The perversity of anti-immigration policies

Not only are we all descended from illegal immigrants, but worse: our predecessors took territory by force. If we look back far enough, we always find that our ancestral homeland was someone else’s first, until by violence or cunning our predecessors appropriated territory from its prior inhabitants for themselves and their progeny — us. Even First Peoples, even if they were truly the first people and did not conquer the territory of other indigenous people, dominated other species and altered the environment. We are always strangers creating a strange land.

This universal, however, does not have to mean there is no standard, that anything goes, that might makes right. It can mean, instead, that we are all in the wrong, and thus have no authority to restrict peaceful immigration, at least not until we acknowledge and redress the crimes of our forbears. And since there is no turning back the clock on people subjugated, on nature exploited, the only redemption is a new morality of harmony with other people and other living things, of recognition that they are not other at all, but us.

The nature of power is power over nature

Power is ultimately about control over what we call natural resources, although to use that term presupposes the instrumental relationship that composes part of the power dynamic. Power is based on the appropriation of nature: making what belongs to all in common into one’s own, e.g., drilling land to take oil from the ground. Sometimes, especially at this point in history, the initial appropriation of nature occurred long ago, and the act of power is the reappropriation of nature: making what belongs to another into one’s own, whether by purchase or force.

Simply to use nature as a resource, to drink water from a stream or pick a berry from a bush, is not necessarily an assertion of power; but to pollute or dam the water, or to pick most of the berries in a region, or to appropriate a piece of land in order to plant and cultivate berry bushes, would qualify. Appropriation is exclusive: it makes nature one’s own as against anyone else, whether by claiming a property right to it, defending it by force, or depleting, diminishing, or polluting it so that others cannot equally use it. And the “others” against whom resources are appropriated include other living things, not only humans, so the use of natural resources may be the imposition of power over nature even if those resources are shared with other people, though typically resources are rarely if ever shared beyond a small in-group so almost all appropriation operates to exclude both other people and other species.

And power includes control over a natural resource we tend not to think of as natural: people. This may be done indirectly, by concentrating control over other natural resources such that people become dependent on the controller, or directly, which usually follows the former, as when one instrumentalizes people for one’s own gain, i.e., for one’s own greater appropriation of nature. This exploitation differs from government, which at least in theory should involve the sharing of resources rather than their appropriation, but most government has been created or captured by power-holders who wield political forces to further concentrate their power.

Much of the appropriation and reappropriation of nature composing power dynamics today occurs under the guise of money. What is money for, ultimately, but to secure some natural resources for oneself against others?


Add to the list of killers far more prolific than terrorists or criminals: wagers of war.

What if candidates for office could foment the same enthusiasm against war as they do against the measurably less harmful events of terror and crime? The unfeasibility of doing so tells us what matters is not the destructiveness of terror or crime, but their usefulness: they are evil embodied in some Other and thus serve as scapegoats to unite people behind an opportunistic leader. Opposing the evil of war, by contrast, would require something far more daunting than targeting Muslim or black people: confronting ourselves.

Ending war would require that we confront the system in which we all live and invest our sense of meaning in world history: the system of nation-states competing for power. It would require cooperation that is not merely international like the League of Nations or the United Nations, but supranational: it would require giving up, or at least demoting, the idea of the sovereign nation-state whose primary purpose is to serve a distinct group of people living within its borders. The ideas of sovereignty, nationhood, citizenship, and borders would need to be demoted, too. This change in perspective would apply to disincentivize civil wars, too, for there would not be a nation worth fighting for control of. We would understand the world not as a competition between us and them over limited resources but a collaboration amongst us all for shared well-being.

Of course, to end terrorism or crime would similarly require collapsing the false divisions of us and them, of individual and system. Cracking down on immigrants and criminal suspects are not genuine strategies to end terrorism or crime but to perpetuate them. Similarly, fighting wars perpetuates war, even “good wars” like World War II which led directly to the Cold War and Korea, Vietnam, and myriad wars in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world.


Yesterday I visited a client in prison. As his lawyer, I was able to meet with him in the quarantine unit where prisoners are housed for their first 30 days without access to visitors except attorneys and clergy. A series of guards escorted me through successive parts of the complex as I made my way toward the quarantine unit, one guard passing me off to the next on the other side of a containment door.

The hallways were claustrophobic: thick concrete, flickering florescent light, air somehow sterile and foul-smelling at once. A breath of oxygen came as a relief when one guard escorted me outside and we descended a metal-cage staircase into the yard. As we walked briskly across the yard, prisoners singly or in pairs passed by us with seeming purpose, en route to or from surrounding buildings and gates.

The sky was overcast, the feel of coming rain in the air. I looked up at the landscape rising beyond the walls of the prison: a crag covered with forest but for a gash of exposed granite. Low heavy clouds made the formation feel close, looming over us. I recognized it: the granite quarry. The access roads, now derelict and overgrown, make unofficial running trails. I had learned the route up to the ancient quarry from high school peers who sneaked out of class early to dive into the granite-bowl pools on hot days late in the school year. We did not realize at the time that convicts had carved those pools and built their own prison from the stone.

On a run a few weeks ago I had been exploring side trails near the quarry when I came to a clearing for power lines carrying electricity toward the prison, affording an unexpected view into the complex below. It was too far to see much more than the outlines of walls and buildings, yet I felt voyeuristic. I heard shouting. I shuddered and resumed my run after a few moments.

From inside the prison yard I was struck by the sight of this place of illicit, youthful freedom so near and yet unattainable. As we crossed the yard, the guard asked, “Have you been here before?”

“No,” I replied, “but I’ve been there,” gesturing toward the quarry. “There are running trails. You can see in from up there.”

“Really? You can probably see our firing range. I’m surprised they let people in there. We shoot into those woods for target practice.”

“Good to know. I’ll run faster next time.”

We reached a gate and another guard brought me inside the diagnostic unit. I waited for my client in a tiny room the size of a confessional booth. Unlike the rest of the facility lined with thick concrete, this room had thin walls. There were gaps between the door and door frame through which the guard outside could almost certainly hear our conversation. My client, a big guy, arrived and was clearly uncomfortable in the close quarters. I had to give him the cruel news that his housing discrimination claim had resolved in his favor, securing his housing for another year, the very day that he had been sentenced to secure housing for four years.

He did not want to talk long. He was uncomfortable for other reasons, too, suffering withdrawal from prescribed pain medication that they refused to provide in prison. His chronic back injury was inflicted by a guard during his previous term at this prison.

As a disability rights attorney, I felt an impulse to advocate for him to receive the medication, but our office does not handle individual cases regarding conditions of confinement, with good reason: these wrongs are so numerous and so difficult to vindicate that we cannot afford to use our limited resources on them. Instead we advocate for community services that help keep people with disabilities free from confinement in prisons, hospitals, nursing homes, and other forms of segregation. Legal aid attorneys generally work “in the trenches” on such one-off cases without systemic impact because Congress has prohibited them from filing class actions; however, Congress has also prohibited legal aid offices from representing people in prison.

So my only recourse was to refer my client to a private attorney, whom he cannot afford, or his public defender, who similarly lacks the capacity to litigate conditions of confinement, allocating precious resources to keeping people out of prison. Our meeting ended after a few minutes with the disquieting mutual awareness that I was no longer useful to my client, and that no one was.

Later that day, back at my office, the rain began. I looked out my window and, despite the weather, felt the need to be outside. I sneaked out of work early and headed for the trails.