Nowhere Man

Back in the sixties the Beatles were singing that sad little ditty, Nowhere ManHe’s a real nowhere man, sitting in his nowhere land, making all his nowhere plans for nobody. You know the song – Doesn’t have a point of view, knows not where he’s going to, isn’t he a bit like you and me?

Well, yes and no – everyone at one time or another feels it’s all useless and nothing means anything. And Thomas Wolfe kept saying you can’t go home again. Wolfe’s big thing was loss – you go out in the world and learn things, and see things, and do things – and you become what you were meant to be, for better or worse – and sooner or later you can’t go home again. You become a nowhere man. It happens, but it’s not exactly true.

You can feel like a nowhere man in Paris – that’s a good place for that sort of thing. After the second divorce it was off to Paris each December for a few weeks of solo kicking around – walking around the rain smoking the pipe, or sitting quietly sipping cognac in the café and watching the swirl out in the street, just watching. The bubbling foreign language all around you finally just washes over you and you’re a nowhere man there. It’s kind of pleasant. You’re not French but no one knows you’re an American. You’re without country. And once or twice a day some tourist tugs you on your sleeve and asks you, in broken French, how to get to this museum or that landmark – and you get to smile and tell them you’re from Los Angeles and if they turn right and go three blocks they’re there. How does this sort of thing keep happening? Maybe it was the French newspapers under your arm – the language isn’t that hard – or maybe you finally managed to float free. And then Paris seems like where you were supposed to be all along – not exactly home, but you feel more at home there than you ever thought possible of any place you’ve even been. Floating free will do that to you.

But you can go home again – unless you’re the famous modernist poet Ezra Pound. And that’s a sad story. Pound weathered the storm and beat out his exile, as he said – floating free – but in the end found himself working for Mussolini, doing propaganda broadcasts for the fascists, and then, after the war, charged with treason, and then locked up in a madhouse near DC, and then dead.

That’s no way to go home again. It’s better to just catch the morning Air France non-stop to LAX. And Monday morning you’ll be back at work again, floating free no more. And you’ll hate it, feeling as if the walls are closing in. But everyone has a country. Gertrude Stein, born in Pittsburgh and raised in Oakland, said America was her country but Paris was her hometown. It’s like that.

But being without country – really being without country – is a serious matter. Pivoting off this complication of wire stories America’s Voice at Daily Kos tells us this tale:

Our nation’s immigration system is so dysfunctional that a Harvard biology major – a stellar student who dreams of curing cancer – is being threatened with deportation by the Department of Homeland Security.

Eric Balderas was detained earlier this month while trying to board a flight back to Harvard. He had gone home to visit his mother in San Antonio, who fled Mexico to escape domestic abuse when he was only four years old. In the United States since then, and valedictorian of his San Antonio high school, Balderas has no memory of his Mexican birthplace. Eric’s first language is English, and he does not speak Spanish well.

The story of Eric Balderas illustrates the perversity of our current failed immigration policy. Currently, Eric is considered a criminal by the government of the United States. Harvard University considers Eric a promising sophomore.

Eric’s story underscores the need for Congress to pass the DREAM Act immediately – it makes you wonder what objections any Member of Congress could possibly have to embracing Eric and thousands of other young people who are Americans in all but paperwork. The Balderas story, as well as hundreds of other of similar examples, is a perfect example of why Congress should pass the DREAM Act without further delay.

No one knows much about the DREAM Act – the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, if you find cute acronyms really, really irritating – but it would permit these sort of young people to become permanent legal residents if they came here as children, are long-term United States residents, and complete two years of college or military service. The Senate version of the DREAM Act, S. 729 – is sponsored in the Senators Durbin (Democrat) and Lugar (Republican) – with thirty-seven other sponsors in the Senate so far. The House version is Howard Berman’s bill – H.R. 1751 – with one hundred twenty cosponsors.

But this is going nowhere. The right and the Tea Party folks are worked up:

Arizona Republicans will likely introduce legislation this fall that would deny birth certificates to children born in Arizona – and thus American citizens according to the U.S. Constitution – to parents who are not legal U.S. citizens. The law largely is the brainchild of state senator Russell Pearce, a Republican whose suburban district, Mesa, is considered the conservative bastion of the Phoenix political scene. He is a leading architect of the Arizona law that sparked outrage throughout the country: Senate Bill 1070, which allows law-enforcement officers to ask about someone’s immigration status during a traffic stop, detainment or arrest if reasonable suspicion exists – things like poor English skills, acting nervous or avoiding eye contact during a traffic stop.

But the likely new bill is for the kids. While SB 1070 essentially requires of-age migrants to have the proper citizenship paperwork, the potential “anchor baby” bill blocks the next generation from ever being able to obtain it. The idea is to make the citizenship process so difficult that illegal immigrants pull up the anchor and leave.

In short, the Constitution says if you’re born here you’re a citizen, but it doesn’t say the State of Arizona has to issue a birth certificate, so if the state doesn’t file the paperwork, or keep records, you can’t prove anything, can you? It’s pretty clever. And it should provide some legal fun when it hits the courts.

But that’s not the issue with the sophomore at Harvard. He was brought here when he was four. And that makes him a felon or something. He should have known better, or really, his mother should not have grabbed him and fled across the border to avoid getting beat to a pulp by her abusive husband. That’s not America’s problem, that’s hers. So he’d better learn some Spanish, quick.

Digby has this comment:

Come on. This is just stupid. And heartless. Imagine how any of us would feel if we were forced to live in a foreign country against our will because of a technicality that was violated by our parents when we were babies. That’s essentially what’s happening to this kid and to many thousands of kids who had no say in where they were born and have lived in America their whole lives.

Sadly, the nativists have already moved the goalposts and are persuading a large number of people that we should deny even those kids who were born here legal citizenship, so I don’t have a whole lot of hope that this is going anywhere. Too bad for the human wreckage, but apparently we have to appease a bunch of cowards who would rather blame little children for their problems than the real culprits. It’s an old and depressing story.

For more detail see this video news item from the Harvard Crimson. The kid will pay for his mother’s mistake. He will be forced to go home again, even if Mexico is in no way his home. Yep, it’s a bitch to be without country.

But a lot of this revolves around who is to blame for what, and who gets punished. For example, the big news of Wednesday, June 16, was this:

The much-anticipated showdown Wednesday at the White House between President Obama and top BP executives turned into no-nonsense business meeting in which the oil giant agreed to pay $20 billion into an escrow account to cover claims associated with the oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

And this is the key detail:

Under the deal, BP will pay $5 billion annually over the next four years into an escrow account for damage claims from the gulf, setting aside an equivalent amount of U.S. assets as collateral until the fund reaches $20 billion. The figure is not a cap on the potential damages, and the company received no liability waiver as part of the agreement.

The thorniest issue in recent days, however, appears to have been resolved with a compromise. Since last week, administration officials have said that BP should pay the lost wages of oil industry workers sidelined by the administration’s six-month moratorium on deep-water drilling. That stance put BP’s stock price in a nose dive, and BP officials made clear that such claims would be beyond the pale.

Instead, the president Wednesday asked BP for a voluntary contribution to a foundation that will support unemployed oil industry employees. BP agreed, offering $100 million.

So those tossed out of work, as we all try to figure out what to do next, won’t be punished for BP opening a hole in the earth and maybe ruining the Gulf Coast forever. That wasn’t their fault. That was BP’s fault.

But Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann says the oil victim escrow fund amounts to a redistribution of wealth – and that is evil, and more important than those thrown out of work. Speaking to the conservative Heritage Foundation before the president’s Tuesday night speech she offered this:

The president just called for creating a fund that would be administered by outsiders, which would be more of a redistribution-of-wealth fund. And now it appears like we’ll be looking at one more gateway for more government control, more money to government. If there is a disaster, why is it that government is the one who always seems to benefit after a disaster? And that’s of course what cap-and-trade would be.

And on and on she goes. But it comes down to saying that it’s too bad about those folks losing their jobs, and probably losing everything – but that doesn’t mean those who make a lot of money and ruin everything owe them anything when their project provides a bit of an apocalypse. Things happen. You just don’t take money from people who have worked hard, all on their own, and earned money, no matter what they’ve done – that’s not fair. And of course Louisiana’s Senator David Vitter says what happened is like an airplane crash – sort of an Act of God. And that’s a legal term of art often used in insurance policies and the like, for what’s not covered – those events where both parties agree no one can be held responsible. God actually has nothing to do with it. It’s an exclusion agreement. And someone should tell Vitter that airplanes always crash because someone screwed up.

But never mind. Is all this heartless? Even BP’s Chairman – Carl-Henric Svanberg – did explain to the press why President Obama is frustrated with his company – “He is frustrated because he cares about the small people, and we care about the small people… we care about the small people.”

Marc Ambinder, at the Atlantic Online, comments:

Unless the discussion veered off into a direction that was unanticipated – i.e., a mutual cognizance of the struggles that dwarfs and little people face in society – I cannot imagine someone saying something more brilliantly clueless and Dickensian on a day like today. Also, it doesn’t help that the guy has a Swedish name that could easily be mistaken for a German one. So it’s Dickensian AND sinister.

Maybe the fellow was just feeling for those who find they’ve become Nowhere Men.

But we have enough of those. Scott Shane in the New York Times offers American Man in Limbo on No-Fly List:

For six weeks, Mr. Wehelie has been in limbo in [Cairo]. He and his parents say he has no radical views, despises Al Qaeda and merely wants to get home to complete his education and get a job. But after many hours of questioning by FBI agents, he remains on the no-fly list. When he offered to fly home handcuffed and flanked by air marshals, Mr. Wehelie said, FBI agents turned him down. …

“For many of these Americans, placement on the no-fly list effectively amounts to banishment from their country,” said Ben Wizner, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU. He called such treatment “both unfair and unconstitutional.” An FBI spokesman, Michael P. Kortan, said that as a matter of policy, the bureau did not comment on who was on a watch list. But he said the recent plots showed the need “to remain vigilant and thoroughly investigate every lead.”

“In conducting such investigations,” Mr. Kortan said, “the FBI is always careful to protect the civil rights and privacy concerns of all Americans, including individuals in minority and ethnic communities.” …

But it’s not that simple:

The no-fly list gives the American authorities greater leverage in assessing travelers who are under suspicion, because to reverse the flying ban many are willing to undergo hours of questioning. But sometimes the questioning concludes neither with criminal charges nor with permission to fly. The Transportation Security Administration has a procedure allowing people to challenge their watch list status in cases of mistaken identity or name mix-up, but Mr. Wehelie does not fit those categories.

This guy is stuck. He is really now a man without a country. Yes, he’s a United States citizen born and raised in Virginia, but, as they say, you can’t get there from here. He can’t go home again.

And Kevin Drum at Mother Jones offers this comment:

This kind of stuff has become so commonplace in the post-9/11 world that we hardly even notice it anymore, but the case of Yahya Wehelie is really just outrageous beyond belief. …

This is an abomination, pure and simple. There’s not the slightest question that it would be possible to allow Wehelie to fly home safely even if he were Osama bin Laden’s minister of defense. The government of the United States should be allowed to search him and his luggage with abandon if they have reason to suspect him of illegal activity, and they have every right to question him for the same reason. But the right to keep him from flying home? No. That doesn’t just skirt the line of what the American government should be allowed to do, it blows right by it and makes a mockery of the constitution and every smarmy bureaucrat who pretends to support it while snickering behind their hands about “carefully protecting the civil rights and privacy concerns of all Americans.”

How on earth can Barack Obama stand by and continue to allow stuff like this to happen?

That’s a good question, but at Commentary, Abe Greenwald says look at it this way:

Maybe Wehelie is being treated unfairly; maybe not. However, I can’t help but think that Shane was a bit remiss in placing the following factoid 22 paragraphs into the story about the luckless world traveler:

“Mr. Wehelie studied computer science at Lebanese International University in Sana, the Yemeni capital, he said, and last year he married a Somali woman in Yemen. And in the small American expatriate community, he said, he met Sharif Mobley, the New Jersey man who was later accused of joining Al Qaeda and killing a Yemeni guard. Mr. Wehelie said their handful of encounters were brief and casual, the innocent small talk of two expatriates.”

Small world.

Yep, chat with the wrong people and you’ll never come home again, or you’ll finally come home like Ezra Pound, the exile, did.

But instead we get this:

“The lady told me that Columbus sailed the ocean blue a long time ago when there were no planes,” Mr. Wehelie said in a telephone interview from Cairo. “I’m an innocent American in exile, and I have no way to get home.”

And at the Washington Monthly site Steve Benen adds this:

I can appreciate the caution federal officials chose to exercise, particularly with those who’ve spent time in Yemen after the failed Christmas-day plot. Vigilance is wise.

But for Wehelie, an American citizen who has effectively been banished from his home without cause or charges, this is no wisdom in this mistreatment. The man is in limbo.

If there’s reason to be suspicious of him, subject him to a thorough search. Check his luggage closely. Hell, if there’s credible evidence of a terrorist threat, put him on the plane Hannibal Lecter-style. But to simply deny him access to a flight home, even after questioning, without charges or explanation, is ridiculous.

Kevin called this “an abomination, pure and simple.” If officials can explain otherwise, I’d like to hear it.

And when ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero last week addressed the progressive conference America’s Future Now, he began by saying this – “I’m going to start provocatively … I’m disgusted with this president.”

Josh Gerstein explains this at Politico:

In an interview with POLITICO, Romero confirmed the gist of the quote, though he emphasized it wasn’t intended as an ad hominem attack. “I’m not disgusted at President Obama personally. It’s President Obama’s policies on civil liberties and national security issues I’m disgusted by. It’s not a personal attack,” Romero said.

While liberals of various stripes have or had gripes with how Obama has conducted himself since taking office, civil libertarians may well be the most disillusioned at this point.

“There was a discussion this morning, and there has been generally in progressive circles, about expectations that have not been met. I made the point that expectations were high because the president set expectations very high,” Romero said.

Asked why he’s so animated now, Romero said: “It’s been eighteen months and, if not now, when? … Guantanamo is still not closed. Military commissions are still a mess. The administration still uses state secrets to shield themselves from litigation. There’s no prosecution for criminal acts of the Bush administration. Surveillance powers put in place under the Patriot Act have been renewed. If there has been change in the civil liberties context, I frankly don’t see it.”

There’s much more, but let’s see. There was the Beatle’s Nowhere Man. Doesn’t have a point of view, knows not where he’s going to, isn’t he a bit like you and me? How did that song turn out to be about Wehelie in Cairo and Balderas at Harvard, and the out-of-work folks in the Gulf? And if we don’t watch out that could be you and me.

But we’ll always have Paris.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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