Thursday, October 18, 2007

Welcome to the police state

Being of a certain age, much of my early worldview was shaped by childhood indoctrination about authoritarian states, I guess you could call me part of the "Duck and Cover" generation. Taught from an early age about the evils of communism and fascism, we were often told that one of the greatest differences between free societies like our own, and evil totalitarian states, was that here in America one was safe to voice political views or dissent without fear of government retribution. We had no Siberian exile, Gulags, or internment camps. The police did not burst into your home in the middle of the night and arrest you on trumped up charges simply for voicing opinions contradictory to government policy.

Yet given today's current situation, it is no longer quite so easy to draw such simplistic comparisons.

Under the current administration, no thinking person can honestly say that they don't feel the slow grip of government overreach extending into the fabric of everyday life. An uneasiness has settled across the nation, somehow instinctively knowing that we are teetering on a precipice from which at any moment we could be sent spiraling down into the depths of a fascist nightmare straight out of the a futuristic novel.

In past expansions of totalitarianism, there have usually been early warnings signs. Certain groups within society were often preliminary targets, subjected to the loss of rights or privileges, long before these rights are taken away from the society as a whole. Gypsies, Jews, Gays, Blacks ….. the list of society's "coal mine canaries" is long. Generally any minority population that could be marginalized would be the first to feel the stranglehold of the coming authoritarian state.

In the United States of the early 21st century, our "coal mine canaries" increasingly appear to be the foreign-born population of this nation. Whether they be Muslims from the Middle East or Africa or Latinos coming to seek jobs and a better life for their families, the government appears all to willing to treat the foreign-born population of this nation as a testing grounds for dismantling basic constitutional rights.

Warrant-less arrests, indefinite detentions, and lack of judicial review have become standard practices when dealing with the foreign-born population.

Now apparently we can add the use of law enforcement to quiet political dissent and free speech to that list.

Three days after a 24-year-old college graduate spoke out on her immigration plight in USA TODAY, U.S. agents arrested her family — including her father, a Vietnamese man who once was confined to a "re-education" camp in his home country for anti-communist activities.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., who chairs the House immigration subcommittee, on Tuesday accused federal officials of "witness intimidation" for staging a pre-dawn raid on the home of Tuan Ngoc Tran.

The agents arrested Tran, his wife and son, charging them with being fugitives from justice even though the family's attorneys said the Trans have been reporting to immigration officials annually to obtain work permits.

Lofgren said she believes the family was targeted because Tran's eldest child, Tam Tran, testified before Lofgren's panel earlier this spring in support of legislation that would help the children of illegal immigrants. On Oct. 8, Tam Tran was quoted in USA TODAY.
Her parents and brother were taken into custody Thursday. The family was released to house arrest after Lofgren intervened.

"Would she and her family have been arrested if she hadn't spoken out?" Lofgren said of Tran, who was not at home for the raid but has been asked to report to Immigration and Customs officials next week. "I don't think so."

The family has a long and complicated history. Tuan Ngoc Tran had faced persecution in his native Vietnam due to his anti-communist activates and managed to escape, becoming a "boat person" and eventually ending up in Germany after being rescued at sea. Both Tam Tran and her brother, Thien, 21 were then born in Germany. The family moved to the USA when Tran was 6 and began going through the process of applying for asylum.

When they lost their asylum case the Tran's volunteered to go back to Germany, but the German government refused to issue them travel documents. Although born in Germany, both Tan and Thien are not considered German citizens. Being technically "stateless", Tran told the Congressional subcommittee in May that she writes "the world" when asked her citizenship on official papers.

Unable to go back to either Vietnam or Germany, the Tran's were granted "withholding of removal" status by the government in 2001 that allowed them to stay until the government could figure out what to do with them. It required them to continue to report to immigration officials annually to obtain their work permits….just as they’ve done every year for the last 18 years. In the US today there are 324,000 people who have been ordered deported, yet have no country to accept them.

Kelly Nantel, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the Tran family's arrest "absolutely, unequivocally had nothing to do" with Tam Tran's advocacy. She said ICE agents began working on the case Sept. 28 and will now try to send the family to Germany, where the Trans lived for several years before coming to the United States. In the past, the German government refused the family's permission to return; Nantel said the U.S. government will now make an official request


The Tran's spend a night in custody before Representative Lofgren orchestrated their release, yet they were still issued ankle bracelets and told they had a 7 p.m. curfew. After more negotiations the bracelets were removed Tuesday.

Tam Tran, who graduated from UCLA in 2006, testified before the House immigration subcommittee in May on the DREAM Act, which would allow undocumented college students who have lived in the U.S. for five years to get legal status.

Tam Tran's testimony before the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security and International Law about the DREAM Act painted a vivid picture of the limbo that thousands of immigrant children find themselves in.

In December, I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in American Literature and Culture with Latin, Departmental and College honors from UCLA. I thought, finally, after all these years of working multiple jobs and applying to countless scholarships all while taking more than 15 units every quarter, were going to pay off. And it did seem to be paying off. I found a job right away in my field as a full-time film editor and videographer with a documentary project at UCLA. I also applied to graduate school and was accepted to a Ph.D. program in Cultural Studies. I was awarded a department fellowship and the minority fellowship, but the challenges I faced as an undocumented college student began to surface once again.

Except the difference this time is I am 24 years old. I suppose this means I’m an adult. I also have a college degree. I guess this also means I’m an educated adult. But for a fact, I know that this means I do have responsibilities to the society I live in. I have the desire and also the ability and skills to help my community by being an academic researcher and socially conscious video documentarian, but I’ll have to wait before I can become an accountable member of society. I recently declined the offer to the Ph.D. program because even with these two fellowships, I don’t have the money to cover the $50,000 tuition and living expenses. I’ll have to wait before I can really grow up. But that’s okay, because when you’re in my situation you have to, or learn to, or are forced to make compromises.

With my adult job, I can save up for graduate school next year. Or at least that’s what I thought. Three days ago, the day before I boarded my flight to DC, I was informed that it would be my last day at work. My work permit has expired and I won’t be able to continue working until I receive a new one. Every year, I must apply for a renewal but never have I received it on time. This means every year around this month, I lose the job that I have. But that’s okay. Because I’ve been used to this—to losing things I have worked hard for. Not just this job but also the value of my college degree and the American identity I once possessed as a child.

But for some of my friends who could only be here today through a blurred face in a video, they have other fears too. They can’t be here because they are afraid of being deported from the country they grew up in and call home. There is also the fear of the unknown after graduation that is uniquely different from other students. Graduation for many of my friends isn’t a rite of passage to becoming a responsible adult. Rather, it is the last phase in which they can feel a sense of belonging as an American. As an American university student, my friends feel a part of an American community—that they are living out the American dream among their peers. But after graduation, they will be left behind by their American friends as my friends are without the prospect of obtaining a job that will utilize the degree they’ve earned; my friends will become just another undocumented immigrant.

Somehow I think that Tam is not the only one who feels she is being stripped of "the American identity (she) once possessed as a child"….In a nation now so callous and small-minded, so willing to allow their rights and privileges to be thrown away, so willing to turn a deaf ear to the faint songs of the coal mine canaries around us as they warn of our own impeding disaster ….all of us lose a little more of our American identity each and every day.

For more on the DREAM Act and the plight thousands of immigrant children, brought here as children, who just want to be part of the American Dream:

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