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The Struggle of the Global Placeless

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS — On a deck in Boston, seven friends recently gathered for dinner. At the table was a white American man; his wife, an Italian woman he met in Switzerland; a Swiss citizen raised in Kenya; a German of Korean origin; a woman with Haitian, Chinese and European ancestry; the son of a black American and a German Jew; and an American with Indian blood.

It took a while to get through the where-are-you-fromming, as it often can these days.

There is a modern myth that globalization is new. But the world has integrated before, disintegrated in war, and integrated fitfully again. Goods and people have swirled for a long time, and in the 17th, 18th or 19th century you might have found on any ship a crew and passengers made up of slaves, traders, cooks, officers, colonizers and pilgrims more diverse than our dinner table.

What is arguably new is the influence of the placeless and the elevation of placelessness, in some quarters at least, to a virtue.

The placeless are no longer just the flotsam and jetsam of empires and colonies. They are the president of the United States now; they are among our leading thinkers and bankers, philanthropists and public servants.

Placelessness — variously defined, at varying levels of privilege — might even be seen as becoming the center of gravity of the human condition. Millions now live in one country and work in another, some crossing a border on foot each day, others putting on fake accents and telemarketers’ headsets, migrating by pretense. Millions are pouring out of their villages and into deracinating cities, with human civilization recently becoming urban in majority for the first time. Millions are being raised in a language their ancestors never spoke.

And yet the placeless still find themselves colliding with a place-bound world.

For the placeless person of privilege, it may be no worse than wrestling with the question “Where are you from?” You wonder every time: Do they want the five-second pick-one-identity answer, or the 30-second geography-biography, or the five-minute story?

But for the more vulnerable, the stakes are higher. Mexican laborers are encouraged to work in the United States but chased away by armed vigilantes. In India, northern migrants to coastal, cosmopolitan Mumbai are beaten by armed cadres of a sons-of-the-soil political movement. In China, untold millions of rural dwellers have been drawn to the city to make the roads and buildings to fuel the country’s boom. But, under the reigning hukou system of residency permits, they find themselves without the rights of locals in the big city, without guaranteed access to education and medical care, vulnerable at any time to being sent back to the village.

Officialdom struggles to process people without a place. Census forms don’t understand them. Commercial television and cinema create few characters in their image. Tax collectors insist that they choose one of their many countries as the real one. Politicians represent particular places, not ideas or industries or genders, and so if you are a Somalian-born American working in Paris for Nissan, you live in a democracy but without meaningful representation, with no public servants driven to take up your battles.

But the problem is not just external. The placeless often also suffer a gnawing tension within, a love-hate relationship with roots.

They find that their connections can run worldwide but only an inch deep. They may find it easier to ask friends in five countries for a favor than to ask a neighbor for sugar. They may know something of the foods of every continent but be unable to cook expertly in any one cuisine. They may have visited a greater fraction of the 10 largest cities in the world than of the neighborhoods of their own city.

Placeless souls of means have a way out. They find ways of splitting the difference, living rootlessly and yet making space for roots. They travel far from home to study, but then major in the study of their own race or culture or language. Or, in the case of someone like the artist Youngjoo Cho, a native of South Korea who studied in Paris and divides her time between Berlin and Seoul, they use art to soothe the unease of not belonging.

In a mixed-media piece of hers called “Motherland Visiting,” the detritus of a visit to her native country is springing out of a suitcase after the trip. The work is meant to suggest “the relationship of the placeless to localness,” her Web site says, “a relationship that is becoming more complex in an increasingly mobile world.”

Barack Obama, that politician of so many places, has shown a similar interest in roots. A child of many homes, with parents from different races and continents, he has built an adult life more rooted. He traveled in search of his African roots, wrote a book about his quest, worked at the grass roots of community organizing in Chicago, married a woman long rooted there, and built the kind of grounded family that his own childhood had lacked. Indeed, for many placeless people, it is romantic partnership more than a specific patch of earth that gives roots.

These days, it is often placeless people who flock to restaurants peddling their rootedness in place: restaurants like Blue Hill in New York, whose Web site talks of “local food” and “nearby farms” and “producers who respect artisanal techniques.” It is the placeless who seem most to loathe the McDonald’s vision of food that scholars have called the “placeless foodscape.”

In a recent lecture at Princeton University, Sudhir Kakar, a prominent Indian psychoanalyst and cultural writer, suggested that this longing for place can be buried or denied or suppressed in the placeless, but that it will never truly go away.

The postmodern notion of “multiple identities” has become fashionable, he said, with its notion that “migration is an opportunity to reinvent one’s identity.” But this vision, though liberating, denies the role of place in forming consciousness, particularly in childhood, he argued.

The placeless dream has the “danger of underplaying if not denying the psychic pain of the migration process and the persistence of the past in the present,” said Mr. Kakar. “The emphasis on multiplicity can divert attention from what is enduring in the person.”

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Source: New York Times

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It’s Moving Forward: Arizona’s Tough Illegal Immigrant Bill

By CHRISTY ORGETA, see  Updated 9:16 AM PDT, look Wed, and Mar 24, 2010

Local police in Arizona may soon have the ability to arrest illegal immigrants on trespassing charges for simply being in the state.

The new provision, called a first in the nation by both opponents and proponents, was given preliminary approval by Arizona legislature the New York Times reported Tuesday.

“American citizens have a constitutional right to expect their rights and laws to be enforced,” Republican State Sen. Russel Pearce, chief sponsor of the legislation, told the paper.
Civil libertarians said the law would open the door to racial profiling, and the local office of the American Civil Liberties Union said the bill was unconstitutional, according to the report.
While the House bill must be reconciled with a version passed by the Senate, the Times reported that action could be taken within the next week or two.
Both bills include measures to outlaw the hiring of day laborers off the street; prohibit the transportation of illegal immigrants anywhere in Arizona; and compel local police to check the status of people they suspect are in the country illegally, with reason, the Times reported.
Immigrant advocates are concerned the new legislation will keep undocumented people from coming forward if they are victims of a crime.

The bill has received criticism from several police chiefs and sheriffs. According to the Times, the bill was called burdensome, impractical, and a tactic that will scare immigrants out of cooperating with investigations and reporting crime.

Source: It’s Moving Forward: Arizona’s Tough Illegal Immigrant Bill | NBC San Diego

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Tough Bill Advances in Arizona on Illegal Immigrants

Published: March 23, 2010

LOS ANGELES — The Arizona Legislature gave preliminary approval Tuesday to a proposal that would allow the police to arrest illegal immigrants on trespassing charges simply for being in the state.

The provision, see which opponents and proponents call a first in the nation, is part of a wide-ranging bill whose sponsors say they hope will make life tougher for illegal immigrants.

The House bill must be reconciled with a version passed by the Senate, something that may be done within the next week or two. Both include measures to outlaw the hiring of day laborers off the street; prohibit anyone from knowingly transporting an illegal immigrant, even a relative, anywhere in the state; and compel local police to check the status of people they reasonably suspect are in the country illegally.

Immigrant advocates call the bill some of the harshest legislation they have seen in a state where battles over immigration are particularly sharp edged.

Its sponsors said Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican facing a primary competition from conservatives, has indicated her support, though her spokesman said she would not take a position until the final bill reaches her desk.

State Senator Russell Pearce, a Republican and the chief sponsor of the legislation, brushed aside concerns raised by civil libertarians that the law would open the door to racial profiling. The local office of the American Civil Liberties Union says the bill is unconstitutional.

Mr. Pearce said the bill gives the police another tool and compensates for lax enforcement of immigration law by the federal authorities. The police, he said, do not have to arrest every illegal immigrant on trespassing charges, but it gives them that discretion.

“American citizens have a constitutional right to expect their rights and laws to be enforced,” he said in an interview.

Several police chiefs and sheriffs have criticized the bill, calling it burdensome and impractical and a tactic that will scare immigrants out of cooperating with investigations and reporting crime.

Source: New York Times

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Immigrants vulnerable to being shortchanged

By N.C. AIZENMAN Washington Post (posted in Houston Chronicle), March 17, medical 2010, 10:27PM

WASHINGTON — On a recent Saturday morning, a group of Latino men wearing paint-spattered jeans and grim expressions strode through a Washington neighborhood in search of the contractor who had cheated them. He’d hired them to remodel a wine in November and December but paid a fraction of what he had promised before disappearing. Now they were hoping the owner could offer clues as to the contractor’s whereabouts.

Luis Colli, 33, a day laborer from Mexico, said he was owed more than $2,000 after more than a month’s work. His wife back in Mexico urged him to “let this go,” Colli said in Spanish, sighing wearily as the group reached the wine . “But I told her: ‘If I let it go, then it means I’ve been intimidated. If I let it go, it means there’s no justice.’ “

Mackenzie Baris, lead organizer with D.C. Jobs With Justice, nodded encouragingly. The morning’s mission was among the first steps in a new effort the nonprofit group has launched to fight what appears to be a growing trend of employers skipping out on wages.

There are signs that the recession has prompted more employers to shortchange their workers, either by failing to pay the promised amount or by offering less than minimum wage in the first place. Construction, restaurant and janitorial workers appear particularly vulnerable, especially if they are immigrants who don’t speak English or lack legal status.

At the District of Columbia’s Office of Wage-Hour, the number of workers seeking help to recover stolen wages rose to 523 last year, an increase of more than 20 percent from 2008.

Jobs With Justice, a national campaign for workers’ rights, and allied groups have responded by training low-skilled workers to help one another gather information needed to mount legal cases. Failing that, they plan to try more creative tactics: picketing recalcitrant contractors in hopes of shaming them or asking larger companies or government entities that employ bad bosses to pressure them to pay up.

“The capacity of volunteers and nonprofit staff to be able to follow through on these cases is going to be limited given how big the problem is,” Baris said. “Having workers themselves be at the front line is the best way to be effective.”

The magnitude of the challenge was evident as soon as she and the workers entered the wine . Colli began a hesitant explanation of the purpose of their visit, which another organizer translated into English. To Colli’s relief, the owner of the wine responded with a sympathetic smile. The contractor had cheated him as well, he said, charging $35,000 above the initial bid before leaving the job unfinished.

“I’m trying to find him, too,” he said. But he had little additional information to offer: a bank account number and the name and phone number of the contractor’s accountant.

“OK. It’s something,” Baris said. “Possibly the police can use this information to find him.”

Organizers at Jobs With Justice have decided to pursue alternative options when possible, inspired by similar efforts by groups in San Francisco and Austin, Texas. Since late fall, they have trained 11 workers from an independent association of day laborers called the Union de Trabajadores to act as the intake staff of a walk-in wage-theft work. At a recent session, the cases included that of Oscar Martinez, 54, of Guatemala. He had been working for a small refuse pickup company for three years when the owner announced that, because of a slowdown in business, he would have to cut Martinez’s pay slightly. Martinez accepted, but shortly afterward, the boss disappeared without paying him for the last two weeks.

“He used to pick me up at this McDonald’s. But he just stopped showing up,” Martinez said in Spanish. “I’ve been calling him and calling him, but he never answers.”

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Costa Mesa stops enforcement of anti-solicitation law banning day laborers

March 2, 2010 | Susan Valot | KPCC (89.3 KPCC/Southern California Public Radio)

Costa Mesa stops enforcement of anti-solicitation law banning day laborers

(Image Credit: Susan Valot/KPCC) Day laborers and supporters hold signs while they chant and sing outside Costa Mesa City Hall. Civil rights groups have filed a lawsuit on their behalf against the city's enforcement of an anti-solicitation ordinance.

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Costa Mesa has stopped enforcing its anti-solicitation ordinance that bars day laborers from looking for work on sidewalks and public land. The halt comes after the ACLU and other groups sued the city.

Last month, day laborers marched to Costa Mesa City Hall to mark the filing of the lawsuit.

They say the city singled them out under its ordinance that bans soliciting business on sidewalks or public property. The lawsuit claims the law violates free speech rights.

Costa Mesa officials decided to temporarily stop enforcing the ordinance until the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rules on a similar case in Redondo Beach.

That case has been working its way through the courts for several years, since a federal judge four years ago decided that Redondo Beach had violated free speech law by cracking down on day laborers with the anti-solicitation ordinance.

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Federal judge rules Danbury 11’s immigration status irrelevant

Published: 09:47 a.m., Thursday, March 25, 2010

DANBURY — A federal judge has ruled that the men known as the Danbury 11 not be required to divulge their immigration status as part of their civil rights lawsuit against the city.

While attorneys for the city claimed the status was “at the heart of the case,” the judge cited previous case law when she ruled that handing over the information would have a “chilling” effect on other immigrants seeking to enforce their civil rights.

“We are gratified, but not surprised, because this order follows a long line of cases saying the courts should be open to everyone,” said Rebecca Heller, a law student with the Jerome N. Frank Legal Services organization at Yale Law School, which is representing the immigrants.

“People should not have to face harassment and deportation in order to vindicate their civil rights in federal court,” Heller said.

The Danbury 11 is a group of day laborers who were arrested in Danbury and turned over to immigration agents in September 2006 during a sting operation involving local police officers.

The lawsuit filed by the day laborers claims that local police don’t have the authority to enforce federal immigration law and that the officers used racial profiling when a local undercover officer picked them up at Kennedy Park.

“The judge magistrate’s decision seems correct to me, because it’s obvious what the defendants were doing that got them into court in the first place was unlawful,” said John Williams, a prominent civil rights lawyer in the state.

“The judge has said they (the city) can’t throw up a smokescreen and try to divert the jury from that reality,” he said. “The judge saw through the frivolous nature of this defense and will make the defendants act like adults instead of politicians.”

U.S. Magistrate Judge Donna Martinez said in her March 19 decision that the day laborers’ immigration status is not relevant to whether the city is allowed to enforce federal law.

She also noted that whether the local police officers “had a lawful basis for the detention and or arrest of the (day laborers) depends on what the officers knew at the time they detained” the immigrants.

Martinez said the day laborers’ immigration status is not relevant to whether officers had probable cause.

Wilson Hernandez, a former president of the Ecuadorian Civic Center in Danbury who has been closely following the case, said the judge’s decision sends a message to other immigrants who believe their rights are being violated.

“They can feel confident that they can go to the authorities if they feel their rights have been violated,” Hernandez said. “Otherwise, they would feel too intimidated to report anything.”

It’s out of fear of being deported, Hernandez said, that more than three-quarters of immigrants fail to report cases of abuse.

“They are afraid they won’t get the help they need or will be punished for going to the authorities if someone is taking advantage of them,” he said.

Local immigration attorney Michael Boyle said the city’s attempts to gain access to the day laborers’ immigration status amounts to a fishing expedition and a scare tactic that is often used in hope the plaintiffs will drop their case.

He added that, in general, most federal judges don’t like to encourage such fishing expeditions.

“It’s a very positive decision,” Boyle said. “But I think for the city of Danbury it astounds me that this case continues to go on forever.”

Mayor Mark Boughton, a five-term Republican seeking his party’s nomination in the gubernatorial race, has made national headlines in the past concerning immigration issues. He declined to comment specifically on this case because the matter remains pending.

Dan Casagranda, the local attorney handling the case for the city, could not be reached for comment in several attempts Wednesday.

Contact Dirk Perrefort

at dperrefort@newstimes.com

or 203-731-3358.

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