Thursday, February 22, 2018

A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

This book is part of our rather unsystematic exploration of Newbery award winners and honorable mentions. A Single Shard won the Newbery award in 2002. 

A Single Shard is set in 12th Century Korea. A young orphan, Tree-ear, lives with the disabled man who took him in, Crane-man. One day, while secretly watching master potter Min work, he accidentally breaks an item. He offers to pay for it with his work, which eventually leads to employment. As a result, Tree-ear eventually is tasked with taking a sample to the Emperor’s pottery master in an effort to gain a royal commission.

The pottery in question is Celadon pottery, which has a lustrous green finish, somewhat like jade. The book is set at a transition point, where carved single color designs gave way to intricate inlaid work. This transition forms a major plot point, as Min is asked to submit what for him is a new technique. The epilogue to the book mentions a specific work as one of the finest from this period, and implies that (artistic license here…) Tree-ear eventually creates this work. (The actual potter is unknown, but the workmanship is astounding. I used the description to find what I believe is the vase referred to in the book. 

The amazing thing about this is that the black and white colors are not painted. Rather, minute grooves are cut from the partially dried vase, and contrasting clay is carefully inlaid. A clear glaze is applied before firing. The hundreds (thousands?) of hours necessary to create a masterpiece like this - it is amazing and worthy of great respect.

This book is fairly short - just over three hours on audiobook. It is well focused, with every detail important to either the atmosphere, character development, or plot. With a minimum of words, Park brings an old, unfamiliar culture to life, but also makes Tree-ear’s world seem familiar and relatable. There are really only four main characters. Tree-ear, of course, is the protagonist, and the story is from his perspective. Crane-man is delightful, as the elderly man who has lived a very hard life, surviving mostly by gathering food from the forest or rubbish heaps around town. And yet, despite this desperate poverty, he takes in the infant Tree-ear and raises him well. Both are united in that they are considered “unlucky” and therefore essentially untouchable in their culture.

Min is cantankerous and cold, yet passionately devoted to his craft. He also hides a secret tragedy that has, in contrast to Crane-man, made him bitter. Min’s wife (who asks that she be called the equivalent of “auntie” rather than “the honorable potter’s wife,” as Tree-ear calls her at first) is a gracious woman, who befriends Tree-ear in her own quiet way.

It is the interaction of these four that give depth to the fairly conventional story. Park slowly introduces the elements of the culture and manners of the time and place to the story, and the interactions are always carefully ritualized. The courtesies are mandatory, and serve to allow dignity to all. I was reminded of some of the social courtesies from Filipino culture that my dad (who grew up there as a missionary kid) taught me. Culture varies, and rituals vary and change over time. None are truly right or wrong, but the differences can cause misunderstandings. The worst, perhaps, is the “ugly American” tendency to run roughshod over the culture of others, and display an arrogant attitude about it. This is one reason I think books like this are great for kids (and adults.) A little education never hurt, and neither did a reminder to treat others with respect, listen, and learn how to bridge these gaps.

A Single Shard is a good read. The plot may be a bit predictable, but that isn’t the point. Some stories are told and retold countless times, but only gain from a new variation, and this is one of them. The audiobook was read by Graeme Malcolm; I have no complaints about his reading, which was fine.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Immigration Part 4: The Reality of Current Law

This post is part of my Immigration Series.

In the first part, I introduced the topic.
In the second part, I looked at the (lack of) regulation of Immigration from the founding of our country and the easy path to citizenship for white immigrants.
In the third part, I detailed the racist history of immigration restrictions dating from the Chinese Exclusion Act to the present.


For this post in particular, READ THE DISCLAIMER BELOW!


I am an attorney, but I do NOT practice in, nor am I an expert on Immigration Law. These posts are NOT intended as legal advice, and should not be viewed as such. While the broad sweep of the law is fairly easily understood from publicly available laws, documents, and history; individual circumstances vary, and the law AS APPLIED to your situation may be very different from your understanding of what a statute means.

Therefore, if YOU have an immigration problem, I urge you to contact an attorney who practices in that specific area. I repeat GO SEE AN IMMIGRATION ATTORNEY! If you live in the Southern California area, I know some guys. Send me an e-mail and I’ll pass along contact information. If you live elsewhere, use the Google to find someone who practices in this area.



Okay, with that over, let me add a general disclaimer about the information. Immigration law, like every area of law, is complicated. There is a lot of nuance, arcane regulations, bewildering procedures, and so on. This post is not going to make all of that clear. That is not my point.

My discussion of the law will of necessity be a gross oversimplification. The goal is to provide an overview, not a detailed roadmap.

Also, I am NOT going to say much about how the law might apply to those who are physically present in the United States one way or another. This is the minefield of regulations I mentioned, and I have no interest in teasing out all the exceptions and pitfalls. As above, if you want to know more, go see an attorney if you have a case, or go buy an immigration law textbook if you are just curious.  

Rather, my point in this post is to address a specific issue: can someone who wants to immigrate legally to the United States do so? And how do they do it?

I ask this question for a specific reason:

Of all the falsehoods that are cherished by the Right, the most bald-faced lie of the bunch is that people can just come in legally if they want.:

In reality, for most potential immigrants, there is NO legal way to immigrate. Their only option is to come here illegally and live in the shadows, with the hope that their children will have a better life. 

It is this falsehood that poisons so much of our debate. It allows people to make the distinction of “legal” versus “illegal” without actually thinking through what that means to real people. It allows people to insist that undocumented immigrants are “criminals” and horrible people who just refuse to abide by our laws. It allows many conservatives to believe they are decent compassionate people while the politicians they vote for and the policies they support are the polar opposite of compassionate. So they do harm, based on a false view of reality.

This isn’t to say that everyone opposed to immigration is well meaning. Rather, I have found that a great many people (particularly those passionate about it) harbor deeply racist beliefs like the ones I talked about in Part 3.


So, let’s dive into the law. If you want to read the actual text of the applicable statutes and regulations, the US Immigration and Citizenship Services Department website has them publically available. However, if you are just getting started on immigration law, I have found that a great place is American Immigration Council, an immigration advocacy non-profit. Their resources are well written, accurate, and non-inflammatory. They believe that immigrants are an important part of our American heritage, that they make positive contributions to our nation, and that our debate should be based on actual facts and reason, not on fear mongering. These are all ideals I share. If you want fear mongering, well, Fox News and Breitbart have enough for you, I am sure.

To start with, the AIC fact sheet on how the US Immigration system works is a good primer. I’ll summarize in this post, but I recommend reading the entire thing.

Under our current law, there are essentially three ways to legally immigrate. I’ll look at each in turn.

  1. Family Based Immigration

This is the the system which is current being denigrated as “chain migration.” However, there is nothing nefarious about it, and it has been the express US policy since the 1965 law was enacted. (See part 3 of this series.) The idea is that preference is given to relatives of US citizens (and to a lesser degree, relatives of Legal Permanent Residents (LPR) - what we colloquially call “green cards.”)

For someone who is a US citizen, it is reasonably easy to bring in a spouse, minor (but not adult) children, and parents. That makes sense, doesn’t it? A citizen marries and has children outside the US (say on military deployment) and brings her family back here.

Other relatives can get in, but they are further down the list, and thus often do have to “get in line.” and wait until a slot opens. As you can see from the fact sheet above, unmarried adult children of citizens come next, then spouses and minor children of LPRs, then unmarried adult children of LPRs, then married adult children of citizens, and finally siblings of citizens.

These are all pretty close relatives, and form part of an extended family unit. Speaking from my own experience, most of us are better off with extended family there to assist. It takes us through hard times, illness, job loss, and more - we help each other out and are stronger because of it. And also - and this is key - it prevents individuals from needing to rely on the government safety net as much as they would without family. It seems a win-win to me.

But here is how it is now spun as “chain migration.”

Immigrant A comes here legally, and five years later, becomes a citizen. He then brings his parents, who five years later become citizens, then bring in their other adult children, and so on. Before you know it, you have a whole extended family living and working here.

Now, some of us may be thinking “what exactly is the problem here?”

The problem, apparently, is that for many people on the Right, there are too damn many immigrants here now. At least, that is about all I can see that would be a problem. It’s pretty much how my ancestors came here - we came as whole village groups, actually. One of the reasons we formed solid communities where we settled was that we had support systems. Community. When the 1965 law was passed, many noted that immigrants with family here already find jobs and social support more easily - back then, this was considered a desirable thing. (And, as I note below, this was also a way to exclude “inferior races” - they were less likely to have family here than whites…)

Okay, I lied. There is another “problem.” See, when people bring family here, it means that the actually intend to stay here. If you let a single worker in, but make sure he can’t really put down roots, then maybe he goes back where he came from after a few years. And then you don’t have to have any dirty immigrants here, right?

I believe this is the real objection to family-based immigration. And also why we started hearing about “chain migration” when the Steve Bannons and Stephen Millers got into influential positions. Their view of immigration is the KKK view: stop the immigration of “inferior races.” They’re pretty open about it, actually. That’s why they also use the term “the browning of America.” It is an objection to inferior, browner, races coming here. In other words, open racism and white supremacy.

This is why the Right is openly lying about family based immigration, claiming that anyone can bring in distant cousins and so on. They can’t. But that isn’t the point. The point is to drum up fear of brown people and (as usual) shut down immigration of “inferior races.”

Now, to be clear, while I do not find anything wrong with Family Based Immigration in general, I believe that using it as our main way to immigrate is problematic because it excludes, well, anyone who doesn’t have an immediate relative here. That’s a lot of people who can’t get in under this method.

Another problem with family-based immigration is that it was proposed as a way to exclude undesireable “inferior races,” but without being obviously racist about it. After all, more people from white countries had relatives here, right? It didn’t quite work out that way, however, because over time, enough Latinos and Asians came here to take advantage of this method of legal immigration. (For more on the history of the act, and the racist motivations behind the family-based portion of it, see this excellent NPR article. Many interesting quotes which are relevant today.)

Another problem is that immigration caps, both by total number and by per-country and per-region quotas, reduce the total “legal” immigrants to fairly low numbers, which is why there is a waiting list for family-based immigration. (Except for spouses and minor children - the quotas don’t apply there.)

For some solid facts on how family-based immigration works, and the long waits for family immigrants from certain countries really is, this New York Times article is helpful.

Let’s look at the next path in:

2. Employer Sponsored Immigration

This one is often misunderstood. I would say it is the source of much of the “why don’t they come here legally” nonsense. Let me admit that I too got this one wrong for a long time, until I actually went and looked things up. (It’s a good habit, I recommend it.)

The misconception is that just anyone can sign up for a job here, get an employer sponsorship, and viola! legal immigration! Not so.

First, let me point out that a number of these employer sponsored categories are for temporary work visas. (The H1-B, which has been in the news lately, is one of these.) You are fine as long as you keep your job, but you may well have to leave if you lose it and can’t find another similar job immediately. Even these temporary categories do not generally apply to non-skilled, non-specialty jobs. You can’t just apply to be a migrant farm worker, for example. In practice, you see these for STEM fields, entertainers, artists, chefs, and so on. That Korean software engineer, the Indian surgeon, the French chef, the (ahem) Slovienian model - these are classic H1-B immigrants. These coveted visas typically reach the quota amount in the first week of every year.

There are also more permanent visas. If you look at the chart in the link near the top of this post, you can see that the preferences are for highly educated, highly skilled workers in high-demand industries. The cap on “unskilled” workers of any sort is a paltry 5,000.

As it is, there are far more potential Employer Sponsored immigrants than there are slots, so there is a line to wait in here too.

And if you are uneducated, poor, and don’t work in a skilled field, forget about it. You aren’t getting in through this path.

Let’s touch on the final path:

3. Refugees and asylum seekers.

This is a broad category, with a hodgepodge of specific categories and arcane rules. I’m not even going to attempt to make sense of it, other than to say that it isn’t easy to get in this way, it isn’t available in practice to people from most countries, even if they personally are threatened, and please don’t even attempt this without an attorney to assist you. Also, you probably have a 6 year wait, and you probably will spend it locked up. For more on asylum, see here.

There are also a number of other exceptions and kludges here and there, but the vast majority of people won’t qualify for them.


So, let’s summarize the legal ways to get in:

  1. Be an immediate family member of a US citizen or LPR.
  2. Be an educated, skilled worker in a high demand field, with a guaranteed job.
  3. Qualify for as an asylum seeker or refugee.

Now, think about this:

Let’s say you are an average impoverished person in a country somewhere in the world. You have no immediate relatives here. You can’t afford an education, even if one was available to you. You aren’t a refugee and don’t qualify for asylum.

How the heck are you getting in legally?

The answer is pretty obvious:

You aren’t.

There is no line. There is no process. There is no legal way in.

So what do you do? Well, maybe you come here anyway - or send your children. It does beat crushing poverty, or violent drug wars, right? Just keep your head down, work under the table for an ag giant, have some children here so that at least they will be citizens and have a better life. Realistically, it isn’t that different from what my ancestors - and probably yours too - did. The difference was that the law let our ancestors do it, and it doesn’t let today’s immigrants do it.



Country-based immigration caps and the diversity lottery

Let’s start with the first one. No country may have more than 7% of the total legal immigrants admitted. So there is an overall cap on the number. (More or less 500,000 per year, in practice, if I am reading it right), but there is also a cap on how many can come from any one place. Using big round numbers here, that means that your total legal immigration from, say, Mexico or India or the Philippines is limited to about 35,000 per year, which is FAR below demand, even for family reunification or employment visas. So there are long waiting lists.

It isn’t a mystery why these limits were put in place. As the writers of the 1965 law stated baldly, it was to prevent a change to the ethnic makeup of the US. In other words, the same race and nationality based exclusions, just by a more euphemistic name.

About the next:

What even IS the diversity lottery?

This, along with family-based immigration has been targeted by the Right as Bad Things About our Current System™. But what is it? Most people do not understand it at all.

The Diversity Lottery was put in place as part of the 1990 revisions to the law. (That’s during George H. W. Bush’s term - back before the GOP went Nativist.) It was intended to increase the diversity of immigrants by opening a pool of 50,000 per year to countries that didn’t send more than 50,000 a year to the US. These were people from countries without the same level of family ties as, say, Mexico or India, and thus didn’t have enough family based candidates to immigrate under that program. These people would still have something to contribute, but couldn’t get in through other channels. You can read more about it here.

The program recognized two things: first, the family based system excluded a lot of otherwise eligible immigrants from around the world; and second, that diversity was a source of strength.

Again, there is nothing nefarious here. Just an attempt to work around the restrictions of family based immigration and let in qualified immigrants from around the world.

Note too that the TOTAL number of diversity lottery immigrants is 50,000 yearly, and no one country can get more than 7% of these visas.

I suspect the problem with this program, to the Bannons and Millers of the world, is that it lets brown people from poorer countries in, which is anathema to them. As I will note in a future installment, their vision is to limit legal immigration to educated, wealthy people - which would be a de facto way to limit legal immigration to first world countries plus Japan and Korea (and maybe China.) Third world immigrants, unless of the wealthy class, need not apply. Keep the dirty brown people out.

I’ll talk more in a future installment about the expressly racist vision for immigration (or more accurately, a vision without immigration) that the Trump administration has embraced.


For now, let me leave it at this: under our current system, it is difficult to legally immigrate, and downright impossible for most people, particularly those who lack wealth, connections, or education. For the most needy, our doors are shut, and yet there is a strong push to close the door even more.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Slaves' War by Andrew Ward

Source of book: I own this.

I am reading this book as an unofficial selection for Black History Month. It is unofficial because, while it is about Black History, it was written by a white author. My official Black History Month selection is the early poetry of Langston Hughes - stay tuned for a post about that. I also have another one that I intend to read, but will hold off on naming until I am sure I will get to it.

Anyway, here is the list of Black History Month selections since I started this blog, and also some related books:

2016:   Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin
    Black Boy (American Hunger) by Richard Wright

Other notable books by African American or African authors:

Poems by Phillis Wheatley
Zone One by Colson Whitehead
I Greet The Dawn (Poems) by Paul Laurence Dunbar
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Books on Black History by other authors:


The Slaves’ War was written to tell the story that hasn’t really been told. There are more books about the American Civil War than you can fit in a library. Whether about military strategy or philosophy or religion or whatever approach the author takes, the one voice most missing is that of the people about whom this war was fought.

(And sorry, if you think that slavery wasn’t the cause of the war, the reason for the war, and the single most important issue in the war, then you are being wilfully historically ignorant. The Confederates made no bones about it: they seceded to preserve - and expand - slavery, and their state was founded on the central premise that white people were superior, and were thus entitled to enslave non-whites.)

Andrew Ward has written a number of books on history, as well as commentary for The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and NPR. His approach to this book is interesting. Although he doesn’t explain his methods until the end of the book (intentionally), I am going to start with that part here. Ward primarily utilizes the interviews of former slaves by the WPA during the 1930s. In addition, there are some interviews which were preserved from the 1920s, although these are less extensive. Using these, Ward tells the story of the war in different theaters in his own words, but just enough to give context to the quotes from the formerly enslaved. Most of these quotes are one-liners, or at most a few sentences. That is the nature of his material.

He also had to grapple with the fact that his sources were written in “Negro dialect,” which is problematic. (The white WPA interviewers converted the statements into dialect, even when the subjects were educated. Ward shows the hypocrisy here by translating some of the interviewers’ questions into their own regional dialects - like Texan.) He tried to undo some of the most egregious stuff, but left as much of the syntax intact. I think, given what he started with, he did an admirable job.

The limitations of his source material are also what led him to fill in the background narrative. Devoid of context, much of it wouldn’t make sense. Ward did, however, let the eyewitnesses talk whenever they could, and this means that a high percentage of the words are from the formerly enslaved.

There are also a few cases where whites are quoted, where they were able to fill in background on what happened to the main characters. There are also a number of cases where the formerly enslaved directly quote their masters and mistresses - a rather candid look at race relations.

The book covers the period immediately before the war through the first year or so after the end. Thus, we hear about John Brown and Nat Turner, as well as the efforts families made to find each other after the war.

There are far too many great lines to quote, but I’ll hit a few highlights.

Mattie Jackson recalls her mistress after Lincoln’s election complaining that Lincoln wanted to put black people “on an equality with whites,” and that before she saw her children on such a footing, she would “rather see them dead.” I chilling reminder about what we are still wrestling with 150 years later.

Another interesting discussion in the book was on the class distinctions in the South. The upper class was the slave holders. The middle class wanted to be rich. And the poor whites were hated by everyone. Interestingly, the slaves were taught to keep away from the “white trash” and look down on them. And vice versa. Also interesting was the “field slave” versus the “house slave.” I’d heard about this before, but it was very interesting to see it in the words of the enslaved themselves. In fact, hearing about the class levels in the South from that perspective is fascinating. It is refreshingly honest coming from those who lived at the bottom of the hierarchy.

Also honest, but more in a devastating way, were the sections that revolved around children. One of the horrors of slavery we easily forget is that enslavers literally sold their own children. Let that one sink in. The enslaved had no problem talking about that in this book either. Just one reason I get a bit hot and bothered when people claim that we were more moral in the past. Like hell we were! We just casually raped brown people (it was legal, actually) and sold our own children into slavery. Or beat them to death.

One exchange in this book that stood out regarding children was between Mill (last name not known) and her mistress when the Yankees landed at their plantation on the Mississippi River. About to be overrun, the mistress is panicking and tries to convince the house slaves to stay, but they tell her they will leave if given the chance. Then, in an incredible act of hubris, the mistress tries to convince Mill to lie if the soldiers find the silver plates - that they belonged to Mill, not her mistress. Mill refuses, reminding her, “Mistress, I can’t lie over that. You bought that silver plate when you sold my three children.” Boom.

It was interesting the amount of propaganda the enslavers fed the enslaved to try to make them fear the Yankees. In a sign that nothing is new under the sun, one recalled a local preacher who loudly declared that the Southern cause was divine, and that God ordained that the South would win. Then as now, as Richard III put it, “But then I sigh and, with a piece of scripture / Tell them that God bids us do good for evil / And thus I clothe my naked villainy / With odd old ends stolen out of Holy Writ / And seem a saint when most I play the devil.”

Experiences varied quite a bit, depending on location. While many escaped slaves fought on the Union side, and thus had first hand accounts of the battles, others were whisked away to Texas, where they saw nothing of the war. Felix Haywood was one of these, and his description of it is amusing:

“It’s a funny thing how folks always want to know about the war. The war wasn’t so great as folks suppose. Sometimes you didn’t know it was going on. It was the ending of it that made the difference. That when we all woke that something had happened. Oh, we knew what was going on in it all the time, because old man Gudlow went to the post office every day and we knew.”

Another interesting story was of Stonewall Jackson’s death. The facts aren’t a mystery, but William Mack Lee adds the detail that Jackson had a Union uniform on to scout across the line. Then, he was shot by his own men when he returned - he had given them specific instructions to shoot anyone crossing the line. Oops.

The most touching story in the book, however, was of Andrew Bradley. When his master was killed, he was horrified at the thought of the body being dumped in a ditch and quickly buried. Using money given him by the dying man, he concocted a plan to smuggle the body back by train - and carried it off too! As he tells the tale, it was all about respect for human dignity, and that he himself wished to be buried on his own land.

The same respect, alas, was not granted to the enslaved. Throughout, there are sad tales of the Confederates imprisoning any blacks they found - including freemen, who were then enslaved.

I don’t want to paint the South with too broad of a brush here. There are a wide range of stories in this book. What was a common refrain, however, was that the closer the Yankees got, the better many masters treated their slaves, returning to mistreatment as the threat passed. And yes, there were a few good relationships. But it is telling that, given the chance, the vast majority of the enslaved left.

One quote here also is apropos. It was give by William Henry Downs, and was directed more at the failure of the war to prevent Jim Crow. It holds true in our own time too.

“All mens means well, but some of them ain’t broad-minded enough to do anything for nobody but themselves. Any man that tries to help humanity is a good man.”

This might be a bit generous. There are indeed truly deplorable people (and yes, I used that word), filled with outright hate for those outside their tribe. Alas, these people currently wield a lot of political and religious power. But most people probably mean well. They just can’t bring themselves to actually care about people outside their tribe. And then, when a demagogue comes along and feeds their fears, the follow right along that dark path of tribalism and hatred.

Two final things I want to mention are in connection with the aftermath of the war. First is the idea that the freed slaves would get “40 acres and a mule.” In retrospect, this actually would have been more fair than what ended up happening. Which was 100 years of segregation and violence against African Americans. Make that more like 150 and counting, honestly. The best time for reparations would have been then, and if you think about it, my ancestors got their “640 acres and subsidized grub stake loans” under the Homestead Act 20 years later, which was even more generous. And my ancestors weren’t enslaved for 250 years, which means they were not morally owed compensation for all that violence and theft. I cannot help but wonder how different things might have looked in our nation had the right thing been done at the time.

The second one I found interesting is that along with the formerly enslaved, a number of Confederate wives left too. The upper crust often engaged in what were essentially arranged marriages, and a number of these wives were tired of being abused (oh yes, men who would flog slaves predictably tended to abuse their wives too) and humiliated by their husbands’ sleeping with the slave women, and thus left to find a new life elsewhere. A bit of a reminder that Patriarchy isn’t just about men and women. It is a whole system built on the privilege of powerful men to abuse and control those below them, women, children, and slaves. (Aristotle had something to say about that, come to think of it…)

This is an interesting book to read, with its variety of perspectives, earthy first person narratives, and a view of the war that is rarely considered.