Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Legalized Intimidation & Harrassment of Ordinary People

I had recent dealings with the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Department. One of these encounters was at Dublin airport on the 14th of February, 2007. It is a surreal experience to see American officials in their cubicles interrogating/ approving each passenger in a foreign airport. Another innovative development in the quest to control American borders. So there I was lined up waiting to get questioned, have my documents examined and to (oh please god!) be determined worthy to board the plane to the States.

One particular official among the half a dozen stood out for his loud, lecturing tone, and a gaze that assured us that he was clued into our unfitness to enter his presence. I thought to myself, what are the chances that I get this obnoxious denizen of the USICE to grill me. I am a legal, permanent resident of the USA whose paperwork is in order, so I am safe right? I get to the head of the line & he calls out "next!"

He says where are you coming from? The UK sez I. When were you last in the US? December 2006. Why were you in the UK? For a fellowship which just ended. He then proceeds to inform me that technically I have lost my green card status!! My heart is in my mouth and I am thinking WHATTHE....!!!!! Immigration officials have known about my work status from the start since I was granted my green card while I was a fellow in England. Have you ever lived in the US, demands he. Since 1993 to 2005, say I. By this point I was alarmed and probably looked and sounded it. I was also aware that his voice was loud and mine had suddenly gone squeaky and I felt everyone was looking at me. He lectures on about how I am supposed to reside in the country a minimum of 180 days every year. (Hmm... obviously this is in some top-secret document not given out to us ordinary permanent residents, because the document I read said that I could not be out of the country for 365 days consecutively.) He informs me that in the absence of the special paperwork I should have completed, he is within his rights to cancel my green card then and there. I ask him that if it was a simple case of some form, does he really think a reasonable person would not fill one out when so informed. He continues to talk all over me, stamps my passport and says, this is not for you to have vacations in the USA and you had better appreciate it.

I was shaking by the time I took a seat in the waiting lounge for boarding but then my blood started boiling and even now the bitterness of the experience galls. I was as clean a case as one could get. A person who has followed all the rules and kept anyone who needed to be informed in the loop. And I get this treatment. What for? Makes you wonder how they would treat someone whose paperwork might not be in order for whatever reason.

The USICE has new posters promising new standards of service. Even the department name is new, and it leaves one thinking that perhaps there is a genuine effort here to redress their recent heavy-handedness in treating anyone who wants to enter the USA and is not a citizen with suspicion. But oh no, they set me right. Nothing has changed. If anything, things are worse. Across the world, the US consulates are known for humiliating people by making them queue in weather, grilling them, making silly demands (my ears were not appropriately positioned on my head for photos- go figure!) and worse.

This country has been my home for years now and in a few years I can apply to be a citizen of this country. There is so much this country, which has been my home for over a decade, has going for it. There are so many good people I know. And yet, I can't escape the feeling that government policies concerning immigration have created America's own class system. This administration has dehumanised migrants and the rest of the world more than any other recently. Now that is a shame for a country that is built on the back of migrant sweat and blood. We need to stand up and say Enough.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Minimality of the Wage

When I first moved to the States from India and I came across the concept of the minimum wage, I remember thinking how civilized a concept it was. A hallmark of good public policy. I think it used to be around $4.80 or so then (1993). Then I went to the UK in 2005 to work as a fellow. Casual labor in the UK gets paid about the same as workers here in the States if you consider $1=£1 (of course, this is not really the case for those of you who are econ-heads but the buying power of the currencies are roughly equal in their respective nations). Minimum wage in the UK went up to £5.35 per hour in 2006 from £5.05.

However, I would argue that the UK worker is getting a much better wage than her American counterpart despite getting a max 10% tip (in service industries) if you get any tip at all.

The UK minimum wage is a much more humane living wage because health care for all its citizens is already taken into account. The minimum wage in the USA is a sick joke on the poor. The poor are expected to work and not be a drain on the system. In the land of opportunity, it must surely be the lazy who are poor.

Can someone on minimum wage afford to buy health insurance? Can they afford to take care of their children or even themselves? Can they eat nutritiously and focus on the positive things in life? I would answer in the negative. The American minimum wage is a farce played to keep policy wonks happy for doing something and the industry happy for getting such cheap labor.

The number of working poor in this country is not insignificant though it is not something that gets talked about openly, not being a sexy topic for conversation or even for news reportage. A significant proportion of the working poor are mothers. There is a tragedy unfolding here. This is not the America that this country should grow into. We need change. We need compassionate and realistic public policy.

This government is By the media, Of the lobbyists (elected and otherwise), For the rich (industrialists and otherwise).