his then boss.

In his memo, Rehnquist mapped out his vision for how the Court should deal with a series of cases brought by the NAACP challenging the practice of racial segregation that were working their way through the lower courts and almost certainly bound for the Supreme Court.

Rehnquist, for the most part, urged restraint.  Rehnquist thought that because public opinion had already spoken on the topic of racial segregation — largely receptive of the practice — it would be inappropriate for the Court to get involved simply because its members  “dislike[d] segregation” or considered it “morally wrong[]”.  Only in “extreme cases”, Rehnquist cautioned, would it be appropriate for the Court to step in to “thwart public opinion”.  In Rehnquist’s mind racial segregation did not meet that test.

In concluding his memo, Rehnquist offered the following observation:

I realize that it is an unpopular and unhumanitarian position, for which I have been excoriated by “liberal” colleagues, but I think Plessy v. Ferguson [the case that established the principle of “separate but equal”] was right and should be re-affirmed.  If the Fourteenth Amendment did not enact Spencer’s Social Statios [sic], it just as surely did not enact Myrddahl’s American Dilemna [sic].

Rehnquist’s view, we know now, did not prevail.  The Court ultimately took the so-called “segregation cases” and voted unanimously to strike down as unconstitutional the practice of racial segregation in its landmark decision of Brown v. Board of Education.

Chief Justice Robert’s recent dissent in the same-sex marriage case makes a lot of the same points Rehnquist made in this memo, which is not surprising.  Like Rehnquist, Roberts is a conservative.   And he had at one time clerked for Rehnquist.  At one point in his dissent Roberts uses the same reference to Spencer’s Social Statics and the Fourteenth Amendment that Rehnquist used at the end of his memo, language which Roberts correctly attributes to Judge Friendly and Justice Holmes, but he almost certainly had Rehnquist and perhaps his 1952 memo in mind in writing that and the rest of his dissent.

The approach advocated by Rehnquist and Roberts — that is, let the legislators and voters decide — has some appeal.  One might counter however that they only suggest this approach because they know it is one that is self-defeating; that there will always be a majority of lawmakers and their supporters somewhere who will refuse to recognize the fundamental right at issue.

Right approach or not, what matters ultimately are the facts on the ground.  And that, to a large extent, is determined by the hearts and minds of everyday folks and how they wish to shape the society in which they live.  Court rulings and statutes carry some influence in that respect.  More so, however, is the unwritten code of life that governs how we treat one another  — with dignity, respect and fairness.  That it took years of hard-fought litigation and a sharply divided Supreme Court to confer on homosexuals the right to marry is proof that this code is sorely lacking in this country, or is simply not being observed to the extent that it should.  Were the opposite true, the debate about gay marriage would have ended a long time ago and with the “self-evident” conclusion that “all men [and women] are created equal….”

Charleston, South Carolina

The other night a 21 year old white male shot up a church and killed 9 people, all of whom were black.  Reports soon followed that depicted the shooter as a white supremacist.  He favored decorative license plates bearing confederate flags and is said to have expressed concern about black men raping white women as a reason for why he felt compelled to shoot up a black church.

It is not surprising an event like this has happened.  If a shooting spree can happen in an elementary school attended by mostly white children it can surely happen in a historically black church.   The Sandy Hook shooting is the new normal so they say.  Until something fundamental changes in the way the country regulates firearms or commits violence in the name of its citizens events like last night’s shooting only bring us one step closer to another Sandy Hook-like massacre, except this next one will be even more horrific.

But what do you expect from  a country whose leaders care more about their bank accounts than for the welfare of their communities?  This goes for communities of all races and colors.  Whites don’t have a monopoly on corruption and moral failings.  They are just better at getting away with it than blacks are.  But blacks of course pay a much heavier price than whites do when they are thrown under the bus by their leaders, and that will remain the case for a long time to come.

Right now our country has no idea who its enemies are.  One would think that with the kind of sweeping data mining and surveillance programs our government has put into place that this question would not be such a hard one to answer.  We like to blame the brown and yellow as the ones who pose the gravest threat to our national security.  For the brown, American- and foreign-born alike, we offer drones and Hellfire missles.  For the less vulnerable yellow we simply snipe and saber rattle.  But mostly we act like the high school bully — you know, the one who will never get it together to leave home and will end up flipping burgers until he is 35, at which point he will spend increasingly more and more time drunk, stoned and in jail.

A Spirit of Prudence

When I was a kid, I had a small, portable radio that looked like a hamburger.  I took it everywhere with me: to the bathroom, in the car, on family outings.  During the summer, I would put it under my pillow as I went to sleep so I could listen to the tail end of Mets games.  Back then, Gary Cohen and Bob Murphy called the games.  Gary Cohen is still calling Mets games but for the team’s flagship television station.  Bob Murphy is dead, whose many years as a smoker finally got the best of him.  I have tried many times to find out where Bob Murphy has been buried so I could tell him how much I miss hearing his voice on the radio but to no avail.  Maybe Gary Cohen wouldn’t mind sharing that information with me.

I used to get excited during Mets games in ways that seem strangely foreign to me now: cursing at opposing players and their fans; mimicking the hitting or pitching motions of various players (Orlando Hernandez a.k.a. El Duque was a popular option); and once, swinging an umbrella — the Mets were up at bat — so hard that its barrel went flying through a wall (good thing I was at a friend’s house without the friend; I don’t’ think I’ve told him to this day about the hole).

As another baseball season is set to begin, I wanted to write about all the things I dislike about baseball today.  And trust me, there’s a lot to say on that subject.  But so what?  No one who is worth a damn in professional baseball is going to change the way the game is presented and played, for me, or anyone else with a gripe.  To most of them, baseball might as well be NASCAR given the way they have turned the game into a slow-motion, ear-splitting, commercial extravaganza.  Of course, I say this without having ever watched a NASCAR race up close and personal, but I’m not sure that really matters.  Who knows, maybe one day I will give up my interest in baseball entirely.  I certainly wouldn’t  be the first one to do so.

But then I would be admitting defeat.  Why should I be the one to abandon the game when it is the game, and its purveyors, that have abandoned me?  As with all things fundamental to one’s way of life, we don’t know what we’ve lost until we’ve lost it.  Tony Judt, the late historian, taught me this in one of his last books.  Of course, there, he was making a case for the defense of social democracy.  But baseball is also an institution deserving of what Judt referred to as “a spirit of prudence”.

If anything needs to change it is the belief that baseball cannot be played in much the same ways that it was played at the turn of the century.  The last time I checked umpires didn’t have  replay machines back then, and I’m not sure the fans would have even stood for such nonsense, given the disruption it creates in the flow of the game.  Not all change is bad, of course.  But, as I again borrow from the Tony Judt playbook,  “incremental improvements upon unsatisfactory circumstances are the best that we can hope for, and probably all we should seek.”  As the famous song goes:

Take me out to the ball game,
Take me out with the crowd;
Just buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack,
I don’t care if I never get back.
Let me root, root, root for the home team,
If they don’t win, it’s a shame.
For it’s one, two, three strikes, you’re out,
At the old ball game.