Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The wilderness of immigration detention

As regular followers of Urban Wilderness well know, I typically write about natural places in urban areas near my home or wherever I travel. This post is atypical as it deals with a primarily human issue (although I could easily make a case that the issues I typically write about relating to urban wilderness also are human ones.)

Unfortunately, the wilderness metaphor applies to the immigrant experience on multiple levels – and it’s not always metaphorical. The still expanding wall along the Mexican border has forced migrants to cross over through truly fearsome and too often fatal wilderness areas. That they keep coming despite this testifies to desperation that I can’t even imagine.

I’ve just returned home from a week in Phoenix, ground zero in the struggle for – and against – immigration reform and immigrant rights. I went to Phoenix to bear witness to this struggle, to protest the draconian policies that have been enacted since the passage of SB 1070, to be in solidarity with the victims of these oppressive policies, and – perhaps most importantly – to listen to their stories.

As I say in the letter-to-the-editor that follows, I don’t believe that anyone of any political persuasion could listen to the often heartbreaking, sometimes uplifting personal stories and not be moved to compassion at their plight and outrage at the injustice of the system we’ve set in motion with laws like SB 1070. I’m not talking about whether or not undocumented immigrants should or shouldn’t be deported, although that’s an issue worthy of its own post. I’m talking about the unconscionably dehumanizing and degrading conditions to which they are subjected.

There is no righteous or moral justification for such treatment of people – in any circumstances! I cannot believe that, if they knew about them, even those who agree undocumented people should be deported would consent to the concentration camp privations that detainees routinely must endure. The only reason it can go on is because the vast majority of good people in this country do not know what’s really happening. We would not – we do not – treat animals the way people are being treated in the detention system. For too many deportation is far worse than being sent back to their home countries. It is a bureaucratic jungle, a wilderness of incarceration, and a nightmare of intolerable conditions.

Over 3,500 others joined me in Phoenix for the annual Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) General Assembly, this year known as Justice GA. The UUA partnered with many local organizations, which are listed at the end. To learn more about the issues please follow the links to their websites.

Dear Editor, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel,

One of the biggest news stories of the week is the Supreme Court's decision to uphold the most controversial portion of Arizona's immigration law, SB 1070, a provision that requires law enforcement to check the immigration status of people they stop if they suspect the person of lacking authorization to be in the U.S. Rights organizations and other opponents maintain that this provision encourages racial profiling.

The other provisions of the state law were struck down for usurping the federal government's jurisdiction over immigration policies.

However, there is a hidden side to this issue that, were it more widely known, ought to inspire universal outrage, no matter your political persuasion or how you stand on SB 1070. Thousands of people who have been caught up in the immigration enforcement system have been subjected routinely to cruel and inhuman treatment. They are dehumanized, deprived of food, water, and hygienic facilities, and subjected to physical and psychological abuse. In the past year alone 120 people who had committed no crime other than being undocumented died while in the custody of our government.

If the scope of this situation and severity of the conditions in immigration detention centers were common knowledge it would be a national disgrace on a par with the shameful internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Furthermore, parents are frequently and indiscriminately separated from their children. From January - June 2011, Immigration and Customs Enforcement removed 46,486 undocumented parents from children who are U.S. citizens. Many of the children, too young to understand what has happened, will be traumatized for life.

The U.S. detains over 280,000 people per year at an annual cost of $1.2 billion to taxpayers. Much of this money goes to a private prison industry whose primary goal is to maximize profits for shareholders, not to maintain human rights or provide humane treatment.

The U.S. Constitution grants criminals, including immigrants, important rights, but immigrants who have committed no crimes except the civil misdemeanor of being undocumented are afforded none of these protections. In other words, immigrants who have committed serious crimes have more rights than the vast majority who have committed no crimes. Many of these people have lived in the U.S. for many years, worked hard, and raised families. This is a travesty of justice, unbecoming of a great nation and must change. All persons who are arrested or detained should be provided with the same constitutional and human rights protections and treated with decency and dignity.

The federal government must act to end human rights abuses, close down inhumane detention centers, and discourage racial profiling.

I believe that at heart Americans are an essentially good and moral people. I further believe that if the truly horrifying stories of the poor people in our country’s shadowy immigrant enforcement and detention system were heard then we would rise up as a moral people and demand an end to the injustice and cruelty that is being perpetrated in our name and at our expense. The soul of our nation is at stake.

Dear President Obama and Attorney General Holder,

I have traveled to Phoenix, AZ from my home in Wisconsin to protest human rights abuses of migrants and racial profiling of minorities.

Migrants whose only crime is the misdemeanor of being undocumented are being held in cruel and inhuman conditions in the Maricopa County "Tent City" detention center.

Please put an end to this shameful and un-American situation by closing down Tent City, by placing the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office in receivership, and by cutting off the power of ICE to cruelly separate families.

No one is made safer by policies that punish otherwise law-abiding undocumented immigrants, who often work long hours in jobs that no one else wants.

I want my federal government to implement laws and policies that treat all people humanely, keep families together, and enable undocumented workers to obtain legal residency.

If you would like to join me by writing to the president and attorney general, here are the email addresses:

President Obama:
Attorney General Holder:

Uncharacteristically, I have no pictures of GA, but you can see the official ones on the GA flickr page.

UUA partner organizations working for human rights:

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Work begins on Innovation Park

We knew this day would come, those of us who have been following developments on the County Grounds since the sale of 89 acres to the UWM Real Estate Foundation by Milwaukee County. The backhoes and bulldozers have arrived and pipelines are being laid. Innovation Park is envisioned as an engineering research campus and business incubator. Despite some lingering concerns about the state of the economy as well as the fate of wildlife habitats, construction is beginning. The first phase is to install (taxpayer funded) utilities: water, sewer, power lines.

For the many people who have gotten used to walking their dogs on what has been a uniquely unbounded prairie landscape – if they haven’t been aware of the political machinations and financial deals that have led to this day – there may well be some shock when they first encounter these scenes. This is just the beginning. Once the utilities have been laid, work will begin on the roads.

If you follow my blog even occasionally you know that I am among those who have paid close attention to the County Grounds. This day has had a long gestation, beginning really back in 1997 when then County Executive Tom Ament proposed selling nearly the entire County Grounds for commercial development. Opposition led to compromise and, long story short, large portions of the grounds have remained open space while this corner was slated for what we now see happening.

Still, we who value the wind in our faces and the sounds of the sparrows will find it hard to face the now visible manifestation of our compromises. The following email arrived in my inbox yesterday from Tim Vargo, a fellow nature lover:
“It was with great sadness that I [ventured onto the] County Grounds this morning. A landscape so open you could imagine buffalo grazing. The soundtrack [to these scenes] was bobolinks and dicksissel, Savannah sparrows and meadowlarks, willow and least flycatchers, and a possible pair of breeding Henslow's sparrows. All in the name of progress.”

It is my hope that those who have been granted responsibility for constructing a campus on this much-loved landscape will do so with a minimum of bravado and maximum sensitivity, not only to the landscape itself but also to the needs and feelings of the people who delight in its spacious beauty.

 Discovery Parkway, the main road through Innovation Park, will run through here.

 In moments like this I often pick up one of my volumes on Thoreau for solace and insight. I am rarely disappointed. A hundred and fifty years ago he anticipated nearly every feeling and experience I’ve had at one time or another. Here’s a brief passage from Thoreau’s journal that I came across this morning:

“The perception of beauty is a moral test.”

For more on recent events concerning the County Grounds – or, more specifically, the Eschweiler buildings – go to Wauwatosa Patch.

The Scent of Summer

It is something that I cannot photograph, alas, that moves me the most on my solitary walks in the forest: the scent of the earth and the newly burgeoning grasses, shrubbery, and trees. It is the scent of summer.

This evocative aroma is as potent an elixir as any I’ve encountered and it is as potent in the Chicago wilderness along the Des Plaines River as anywhere I’ve been.

The forest preserves along the Des Plaines, though narrow, are a natural wonder, which is fitting for an urban river, I think. The name Des Plaines derives from French voyageurs who traveled beneath overhanging trees (probably sycamores and maples) that they mistook for their native European plane trees.

Once again I found myself dropping my oft-traveling wife at O’Hare airport just as the rush hour starts to make the freeways impassable. What a treat to have the Forest Preserve so nearby, a place of tranquility where I can pause for an hour or so in relative solitude while the crush of cars gradually thins.

I quickly leave the wide, well-used bike path with its packed earth and mown margins for a more inviting, narrow track towards the river. I am quite alone in one of the largest, most densely populated metropolitan areas of the country. The constant drone of traffic is faint, no more distracting than the buzzing of a mosquito would be if it were safely outside a screened porch.

The regular roar of aircraft passing low overhead on their flight path towards O’Hare is a bit more distracting. But as each fades off, the quietude deepens. I gaze up at the place where a jumbo jet just zoomed over on its inflexible trajectory and I spy a hawk making slow, lazy circles in the sky.

The soft ground of the river’s flood plain has become an even softer carpet of cotton.

The wind shakes loose a steady stream of cottonwood fluff, like gently falling snow.

Perhaps eventually it will cover up the intrusive marks left in the drying mud by an errant motorbike.

Although I’m aware of the pressures of society and the compulsions it creates towards conformity and consumption, I am constantly mystified by the contrast I find when I venture off-road, so to speak, and into an urban woodland. Why do I not meet more like-minded lovers of nature? It is a curious conundrum, that I myself relish in the peaceful solitude of an urban wilderness like this one and at the same time despair for the fate of humanity because so few find equal pleasure in it.

This is far from a new or unique observation. In a journal entry, dated 1854, Thoreau wrote, “The true poet will ever live aloof from society, wild to it, as the finest singer is the wood thrush, a forest bird.”

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

A Goldilocks Day in the County Grounds

After a couple of weeks that were first unseasonably hot and then cold, the past two days were Goldilocks days: just right. Perfect for a walk in the County Grounds. Here is a little photo essay from my ramble, mostly in the marsh on the bottom of the flood detention basin.

I thought I might find a red wing blackbird nest. I'd seen several the last time I ventured into the marsh, about a month ago, perched amongst the dead brown cattails stalks. None had eggs yet. Maybe there would be babies now. But the marsh was completely transformed in the intervening time by new growth.

I had to watch every step at every level of view so as not to inadvertently crush the very thing I sought.

Looking down I found deer prints and duckweed in the mud.

Looking straight ahead I found numerous furballs atop brittle stalks in amongst the new growth.

And light catching splashes of saplings amongst the cattails.

It took me a long time to find a single nest, overhead in the crook of a tree. I had to hold my camera high at arm's length and aim towards it carefully. The view screen revealed its emptiness, along with the marvel of its construction.

Young poplar leaves glow redly in the afternoon light. In places the poplars are so thick, their shiny leaves fluttering so rapidly, it was mesmerizing. The woody growth is not part of the vegetation plan for the basins, which are supposed to be free of trees. There is some talk of burning the marsh to rid it of the invasive or unwanted species. That's a sight I hope to see!

The new cattails were ripe with pollen and every time I brushed against one a fine dust cascaded all around. Before long I was coated in green dust. I had to protect my camera constantly from it.

I usually startle a deer or two when I'm out there and I wasn't disappointed. This young guy sure didn't expect to see me sauntering through his private enclave, so near Swan Boulevard, yet so remote from view - normally, that is. It quickly dashed back into the thick stand of poplars beyond.

The oaks on the ridge, framed by cattails below and a band of dramatic clouds above.

Daisies trying to hold their own against a prodigious stand of yellow mustard in bloom along the sides of the basin.

Sadly these lovely flowers, suggestively named "butter and eggs," are invasive species. The exotics are harder to dislike when they are so beautiful. 

I hope you've enjoyed these Goldilocks days as much as I have. The prediction is for hotter weather soon - and I've heard many people express their expectation of a particularly hot summer, after our remarkable, un-Wisconsin-like spring. Let's enjoy it while we can! And let's keep the County Grounds as enjoyable as we can, too.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Urban wilderness gets a nod in Journal Sentinel

A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story posted yesterday by outdoors editor Paul Smith includes the following sentence, referring to the Urban Ecology Center's Teen Adventure Challenge program, "The 10th annual event was held in Milwaukee's urban wilderness, including Riverside Park and trails along the Milwaukee River."

photo by Paul Smith
It will come as no surprise, given the title of my blog, that I love the casual use of the term "urban wilderness." It wasn't so long ago that this didn't happen. In fact, when I titled my book about the Menomonee River watershed with that term I thought I was coining it. I'd never heard it before. That was 1999, not so long ago.

When I first googled the term, I forget when, but most likely around 2005 or 2006, only a single mention was found. (Someone had beaten me to it by titling a book about the New York City park system "Urban Wilderness" in 1986.)

Today google alerts me whenever the term is used on the internet. This happens almost weekly. I've been keeping a list of the most notable references and they've come from cities large and small all over the country - and Canada too. The conversation has shifted. People in cities everywhere have learned to value nearby nature, including many civic leaders.

Milwaukee's urban wilderness - it's 10,000 acres of natural areas - is bigger than most. It baffles me that community boosters don't promote this, one of Milwaukee's most significant and valuable assets. I believe we could rival Portland, OR for being a "green city" if we decided to make it a priority. Why not? Where are the civic leaders who will stand up for Milwaukee's prominence as a city with an abundance of nature?