Sunday, March 08, 2020

Book Review: Illegal, by Prof Elizabeth F Cohen

      The knock on the door came well before dawn in the eighties, and our train had stopped dead in utter darkness. It was a sleeper train, and it was about to be sealed. We were taking the overnighter from Munich to West Berlin, and the train, which had to traverse East Germany, was being inspected before being sent on its no-stops-allowed run behind the iron curtain to democratic West Berlin.
      The German Democratic Republic, aka East Germany, was a communist regime. For any of you too young to remember the Soviet era, this meant that the Government was essentially unlimited and all-powerful. There was no balance of power between government and corporations because the government owned every business larger than a family store. There was no balance between workers and management because labor unions were banned, There was no balance between church and state because religion was illegal. And there was no balance between political parties because only the Communist party was allowed to exist.
      Among the Eastern Bloc Communist countries, however, East Germany had a reputation as being particularly sadistic. There was a vast secret police force which spied on its own citizens. To prevent East Germans from escaping to the free world, they built walls and fences, laid mines, and gave armed guards orders to shoot to kill. And now we, a bunch of sleepy American high school students, were about to cross that border to transit to West Berlin, a sole island of freedom deep within the repressive East German State. There was just one problem.
      Not all of us were actually Americans. My bunkmate (who shall remain anonymous) was on a green card. His passport was issued by India. 
      Despite the fundamental differences between the Communist countries and the West, by the 80’s the Communist countries were generally happy to have Western tourists. The Communist economies weren’t very efficient, and they were reliant on US dollars or other western currency to keep them financially sound. So having American school kids pass through was fine. Indians were another story, however.
Even though socialist India of the 80’s was much more philosophically aligned with East Germany than the US was, it was also a much poorer country. And although the communists espoused equality among people and the redistribution of wealth, that didn’t extend to letting the “Asian Hordes” stream into the country, live off welfare, disrupt the cultural homogeneity and steal jobs. My bunkmate was supposed to have a visa, but due to a mistake by our teacher, he had arrived at the world’s most heavily controlled border without one. And on that eighties evening, the two uniformed East German Border agents accosting us in our sleeping compartment on that train were telling us all about it in shouty German.
      That was over 30 years ago. That border, and Communist Germany, no longer exist. But there is a darker side to America’s victory of freedom and democracy over the cruel communist state. As Professor Cohen describes in her new book, “Illegal”, since the fall of communism the United States has fortified its own borders, militarized the border force, eroded the rights of its people, and overridden the checks and balances that distinguish the Free World from despotic regimes. 
      “Illegal” briskly tells the story of the last 100+ years of US border policy and law. Starting with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and proceeding up to the current US administration, Cohen lays out the facts of the laws as they are passed, the intention behind them, and the zeitgeist which called for their formation.
      This is not a detached, theoretical treatise. Although it is rigorously researched and referenced, it is intensely personal and emotional. The introduction starts with the story of Cohen’s mother’s journey to America as a Jewish refugee from post-war Europe. The first chapter, which details the current abuses of the Customs & Border Patrol and Immigration & Customs Enforcement (CPB and ICE) agencies is scathing it its description of the inhumane treatment of suspected illegal immigrants happening right now in the Land of the Free.
      Back on the 80’s train, the shouty border guards gave way to the Very Quiet supervisor. After quickly confirming that our Russian was even worse than our German, he managed, through halting English and slow repetitive German, to explain the situation we were in. And he had a choice to make. Inside of East Germany, the security forces’ power was absolute. But there was a broader picture. 
      The entire Cold War, in a nutshell, was a competition between the Communist and Democratic world over who could build a superior civilization after the ruinous destruction of the Second World War. The fact that Germany was divided into East and West, with a Federal Republican government on one side and a Centralized Communist one on the other, was the very essence of this competition. And a key weapon in this struggle was propaganda. It would be bad publicity to strand or disappear a kid from an American school.
      Of course, publicity requires the ability to discover and propagate knowledge about the actions or events which one wishes to publicize. And one of the key highlights of this book is Cohen’s ability to put all the pieces half-hidden in the shadows together. For example, while it has been obvious to even the most casual observer of government affairs that secrecy has been abused for practically all of the War on Terror, Illegal shows not just the abusive actions which are covered up, but the lobbyists and motivations behind corrupting the security apparatus to persecute peaceful foreigners in the first place.
      The first several chapters of Illegal show that racism has been a central driving force for immigration control ever since it was first practiced with the Chinese Exclusion act. While side issues like labor, “coolieism,” and humanity occasionally played a role, the force driving the main advocates for crueler borders from the 1880’s to today has been to keep America white. 
      This was unsurprising in the days before WWII, when white superiority was common in American society. But the insidious feature of immigration law that Cohen documents is that even as white supremacy has become more of a fringe belief, the few very rich and powerful people who subscribe to it have been able to build stronger and more robust lobby groups to restrict non-white immigrants, so that their racist policies, dressed up in sham excuses, have become bipartisan and been strengthened by all of the last four administrations, including that of the first black President.
      The scope of this stealth white supremacy was astonishing. Particularly surprising to me was that the White Supremacist heiress, Cordelia Scaife May, was behind the infiltration of the Sierra Club by low population growth “environmental” activists. Having worked a little with the Sierra Student Coalition in college,I knew these people existed, and had in fact argued against them, but I had naively assumed that they were arguing in good faith, and were not in fact paid shills.
      Back in the 80’s, the STASI goons eventually waved us through. We were lucky in that the big picture connotations outweighed meeting a quota. But even so, it was a formative experience. And seeing America adopt the lack of due process and cruel and unusual border tactics used by the commies makes me seethe with anger. I’m not saying that borders don’t need to be controlled, but they can be controlled in a way that demonstrates American values instead of eroding them. The last chapter of Illegal makes several specific suggestions as to how this can be done.
      Illegal is much mare fast-paced and accessible that Cohen’s academic books, like The Political Value of Time.  It relies on endnotes and references instead of digressions to fill in the details, making the book a non-fiction page turner in the manner of the 9/11 Commission report. Obviously your’s lived experience will affect what you take away from the book, but for me it was terrifyingly addicive.  I recommend it for anyone who believes in American values.

Disclaimer. Both of you who are longtime readers of this blog and are still here might be wondering how it is that a Gen-X political theory professor from Syracuse features so prominently in the book reviews here at the empirical Lounge. Given the standard topics here, this emphasis in political philosophy may seem somewhat anomalous. And this is a fair call. But it just so happens, Dr Cohen is someone I have known personally since before we liberated Eastern Europe. We went to junior high and high school together, and as relatively few people at our school took German, we had that class together for four years. In fact, although the girls were bunking at the other end of the Carriage and the goons with Kalashnikovs prevented them from seeing our ordeal, she was also on that train.