My Dinner Party and the Absurdity of Building Walls

Not pictured: my dinner party. This is me and my friend enjoying a well earned bowl of udon after reaching Mt. Fuji’s summit. This will make sense later. I promise.

Last night I went to a little dinner party in London. Well, it wasn’t a dinner party so much as two couples eating food. (Good food. Our hosts were very good cooks.) Of this London get together not one of us was English. I’m American, my partner is French, our hostess is Italian and her husband our host is Pakistani. (I think he may now have British citizenship, but if so he had to go through a naturalization process.) We did watch a Harry Potter movie and drink some alcohol, but with that arrangement of characters one would think most of our political conversation would be dedicated to Brexit. It wasn’t. We were talking about Trump and his [expletive] border wall.

As it turns out our host has an American sister who really wants him to hurry up and get a green card while he still can. I myself looked into green cards for my partner and I have an entirely separate friend I met almost in another life who holds a green card because after earning his PhD at one of America’s best Universities he married an American girl and weirdly didn’t want to be separated from her.

I even have some skin in the game myself. I am the first person in my father’s side of the family to be a natural born American. My mom has ancestors who were on the continent apparently as early as the 17th c. and likely even earlier, but my father has memories of growing up in Argentina and I think he even has vague memories of Hungary and Austria. He’s now a naturalized citizen and if I have my facts straight he was naturalized during the Nixon-Ford-Carter administration. (I’m being a bit facetious, but based on the story, he took his citizenship test during some part of the Nixon-Ford scandal and so when they asked him who was President he responded, “well, what time is it?”) My paternal grandparents are now deceased, but both my father and his sister immigrated to the United States via Argentina. My father even still spells his name using the Spanish spelling even though he has people use the English pronunciation.

Now, I am reflectively white. That was not a typo. My skin is so white that you can sometimes actually see reflections in it. So a lot of people when I bring up my father’s immigration status think they’re being helpful by saying, “oh, but not you.” Several things about that. Firstly, while I acknowledge that I have white privilege the lines are being drawn in really arbitrary ways and I do not know where my family will fall. Secondly, even if I can bank on my white privilege it doesn’t mean I cannot empathize with those who are not white. Thirdly, it’s important particularly for white people to remember that this CAN and WILL effect them as well.

This “poem” or meditation has been quoted quite frequently in part, but I’m going to provide it in it’s entirety. This was written by John Donne in 1624 and I yoinked it from the following site ( accessed 17 December 2018.)

“ No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.”

Several things about this, the most oft quoted lines of this, and they’re often paraphrased are, “Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” The idea here is that we are all connected to one another and each loss and death affects all of us. To me the most central line is “I am involved in mankind.” One’s skin color should not have any impact on one’s empathy. At present specifically Mexican, Central Americans, and South Americans from the Northern part of the continent are being targeted by discriminatory policies. My family is from Hungary by way of Argentina. No problem, right? Wrong. Even if it doesn’t extend to my family, “I am involved in mankind.” Each of these detentions and “each [child’s] death diminishes me.”

I’m going to share another sort of quasi poem which has been making the rounds lately. This one was written or spoken by Martin Niemöller in response to the Holocaust. (I got it from here — accessed 17 December 2018.)

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”

How long before it’s me? And let me remind everyone of what is truly happening here. This is not simply super slow customs agent stuff. This is infinitely worse. To get to and through a border checkpoint legally you have to have papers. That might not seem like a big deal but put your hands on your passport right now. I’m serious. Get your butt out of your chair and get your passport into your hands right this instant. Most Americans don’t even have one. In fact although more Americans than ever are getting passports, it was still only at 42% last year ( accessed 17 December 2018).

My mom heard the stories my father and his parents had to tell about being refugees and immigrants and I honestly don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t have a passport. Now, for my family it’s a bit extreme because my Grandfather was apparently on a special little KGB death list, but Americans reading this I need you to look around and ask yourself if you are truly willing to bet your life on never having your citizenship challenged and never having to flee the country. Natural born Americans have already been detained, denied re-entry, or had their passports revoked.

Here’s one story where a man born in south Texas had his passport thrown into question because the doctor who signed his birth certificate may or may not have signed other birth certificates for babies born in Mexico. (Accessed 17 December 2018)

Here’s another story where a native of Philadelphia was detained by ICE and threatened with deportation (Accessed 17 December 2018)

Here the Trump administration is trying to justify the use of cross-referenced fingerprints to deport naturalized citizens. (Accessed 17 December 2018) They are justifying this approach by saying that immigrants who have lied about their identities or criminal records are dangerous and that some of these individuals are even former Nazis. While it is not outside of the realm of possibility that a few Nazis were still alive to be swept up in this dragnet there’s a few problems with it. For one, fingerprints are not always entirely individual. It’s rare for two individuals to have the same set of fingerprints but it’s also rare for actual WWII Nazis to be found alive in America at present. As this article points out the supposed crime can be something as non-violent and unfortunate as overstaying a visa. A nice Filipina — to use their example — is far more likely to aggressively feed you than she is to commit a violent crime. There’s no need to deport her.

But as this article points out (Accessed 17 December 2018) it’s even more insidious. At certain times in America’s recent naturalization history the citizenship test has involved applicants swearing that they not only have never ever ever committed a crime whether or not anyone else knew about it, but also that they were not LGBTQ. The US also tried to keep out Communists among others circa 1950. The problem with the LGBTQ thing is that such individuals just are LGBTQ. It cannot be changed. And in a lot of cases they may have decided to come to America because they were facing extreme and deadly forms of persecution at home. If the naturalization test at the time they entered told them they had to swear they were straight, they would have been forced to lie. Likewise, the Soviet Union required that anyone who wanted to work register as a Communist. So if someone from the Soviet bloc tried to obtain US citizenship and was asked to swear that they were not a Communist in many cases they would have to lie. (This is actually one of the reasons my Grandfather was targeted by the KGB. He expressly did not join the Communist party and his own father was well known and highly respected in the city. As a result of that and a few other mildly insurgent actions taken by my family my Grandfather was imprisoned and tortured, my Great-Grandfather was eventually murdered, my father’s life was repeatedly threatened, and eventually my Grandfather’s name ended up on a list of people to execute. It wasn’t simply a matter of not liking the politics of one party or another; it was life and death. If such a stipulation existed at the time my Grandfather was naturalized he would not have had to lie, but my Grandmother may have.) These are lies told not to conceal a violent agenda, but to safeguard one’s life.

Now that we’ve been through all that, those of you who are American and did manage to find your passport open it up and look at the date of expiry. Is it soon? A non-expedited renewal takes about six months. Get on that. If things go south you are going to need that expiry date to be years in the future. Now have a flip through your passport. Do you have any visas? Probably not, huh? I do, but I’ve studied abroad. The reason I mention these is that if you try to visit another country even one where you don’t need a tourist visa you usually have to show proof that you will be leaving that country or — in the case of most of Europe — that region within 90 days. So if something happens in the US and you feel that you must flee either alone or with your family even if you have a passport you might be ricocheted right back into the US. This is what is happening to a lot of the people at the border. They had to pick up and flee without delay sometimes due to extreme violence, sometimes due to economic collapse, and sometimes due to starvation. In some cases they could gather their papers before they left and in others they could not.

Let me put this in perspective for you. When my grandparents fled Hungary they had the clothes on their backs with them. Each of their bicycles had a basket on the front so my Grandmother put my father in her basket and my Grandfather put his accordion in his. I do not know if they had their papers. It’s possible they didn’t. When they fled they had to go over a minefield because the Soviet soldiers were in towers along the Hungarian Austrian border and they would gun down any Hungarians running for the border. When the KGB tracked my family down in Vienna the Austrian police could only keep them distracted for an hour. In either of these cases had my Grandparents delayed a moment longer to look for a piece of paper or pick up a special keepsake they likely would have been killed.

If something happens in your home country and you have to flee, deportation back to your home country can mean death. If you get to the border of the country you hope to find safety in without papers and they decide to send you back it could be a death sentence for you and whatever family you’ve brought with you. Even if you do have papers they can still deny you entry and depending on exactly how you are entering the country once again, you may be in extreme danger.

Let’s pretend for a moment that you have a visa or can prove that you have enough money to leave the country or you made sure to get a round trip so you can at least say you’re going back even if you plan to see how things go and only return if it’s safe to do so. Did you bring your kids? Can you prove they’re yours? I look like my parents, and my brother looks like our parents, but my brother and I look nothing alike. We have almost no facial features in common. And it’s so extreme that as children when we were seen with my mother and my uncle people assumed my brother was my uncle’s son and that I am my mother’s daughter. We are assumed then to be cousins rather than siblings. Seen with only our father people assume that my brother is his son, but that I am unrelated. My mother had on her desk a picture of my brother and I which many visitors assumed was her son and his wife rather than her son and daughter. We all share a family name and my family is Caucasian through and through and yet we still have enough variation that my brother and I are not necessarily consistently recognized as our parents’ children or siblings. We are full siblings, but you wouldn’t necessarily recognize us as such.

Now imagine just a slight complication on that theme. What if the family were mixed? What if one parent didn’t take the other’s name? What if one of the children is adopted because of a death of an aunt or uncle? What if one of the parents died and the other remarried and adopted their new spouse’s children? All of this makes for a lot more papers that you might have to show at any border and it will vary by country. And if you cannot prove it they can take that child from you. And they do. Routinely. Most countries won’t even let you leave with a child you cannot absolutely prove is your own for the simple reason that they want to prevent kidnapping. And yes, kidnapping and transporting child victims across borders can happen and is a huge concern. But in a refugee situation parents will often hand their children over to a relative or close friend and say, “run.” It’s a heartbreaking situation but particularly in societies with close knit extended families it is common for familial units to get a little confusing in the face of conflict. Aunts end up raising their nieces and nephews, fathers have to stay behind so god fathers step in, grandmothers end up being referred to as, “mom,” teachers and neighbors take in children whose parents are jailed or murdered or cannot provide for them. So when these families then decide it’s time to run they may have a rather convoluted story to tell when they get to the border. My family ran after my Great-Grandfather was murdered. They were lucky to be together when they fled. Many of these families trying to enter the US also ran when a relative of theirs was murdered. They are dealing with trauma and tragedy as well as the threat of violent death. Even if they have all of their papers they’re going to have a rough time explaining how exactly their best-friend’s/neighbor’s kid started calling them “mama.”

During the Obama administration there were some separations of families at the border. But not nearly to this scale and not under such flimsy and inhumane excuses. You can check out this article for a blow by blow (Accessed 17 December 2018). Obama was taken to task for his rather draconian enforcement of immigration laws and largely in part to Republican resistance to the DREAM Act signed the Presidential Memorandum “Exercising Prosecutorial Discretion with Respect to Individuals Who Came to the United States as Children,” now known as DACA.

This is specifically not an Executive Order and it is likely not an EO because of exactly the reason it was purportedly revoked which you can read here: (Accessed 17 December 2018). Obama did not really have the authority to create such a program with an EO because the DREAM Act was being considered by Congress and because previous EOs require that the President prove his authority to write and sign the EO in question. That said, it’s more than a little ironic that the memorandum is being revoked by another memorandum.

At the time Obama was fighting for re-election and it was politically recognized by the Republican party that if the DREAM Act passed in Congress, Obama would easily win as particularly Latinos would see it as his victory. The plan was to torpedo the DREAM act but run Mit Romney as a somewhat open borders candidate thereby driving the Hispanic and Latino vote from the Democrats and to the Republicans. In a weird twist of fate David Frum argues that that is how the whole “border wall” fiasco helped propel Trump to the nomination. DACA undid that political plan.

President Obama was considered draconian by a number of pro-immigration groups because in response to an uptick in immigration his administration did temporarily increase incarceration rates at the border. However they also complied with the Flores Settlement which limits the amount of time children can be incarcerated. ( Accessed 17 December 2018) The Obama administration also — crucially — did not prosecute asylum seekers even if they had entered the United States illegally.

Let’s get back to your passport though. Does it specifically say that the children you’re bringing with you are your own? If not, do you have a notarized note from the children’s parents authorizing you to transport them into another country? Because without those things your entry can be delayed and you can be separated from those children whether or not they are yours. In some cases mothers have had their babies taken from them while they were trying to breastfeed. In this article a spokesperson for US Customs and Border Protection disputes the claim, but offers no reported evidence beyond his own word. ( accessed 17 December 2018) While milk can be drunk by any infant it is a relatively fair bet that the woman breastfeeding a child is the child’s mother. That however, was not deemed sufficient evidence in this case.

I am being slightly unfair though. The Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy in this case did not have to dispute the infant’s to separate mother from child; they needed only to assume that she had broken the law. So arguably what they did was legal. It is here where I remind you that both Japanese internment and the Holocaust and slavery were also legal. Legality does not make something right. Japanese internment was justified on a very weird idea of racial determination. Americans were afraid that Japanese-Americans would be loyal to Japan over America. Given Japanese-American military service concurrent with internment that seems odd, but nonetheless it was the rationale. The Holocaust was justified on centuries of othering and antisemitism and made legal by removing the citizenship and papers of particularly Jews. Their papers were taken making them illegal residents wherever they were residing and at that point they were put in camps and systematically murdered. For slavery there are centuries of weird moralistic arguments and poorly done pseudo-scientific studies as well as economic fears. But as easily assailable as all of those arguments were slavery was legal in the United States until the passage of the 13th Amendment. The law this woman had supposedly broken was crossing the border illegally.

And this brings me to my next point. If you do not have papers or have only some documentation or even if you have everything you need but cannot get to a border control point or fear that your child will be taken from you if you do then you must find other means to enter. The Trump administration has implied that families shouldn’t come to the US border at all and that it is irresponsible to bring children when trying to immigrate. I suppose they mean to say that it is more responsible to send those children alone or leave them behind potentially in immediate mortal danger. Crossing the border illegally is considered a misdemeanor. It is not something I would recommend doing, but it is not a violent crime or a felony and prior to the Trump administration people crossing illegally could apply for asylum.

Asylum, it should be noted, has never been easy to get. My family who were being actively targeted by the KGB did not expect to get it and the US has recently rejected particularly women on the basis that the violence meted out on them was domestic violence or gang violence and therefore not serious enough to warrant asylum. ( accessed 17 December 2018) To explain how dangerous ignoring domestic violence this site ( accessed 17 December 2018) has some rather frightening statistics on domestic violence including rates of homicide.

These are the conditions under which people make the decision to cross the US-Mexico border and whether they will try to do it legally or illegally.

Now let’s talk about the border itself. At this dinner party, my host specifically asked me how the US-Mexico border was controlled in the first place. It’s frankly pretty silly that Trump thinks he’s going to build a 2,000 mile wall. Not only would it be prohibitively expensive, destructive, and dangerous to build, but much of those 2,000 miles are largely impassible anyway. One article describes it as “remote and treacherous desert, jagged mountains and impassable river canyons,” ( accessed 17 December 2018). This is not an exaggeration and wandering for 40 years in a desert only works if you happen to be Moses. Instead, many desperate would be asylum seekers meet their end trying to cross illegally. Mass graves of individuals who died of exposure have been found in Texas ( accessed 17 December 2018).

Other natural obstacles present other risks. The Rio Grande describes much of the US-Mexican border along Texas, and a river may be forded, but not without risk. Even for a strong swimmer a river presents numerous dangers including drowning, water borne diseases, and possibly hypothermia. Fording the river by boat or raft risks capsizing and all of these possibilities are complicated by the presence of small children and the need to keep paperwork dry. Mountains also present challenges. Anyone who has climbed a mountain knows the air gets thin, depending on the altitude there can be snow or freezing temperatures even in the height of summer, and one becomes extremely hungry. (When climbing Mt. Fuji in August I was wearing thermal undergarments, consumed many rice balls and protein drinks, and had to stop every few minutes to catch my breath.) It is not reasonable to believe that migrants hoping to claim asylum are going to cross a mountain range to enter the US. If it was difficult for me with my climbing clothes, good health, and big bag of food it is near impossible for a parent and small child who have been walking for a month and haven’t eaten in days.

But if parents fear that going home will mean their death and entering the US legally means they’ll lose their children and that their children will be subjected to abuse and possibly rape or die in or shortly after custody (,, accessed 17 December 2018), risking a desert or a river might not look that bad to them.

Here is where I come to the case of Jakelin Caal Maquin. She was 7 years old when she died in ICE custody of dehydration. Jakelin’s father was trying to bring her through the desert into the United States. When the pair were intercepted by ICE Jakelin was already showing extreme symptoms of dehydration and heat prostration and she and her father were both malnourished. She was at the point of discovery dying, but had their been immediate medical intervention, her life likely would have been saved. Instead, ICE put her and her father on a bus for 40 minutes. This was a preventable death. ( accessed 17 December 2018)

But it gets worse. Paleopathologists and physical Anthropologists study this particular population Jakelin comes from because they are so extremely malnourished. The population is indigenous and for numerous reasons are kept in what the above article calls “extreme poverty.” This is not my area in Paleopathology, but I have in my science bibliography several articles relating to stress and developmental issues for specifically this population. To summarize their diet is a starvation diet with many individuals only consuming a few hundred calories per day. This means that most of the children in this population are not able to meet normal developmental goals and have extremely compromised immune systems. The children are much shorter for their age than they should be and monitoring their growth and development has shown that this level of malnutrition not only makes the children less likely to reach adulthood, but it makes them more susceptible to particularly cardiac disease in their adulthood. Had Jakelin’s father been successful in bringing her to the United States she would have been healthier. There might have still been a few developmental issues for her, but she was just young enough that she could have become a healthy young woman in another ten years. Instead, ICE let her die.

The most frustrating aspect of this is the callous hypocrisy of the Trump administration. There are many things I have to say about President Reagan, but he is known for referring to America repeatedly as the Biblical “Shining City on a hill,” meaning that America should try to be a representative of morality in the world and adhere to the highest principles. Winston Churchill is credited — possibly erroneously — with saying “Americans can always be trusted to do the right thing, once all other possibilities have been exhausted,” ( accessed 17 December 2018). Churchill’s acerbic wit aside the point of both these quotes is that it is possible and preferable to do right even after egregious and calamitous errors are made.

“Whataboutism” or the method of derailing a critical argument by pointing out an unrelated or previous problem has become so common as to have become critical. Trump tried to justify his refusal to sanction Russia over their manipulation of the 2016 election by criticising similar behavior on America’s part. He is right that America has committed atrocities and interfered in international elections, but he is wrong where he both makes that the moral equivalent of what Russia just did and refuses to take actions against Russia. Similarly, when challenged by the Russia investigation, Trump and Republican members of Congress have tried to derail the conversation by asking about Benghazi and Hillary Clinton’s emails. In both those cases Clinton was cleared of all wrong doing by people who did not like her. The worst they could say about her was that in the case of the emails, she had been “careless.” Suggesting that email use or asking for more troops in a place and being denied by the opposition party and then having an ambassador subsequently die for lack of protection is the same as colluding with an adversarial country to steal an election is the same is a bit rich.

However, where America is directly responsible for problems in the world America should at least try to work towards a solution. America allowed and encouraged the Venezuelan political situation to get out of hand. Authoritarian Communism in Venezuela has — somewhat predictably — lead to economic collapse. The US manner of dealing with narcotics has lead to the formation of cartels, and US deportation of some gang members has lead to extreme gang violence in South and Central American countries. Even US consumerism specifically of luxury foods like chocolate, coffee, and quinoa has contributed to poverty and starvation in other countries particularly other countries in the Americas. US failure to work on climate change has contributed to a warming world where equatorial countries become increasingly uninhabitable. It is not only not an option for many of these would be immigrants to stay in their own country: the US forced them through various unintended means out of their own countries.

It is not the moral responsibility of the United States to take on every person who claims asylum and admit every individual who comes to our border. But it is possible and preferable to process applications in an efficient manner and handle people in a humane way. Given the apparent size and complexity of the crisis it is also reasonable to ask for international assistance. Even if the issues I noted above were exclusively America’s fault we are an international community. John Donne in 1624 was effectively arguing against isolationism and nationalism. Even where the problem was caused by us if we are willing to fix it other countries in the world will move to support us. Not all of these immigrants need to be taken on by the US. They can be spread about the other countries in the Americas. It is also likely that many of them wish to return home at some point. Processing them in a fair and humane manner is more likely to facilitate that. But more than anything, humanity is a strength. Americans who are trying to bolster their patriotism say, “America is the greatest country on earth.” If that’s true then we are strong and have plenty of strength to see to the well-being of the very sort of people for whom our country was founded.

After the movie was finished the various legal warnings regarding copying came up on the screen as we were chatting. Jokingly, I commented, “oh look there’s Turkish, and here’s Hungarian.” My host looked at the screen and seeing the word “Magyarország,” and asked how that could possibly translate to “Hungary.” So I explained that “Magyar” is the word Hungarians use to refer to their culture and people and that “ország,” means basically land. So, “Magyarország,” translates to “land of the Hungarians.” We then got into a conversation of how weird it was that Hungarians are not really related linguistically or culturally to anyone else in Europe, but how close their language is to Turkish and even Korean (and how the Finns fit into all of that). Being half-Hungarian myself this is a bit of a hobby of mine so I told him about the various theories of where Hungarians come from and who they traded words and genetics with. Whether or not Hungarians themselves were from East Asia, they brought small elements of East Asian language and culture with them when they came into Europe. Then we talked about Viking and Scandinavian trading routes and how their myths and a few people had spread into Asia influencing religion and culture and contributing to some gene pools. Again, how much Scandinavian DNA you can find today in the Arab peninsula or North Africa is questionable, but they were once there. Our ancestors went where they would go and as a result no one in this world is purely descended from any one race or culture. Isolating ourselves and pretending we’re a white nation is idiotic not only because we’re not a white nation and never have been but because outside of politics and society race isn’t a thing. It is just a social construct. My father is Hungarian and my mother traced most of her ancestry to Scandinavia so to me this is particularly pertinent, but if our ancestors could ride or sail thousands of miles to interact with people who were nothing like them (sometimes peacefully and sometimes not so much) then we in a global age should be all the more concerned with the world as a whole.

Doctor of Palaeopathology, rage-prone optimist, stealth berserker, opera enthusiast, and insatiable consumer of academic journals.

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