by Tim Shenk
Editor, CUSLAR Newsletter
See the full PDF of “When the Law Is Injustice”
Summer/Fall 2019 CUSLAR Newsletter.
When talking about immigration, people in both major U.S. political parties justify their policies by citing the phrase, “We’re a nation of laws.” Originally penned by John Adams, this idea has become a near-sacred part of the U.S. self-image. Other countries may have kangaroo courts and corrupt strongmen, the thinking goes. But we have the rule of law.
What happens, then, when the law itself is injustice?
It’s legal to deny someone food and shelter while land lies fallow, houses sit empty and about half of the world’s food ends up as waste. It’s legal to deny asylum to a child fleeing violence or starvation in another country and deport her back to die. In contrast, it’s often against the law to demand one’s right to live.
Post-9/11 anti-terrorism laws originating in the U.S. have been adapted for use around the globe and are being used primarily against activists. Brazil, Colombia and Honduras are examples of states carrying out this brand of “lawfare.”
Lady Justice, it turns out, is not blind. Too often the law is used as a weapon of the oppressor. Before she was assassinated in 2016, indigenous leader Berta Cáceres noted, “Defending human rights in Honduras is a crime.” Gabriel Fernandes explores Cáceres’s case on page 13 of this issue.
Yet history is full of examples of people who have defied unjust laws, out of conviction to obey a higher law or out of necessity in a system that has outlawed their survival.
Indeed, most social change work worth its salt was illegal when it was undertaken. In Latin America, those who would challenge a dictator had to form illegal clandestine groups to fight the repressive regime.
In the U.S., the long Black-led struggle for freedom is rooted in disobedience to slaveholder law. In 1850, the Fugitive Slave Law passed the Supreme Court, which meant all formerly enslaved people living in the North could be captured and dragged back to slavery in chains. Jermain Loguen of Syracuse, New York responded at a public rally: “My home is here, and my children were born here…. I don’t respect this law — I don’t fear it — I won’t obey it! It outlaws me, and I outlaw it, and the men who attempt to enforce it on me.”
More recently, in 1990, groups of unhoused people connected to the National Union of the Homeless staged simultaneous takeovers of abandoned federally owned housing units in eight cities and moved in. With the media in tow, homeless organizers posed their conundrum to the public: “We either abide by the law and die in the streets, or we break the law and live.”
Undocumented activist Marco Saavedra builds on this legacy in a poem we’ve reprinted on page 16. Saavedra asks, “What if the problem is you? What if the illegal is you? Your institutions, your economy/ your system of reality/”
These leaders turn the debate on its head. Instead of an “immigration crisis” or a “crisis of homelessness,” they suggest that the crisis is the existence of a racist, xenophobic, exploitative system itself.
This issue of the CUSLAR Newsletter highlights stories of some of those facing the brunt of the systemic crisis today, with a focus on migrants.
On page 3, Kevin Maldonado reports on the event, “On the Ground with the Migrant Caravans,” hosted by CUSLAR on March 22. Margarita Nuñez Chaim’s lecture from the event is excerpted extensively on pages 4 and 5.
On pages 6 and 7, we share excerpts from Steve Pavey and Amaury Tañón-Santos, who spoke at CUSLAR’s April 10 event, “Welcoming the Stranger,” on faith-based and ethical responses to issues related to immigration.
Rebekah Jones notes that the U.S.-Mexico border is only one of many places of hostility for migrants. With many countries following the U.S. “zero-tolerance policy” on immigration, Jones asks on page 9, “Where are they to go?”
While laws affect individuals, they also operate at the level of states and governments. Mauricio Streb writes on page 10 that sanctions act as “modern-day warfare” in the hands of powerful states to bend other nations to their will. Richard Gaunt provides a case study for this argument on page 11, detailing the immense damage done by U.S. sanctions in Venezuela.
Laws are powerful, but they will not keep people from getting what they need to survive. Let us not be swayed by the so-called moderates who advocate for “law and order” in the face of unjust conditions. Let us take on the challenge of building a society anchored in higher law, a law that decrees that we love our neighbors as ourselves.