Where Are the Lights of Liberty? We Are Better Than This!

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I stood with nearly 300 members of my community Friday night at a “Lights for Liberty” candlelight vigil in protest of the horrific treatment of immigrants on the US southern border.

This was one of 800 such vigils worldwide, all designed to persuade the government of this nation, a nation of immigrants, to stop using cruelty and dehumanization against children and families.

Think about that: people throughout the world gathered to register their horror at the policies and actions of the US government.

Two aspects of the presentations moved me the most. The first was a speech by a councilwoman from a neighboring community. She introduced herself as a “proud American” and an immigrant and described her journey from India when she was 11 years old.

Her mother was traveling with her and her two brothers to reunite with her father, who had arrived in the US two years earlier to make enough money so that he could bring his family to this great country for a happier, more financially secure life.

The councilwoman said she was apprehensive, but she was with her mother, so she knew everything would be OK. “I can’t imagine,” she said, “what it would have been like to have been taken away from my mother and brothers, and not know whether I’d ever see them again. I can’t imagine having to live under the conditions we’re hearing about—to have no food, no toothbrushes, no bedding, no clean clothes…”

The other presentation that brought me to tears was made by a series of teenagers, who took to the podium to read from the actual statements made by young people in our nation’s care.

These statements were recorded by attorneys who visited the Customs and Border Protection facilities in late June. You can find them at newsweek.com. Here’s a sampling:

“At 3 a.m. the next day the officers told us that our grandmother would be taken away. My grandmother tried to show the officers a paper signed by my parents saying that my grandmother had been entrusted to take care of us. The officers rejected the paperwork saying that it had to be signed by a judge. Then the officers took my dear grandmother away. We have not seen her since that moment.” -From a 12-year-old girl

“At Ursula, we have not been able to shower. The toilet is out in the open in the cage, there is no door for any privacy. There is water but no soap to wash our hands. There are no paper towels to dry our hands. We have not been given a toothbrush or toothpaste to brush our teeth.” -From a 17-year-old boy

“The day after we arrived here, my baby began vomiting and having diarrhea. I asked to see a doctor and they did not take us. I asked again the next day and the guard said: ‘She doesn’t have the face of a sick baby. She doesn’t need to see a doctor.’ My baby daughter has not had medicine since we first arrived. She has a very bad cough, fever and continues to vomit and have diarrhea.” -From a 16-year-old girl

The Trump Administration has made deliberate decisions to deter immigration by separating families and forcing children—from babies to adolescents—as well as adults to live in inhumane conditions. Threatened surprise raids on immigrants are part of this cruelty. American citizens are among those who have been rounded up and deported.

And we, the taxpayers, are footing the bill for all this: $200 daily in government-run cages; $700-plus daily in private facilities through which people such as former Chief of Staff John Kelly profit financially.

Who among us can turn a blind eye to the horrors that are being perpetrated by our government right now?

Border security is a legitimate issue—one that Congress should have resolved years ago. In fact, they came close: a comprehensive immigration reform bill, The Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act passed the Senate in 2013 by a vote of 68-32. But the House failed to act.

Is it now possible, with Democratic control of the House, that if such a bill were proposed, Senator Mitch McConnell, who delights in calling himself The Grim Reaper, would even bring it to a vote?

He has already refused to consider more than 100 House-passed bills on healthcare, infrastructure, voting machine protection, and other issues on which large majorities of Americans agree.

But this is now an even more complex issue. Immigration had been down for several years. The increases lately are due to the grievous conditions in Central America (immigration from Mexico is actually down): poverty, homicides, gangs trying to recruit young teenagers, drug lords, and climate change.

Climate change is part of the worldwide impetus for migration that many countries in Europe are grappling with.

The situation on our southern border should send an alarm bell concerning what we have to look forward to if we continue to deny the existence of climate change and don’t act promptly.

Erik Kobayashi-Solomon, a contributor to Forbes, pointed out that the three countries from which most immigrants seeking asylum at our southern border are now fleeing—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—are part of an “ecologically fragile ‘dry corridor’ that has been hit in the last few years by alternating droughts and drenching precipitation which climate sciences have shown is related to warming global temperatures.”

Since about 1/3 of the people there depend on subsistence farming, it doesn’t take huge variations in climate to wreak havoc on their crops. They are then compelled to leave their homes and set out for cities—cities rife with corruption and run by criminal gangs. The author observes:

“So they make the rational choice to head north for economic security and rule of law.”

“Recent reporting from Jonathan Blitzer at the New Yorker and John Carlos Frey at the Marshall Project makes a convincing case that climate change is a major underlying cause of the recent pick-up in northward migration from Central America.”

Poverty isn’t currently considered by our government a legitimate reason for asylum, but it’s realistic to believe that many of these people requesting asylum also fear for their lives. Why else would they make the obviously dangerous trek from their homes, their children in tow?

Instead, they are caged and deprived of basic necessities. And even though family members in the US are often available to take them in, the government doesn’t contact these people, deliberately worsening the overcrowded facilities situation.

President Trump did inherit an unresolved immigration problem. The New York Times has editorialized that “All Presidents Are Deporters in Chief.”

That dubious honorific was given by immigrants rights groups to President Obama, though his administration sought to deport primarily criminals and created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, a pathway to citizenship for the young people who were brought here as babies and have known only the US as their home.

Though we may wish to embrace every last soul seeking refuge here, that isn’t possible.

But the question The Times raises is what kind of Deporter in Chief a President is—or will be.

In faulting this President, the editors state:

“For Mr. Trump, deterrence of illegal immigration has been a guiding principle — if not by means of a wall, then by means of cruelty toward migrants, from the squalid conditions in detainee facilities to separating children from their parents.”

“It’s the complete, 100 percent focus on harsher options that will deter the influx, with a disregard for managing what’s happening,” a Department of Homeland Security official told The Times earlier this year. “We have a lot more families, a lot more unaccompanied children, and the focus has just been on how can we deter, rather than how can we handle.”

But, writes The Times:

“…deterrence alone can’t explain a slew of other moves — scaling back a program that protects the families of members of the military and veterans from being deported, for instance. It doesn’t explain the frantic — yet unsuccessful — effort to put a question about citizenship on the census, which experts agree would lead to an undercount of people in immigrant-heavy communities. Nor does deterrence explain removing deportation protections from nearly one million people who live in the country under the auspices of humanitarian programs or because they were brought to the country as children.”

As one of the signs at the “Lights for Liberty” vigil I attended said: “We are better than this.”

We must insist on a rapid end to the cruelty, the family separations, the conditions that are leading to epidemics of scabies, lice, and chicken pox in the overcrowded facilities—even to several deaths.

In addition to comprehensive immigration reform, we need adherence to legal processes and humane care for those who seek asylum—and a Marshall Plan to improve life in their countries of origin so that many of them can return there safely.

One more thing isn’t getting enough attention. The dirty big secret is that illegal immigrants are an important part of our nation’s economy.

Undocumented immigrants pay an estimated $11.6 billion a year in taxes,  and since they tend to live in the shadows, they use fewer governmental services.

If Trump succeeds in substantially lowering the numbers of undocumented immigrants, our economy will suffer. The jobs he claims the immigrants are taking? They are jobs most Americans refuse to accept. Hotels are already worrying about who will clean the rooms; farmers are wondering who will harvest the lettuce.

What’s more, Trump’s policies have also been directed at reducing legal immigration. That, too, will have a negative impact on our economy. Here, verbatim, are some myths and facts about the issue from PBS NewsHour:

Myth #1: Immigrants take more from the U.S. government than they contribute.
Fact: Immigrants contribute more in tax revenue than they take in government benefits.

Myth #2: Immigrants take American jobs.
Fact: Immigrant workers often take jobs that boost other parts of the economy.

Myth #3: The U.S. economy does not need immigrants.
Fact: Immigrants are key to offsetting a falling birth rate.

Myth #4: It would be better for the economy if immigrants’ children were not citizens.
Fact: Children with citizenship are more productive workers.

And an AP fact check on this issue, also from PBS NewsHour, notes the following:

“The fact is that 75 percent of immigrants arrived legally, according to the Pew Research Center. In general, the entire immigrant population is increasingly better educated than native-born Americans.

They’re more likely to have jobs. They’re less likely to commit violent crimes. They help fuel economic growth. And as a group over time, they’re no more a drain on taxpayers than native-born citizens.

Moreover, for all the attention to the southern border, in recent years immigrants to the U.S. have been more likely to come from Asia than from Mexico.”

So I return to the sign I saw at the “Lights for Liberty” Vigil that said: “We Are Better Than This.” I emphatically agree.

And I hope that sometime very soon, most Americans in this, our nation of immigrants, will dismiss the lies and distortions and appreciate the value of welcoming new immigrants (who often become our friends and neighbors), knowing that when it comes to understanding their role in our country—and in our economy— We Are Also Smarter Than This.

Annie

Respect Your Mother…

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Today, April 22, is Earth Day. Above is a photo of my favorite T-shirt, with a message that is always worth a reminder, 365 days a year–unless it’s Leap Year. [Note to my darling daughters: you should in no way assume this is directed at you!]

The fact that due to numerous washings, the vividness of that image is fading gives me pause. But as I always seek a note of optimism, I think of all the kids throughout the world who recently staged a school walkout to stress their concern about climate change. They, too, are a reminder to us that it’s their world we’re screwing up–and we’d better get moving–for their sakes.

My fellow blogger Julia Elizabeth, at juliaelizabethblog.com, notes the following:

“Forty-nine years ago, millions of people took to the streets to protest the negative impacts of industrial development, giving birth to an international environmental movement. Today it is estimated that over one billion people across 192 countries take part in this global event, binding together to fight for our planet and our future.”

In commemorations of this day, you’ll probably read and hear tons of things that we mortals should be doing in the face of the huge challenge looming ahead of us as a result of climate change. (I’m assuming my blogging community believes in science, and therefore I don’t have to persuade you about the existential threat we face.)

Julia Elizabeth, who calls herself a “nomad,”  offers “19 Small Ways to Celebrate Earth Day 2019 From Anywhere.” Her suggestions include the easily accomplished, such as “Turn off the tap when brushing, shaving, and shampooing,” and the slightly less convenient: “Bring your reusable bags, water bottles, coffee cups, cutlery sets, and so on wherever you go.”

She adds the more challenging but equally important: “Say no to plastic bags, plastic bottles, plastic straws…basically anything and everything made from plastic.” And some that are especially aimed at travelers, such as: “Opt for eco-friendly accommodation…”

To remind us what’s at stake, here are some beautiful and devastating photos in a slide show from National Geographic. I thank Gini’s Nature Notes for alerting me to these.

Julia Elizabeth concludes with a quotation from chef Annie-Marie Bonneau:

“We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.”

I think that’s a perfect ending, one that I hope leads to new and better beginnings in this journey that calls upon us all to be activists to ensure our future.

As always, I welcome your thoughts, stories, and any suggestions and anecdotes about your own efforts and/or recommended reading related to our topic: “Respect Your Mother.”

Cheers!

Annie

UPDATE: An astute member of our community posted a link to an invaluable resource from the Union of Concerned Scientists. I encourage anyone who wants to know more about climate change–including skeptics–to go to the Comments section and scroll down til you see the link from frankaufman. Thank you, Fran!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why You and I Need to Care About Phytoplankton–and What We Can Do About Them

Diatoms

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Despite my optimistic outlook, there’s one area where I need to search especially hard for positive signs: climate change. To me, it is the existential threat to our planet, and I am infuriated and frightened by those who willfully ignore the important lessons that scientists are teaching us.

Recently, I had an exceptional guide into the impact of climate change on phytoplankton, the tiny organisms at the very bottom of the food chain. And I’m now convinced that we really need to pay attention to the fate of these microorganisms—because our future is intertwined with theirs.

My guide: Terence (Terry) Milligan, PhD, a dear friend who taught advanced placement biology to high school students for many years and now serves as a docent in New York’s American Museum of Natural History. Terry recently took our family through a breathtakingly beautiful exhibit of phytoplankton in the museum.

He’s a gifted educator whose supple knowledge and contagious enthusiasm could probably make any subject fascinating, and with the backdrop of the museum’s exhibits, he wowed us with the magnificence and importance of phytoplankton and the implications of the threats they face. “As they go, so goes the ocean,” Terry says.

First, a brief introduction to phytoplankton. From the Greek words “phyto,” meaning plant, and “plankton,” meaning made to wander or drift, they are a highly diverse group of organisms living in water that’s both salty, as in the ocean, and fresh, as in lakes. Despite the “phyto” nomenclature, they aren’t actually plants, Terry explained.

Most are single-celled bacteria that carry out photosynthesis. And that’s the function that makes them so valuable: Using sunlight and nutrients, they release oxygen into the atmosphere and remove carbon from it. (Terry particularly likes to point out the diatoms –featured at top and below–one of the largest phytoplankton groups; these beautiful microorganisms extract silicon from their surroundings, essentially encasing themselves in glass.)

Pennales–a subdivision of Diatoms

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An article by David Biello, Engineering the Ocean, which I’ll return to later (because it offers a bit of hope), captures the essence of these tiny life-factories: “There are more plankton cells in the sea than our current count of stars in the entire universe.”

“Much of the oxygen we breathe comes from just one species of cyanobacteria, Prochlorococcus,” Biello adds. “This species was not even discovered until the 1980s: it is so tiny that millions can fit into a single drop of water and no one had produced a sieve small enough to catch it.” The oxygen they create, Biello says, “dwarfs that produced by the Amazon rainforest and the rest of the world’s woodlands combined.” 

             Prochlorococcus      

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In a phrase I love, Biello says “…these tiny creatures serve as the planet’s lungs, whose steady breathing is limited only by nutrition.” Like plants on land, he notes, “they need nitrogen, phosphorus and other elements to thrive; missing nutrients restrain planktons’ growth.”

Here, somewhat simplified, is Terry’s description of the way that climate change is damaging the phytoplankton and, consequently, the entire ocean’s food chain. The nutrients essential to the phytoplankton’s viability are abundant at the equator in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and other so-called “upwelling zones” where the sea is heated and the water currents, helped by the trade winds, pull up to the surface the nutrients found in the deep water coming from Antarctica and the Arctic Ocean.

The “normal” cycle would consist of the water proceeding to the North Pole, getting denser in the colder regions, and sinking to the bottom, where it refreshes its nutrient supply on the way back to the equator. There the nutrients rise to the top and become vital components of the phytoplankton—sustaining the enormous numbers of these creatures found near the surface of oceans throughout the world.

The dangers of climate change are clearly seen in the ocean around Greenland, where the enormous glaciers are already melting rapidly—an average of 270 billion tons of ice each year. (See Umair Irfan in Vox, “Greenland’s ice is melting much faster than we thought. Here’s why that’s scary,” April 11, 2018.)

That huge loss is fresh water, pouring into the ocean around Greenland and making the ocean less dense. The result: the nutrient conveyor belt for the entire North Atlantic slows down, which, in turn, makes it increasingly difficult to sustain the populations of phytoplankton that now exist. Similar activities are inevitably taking place throughout the world.

Obviously, the impacts on plankton and other sea life will be felt by humans on land, from the disappearance of sardines and other fish to the economic calamity on commercial fishing, to name just a few.

But having alerted you to the bad news, I’d like to offer a few rays of hope—though these rays are admittedly filtered by both the complexity of the issue and the many unknowns, including the “laws of unintended consequences.”

In Engineering the Ocean, David Biello describes what he calls an “ambitious new pursuit” by a marine biologist named Victor Smetacek, who set about to provide plankton with the iron nutrient they need to survive. “Fertilizing the waters could promote blooms that help sea life thrive all the way up the food chain, even to whale populations, which are still recovering from overhunting,” Biello writes.

Biello notes that environmentalists—“the very people who care the most about climate change”—tried to stop this effort because of concerns about possible toxic algae bloom, poisoning of sea life, or the creation of the kind of dead zones that developed in the Gulf of Mexico, “where the fertilizers that support Midwestern cornfields gush out of the Mississippi River’s mouth and into the ocean.” A UN body said in 2008 that iron fertilization should be prohibited “until there is an adequate scientific basis on which to justify such activities.”

But, Biello says, Smetacek’s research was successful, albeit briefly, and the science on which it was based was vetted in the journal Nature in 2012. Still, there are no current efforts, though Smetacek thinks commercial interests may hold the key.

Terry finds the idea intriguing, though the duration of the iron fertilization has thus far been limited. He foresees the need for a massive international cooperative effort for anything like that to have a chance to succeed, assuming the effort has first been proven to be safe.

He does see positive signs for reversing the negative trends in such efforts as New York Mayor Bill De Blasio’s agreement with London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan to switch New York and London from oil-based energy sources to wind and solar. “It would be very good if more mayors deliberately try to develop non-hydrocarbon energy mechanisms,” he stresses.

And he emphasizes that individuals also have an important role to play. That’s where you and I come in. “I own a car that gets 52 miles per gallon,” Terry says. “More people are turning away from incandescent lighting.” If more of us consciously buy things and do things of that nature, there is reason to be hopeful.

Biello believes the kind of “expansive thinking” that Smetacek showed with his iron fertilization plan is essential. “A land animal [humans] has come to tame the heaving, alien world of the sea,” he writes, “and, though doing so can make us uncomfortable, in the end it might undo a great deal of the damage we have already done.”

And there may be another source of hope. An article in Pacific Standard quotes Oscar Schofield, an oceanography professor at Rutgers University, who points out that at Palmer Station, a US research site located north of the Antarctic Circle, “there’s been a decline in the Adelie penguin population by an order of magnitude. But sub-polar penguins that live in the Falkland Islands…are increasing. Species have a lot of unknown capacities for adaptation. They can evolve and change their characteristics—but it happens slowly.”

Schofield does wonder whether organisms can adapt to climate change in time to survive. Says Sarah Watts, who wrote the article, “For phytoplankton, marine life, and humans alike, that remains to be seen.”

Terry notes that most smaller fish are increasing in numbers. “Is that a good thing?,” he asks. “The ecology of the ocean is actually changing. What’s happening in the Falklands could be a result of the impact of overfishing on the larger predator fish. Time will tell if it’s good or bad.”

Obviously, we don’t know. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if, after we humans have apparently done our damnedest to mess up our environment, we apply our ingenuity a la Smetacek to reverse the damage and save the phytoplankton—and we’re helped by the penguins and other forms of marine life, using their innate “ingenuity” to find their own ways to adapt?

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Note: I added this non-phytoplankton image of a gang from the Falkland Islands because…why not?

Your thoughts?

Annie