Thursday, November 28, 2019

Deportation Discipline

Kathy Ferguson
University of Hawai'i at Manoa

The Trump administration is again rounding up immigrants, this time hundreds of foreign students at a fake university created by ICE to follow the more than one hundred and fifty thousand undocumented immigrants captured and separated for deportation or interminable detention. Some children are being placed in homes where their parents will never find them again. Over the summer, threats were made in advance, postponed, and resumed without warning in places like Mississippi. Will there be more threats? More postponements? More raids? Or will we simply continue the ordinary terrifying administrative nightmare that is U.S. immigration policy, perhaps punctuated by the cruel banality of made-for-TV strikes on frightened people by heavily-armed Immigration and Custom Enforce (ICE) officials.
Either way, rounding up families for deportation is not new in the United States. The panic of lives ripped apart, the uncertainty of what will happen, the inability of families and communities to take care of one another, is a constant of government roundups, imprisonments, and deportations. It is an institutionalized production of agitation and dread that disciplines both those who are its objects and those who are said to be its beneficiaries, the remaining Americans who are not [yet] the state’s manifest targets. It is not a “side effect” of law enforcement. It is the point.
We have been here before, done this before. Of many possible examples, I am drawn to the actual and threatened deportation of Russian residents of Detroit in December, 1919, as recorded by a woman named Agnes Inglis. Agnes was an anarchist and later became the curator of the Labadie Collection at the University of Michigan, which still stands as one of the best collections of radical literature in the world. Agnes was active in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) when the federal government launched the assault on immigrants and radicals known as “the Palmer raids” after their chief author, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. Assistant Secretary of Labor Louis Post famously named the period the “deportation delirium.” Radicals of all ethnicities were targeted, prime among them the Russian immigrants belonging to the Union of Russian Workers, a labor organization that published literature critical of capitalism and the state, organized reading rooms, and offered English language classes to immigrants. 
How is it done?

First, the targets are defined as dangerous: they are branded as terrorists, criminals, aliens, threats to national security. Perhaps they organized a union, or missed a court date, or published a radical magazine. Perhaps they happen to live in the same house with others who have done these things. Seen through the lens of nativist fears, the immigrants are defined as dangerous-foreign-dirty. Acutely aware of the anxieties and disgust being manufactured about them, immigrant communities experience growing fears. Is it safe to go outside? To go to the hospital? To go to school or work?

Then come the roundups. Agnes writes:

“Word has come. It is Wednesday. Hessian Tagieff must give himself up, on Friday, to be deported. He is undesirable. All the little details must be attended to. Nothing matters. Nothing can stand in the way. On Friday they extend the time till Sunday…. We rush hither and thither helping him to get ready…

“It‘s Sunday. He and Alex Nichentoff [a painter] meet at the office of the Immigration Station. Alex has $70 worth of paints in his trunk. He also has $35 his comrades gave him the night before. Will they let me buy some shoes, he asks, when I get to New York? I do not know…I had never been to Ellis Island. I did not know how we treated folks ordered deported….Will they let me take my paints to Russia? I did not know. I hoped so. He had them in a trunk. His trunk and Hessian’s went on to New York. Hessian had gifts for his child he was to see now again back in Russia….(“Reflections, Part II,” Agnes Inglis Papers Box 25, Labadie Collection, University of Michigan, p. 49)

There is chaos. Families cannot locate their detained relatives. There is panic, designed to disrupt their lives, to make ordinary life unlivable. After Hessian Tagieff and Alex Nichentoff are rounded up, Agnes and other Detroit residents witness dozens more men arrested without warrants and held incommunicado. Agnes see them, 99 men in a cell meant for 23. She calls lawyers to help. “But everybody was scared of the Department of Justice.” (“Reflections, Part II,” Agnes Inglis Papers Box 25, Labadie Collection, University of Michigan, p. 54) Bail is set at $10,000 each, a colossal amount that the activist community cannot hope to raise. There is a rumor the detainees are to be sent to Soviet Russia but no one knows for sure. No one knows what is going on.
Ordinary people will try to help. After seeing off Alex Nichencoff and Hessian Tagieff, Agnes and one lawyer are trying to help 56 men, 12 children and 5 women who are now in jail to prepare for deportation. They need shoes, clothes, suitcases, food, and money. One has a house to be sold. They have 2 days.

“We discuss bank accounts and personal belongings like top shirts and collar buttons and fur caps – able-bodied men unable to attend to the details connected with getting to [sic] hell out of here.--- I recall my own trip to Europe and my preparations for my personal wellbeing – in summer, too. Now it is winter: zero weather. Yet these men must rely upon a few of us comrades to attend to the details of travel for 56 men 12 children and 5 women. And only two days to do it all in!” (“Reflections, Part II,” Agnes Inglis Papers Box 25, Labadie Collection, University of Michigan, p. 51.)

Agnes muses:

“Spies betray; police arrest; officials in warm offices issue orders to break up homes but comrades – human folks – must do the human things.” (“Reflections, Part II,” Agnes Inglis Papers Box 25, Labadie Collection, University of Michigan, p. 52)

Some of the deportees are actually removed from the country. When Alex Nichencoff and Hessian Tagieff were taken from Detroit to be deported along with 247 others, including Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, on the leaky transport ship The Buford, Agnes was there:

“I am the only one there at the end to say good-bye. I go… to the patrol wagon. I lean in and shake hands…Others are in the patrol wagon, too…Not deportees….perhaps dependents. Going somewhere else to see how friendless the world can prove…. I feel for a long time afterwards as tho [sic] I were living a part in the Tale of Two Cities …. (“Reflections, Part II,” Agnes Inglis Papers Box 25, Labadie Collection, University of Michigan, p. 49)

“The Buford, the first Ark, has sailed away…..Alex Nichencoff and Hessian Tagieff went on it, with the clothes they had on them, in zero weather, on an old weather beaten ship. Their trunks were left behind at Ellis Island.” (“Reflections, Part II,” Agnes Inglis Papers Box 25, Labadie Collection, University of Michigan, p. 50)

Some will not be deported after all but held indefinitely in jail. In the end, the wives and children of the Detroit men did not go with their husbands and fathers, but they had sold everything in preparation for the threatened deportation. Ironically, these particular men did not go either. Due to Agnes’ frantic interventions, they literally missed the boat. The Buford sailed without them and, despite official announcements to the contrary, there were no other “Red Arks.” “The men just stayed in jail and the women were homeless and so were the children.” (“Reflections, Part II,” Agnes Inglis Papers Box 25, Labadie Collection, University of Michigan, p. 52)

But of course the Detroit activists did not know this would happen:

“But in Detroit, after getting the word on Wednesday we set out in earnest to get things ready for that little ocean voyage for our comrades. And by Saturday night they were ready. One little home was sold. Every home was broken up and everything disposed of. Sewing machines were sold and everything. The women bought clothing for the long cold trip with the little money they got for their household things. But Thursday another word came; they must be ready by Friday night! It could not be. I hurried to the phone and called up all the American bourgeoisie men and women with reputations that counted at Washington, that I could research who sympathized with these persecuted people. Telegrams flew to Washington. Washington was impressed – whoever Washington was – the Attorney General, I suppose. Anyway another order came to Detroit. They would not have to go Friday after all.” (“Reflections, Part II,” Agnes Inglis Papers Box 25, Labadie Collection, University of Michigan, p. 56)

So the delay Agnes wrung from the hands of the deportation bureaucracy, with the tool of bourgeois prestige that she could access, keeps these particular men from going on the Buford. And keeps the women and children from finding themselves abandoned and without funds in New York City, because, despite threats to the contrary, they would not have gone on the boat.
Time passes. The paroxysm of anti-immigrant sentiment, lacking orchestration, fades. Agnes writes, “Every day or so someone is let go, no charge against him. The violent hysteria against these workers has abated. It is no longer dangerous to take their part. After months of bad physical care and insulting treatment the decision has come that they ought never to have been molested. But even yet they are not let out – they must be paroled out – to save the face of officialdom.” (Inglis, “Manifesto in Regard to Deportation,” June 1920 in File on Deportation of Detroit Anarchists 1920-1936, Agnes Inglis Box 27, Labadie Collection, University of Michigan, p. 2).

If the men are not deported, yet their arrest is not cancelled, then the state holds any bail that supporters managed to raise. Women trying to visit their husbands are threatened and forced to watch as their husbands are beaten. Children play deportation games: one child acts the part of the immigration officer who denies another child the right to visit her “husband,” played by a third child, in jail.

Protests continue. Some wives of prisoners go to the hotel where Palmer was staying in Detroit on May 16, 1920. They put “Deport or Release” slips of paper on the tables where the dignitaries would be dining. Supportive IWW boys call the newspapers. “The women all went home as quietly as they came, but a guard of American Legion protect the doorway as Mitchell Palmer leaves the hotel, and all the papers in Detroit and even in faraway cities told how the Reds attacked the hotel where Mitchell Palmer dined!” (Inglis, “Manifesto in Regard to Deportation,” June 1920 in File on Deportation of Detroit Anarchists 1920-1936, Agnes Inglis Box 27, Labadie Collection, University of Michigan p. 5)
We will ask how this wanton cruelty can happen. Agnes reflects:

“It’s so cold! The weather, and all this is so cruel and hard! As one man said to me today, “You will get bitter too.” I’ve felt all sorts of ways today. Now I am numb. It seems more like fate than anything I ever experienced. They are all such cogs in a wheel – these officials – cruel or decent, the thing happens just the same. The capitalist power turns the wheel and the Power of Labor does not stop it. I’ve run today as though hurrying to go somewhere, as tho [sic] hurrying to tell someone something. But to-night it is the same. The only thing that has moved is a train going…where? And presently a ship will sail….where? No one knows. And who does it? Just a lot of automatons in a system. Is there any intellect in all this? What is the Power? Whatever the power it looks now like it were stronger than the Power of the Workers. Where is the workers’ power? Why I went after seeing Hessian Tagieff and Alex Nichencoff off - and I was the only one at the Immigration Office to say good-bye to them - I went then up to the Auto Workers Hall to the Open Forum where Paul Taylor was chairman and where everything was run by law and order and there was no chance – no loophole for me to take to tell the workers that Hessian Tagieff and Alex Nichencoff had gone to the station in a patrol wagon to be sent to New York and then to be sent no one knows where. I couldn’t get up there in that workers’ open forum and tell it any more than I could have over across the street at the Y.M.C.A. Why couldn’t I?” (“Reflections, Part II,” Agnes Inglis Papers Box 25, Labadie Collection, University of Michigan, p.50)

What would Agnes do?

Agnes’ story suggests options we might develop:

1. Help besieged and imprisoned immigrants now. Ordinary and inadequate as it is, they need water, diapers, food and lawyers. They need witnesses. Some of us have the same sort of bourgeois resources that Agnes had, the money for bail or donations, the connections to respectable people who can be moved to object to unnecessary suffering. Organizations with good on-the-ground reputations currently helping immigrants include Al Otro Lado and Border Angels
2. Tell people. Agnes and other IWW activists are indefatigable in telling the world about the misery and injustice of the raids. Agnes often crafts her writing to best advantage. She uses the repetition of the men’s names -- Alex Nichencoff and Hessian Tagieff -- to get readers past the unfamiliar Russian and Persian spellings, to make the individuals real. She makes their suffering accessible to readers by her comparisons of their besieged misery to the ordinary details of her own travel preparations. She makes the cruel suppression of these men by the state palpable by taking us through the humble bodily needs of people the state throws away. Her own grammar is part of her message: the lack of commas in her lists runs the items together with a sense of urgency: “56 men 12 children and 5 women.” Her run-on sentences make their own demands, as though her message needs to be delivered in one long burst.

3. Find temporary solace in humor. Agnes reflects on the absurd aspects of the spectacle in which she struggles:

“We discuss solemnly the size of shoes of a man, it is very necessary to discuss shoes – the shoes of this man who is trying to overthrow the great Government – shoes, gloves – woolen gloves – size 8 ½.” (p. 51)

She finds the ridiculous in the sublime:

“It is terrible, the most terrible thing I have ever taken part in, the most heartless. Yet we have to laugh. They speak in Russian. One looking at the status of Jesus on the window ledge within the bars, says something. Another interprets: “The poor Jesus! For what he is in here?” (p. 52)

While mockery of power is never a fully adequate strategy, it offers a needed respite.
4. Remember. With the help of people like Agnes, we can remember. Agnes’s letters, pamphlets, and documents are held in the Labadie collection, to which she devoted 30 years of labor. The lifeblood of radical history is held there and in a few other archives, including the IWW holdings at the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University, the Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive at New York University, the Emma Goldman Papers Project at Berkeley, the Joseph Ishill collection at Harvard, and the International Institute for Social History in Amsterdam. Reflecting her dogged labor and echoes of her Presbyterian upbringing, Agnes wrote a love letter to the Labadie collection that can serve us today:

“To the Labadie Collection: Gather, dust, and rays of sun-heat beat imperceptible, beat. And let the unbound wrapped-up volumes of voices of dreamers and world builders keep their silence, and time will leisurely emerge out of space, out of events so measured.

Perhaps no dreamer, no builder of worlds will reincarnate you into his thoughts, his deeds: you may rest for long under the dust, wrapped up in brown paper and tied with string awaiting the judgement day.

But - one day – that day – young dreamers, young builders, will untie the strings and unwrap the volumes and they will cry out! They will say “My Brothers! My Sisters!” They will say, “You dreamers, you world-builders!” And they will peruse these old records of voices and they will repeat your words and speak your names…..As, in these volumes, your thoughts and the record of your acts lie in silence, the dawning spirit of the Revolution will sweep on…It is sweeping on! And your thoughts and your acts -past tho they are – are not lost in it. And this, the record, will ever be beloved.”

Signed Agnes Inglis, Summer of 1932, Ann Arbor Michigan



Post a Comment