Tiny Troubleshooting Manual: Safely Voting in the 2020 General Elections Edition

Hi folks! Welcome to the follow-up installment of the Tiny Troubleshooting Manual, a series I made up in 2018 and we still need in 2020. I do a lot of social troubleshooting in my day-to-day work as an advocate, and though my ordinary bag is social determinants of health, civic engagement is more important now than ever! Obviously I cannot fix all forms of voter suppression or all issues created by the pandemic, but I wanted to take the time to address some of the more common fixable problems people encounter while voting.

(Note: This guide is not intended to be legal advice; rather, it is a resource compilation designed to point people towards appropriate entities for assistance.)

If your trouble is…

  1. Needing to identify your polling place or nearest voting drop box: You can check that by going to 866 Our Vote’s election protection website at 866ourvote.org and clicking on your state or by going to Headcount.org.
  2. Needing to check if you’re registered to vote: You can check that at vote.org or by selecting your state on the 866 Our Vote election protection website.
  3. Needing a mask, PPE, or other health-related accommodation to stand in line: Some programs, like the Election Defender program I’m volunteering with this year, will provide masks, hand sanitizers, and other pandemic-related supports to people on the line at polling locations. Look for people wearing gold outside of your polling location.
  4. People are engaging in illegal voter intimidation or electioneering outside of your polling place: This is another issue that the Election Defender program has sent volunteers to address. Look for people wearing gold outside of your polling location. Poll workers can also assist with these issues if they’re made aware that they are happening.
  5. Needing info on who and what’s on your ballot: You can get good, detailed information on your specific ballot at BallotReady.org or at HeadCount.org.
  6. A technical issue at your polling place: Call the Election Protection Hotline run by 866 Our Vote (which, conveniently, is 1-866-OUR-VOTE) to document the issue and see if it can be addressed today in real time. You may also be able to work with staff at your polling location to get it addressed.
  7. Needing time off from work to vote: Thirty different states require an hour or more of leave time be provided on request on Election Day; you can learn more about your state’s rights at WorkplaceFairness.org and get assistance in exercising your rights by contacting the Voting Rights branch of your local ACLU or 866 Our Vote.
  8. Needing an absentee or mail-in ballot: You may have missed the boat on this, but  866 Our Vote will have information on your state’s deadline if you click on your specific state. Many states have more expansive remote voting programs this year due to the pandemic, and most drop box locations are accepting ballots today. DO NOT MAIL IN YOUR BALLOT TODAY if you still have one; please drop it off at an official election drop box, which you can confirm online at 866 Our Vote’s site.
  9. Something else went wrong with your registration: Check whether your state will permit same-day registration; fourteen states and the District of Columbia do!
  10. Election protection information generally: Check out the resources at 866 Our Vote’s site. You may be noting a trend here–they are an excellent resource!

If you have an additional question, feel free to leave a comment below or reach out to me directly! I’ll try to keep this a living document or at least point people in the right direction. 

How Concerned Americans Can Help with Immigration Crises: An Evergreen Primer

Oren Rozen [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

(This is the googolplexth installment of a series of articles unpacking the many horrifying immigration implications created by the Trump administration. Though I am not an immigration specialist, I am a legal generalist working with indigent populations professionally full-time. This article is not intended to form an attorney-client relationship or constitute legal advice, though it is my hope that it will help people feel equipped to take action.)

As all of us living in America watch the immigration enforcement machine churn, it can be hard to know how to best help — if you’re not an immigration lawyer and not personally involved, direct action can feel elusive. But there are definitely things that help slow this hydra down, and most of us can take many of these actions in our day-to-day!

Before we start, some disclaimers: This primer is intended for folks who want to help non-professionally and are not themselves a primary target for detention or deportation— it assumes no cultural or professional ties to immigrant populations, which impacts the nature of the suggestions. Some suggestions may be difficult for government workers, but I tried to include a broad range so that even folks who can’t lobby or donate have things they can do. Okay, onward to the suggestions!

1. Know and Support the Major Players

Immigration law is quite a rabbit hole, and sub-specialization is very common — folks who do asylum work full-time may look at changes to public charge and think, “Whoa, that’s not my burrow.” But for each common issue, some credible orgs will come up over and over again. It’s a good idea to get to know these organization names, because this first step will make every other suggestion easier to do long-term.

2. Talk to Your Government

This is the veggie consumption everybody is told will help grow strong civics but nobody feels does anything. The good news is, much like eating vegetables, efforts do result in healthy growth over time!

  • Federal Calls. Reps who support immigrants respond to calls thanking them for action because it helps them gauge their constituents. Reps who don’t will still sometimes respond to pressures, and if nothing else it can help you feel better to vent your spleen. You can learn who your House rep is here, and search for Senator contact info here. I also really strongly recommend connecting to Celeste P’s newsletter — she’s a former Congressional staffer who keeps close track of government movement on this issue and will email you info and scripts.
  • State Calls. Your state reps may be considering legislation that impacts immigrants locally — here in Massachusetts, there are currently multiple bills kicking around the Statehouse. Your local organizations and research entities like CLINIC and NCSL can help you learn more about what’s going on where you are!
  • Public Comments. This administration likes to do stuff that requires a public comment period by law. Groups like Protect Immigrant Families often organize comment drives, and there are three still happening as I type this. Leaving a public comment is a great way to help create real change, and it’s not as scary as it sounds — you don’t need to be an expert, your comment likely won’t take more than an hour or two to draft tops. And because the administration has to review and respond to every single unique comment they receive, it can be really effective at slowing down hateful policy.

3. Donate Your (Culturally Competent) Time

It may not feel like it, but there are things that even a person with no professional or cultural ties can do to donate time to immigration issues. This can be a great way to feel more involved and make a concrete difference with results you can see. Just remember to center your work around the people you’re trying to help — they’re the experts on their lived experience, and this is a really rough time for immigrant populations. Folks deserve empathy and understanding if you work with them directly!

  • Interior Efforts. Many locations have accompaniment networks or bail efforts that help make sure people held by ICE are able to make it to immigration court properly, get bail granted, and receive access to appropriate conditions while held. (Here in Massachusetts, Beyond Bond runs the main accompaniment network I know of.)
  • Asylum Efforts. Many asylum networks take volunteers of all stripes, for everything from medical evaluation to ESL classes to translation services. It’s a bit easier to do direct work if you have specialized training, but many places provide general or specialized training as an initial step.
  • General Efforts. Finally, general organizations like #StandWithImmigrants have more general volunteer programs, covering everything from court observation to ESL classes to legal services intake. This can be a great way to give a more general hand as people get situated.

4. Donate Your Dollars

Everyone in this field is spread very thin right now, because the immigration crisis manages to be everywhere at once. Providing monetary support can help increase resources in a variety of different ways.

  • Sections 1, 3, and 5 Make a Great List! Unfortunately, such a multi-pronged crisis leaves a lack of universal, centralized lists to direct efforts. But most of the groups referenced above and below have links to accept donations. All my recommendations can be considered reasonable places to send money.
  • Some General Suggestions: For widespread support, national legal organizations are often a safe bet; a lot of the traction we’ve gained has come from a combination of publicity and legal work. (For localized issues such as the border crisis, obviously, a local organization may be better.) If all else fails, or you just need a quick one-stop suggestion, Charity Navigator lists reputable organizations doing good work.

5. Support Information Dissemination

This administration does a truly unprecedented amount to obfuscate information and limit the range of our free press, especially around immigration issues. The good news is, there is a lot that the average citizen can be doing to counter this, on social media and otherwise:

  • Uphold a Free Press through Sharing Links and Resources. One major way we learn about atrocities is responsible journalism — in particular, outlets like the Associated Press, the New York Times, the New Yorker, Reuters, and the Washington Post all have broken major stories on the subject since 2017. I know a lot of the major players run obnoxious op eds, and their reporting isn’t always optimal. But these news outlets spotlight 45’s worst practices; we need them to stay functional and working with advocacy organizations. Please consider disseminating links and providing financial support for their efforts!
  • Myth-Bust. MAGA minds tend to use the same false talking points about immigration over and over and over again. This garbage Groundhog Day practice does have an upside, because predictable myths have predictable counters — and many of them are relatively straightforward and simple. I compiled a list of greatest hits about six months ago, during the Obnoxious “Immigrants are Criminals” Campaign of ’18, but Snopes, PolitiFact, and other fact-checking institutions definitely have your back on new issues as they occur. Engaging with fascists on the Internet in 2019 is its own art, but it can do a lot to spread accurate information to bystanders. You really are doing something helpful by correcting common misconceptions!

6. …but Don’t Spread Panic.

I cannot overstate what a time of fear this is — the administration terrorizes people repeatedly, trying to create a chilling effect on access to rights and services. Unfortunately, studies show that’s been pretty successful, at least on some issues, and we don’t want to do DHS’s work for them. So Section 5 has a couple of important caveats:

  • Check Your Sources. News outlets in Section 5 are generally reputable sources of information, and the organizations listed in Section 1 definitely are. Whenever possible, please check information against sources, because misinformation spreads like wildfire during times of high stress and crisis. The good news is, this is another issue where Snopes, PolitiFact, and other fact-checking institutions have your back, and they’re worth taking a few minutes to review. Try to double-check social media news especially, for obvious reason!
  • Account for Vicarious Trauma. If you’re reading this, it’s likely that the atrocities going on are impacting you too — even with no direct ties, it’s really hard to stomach kids in camps. People experiencing secondary or vicarious trauma are more likely to share information in ways that panic others, so it’s important to learn what you need to recenter and stay on your game. (And, obviously, it’s also helpful to you and other activists — we’ve got to look out for each other!) I’ve written a resilience roadmap on this topic which compiles suggestions much like this piece does, but there are a lot of great resources out there in general. I promise it’s worth the time — a lot of folks can run on empty for a time, but why do it when you don’t need to and it may hurt the folks you’re trying to help?

So there you have it! Six concrete suggestions for ways you can help with the current immigration horrorscape. Please feel free to link to this essay, take links from it, or otherwise use it to keep fighting the good fight — it’s rough out there, and I’m happy to help if I can.

Aurgh, Stop Saying That: Debunking the Anti-Immigration Greatest Hits

“Internet Troll velu ill artlibre jnl,” by JNL (User created) [FAL], via Wikimedia Commons

(This is the zillionth installment of a series of articles unpacking the many horrifying immigration implications created by the Trump administration. Though I am not an immigration specialist, I am a legal generalist working with indigent populations professionally full-time. This article is not intended to form an attorney-client relationship or constitute legal advice, though it is my hope that it will help people understand what is going on.)

Hi there! If you’re reading this, you’ve either expressed an interest in learning more about common immigration myths in 2018, or somebody arguing with you on the Internet sure wishes you would. Either way, you’re here now! So while I’ve got your attention, let’s talk about how a lot of the most common far-right talking points are blatantly factually untrue, as well as being incredibly recurrent. Because let’s face it, life’s too short to have these arguments over and over.

Myth 1: “My grandparents came here legally; why don’t they just get in line like my grandparents did?”

This one’s always a fun one — for some reason, people who love to brag about how their Great Uncle Joe made a killing with his bathtub moonshine in the 1920s also love to talk about how the same Great Uncle Joe came here totally legally. And just for extra confusion, both of those facts are probably true!

This is because illegal immigration is a relatively new concept in our history, and did not exist two generations ago. Similarly, most people who stood in a line at Ellis Island would be considered undocumented immigrants today, and “the line” to enter — commonly understood these days to refer to family sponsorship, though there are a handful of other routes to lawful permanent residency — can be more than ten years long.

Myth 2: “Immigrants are criminals who hurt U.S. citizens.”

At the time that I write this list, this myth is making a big ole’ comeback because President Trump just aired a campaign ad that essentially writes it in neon letters. But as a point of order, immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than citizens as a general statistical rule. And this makes sense, because the risk of deportation created by getting caught up in the criminal justice system is a powerful deterrent. If you’ve got more to lose, you’re less likely to break laws; that’s just how human psychology works. Though people may like to claim otherwise, most immigrants — even most of those who are being deported in Trumpian America — have no criminal record.

Myth 3: “Okay, well, just being here is illegal, so they’re really all criminals as soon as they get here!”

This little gem comes up way too often for my taste, and we can probably thank the common practice of using the i-word as a noun for that. And it’s deeply obnoxious, because actually, just being here isn’t illegal.

It is true that illegal entry at the border is a misdemeanor crime — the first offense is punishable by a maximum of six months in jail; you can think of it as trespassing on the U.S.’s front lawn. But many people arrive in the United States with a legal immigration status and then overstay that status, leaving them undocumented without having ever committed a criminal act. They were invited in the front door, so it’s not trespassing, and our laws reflect that; this is a civil violation, not a crime.

Myth 4: “The Constitution doesn’t protect non-citizens.”

I honestly don’t know where we first got the xenophobic idea that the Constitution doesn’t apply to people who live here, because in addition to being wrong it just makes no freaking sense. But this myth has been coming up a lot anyway, especially as we grapple with Trump’s recent announcement that he wants to end birthright citizenship (but more on that below).

Both the Fifth and Fourteenth amendments apply due process to “persons,” which courts have interpreted to refer to all immigrants (including undocumented people). And while I’m on the subject, the same exact amendment outlines birthright citizenship, as well, so ending it wouldn’t be constitutional either.

Myth 5: “Asylum seekers enter illegally, so they deserve what they get at the border.”

I’ve had several fights about this one since we entered Caravan Rhetoric Country a week or two ago, and I don’t mind telling you, I’m tired of arguing about it. Seeking asylum is not illegal; it’s a human right that has been protected by international law for over sixty years. And in fact, it’s not even trespassing on the U.S. lawn when people just show up to claim it, because that’s how you’re supposed to seek asylum. There’s a reason for that; it’s designed to help people who will be badly hurt or killed if they return home, and in emergency situations, a person may have pretty limited ability to wait around for paperwork or even pack.

Because these people are fleeing an emergency, incidentally, it should go without saying that it’s poor form to send in 15,000 troops and give them instructions to shoot anyone who throws a rock. I’m beyond disgusted that I have to say it anyway.

Basically, asylum is the immigration equivalent of banging on a stranger’s door at 3AM when there’s someone with a Jason mask and a dripping knife on your heels— you didn’t call ahead, and you may have shown up at a weird time, because there’s a guy who wants to kill you right behind you. When someone shows up at our door in crisis, we don’t respond by shooting them. What, these rules are good enough for fictional people in horror movies but not for real people in real life?

Myth 6: “We’re the only country that someone comes in and has a baby and then that baby is a citizen.”

This one’s a relative newcomer, probably because it wasn’t a Greatest Hit until Trump made it one this past week. We’re definitely not the only country that does this; thirty-three different countries have birthright citizenship and several more have a conditional form of it. Those countries, by the way, include every single country in North America (and all but two in South America, for that matter). It’s not common among European countries, but we’re not in any way unusual for honoring birthright citizenship as a country in the Americas.

Myth 7: “Arresting and detaining everyone found crossing the border (the ’Zero Tolerance’ policy) is necessary because the Democrats passed a law requiring it in 1996.”

This one is kind of a Wrong Inception, in that it has many different layers of wrong happening at once. I wrote a whole essay about this already, but suffice to say: Nope, nope, and for extra measure, nope. First layer: It’s not necessary to arrest and detain everyone at the border, and CBP and police were only doing it because Sessions told them to. Second layer: Democrats never passed a law on this topic — it was codified by something called the Flores settlement, which was actually a court action, so no legislation exists on this at all. Third layer: The underlying cause of action began in the 1980s, when Reagan was President, so there wasn’t even a Dem President responsible for the original policy. Three strikes, please stop saying this.

Myth 8: “Immigrants take jobs away from citizens.”

Migrant workers tend to do jobs that U.S. citizens don’t want, and those jobs tend to be service jobs — while disappearing jobs in our modern economy tend to be manufacturing jobs. To this point, increased detention rates mean that some industries — again, mostly service industries — are having a tough time finding workers. This wouldn’t be true if native workers and migrant workers were truly interchangeable, because unemployed native workers would take those jobs.

Also, countless studies have shown that immigration leads to economic growth on a national scale, which means immigration ultimately creates more jobs for all markets. So instead of saying that immigrants are taking your jobs away, you should probably try thanking them for helping create economic stability. (Immigrants: They get the jobs done.)

Myth 9: “Immigrants just want a government handout.”

Most immigrants cannot qualify for most benefits for at least five years after arriving in the United States and living as lawful permanent residents, and undocumented immigrants cannot qualify for the vast majority of government benefits at all, ever, unless their status changes. And on top of those restrictions, this administration is making people afraid to lawfully access the benefits they are allowed to have, because it might have consequences for their immigration applications. This is probably one of many reasons why — as I noted above — immigrants tend to take jobs American citizens don’t want.

Note that this didn’t stop the Internet from claiming Trump ended government handouts for immigrants, but if that were actually true, wouldn’t that also mean that immigrants don’t get benefits? (Sometimes I don’t think people listen to their own arguments all the way through.)

Myth 10: “ Immigrants don’t pay taxes.”

Immigrants authorized to work are required to pay taxes; there is literally nothing about being a noncitizen that makes you exempt from paying. (Authorized workers also contribute to Social Security, in case anyone was curious.) There’s no evidence that authorized workers commit tax fraud with any greater frequency than the average population, and in fact since tax fraud has immigration consequences, it’s likely they commit tax fraud far less often than our sitting President.

But perhaps more to the point, undocumented workers can pay taxes under an Individual Tax Identification Number without having any legal status. As a result, many undocumented immigrants working under the table pay taxes and contribute to Social Security even though they’ll never see any benefits from it. This is sort of like the “taking our jobs” thing; actually, immigrants support citizens in this regard.

So there you have it! Ten myths, ten corrections, and hopefully we all learned something today. (I learned that it takes a looooong time to correct all the myths you see on the Internet.) I’ll be adding to it as we gain Greatest Hits, which I’m sure will continue to happen. Please feel free to link to this essay, take links from it, or otherwise use it in the Quest to Fight Propaganda. And good luck out there!

Marjory Stoneman Douglas and Dorothea Dix: Unpacking Mental Health and Mass Shootings

By Coral Springs Talk from Coral Springs, United States (Rally at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

There was yet another horrendous school shooting in Parkland, Florida this week, and the country has begun our by-now-traditional cycle of arguing and politicians offering thoughts and prayers and nothing changing. You see, whenever a mass shooting shooting, in the immediate aftermath most citizen responses fall into one of three categories:

  1. Expressions of sympathy, horror, and shock relating to the nature of the tragedy;
  2. Calls for (and responses to calls for) tighter gun control; and
  3. Discussion surrounding the gunman’s mental health, access to mental health services generally, and rates of violence perpetuated by and experienced by people suffering from mental health issues

It would be inappropriate for me to comment on the first type of discussion, except to say that I am sympathetic, horrified, and saddened by the tragedy as well. And though I have many opinions about the second— I did work nearly five years at a public defender office in one of the most gun-control-loving states in our country — that’s another article for another day. As your Friendly Resident Clinician-Trained Advocate, I’m here today to talk about the third topic–because I’ve been writing about it for years, and it would appear that this issue has reached Craig Ferguson o’clock. If you’re in a hurry and want to know my point upfront, here it is: Most people with mental health issues don’t shoot people, and we have no way of knowing whether better access to treatment would have prevented this tragedy, but we should have better access to mental health treatment anyway.

Are you still with me? Okay, good, because we need to spend a few minutes talking about what ‘mental health issues’ even means.

(This is an important point, because as it happens it’s not universal, and this impacts conversations on the topic something fierce.)

The most commonly accepted (though not universally accepted) definitive text for what constitutes ‘mental illness’ is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. We’re currently all using the fifth edition, which was published in the spring of 2013. The DSM uses a code system in order to assist physicians and healthcare professionals with providing diagnoses. These codes exist for literally hundreds of distinct disorders, covering everything from mood- and anxiety-based disorders to pervasive developmental disorders to substance-related disorders to psychotic disorders to intellectual disability to personality disorders.

Symptoms of these disorders vary wildly, and it is straight-up medical malpractice to prescribe the same treatment for every disorder. In fact, not every mental health professional is even allowed to diagnose every single disorder on this list–some disorders (like, for example, Autistic Disorder) require screening by a neurologist. About one in five American adults has a diagnosable mental health issue, and these disorders impact every known demographic in this country (though some disorders are known to disproportionately affect populations above or below a certain age, and diagnosis for some, like personality disorders, is contraindicated before a person turns 18).

[Thus concludes the lecture section of this presentation. For now.]

‘Why are we talking about definitions here?’ I hear you ask.

I note all of this because it all adds up to mean that there is no one individual thing that every single person struggling with mental illness says or does in this country. This is a big deal, and it has to be where we begin this kind of discussion, because it means that almost from the very first words of a discussion on Facebook, twitter, or elsewhere many people are talking past each other.

I have heard many people mention recent studies on twitter and Facebook that show that people struggling with mental health issues are actually more likely than the average population to be the victims of violence. These studies reflect a common sense understanding that people who suffer from mental health issues may experience prejudice, discrimination, and vulnerabilities that are not shared by the general population. (There are also many studies linking mental health issues to penal populations, where people with some types of diagnoses may be particularly exposed and vulnerable, but I’ll get to that in just a moment.)

Yet, some people who commit atrocities, apparently including Nikolas Cruz, suffer from mental health issues; this is undeniable fact. Common sense (correctly) tells us that people who ingest substances that create an altered state of consciousness may also experience changes in their insight, perception, and judgment, all of which can lead to violent exchanges. Many (though certainly not all!) people who experience psychotic symptoms, when combined with paranoia, can see and hear things that are not there which cause them fear, and frightened people can sometimes engage in violence. This does happen, though it does not seem to be what happened at Parkland. This is why we, as a culture, have created a ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’ verdict for criminal trials over time–we understand that crime and mental illness may be linked and may affect culpability.

The important point here is that people who discuss violence and mental illness with regards to perpetration and people who discuss violence and mental illness with regards to victimization are both right, and it’s because for all practical reasons there are as many different kinds of people who suffer from mental health issues as there are kinds of people generally within the US. Saying “people with mental illness commit violent crimes” is about as useful as saying “people born with thumbs commit violent crimes.” You were born with at least one thumb, right? Have you used a gun for mass murder lately? Yeah, that’s what I thought.

[With much apologies to anyone out there reading this who was born with thumb aplasia–keep fighting the good fight, my friends.]

So having discussed the concept of mental health generally, there is an obvious corollary question as it pertains to any mass shooting tragedy, but particularly one like our most recent:

Why do I hear people talking about access to mental health treatment like it is going to fix this type of issue?

Access to services and insurance coverage for mental health is is a very big, very long discussion, and one I have written many, many pages about over many years of study. I will try to spare you the treatise and give you a Cliff’s Notes version. But first, I’m afraid there will need to be a history lesson.

[I did warn you that the lecture would resume at some point…]

At one point in time, mental health treatment in this country really was like something out of a horror story; there are numerous accounts of people being kept in dark places, chained to walls, lobotomized, and electrocuted, and otherwise just horribly mistreated. Much of the early reform for treatment of people struggled with mental health issues is credited to Dorothea Dix, an activist from the mid-1800s who remains something of a personal hero to me (even if many of her efforts were later subverted). Once we made the transition from chaining people in basements to creating and maintaining asylums, hospitalization remained the way that we as a country handled serious mental health issues for many decades.

[Arkham residents not pictured.]

Sometime around the 1970s, however, people began to heavily question the practice of institutionalizing people with mental health issues, largely because the thing doctors were noticing about putting people away for long periods of time is that they never seemed to really get better (though there were also administrative costs and a very famous study involved). There was a push to start initiating community-based care in clinics and comparable outpatient organizations–which is a model we still somewhat use today in this country to address issues of mental health.

The thing is, in some ways deinstitutionalization could not have happened at a worse time. You see, the push for deinstitutionalization happened largely in the 1960s and 1970s, which was a time when we were making changes to how health insurance worked in this country as well. And mental health coverage is, among other things, often incredibly expensive, even at the outpatient level. So this ultimately culminated in fewer community health options and more restricted insurance coverage for many people with mental health issues. In other words: People weren’t accessing treatment at the rates they should, because there were fewer places to get it and also it cost more. That’s still true today; less than half of people living with a mental health condition in this country receive evidence-based treatment for their conditions.

Around the time that deinstitutionalization began to reach its peak, people began to notice a disturbing trend about the interaction between mental health and prison systems: the percentage of inmates with mental health issues was going way up. Multiple recent studies have shown that prison populations now contain much higher rates of mental health issues than the general population.

Picture by By https://kazan.vperemen.com/ (Own work) CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

An honest and frank discussion about mental health issues in this country would be remiss if it did not also at least touch upon the plethora of other confounding and complicating factors about access to treatment (such as homelessness, incarceration, and autonomy in healthcare decisions, to name a few). But many people believe that fixing these difficulties in accessing services will drive crime rates down, and I think they are right–up to a point. Certainly the number of crimes that are committed due to untreated symptoms will decrease, and I firmly believe that a more streamlined substance abuse recovery system would make a huge impact as well. For these reasons, and because I believe that the American criminal justice system is a grossly inappropriate institution to rely on for mental health treatment, I am a huge proponent of increasing access to mental health treatment in this country.

…which brings us back to Nikolas Cruz. This section is the hardest section of this series to write, because it gets at the real heart of the discussion: How does access to mental health treatment affect tragedies like the one that happened at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida?

Much has already been written about Nikolas Cruz’s extensively-documented history of mental health issues, telling us that he was diagnosed with ADHD, depression, and “developmental and learning disabilities.” Given what I have read, if one of those “developmental disabilities” wasn’t conduct disorder, I will eat my hat. You see, there’s no noted correlation between ADHD and mass shootings — in fact, most of the main features of ADHD (disorganization, distractedness, inattention, forgetfulness, to name a few) don’t lend themselves to premeditated action at all. And the connection between depression and premeditated murder is attenuated at best. But …well, let’s talk about the diagnostic symptoms of conduct disorder, the adolescent precursor to Antisocial Personality Disorder (which cannot be diagnosed before age 18). I have bolded the things we see reported in the news as part of Cruz’s personal history before the Parkland shooting:

“A) A repetitive and persistent pattern of behavior in which the basic rights of others or major age-appropriate societal norms or rules are violated, as manifested by the presence of at least three of the following . . . criteria in the past 12 months from any of the categories below, with at least one criterion present in the past 6 months:

  1. Aggression to People and Animals
  2. Destruction of Property
  3. Deceitfulness or Theft
  4. Serious Violations of Rules

(The remaining diagnostic criteria relate to age, distinguishing from Antisocial Personality Disorder, and absence of signs of other disorders. He probably met the criteria for APD as well, though it would appear no one had diagnosed him with it; you can read those criteria here. The disorder also can occur with or without ‘limited prosocial emotions,’ which is a fancy way of saying ‘this person doesn’t appear to have normal levels of concern or empathy for other humans.’)

As this list suggests, conduct disorder is noteworthy because potential symptoms are disregard for social norms, aggression, destructive tendencies, and a lack of showing of empathy for other people. In other words, the very things that might cause someone to commit this kind of atrocity are potentially enough to diagnose someone with a mental health disorder in the DSM.

(I want to be very clear that diagnoses such as conduct disorder or antisocial personality disorder are by no means a guarantee that someone will commit this kind of atrocity; a person who frequently skips school and then lies about it can be slapped with the same exact diagnosis. As with so many things, it’s a question of severity and also a subjective assessment on the clinician’s part.)

APD Exhibit A: Nikolas Cruz. APD Exhibit B: This guy.

Diagnoses like conduct disorder and antisocial personality disorder are controversial, because some people believe they merely convert criminal behavior into a mental health issue. And antisocial diagnoses are notoriously resistant to treatment, though I personally believe they can be treated in some instances and it is my sincere hope that we identify more effective treatment for these diagnoses soon.

Would access to mental health treatment have prevented this tragedy? It’s tough to say; as a few articles have noted, Florida’s track record of access to treatment is abysmal, and studies show that adequate treatment can definitely reduce instances of violence in general. And perhaps more to the point, Cruz should have had access to treatment because we should live in a country where people receive reasonable evidence-based treatment for their health issues. But on the other hand, we don’t actually have evidence-based practices for treating antisocial issues like conduct disorder, and Cruz’s personal history is a ticky-box nightmare — in particular, there is a long-documented correlation between zoosadism and premeditated murder, and those studies I just mentioned weren’t about premeditated violence; they were about violence generally (and often impulsive violence at that). Treatment — for his documented diagnoses or otherwise — might have prevented this, but it also might not have. And we can’t know, because he didn’t get access to treatment, and then this tragedy happened, and we can’t take it back again.

Access to mental health treatment is a very important issue to me, and I will continue to advocate vociferously for better access to care and services until the day I die. As the first two sections of this series suggest, I do believe that it is incredibly important that we address this issue, for reasons of public safety and humane social welfare. But it is not a panacea, and it is disingenuous and dangerous to discuss the issue as if it were. The fact of the matter is, none of us can know whether it would have helped in this instance. We should have better access to treatment because our entire society benefits from better access to treatment, and it shouldn’t take a horrendous tragedy like this to discuss it.

Living in Troubled Times: A Trauma Resilience Roadmap

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Let’s face it: As we’re navigating The Trashfire National Policy of 2017, we’re all getting traumatized — it’s tough to get used to that dull-roar screaming we all hear every time our illustrious President vents his spleen on Twitter. And many of us have other stressors in our lives that are making it even harder to navigate, because life does go on even in the face of an abusive relationship with our government — and life is hard. And all that is before we consider the very real practical realities of living without necessities like food or water, or living without healthcare, or living in fear of physical attacks. In the wake of this weekend of introspection, I’ve had many conversations with folks about how to live instead of just surviving, and in some cases simply about how to survive.

So I’m taking off my lawyer hat for a moment, and putting on my trained clinician hat, to talk to y’all about how to deal with trauma. And to begin this conversation, we need to start with a simple truth commonly understood by first-responders everywhere, and borne out by research: Trauma is a form of infectious toxin. You have to clear it out in order to get healthy, and staying healthy will help you resist it further, both in your own life and when loved ones’ trauma threatens to infect you. And that’s not to say that we should stop exposing ourselves to toxins, which often isn’t possible and in many cases would be morally reprehensible. Rather, I’m saying the opposite: Because we’re all in this toxic soup together, that means we gotta help each other, and to keep doing that we also gotta help ourselves.

So I’m submitting for your perusal a kind of Trauma Resilience Roadmap — concrete suggestions and links to research, separated into three buckets: Do This Immediately, Do This When You Feel Able, and This Will Take Startup Cost But Will Help I Promise. I can’t promise it will fix everything, but it’s my hope that for many people (including myself), it will be a start.

Do This Immediately (or: Emergency Recentering Treatments)

These are the things you need to do when you’re at the stage where you’re asking, “But how do I survive?” Acute crisis mode has its own set of rules, and that can be hard to accept but it’s important to acknowledge. The flip side is that acute crisis doesn’t last forever, and this list will hopefully help you come out the other side.

  • Give yourself permission to tune (non-essential) things out. Whatever secondary things are stressing you out, and I’m guessing this is a large list, it’s okay and even a very good idea to put it down for a moment or two when you’re in crisis. Twitter will survive a Monday without you. That friend who needs an ear about her mortgage payment can find another one this Tuesday. Obviously, this only works on the stressors that aren’t center-stage right now. But I honestly, truly mean this: It’s okay to be ruthless about random stressors when you’re in crisis.
  • Start a list of images and activities that always soothe you. This might be hard if you’re in the middle of a huge amount of stress, but even something as simple as “I feel better when I look at otter pics” and then looking at some otter pics can buy you a tiny bit of cope (which I’ll colloquially refer to here as “cope points”), and that can be pointed towards a larger and more permanent form of help down the road. Don’t aim for an exhaustive list right now; just list the stuff that you immediately think of as bringing you joy and comfort, with a bias towards things you feel able and ready to do right this moment. And if you know things that you don’t feel able to do right now but always help (e.g. going hiking, mindfulness exercises, book-binding), go ahead and put them on the list. But don’t try to do them right now; they’ll still be there when we get to Phase 2.
  • Accept (even trashy) activities that help you tread water. For me, this happens to be inane phone games — they take up my whole screen and block out social media, which means I’m definitely tuning things out as I play (and also, match-3 games are really satisfying for me; I have no idea why). It might be eating junk food for you, or watching really crap television, or reading truly awful fiction novels — things that if you were doing well might make you think “I’m judging myself for doing this right now,” but aren’t actively destructive or harmful. This can also be low-cost things that you’re less likely to be self-judgy about (e.g. watching really good television, eating delicious salads, reading excellent literature) but hopefully you started doing those already with Item #3. If you aren’t, you should let yourself do those things in your spare moments. If you are also doing Item #2, you have more spare moments to do them. 🙂

Here’s a sample beginner list:

1) Watch my favorite movie;

2) Read some really awful fanfic;

3) Look at cat GIFs on the Internet;

4) Cookiepalooza;

5) Play Rock Band

Do This When You Feel Able (or: Convalescent Recentering Activities)

These are the things you need when you’re at the stage where you’re asking, “How do I live instead of just surviving?” It’s my guess that after nine months of President Cool Ranch Mussolini, most of us are who aren’t in immediate crisis are hanging out at this stage. It’s the trauma equivalent of being stuck in bed with a stomach bug yelling “but I wanna eat tacos!” — we’re all well enough to miss things, but not well enough to have them yet. This part of the primer is the transition from “I can’t get out of bed” to achieving your taco-nomming dreams.

  • Stay well-fed. This one can be hard for people in the middle of crisis, for about a million reasons. But once you’re feeling okay enough to pay attention to it without feeling like OH MY GOD A MILLION THINGS I CANNOT EVEN, good food hygiene is an incredibly valuable foundation for mental health; there are lots and lots of studies that show that people who are experiencing trauma are less able to adhere to good food hygiene and also suffer more when they can’t. If you’re a person who has trouble eating when stressed, “good food hygiene” can look like “I ate some Cheetos at midnight before I fell asleep in an orange-coated haze” as long as other, more nutritious calories happened also — it doesn’t literally mean “only eat things that are good for you;” it means “put calories in your system on a regular basis so that a blood sugar crash doesn’t happen on top of everything else.” (Long-term daily Cheeto binges might lead to other problems, obviously, but we’re talking short-to-medium-term here.) Some people do have the opposite reaction to stress, and stress-eat everything in sight; for those people, good food hygiene might look more like “pause and evaluate whether I feel hungry before I put this thirty-first food item in my face.” (Note that we’re discussing common immediate stress reactions to food rather than systemic eating disorders, which obviously have their own set of rules and treatments.)
  • Get enough sleep. This is basically the same as the notes above — good sleep hygiene is a tremendously helpful foundation for mood. But this one is super hard to do if you’re not doing well; I personally find it about a million times harder than shoving food in my face when I’m too stressed to be hungry. For me, optimizing sleep hygiene looks like skipping that third cup of coffee (unless I really need it), taking a melatonin pill before bed, and hoping I don’t have nightmares. Your mileage may vary. But in general, the more other forms of decompression help, the more sleep stops being an elusive beast and becomes a regular part of life again. And that’s a really important step for resilience.
  • Ride the Hygiene Horse generally. There is absolutely zero shame in forgetting to brush your hair, skipping a shower, or otherwise forgetting a regular daily hygiene thing when you’re in immediate crisis — in fact, it’s a common symptom that something is very wrong. But once you’re out of crisis mode, it’s super easy to start being angry with yourself for forgetting things — or doing the opposite, and feeling like you just don’t have the energy for tasks like showering. (Or both. Some lucky people experience both.) But once you’re in “I feel ready to eat and sleep normally” mode, it’s a good time to make sure you’re keeping ordinary hygiene habits all around. They help, and they matter, and not doing them long-term can affect mood and keep you in a dark place.
  • Make a more complete, long-term list of recentering and joyful things. Once you feel able, make a comprehensive list of all the things that bring you joy and help you feel More Able to Even after you do them. Hopefully, most of the things that are really easy (e.g. “Look at doggo pics,” “Reread my favorite novel,” “Eat Cheez-Its”) are already on your list, but this is a good time to add the less low-hanging fruit — things that you know help but didn’t feel approachable in the middle of crisis. It’s also a good time to spend an hour or two really thinking about what brings you joy and comfort — and if you feel able, take your best guess at what is an easy thing, what is a medium thing, and what feels like a hard thing right now. You may or may not feel ready to do all these things (and my guess is some of them will feel super far away), but making a list of them helps you prep and move forward for when you do feel ready. And some of them might feel within reach, which can give you back extra cope!
  • Try simple meditative activities (that aren’t literal meditation). A friend of mine mentioned meditative coloring today, which honestly is a really good low-cost meditative activity. Some people find cleaning to be stress-reducing when they’re at this stage. If you’re like me and find repeatedly stabbing things really satisfying when stressed, embroidery is pretty great. The goal is to aim for things that give you a quick cope point in the moment, don’t eat more than maybe one cope point to set up, and then give you an extra cope point when you can look at them later and think “Look what a productive thing I did!” But at this stage, easy activities that you know how to do and feel comfortable doing mindlessly are best. Bonus points if they’re also on your list. (Also, this is a great way to slowly expand your list! 🙂

Here’s a sample second-stage list:

1) Easy activities — I’ve been doing these all along
Watch my favorite movie; Reread my favorite book; Look at cat GIFs on the Internet; Eat Cheez-Its; Play Caves of Qud

2) Medium Activities — try some of these if I can
Embroidery projects; Meditative coloring; Clean my workspace; Read nonfiction; Cook more meals

3) Hard Activities — I’m not ready for these yet
Learning book-binding; Going on regular hikes; Working on my novel; Going to the gym regularly

This Will Take Startup Cost But Will Help, I Promise (or: Long-Term/Preventative Recentering Activities)

These are the things that you want to keep in your life as you navigate low-grade ambient stressors (such as hearing 45’s voice on the television as he discussed tax reform) — it’s for when you’re feeling well enough that you should no longer be tuning out the white noise that accompanies an inherently traumatizing atmosphere. We owe it to ourselves, and to each other, to do what we can to stay engaged but healthy as we all walk through this nightmarescape. Here are my modest suggestions for how to do that when you’re not in crisis.

  • Get out of the house on your own terms. Meet a friend at a bookstore; go for a walk; get some coffee from that awesome cafe you haven’t been to in a while. Something that requires physical movement, brings you joy, and feels like the opposite of retreating or withdrawing. It’s super-important, by the way, that this be a thing that you are doing for yourself and on your terms, rather than because someone dragged you or guilted you into it. It’s not going to be useful for decompression if you’re being dragged (and you’re not the one doing the dragging).
  • Try some of the stuff marked ‘hard’ on your recentering list. Try your hand (see what I did there?) at watercolor, or some other task that you know brings you joy but has felt far away lately. Don’t be angry with yourself if it doesn’t quite click; these are things that take cope to give cope, and it just means you didn’t have the cope for them yet. Go back to some of the easier tasks and do those — you’re still healing, is all. But if the thing brings you joy and feels net-positive, it’s a really helpful marker for knowing where you are in this process. Plus you got to do a thing that brings you joy! (Note: Now is also the time to purge the list items that you felt kind of mixed about or would be harmful to rely on too long in the long-term.)
  • Try more complex meditation. Some people find going to the gym really meditative. Some people get a lot out of traditional mindfulness meditation, such as guided meditation or progressive muscle relaxation exercises or something similar. I’m partial to singing-based meditation. But basically, this is the time to try varying simple tasks that are meditative through repetition (e.g. coloring, sewing) with activities that are meditative in a more traditional sense. There are lots and lots of studies that show that meditation can be extremely helpful to people for stress resilience, but trying to do it when you’re still actively processing toxic trauma is really hard.
  • Consider setting up a therapy appointment. There is seriously zero shame in setting up an appointment if you think about it carefully and decide you need one. There’s also zero shame in deciding it’s not right for you. Basically, just a good thing to evaluate at some point — people see an eye/nose/throat doctor if they’ve had a sore throat for forever; people should also see a therapist if something has been wrong with their stress or trauma levels forever.
  • Evaluate what stressors you are managing. Some stressors (e.g. natural disaster, getting sick, jerks on public transit) are not avoidable, and will always require navigation and detoxification. Some (e.g. a romantic partner wanting to spend time with you) are stressors when you aren’t doing well, but are either positives or neutral things when you are doing better. And some (e.g. that one friend who wants you to loan them $20 literally every day) are literally always stressors and never necessary to navigate. Figuring out long-term planning for stressors, and how to set boundaries for the random white noise you just super don’t need, takes energy but also is generally a really good step for health. Approaching stressors with intentionality can both help you gate-keep and also give you a sense of control over your situation.
  • Keep doing all the things on the convalescing list. We don’t stop needing the things that bring us joy when we’re no longer in crisis; in fact, ability to do the things that bring us joy is arguably what it means to be living rather than surviving in the first place. And things like good food/sleep/personal hygiene and staying hydrated stop being optional when we’re constantly taking in stress.
  • View your stressor intake and decompression as an equation that needs to be balanced. You can take in more stressors when you have more in place to center you. You can take in fewer stressors when something major is going on — be it crisis, chronic limitations, or something else. At the end of each day, this equation needs to balance, or burnout, depression, and disengagement can occur. And that’s an outcome nobody wants, or even should want.

The reality is that most of us will yo-yo between these three stages as new horrors crop up and create new crises — it’s like a morbid game of Chutes and Ladders that we play with our mental health instead of meeples. And when something serious happens, and you have to go back to the beginning of the roadmap, that’s okay — being able to identify and acknowledge current stage of crisis, and current level of trauma, won’t fix everything. But it’s an important set of tools that we can use to support ourselves and each other. We can get through this, and we will. It’s my hope that this roadmap will help.

Niños in New Bedford: Some (Almost) Brief Comments on This Week’s ICE Raids

Hi again, folks. I’m hoping to finish the news roundup later today, but first, I think we need to have a really difficult conversation about ICE raids and immigration. This isn’t going to be fun for anybody involved, and I’m sorry in advance. Were we speaking in person, I would take you out for ice cream after. (Consider this paragraph my virtual ice cream to you.)

The Background

I’ve seen a lot of people interacting with this article by the Washington Post, and also this article by the New York Times, to talk about an increase in ICE raids in at least six states in the country. It is a scary time, and there is a lot of evidence suggesting that immigration officials have stopped prioritizing people suspected of criminal activity in favor of simply rounding up every brown person who can’t produce papers fast enough. And we need to be talking about that, and planning, and responding.

But to understand the terror that these populations are experiencing, and to understand how to best organize and react, we also need to talk about the history of ICE raids in this country. The New York Times article includes quotes like “This is new” and describes people swept as demographics “that the government had not previous paid much attention to.” (And though the Washington Post article does eventually do a great job of describing enforcement patterns, they similarly lead by describing raids against people with no criminal record as “an apparent departure from similar enforcement waves during the Obama administration.”) These things are true, in the broadest sense of the term, because eventually the Department of Homeland Security did repeal Secure Communities in favor of a Priority Enforcement Program under President Obama. But that was in November 2014, six years into his presidency and only a couple of years before Secure Communities was put back in place with a vengeance last month. The reality is that many of these communities are afraid because they know what to expect. They have seen — and lived through — this before.

The Background Background

By way of example, let’s look at a local bogeyman here in MA: the New Bedford raids. These raids happened ten years ago — before I was settled in this area, or had even graduated law school — but I can tell you about them in excruciating detail anyway, because they are still talked about so often by both colleagues and the larger local community.

The New Bedford raids were part of a raid strike by ICE in 2006–2007, along with other, similar workplace raid efforts throughout the nation (such as ‘Operation Wagon Train,’ which resulted in raids throughout the midwest that swept up almost 2,000 people). These efforts were part of an upward trend in raids conducted by the National Fugitive Operations Program — by 2007, it had a budget of over $2M and was apprehending thousands of people per year, although it was pretty much failing in its official stated goals because only 9% of them were convicted of criminal charges. In many of these raids, people who ultimately coughed up documentation of legal status were detained for months and months before they could prove it. As far as I can tell, the New Bedford raid details were extremely representative of the contemporary national realities, which share a lot of similarities with those we face today.

In March 2007, over 300 ICE officials swarmed a single factory in New Bedford that was known for employing undocumented immigrants under sweatshop conditions. The officials simply split the entire factory into two groups: those who could produce documentation and those who couldn’t. About 362 people were arrested, detained, and mostly sent to Texas to await deportation proceedings; many of them were caregivers for small children who were U.S. citizens. ICE repeatedly kept the child and welfare department here from implementing efforts to assist these families, eventually prompting the governor of MA to call the entire thing “a humanitarian crisis.”

The story gained national attention, in large part due to the indiscriminate nature of the raid, the immediate transport of those detained across the country, and the documentation of extremely poor detention conditions. (It also eventually led to a lawsuit on behalf of the workers, which is a silver lining on this whole thing but also a whole other story). Literally hundreds of families were impacted, in a community that only has about 100,000 people total living in it. Other than some allegations about creating false IDs and hiring practices for two people who weren’t even swept up in the raid itself, the whole thing had absolutely nothing to do with criminal allegations; it was simply designed to show the force of Immigration and Customs Enforcement as a department. This is what people are afraid of: an over-funded, over-armed department that could swoop in, jail, and deport hundreds of people just trying to live their lives at any given moment. And they aren’t afraid because they don’t know what is going to happen to them; they are afraid because they do.

The Foreground

So why am I telling you all of this? And, more importantly, what do we do with all of it? Though I don’t claim to have all the answers to a difficult situation, I can at least provide some thoughts (and assure you that I’m not sharing human tragedy for the fun of it, while I’m at it). Here are some preliminary suggestions for how to put this information to good use:

  1. Help concrete fears to lead to concrete planning. People are afraid of very specific things happening to them, because they have happened before, and that means they can also benefit from planning how to handle those specific things. A lot of advocacy communities right now have excellent resources for pre-raid planning and other forms of safety planning. Individual families have individual needs, and a lot of those needs are going to involve people’s safety; helping people organize their thoughts on those needs gives them agency as well as helping them logistically.
  2. Don’t assume that “Know Your Rights” assistance will cover all immigration needs. A lot of folks can benefit from information about how to handle ICE presence, especially in situations like a single ICE officer showing up at your door. But a lot of folks do know their rights, and when it’s over 300 officers with a SWAT team at your workplace all of that can go out the window very easily, regardless. Helping people know their rights is a good start, but it is only a starting place.
  3. Start from the presumption that ICE can, and ICE has, and ICE will, whenever you learn new information. This is an organization that historically has enjoyed a lot of backing, a lot of funding, and a lot of power. Its target demographic, in contrast, is one of the most vulnerable populations living in America. When hearing new stories, it’s always important to trust and verify, because scared people can create a rumor mill like nobody’s business. But in general, I recommend that you start from a presumption that ICE practices being reported probably are happening, instead of starting from a presumption that practices are being exaggerated.

We’re heading into dark times, folks — and unlike building a wall, or banning all refugees, this bit of immigration horror show is not uncharted waters. We have to expect to see smoother sailing.

Red, White, and First Amendment Blues

One of the most fascinating and rapidly evolving news stories this week involves Nordstrom dropping Ivanka Trump’s clothing line, citing poor sales as its reasoning. In case you missed this, here is more-or-less what happened: First it was a simple schadenfreude-laden headline, because the Trump dynasty loves selling things and also is historically bad at it. But the collective amusement turned into incredulous outrage when Trump censured Nordstrom’s from the POTUS account, in typical 45th fashion. Then we all watched a Spicer Double Down Special in yesterday’s press conference, when he referred to the business move as “a direct attack on [the President’s] policies.” And by the time Kellyanne Conway got around to literally advertising Ivanka’s product in her official capacity as a White House adviser today, nothing was surprising anymore.

I’ve seen a lot of people note Conway’s endorsement that was illegal (which it was), that this whole story illustrates Trump’s inherent conflict of interest (which it does), and also that Spicer apparently doesn’t know what the word ‘direct’ means (which he doesn’t). But I also think this is the latest in a larger picture issue, and I don’t hear a lot of people talking about it. And that issue is that this administration is launching a systemic assault on the First Amendment.

What does Trump’s conflict of interest have to do with the First Amendment?

I’m glad you ask, Hypothetical Person in My Head! The key is both Trump and his proxy Spicer censuring Nordstrom’s business decision. The groundwork was laid when Trump criticized Nordstrom’s business decision from the POTUS account, saying: “My daughter Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by @Nordstrom. . . . Terrible!” This is because a statement from an official account that something was “unfair” can be reasonably read to carry an implicit threat. But that idea wasn’t fully developed until Spicer said this in the press conference yesterday: “There are clearly efforts to undermine [Ivanka’s] name based on her father’s positions on particular policies that he’s taken. This is a direct attack on his policies.” And it’s when a business decision becomes an “attack” on Presidential policies that the larger picture about the First Amendment starts to take shape. As it happens, these statements taken together tread awfully close to Nordstrom’s right to freedom of speech — specifically its freedom of association and freedom of expressive conduct (And also its freedom to contract, but that’s a whole other ball of wax.).

A Brief First Amendment Primer

For those of you playing the home game, the First Amendment contains more-or-less five basic rights:

  1. Freedom of the press;
  2. Freedom of speech;
  3. Freedom of religion (encompassing both the right to practice religion without government hindrance and the right to freedom from government laws “respecting a religious establishment”);
  4. Freedom to petition; and
  5. Freedom to peaceably assemble.

Though whole treatises could be (and have been) written on this topic, the main thing to take away for now is that the government generally cannot tread on these five things. That includes all branches of the federal government, not just Congress (which is what the First Amendment literally says), and thanks to the Fourteenth Amendment it includes state government as well. (Note that it does not, however, extend to that moderator on reddit who banned that one guy for using slurs, regardless of what that guy is yelling on 4chan.)

Okay, but One Tweet Isn’t an Attack

Good point, Other Hypothetical Person Also in My Head! But this is the part where I remind you that this wasn’t just one tweet in a vacuum — it’s just the latest part of a sustained, systemic effort. Let’s go through that list above, with an eye towards things this administration has done in the past as well as in the past few weeks, and see if they hit all of the First Amendment tickyboxes.

Freedom of the Press: Check. At this point, the 45th discrediting specific members of the press (and especially CNN) as “fake news” has become so commonplace that it’s a recurrent joke on Saturday Night Live. And that skit was hilarious, but it touches on a real phenomenon that’s pretty frightening: The idea that if you report displeasure with the President’s policies, you no longer get to count as real news. This is in addition to a growing rhetoric that the members of the fourth estate are enemies of the state generally, which is popping up in everything from serious allegations that the press is “refusing to cover” terrorist attacks to random statements attacking the “so-called media” over, of all things, reporting on a bathrobe. These statements, taken in tandem, paint a picture of this administration’s general desire to make Americans mistrust news in general.

Freedom of Speech: Check. I covered this one briefly above, but let’s spend a few more minutes on it. This administration has a long-established position of disliking First Amendment freedom of speech, which predates its assumption of office — from threatening to sue the people who stepped forward about sexual assault during his campaign to threatening to jail Hillary Clinton for telling ‘so many lies’ to threatening to remove citizenship for flag-burning. Since taking office, the administration has continued this trend, issuing a communications lockdown impeding executive government staff’s use of social media, demanding that park service officials retract tweets, and beginning to dismantle net neutrality. These actions, taken in tandem, suggest this administration wants people to fear speaking and relaying information freely in a variety of circumstances.

Freedom of Religion: Check. This administration has touched upon both the exercise clause and the establishment clause within the past few weeks. On the exercise end, mounting evidence is being considered by courts that the recent executive order is intended to curtail Muslim entry to the country due to specific Islamophobic animosity within the administration. On the establishment end, we have Trump threatening to dismantle the Johnson Amendment at the National Prayer Breakfast so that Christian organizations can participate more directly in politics, and promising to make persecuted Christians a political priority for immigration. None of this is a good sign, especially so early on in the Presidency.

Freedom to Petition: Check. This one is a more nebulous concept in some ways than the others, but the freedom to petition generally involves being able to talk to government directly about issues with governance. Political texts books often point to things like lobbying, letter-writing, e-mail campaigns, testifying before tribunals, filing lawsuits, supporting referenda, collecting signatures for ballot initiatives, peaceful protests, and picketing. It’s pretty closely tied to the freedom to assemble, which I’ll get to below. But things like shutting down the White House comment line, lying about the number of people who attended the Inauguration, the forcible follow of the POTUS account by 560,000 Twitter users, ignoring one of the most popular We the People petitions in history, and repeatedly attacking the judiciary branch all implicate the freedom to petition, and also all have happened in the past few weeks. Taken together, they suggest this administration wants to make it difficult for constituents as well as other branches of government to interact with its decisions.

Freedom to Assemble: Check. This right applies both to the right to protest and to the general right to associate with other people in things like unions. Though in general the Trump administration has been a bit cagey about this one, we do see early indications that we can expect future infringement of the right of assembly . Trump’s threat to cut federal funding over Berkeley protests is a mixed example at best, but his early description of protests as “unfair,” later description of Madonna’s statements at the Women’s March as “disgraceful to our country,” and more recent iterative rhetoric that protesters are being ‘paid’ all paint a larger picture that can be separated from the violence associated with the Berkeley news. And they come at a time when several state legislators are suggesting criminalizing protest. These things suggest a broader stance against protest generally.

Why does all of this matter?

It matters because the First Amendment collectively is an important check on centralized government process. The Founding Fathers knew this — the anti-federalists fought so hard for a Bill of Rights because they wanted to have a system in place that could slow the federalist machine and prevent it from steamrolling human rights. It’s not a coincidence that the First Amendment is, well, first.

And a natural extension of that is that a healthy enforcement of the Bill of Rights, and the First Amendment in particular, prevents a lot of the hallmarks of fascism from finding purchase (particularly the intertwining of government and religion, controlled mass media, suppression of labor power, and censorship of the arts). It’s a foundational part of American history, and one of the things that does, in fact, make America great. We’ve seen a lot of discussion about whether Trump’s administration is ushering in an era of fascism, and I personally believe that it is. In order for a nascent fascist state to take root in the United States, the Bill of Rights and especially the First Amendment (along with the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, and Tenth) need to be bludgeoned into submission. And we’re watching it happen, one tweet at a time.

What can we be doing? (Besides getting the 45th to stop tweeting. That isn’t going to happen.)

Okay, you raise a compelling counterpoint, Final Hypothetical Person, despite the noted disadvantage of not actually existing. But there are things we can be doing nonetheless!

  • Resist normalization of deviance. This is basically just a fancy sociological way of saying that there is real actual societal value in stamping “This Isn’t Normal” on your forehead and yelling it every time something infringes on a First Amendment right. On a related note, Amy Siskind recommends keeping a list of all of the things you notice changing around you — experts say this can be a very effective technique for resisting normalization. She keeps a weekly list herself, and you can read this past week’s here.
  • Continue to exercise your own rights, especially the last two. Protest things! Sign petitions! Call your senators and yell a lot! Obviously, this is easier for some people than others, but one very real way to preserve rights is to exercise them.
  • Keep track of the news. You can’t know your rights are being infringed if you aren’t paying attention — but more importantly, you also don’t know when your rights are being protected. The Ninth Circuit took a big step towards protecting freedom of religion today, though that fight is far from over, and that’s really helpful to know — it’s a form of petition being successfully preserved, at least so far.
  • Take care of yourself. It’s the best way to keep on fighting.

And on that note, I am going to take my own advice, and save writing about today’s three executive orders for tomorrow. Self-care, folks. It’s a thing. But you’ll hear from me again soon!

Head-Fakes and Chore Charts

Hello from my lunch break! I’ve heard a lot of people talking about an article here on medium titled, “The Immigration Ban is a Head-Fake — and We’re Falling For It.” The central thesis of the article is that “the administration is deliberately testing the limits of governmental checks and balances to set up a self-serving, dangerous consolidation of power” and that the immigration ban was a “distraction” that we “fell for” by protesting. The article concludes by noting that protesting is a mixed bag which can “help the other side,” and urging reporters to do their jobs properly.

(There, I saved you a click.)

I actually agree the first premise of this article — like the author, I genuinely believe we were witnessing boundary testing of a nascent fascist regime.

That said, however, I do have qualms about the rest of the article. More specifically…

The immigration ban is not a distraction, and protesting is an absolutely necessary response to this boundary-testing, for several reasons:

  1. The immigration bans in place resulted in many, many people throughout the country being detained illegally on Friday. In addition to being real people with very real risk of deportation, which would be life-altering and in many cases potentially life-ending, those people are themselves a bell-weather for further fascist activity. It is absolutely vital that we pay attention to what is happening with our most vulnerable populations, because we know from history that fascist escalation begins there but does not end there.
  2. The protests in airports served as very important cover and coordination for the attorneys working in JFK, Logan, Dulles, and elsewhere. They helped attorneys get people access to representation during detention, file emergency motions that created court holdings (in case anyone were curious whether it’s normal for court holdings to issue on a Saturday, it is not), and test our boundaries against this regime — we can’t know whether they will ignore court orders until there are court orders in place, and once they have done so we have really important information about next steps.
  3. It’s extremely important for the average citizen to be doing things they feel are helping resist, both in terms of general morale and because resistance is a natural counter to normalization. Fascist regimes rely on normalization very heavily in order to work properly; it’s why propaganda is so prevalent and it’s also why you keep hearing politicians say the phrase “This is not normal.” Average citizens might not be able to file motions, but they can coordinate with people who can, and they did, and that is in no way “playing into this administration’s hands.”
  4. Protests reinforce the objectively true fact that fascism is not an end goal of a majority of Americans, which is a piece of propaganda we’re hearing over and over again. Though this article contemplates the idea that Trump has lots and lots of supporters, he actually doesn’t, especially on scary fringe issues like whether Bannon should have the authority to assassinate American citizens. Protests help the average American see that. It’s much, much easier to lie about this if active protest isn’t visible.
  5. Most people don’t know what they should be doing instead, and protests give people who want to do something something to do. This is actually really psychologically valuable, and as long as people don’t conclude they’ve done everything they need to do purely by showing up, it’s not a bad thing that they feel they have helped. So the moral is not “don’t protest,” it’s “don’t only protest” (which, to be fair, that article does state clearly). At minimum most people who showed up also tracked the news, which is very important and a thing we all need to be doing.

All of that being said, if we should be doing more than protesting, what else can we be doing?

I’ve been thinking about this question a lot of late, and more specifically about how we diversify and cooperate over the next four years — I think we all know that everyone doing everything every day just isn’t going to work that whole time, and as the article notes, protest is necessary but not sufficient to enact long-term change. There are so many things we all need to be doing — from gathering information, to disseminating information, to political action, to legal action, to logistical support, to morale boosting, to name a mere few — and we all have a role to play here.

Think of it as maintaining a house together — everybody gets a chore to do, and if all of us are sweeping daily, nothing else gets done. Some of us want to swap chores, and some of us want to do the same one every time. And the beauty of this work is that both of those are possible! I would love it if we were all thinking about how we can work together, playing to our strengths, to get through this.

After pondering this a bit, I concluded the best way to thinking about distributing various tasks necessary for change is to use a process of discernment I learned at school, which is loosely based on a Jesuit process of discernment of spirit (but is not religious).

Here is the basic question to ask yourself:


1. Brings me joy…
2. …And I am good at…
3. …that is needed right now?

Note that those three things, by the way, are in order of importance; something that you really don’t enjoy is not sustainable for four years even if it’s really important, and we all need to be playing to our strengths. Some things, like protesting, are all hands on deck, but all hands on deck is no way to live day-to-day, and it’s a great way to burn ourselves out.

So, to synthesize for those of you who have less time for a lunch break than I do:

1. These are scary times;

2. Protesting is valuable;

3. So are other things, and we should be talking about what else we’re all going to do to keep on keeping on.

Okay, that’s all for now! Time to head back to my own task for social justice, which would be my advocacy day job. I’ll catch you all at the next EO.

Tales from the Borderlands: An Early Analysis of the “Border Security” Executive Order

(This is the first installment of a series of articles unpacking the many executive orders issued in Donald Trump’s first week of office. Though I am not an immigration specialist, I am a legal generalist working with indigent populations professionally full-time. This article is not intended to form an attorney-client relationship or constitute legal advice, though it is my hope that it will help people understand what is going on.)

Of all of Donald Trump’s promises, perhaps his most famous was his promise that he would personally ensure that the American government would “build a wall” to keep out “illegal immigrants.” It is therefore not surprising that one of his first acts in office is to sign an executive order entitled “Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements,” which outlines his plan for building a wall (among other things). The order is long — it contains seventeen distinct sections — and a lot of it is either vague, confusing, or both. This article is intended to break down what the executive order is actually saying, to help families prepare and to inform the average citizen what we can expect on this front.

Here’s what is new and clearly articulated as of today, January 25:

  • The administration is ordering a wall built on the border between the United States and Mexico. Yes, that’s really a thing that is apparently happening. That said, it’s still unclear what the funding streams will be, what the budget will be, or generally what the plan is for construction.
  • The administration is ordering new detention facilities built near said wall. Again, it’s not clear where the funding is coming from or what the budget will be, though I’ll write more on that below. If Congress doesn’t cooperate, the actual construction is probably not going to happen.
  • Pre-proceeding release will no longer be a thing. The actual language of the executive order describes “the termination the practice known as catch-and-release,” which is really just a fancy way of saying “we won’t let people out before their hearings anymore.” This practice actually was originally terminated in 2006 under President George W. Bush, but much like NSEERS we’ve been walking that back under subsequent policy since 2009 or so. This is a big deal, both because it’s not especially humane and because refusing to release people puts huge amounts of strain on the detention systems, which often aren’t equipped to hold people in the numbers they are apprehended. This executive order does have a plan for that, but… you’re probably not going to like it.
  • Though we now have a federal hiring freeze for most government agencies, good news: The Wall is Hiring! The Secretary of Homeland Security “shall” (which is legalese for “this ain’t optional, Hoss”) hire 5,000 more border patrol agents, which the administration wants stationed “as soon as is practicable.” And they said Donald Trump wouldn’t create more jobs.
  • The order compels every executive department and agency to report all aid and assistance to Mexico since 2011. Folks, I honestly wish I were making this one up, but the language isn’t exactly ambiguous. Despite it not being remotely illegal to provide funds or otherwise provide aid to Mexico during President Obama’s tenure, each executive department and agency “shall” (there’s that word again) “identify and quantify” all such aid going back five years — in other words, not just what types of help everyone has given, but how much. They make sure to include language specifying that they mean “all bilateral and multilateral development aid, economic assistance, humanitarian aid, and military aid.” The first report is due to the Secretary of State within thirty days of today’s report — so by the end of February, basically. And thirty days after that, the Secretary owes a report directly to the President. Incidentally, note that all of this involves the Secretary of State, not the Secretary of Homeland Security. So, you know, that’s promising. Also, the section outlining all of this contains a grammatical error, which I note in a vain attempt to make myself feel better about the whole thing.
  • The Secretary of Homeland Security is now allowed to deputize any and all state and local police infrastructure of the United States as Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers. This is another one I dearly wish I were making up, because my concern that it might happen has been literally keeping me up at night. But again, the language is not ambiguous — “as the Secretary determines are qualified and appropriate,” police can be authorized “to perform the functions of immigration officers in relation to the investigation, apprehension, or detention of aliens in the United States under the direction and the supervision of the Secretary.” Oh, but in case you were worried about those poor ICE officers being out of a job, you needn’t be; the very next sentence clarifies that this is “in addition to, rather than in place of, Federal performance of these duties.”
  • This executive order is really hoping you haven’t heard of the concept of ‘sanctuary.’ It grants officers “access to all Federal lands as necessary and appropriate to implement this order” as well as authority “to perform such actions on Federal lands as the Secretary deems necessary and appropriate to implement this order.” I’m not sure how this one will be implemented in cities that refuse to cooperate, but I guess we’ll find out.
  • They want prosecution of people detained at borders to be a high priority. I know this because they explicitly say so. There’s a section devoted to it and everything — and the petty part of my brain that wishes none of this were happening would like you to know that they use the term ‘nexus’ wrong while saying so.
  • There will be monthly reports on their apprehension statistics. In a “publicly available way,” though it’s unclear what exactly that means.

Here’s what the executive order might be saying, but we need more information to really know:

  • Detained immigrants may be sent back to the place they are fleeing — or they might not. The exact language in the executive order is “The Secretary shall take appropriate action . . . to ensure that aliens . . . are returned to the territory from which they came pending a formal removal proceeding.” It’s not clear whether that would mean “we stick you in a truck and give you a nice starlight tour of Mexico,” or it actually means people might be extradited to the country they are fleeing. As awful as the former would be, the latter would be even worse — but it’s likely the latter is the accurate interpretation, because this administration has been adamant in its denial of refugees, and the policies in this order about asylum aren’t exactly much better. Relatedly…
  • Asylum might be about to become impossible to obtain at the border. Some provisions of this executive order promise to “end the abuse of parole and asylum provisions currently used to prevent the lawful removal of removable aliens.” This is a confusing statement to me, in addition to being a vague one, for a variety of reasons — first of all, it’s not exactly easy to get asylum granted; though rates vary by location and by type of application, less than one-half of asylum applications are granted annually. But also, from a legal perspective, you’re not a removable alien on the basis of status anymore if you have asylum status granted; it’s literally a status that grants the right to permanent legal residence. This is like saying “we will end abuse of the self-defense doctrine currently used to prevent the lawful incarceration of people who punched someone assaulting them and then ran like hell.” At any rate, that confusion aside, it’s not really clear what abuses they are contemplating or whether they are saying asylum will stop being a defense to deportation, so we’ll need to keep watch on this front and wait to see what is going on.
  • Special Immigrant Juvenile Status might also be about to become impossible to obtain at the border. Right now we have a status that is like asylum that specifically can only be applied to unaccompanied children — it’s called Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (or SIJ status for short). This executive order tells the Secretary of Homeland Security to “ensure that unaccompanied alien children are properly processed, receive appropriate care and placement while in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security, and, when appropriate, are safely repatriated in accordance with law.” It’s not clear whether this processing means deportation, or if it means filing SIJ paperwork; I guess we’ll need to wait and see on this one also.
  • The administration may be assigning asylum officers and immigration judges directly to detention centers. The language in the order itself isn’t entirely clear, but it sounds like the order is simply installing asylum officers and judges directly in the detention centers. To my knowledge, this is new — though it’s possible to plead asylum as a defense to deportation, traditionally that’s done at the court as part of deportation proceedings, just like the proceeding itself. This provision is probably not legal, in case anyone was curious. It sounds like they are expecting many of these cases won’t even get to the deportation proceeding stage , which would be a staggering change if I’m reading this correctly. Basically, they are aggressively minimizing how much detainees even get to set foot in the country at all.

Here’s what the executive order dictates for the near future, which presumably will clarify some things:

  • Several reports or reviews. Per the executive order, there’s a report due to the President in ninety days on the general progress of all of these directives, and another one due in one hundred and eighty days. There’s nothing guaranteeing that any of us will be told anything about this, but I suspect strongly that anything that makes this administration look good will be reported upon at length.
  • A budget of some kind for the project. Though there’s nothing guaranteeing we’ll see this either, it is required per the order itself for the current and next fiscal year. That gives them more-or-less six months to slap something together.

And now you know everything you ever wanted to know about this executive order! And presumably several things you didn’t. At any rate, it’s going to be a rough few years, but if you are reading this, you presumably knew this already. Keep on keeping on, and take care of yourself while you do; we’ll do everything we can to keep all of this bearable.

(Note: Click here to continue to the second installment, on the Enhanced Public Safety executive order.)