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Sunday, September 5, 2010

Migration within the EU and the Roma in France/Italy: These aren’t the migrants we signed up for.

Roma family in France after being sent to a new temporary camp. 

Immigration: US vs. Europe
The United States is a country which, despite its rhetoric, is not very open to immigrants or even visitors.  Americans themselves are generally good to immigrants (despite recent flair-ups with Latin American immigrants, especially in the southwest) and immigration is a huge part of American identity, especially in terms of its own mythology.  Despite this, it’s basically impossible for most people who’d want a green-card (permission to reside here permanently) to get one and for residents of most countries even visiting here involves a downright insulting process of advance security clearance and visa-applications, even for vacations. Many countries have taken to punishing the US by making Americans jump through exactly the same hurdles their own citizens must go through entering the US when entering into their own territory. 
Requirements for immigrating to the US vary tremendously from country to country and are largely based on a quota system. The quota system works this way: if too many people have already come from one place (sometimes a country, sometimes a region), then no more are accepted the following year from that place.  This process of course ignores the fact that a lot more people will want to come to the US from poorer countries than from say, Scandinavia.  The only ways around this system are winning a “green card lottery” in which the green card is given out randomly to a few lucky people or by marrying an American or another green card holder.  A few exceptions have been made in the past for people facing particular difficulties, for instance Jews from the former USSR and Vietnamese whose families aided the US during the war.  Depending on the country involved, green card processes take 5 to 10 years for the first applicant, with additional years needed to bring across the applicant’s family.  And this “time served” does not get factored into the seven years needed to acquire American citizenship. So in short, if you want to come here, you’re going to have to wait a very long time. 
Compared to the US, EU immigration law can seem like a joke.  While non-EU citizens who want to live in Europe face many of the same obstacles that they would have if they had wanted to immigrate to the US, citizens of EU countries are allowed to live and work in any EU nation they please.  This rule came into effect in 1994 as one of the perks of the then recently established European citizenship and needless to say, many of the people from poorer European countries who would have tried to immigrate to North America are now choosing Western European nations like France and Italy.  Among the 11 million migrants with EU citizenship living in EU countries where they don’t hold citizenship is an unknown number of Eastern European Roma.
Estimating Roma populations is extremely difficult.  The number of Roma in Europe is variously estimated at anywhere between 6 and 14 million and estimates of the number of Roma in a particular nation are equally varied.  When I lived in Spain I heard estimates as high as 1,000,000 and as low as 100,000.  Since most Roma live pretty much “off the grid”, don’t send their children to schools, don’t participate in censuses, and often live in unregistered self-constructed settlements, estimating their number can seem like a fool’s errand to all but the most dedicated.  The fact that no government can claim to know exactly how many Roma live within their territory or even exactly where they live plays into the fear-mongering of right wing politicians throughout Europe. 
In the last couple of years, Italy, followed even more virulently by France have sought to dismantle Roma camps, and deport immigrant Roma populations back to their home countries.  In France, many social ills from crime to unemployment are being blamed on Roma populations.  Around 300 Roma camps (often in effect small towns on the edges of cities) are set to be destroyed with their occupants given the choice between unequal housing (say a bed in a gym for a month), life on the street or life in another illegal camp.  The political will for such evictions, which the majority of the French public supports, is drummed up through scare-tactics highlighting the presence of foreign, mostly Romanian and Bulgarian Roma.  Like right wing American politicians who make a big tumult over illegal immigration, in a sense making the issue seem like a sudden emergency every ten years or so when it has been an ongoing phenomenon for decades, French politicians have long used the “Gypsy problem” to win votes before elections.  What is forgotten by the French and Italian public is that most of the Roma who are being evicted from their camps have lived in France or Italy for generations and in some cases have even lived in the same camps for generations.  As for the “foreign” Roma, as citizens of EU nations they should be entitled to live and work anywhere within the European Union.  The French government claims, essentially, that the Roma are not pulling their own weight and don’t find jobs quickly enough and therefore ought to be deported.  The issue becomes even more complicated because several EU countries, including France, only approved Romania’s entrance into the EU on the condition that Romanian nationals would only gain the right to live in France in stages. In 2014 Romanians are slated to gain full residency rights and Sarkozy’s government is looking for ways to get rid of their “foreign Roma” before then and make sure they never come back.  Roma families are being offered 300 Euros a person (100 a child) and free airfare to return to Romania.  At the same time France and Italy are trying to initiate an EU wide Roma policy which would exempt Roma from enjoying the same right to live/work in any European country that they are entitled to as EU citizens.  This plan has caused a great deal of controversy among EU politicians and several countries invited to a conference dedicated to the “Gypsy problem”, most notably Germany, have refused to attend.  Romania which wanted to attend wasn’t even invited. 
One thing that becomes immediately clear from the whole controversy is that some of the more established countries in the EU feel that they are getting more than they bargained for in terms of foreign immigration.  Since many of their politicians are blaming the Roma for many social ills, their citizens are clamoring for the Roma to be dealt with and they feel that something must be done.  At the same time, Western European nations without young populations need immigrants from the newer EU states and barring only one ethnic group is just not going to fly like it would in America. So in effect the French and Italian politicians are stuck with having to “deal” with their immigrant Roma populations, at the same time they can’t survive without the influx of workers that these same people are a part of.  So they expel a small percentage of the foreign Roma (remember these people are allowed to return anyway) and tear down a whole bunch of Roma settlements for what basically amounts to a political spectacle.  None of this will “solve” the Roma “crisis” and it will make life much more difficult for the Roma themselves.  Instead of attempting to integrate the Roma into their countries in a manner in which they won’t lose their cultural traditions, the French government has basically opted to “pass the buck” and make them all move, often further away from towns and cities.  In effect, the Roma are being shuffled around and temporarily hidden for short term political gain.  A local townsperson may look around and not see “their Gypsies” but the unfortunate families have just been moved elsewhere nearby or if they were foreign shipped on a plane to Romania or Bulgaria. 
What all of this is also doing is increasing the already extreme anti-Roma prejudices, which will just make it tougher for them to find legal work and will push more people into petty crime and keep more children out of schools.  Many Roma advocates fear that this will lead to increased violence against Roma as well. On a continent where the Romani were enslaved well into the 1860s and where as many as 1.5 million (some 90%) were killed during the Holocaust (including literally the entire populations in Lithuania, Latvia, Holland and Croatia), anything heading down this path is particularly abhorrent. 
The Roma Question: The USA vs. Europe  
One thing that interests me with this issue is that the Roma do not face any of these kinds of prejudices against them in the US.  The million or so American Roma, who mostly live in rural areas, are completely outside of the mainstream consciousness.  Very few Americans are aware of how many there are living in their midst and they wouldn’t recognize them even if they interacted with them on a regular basis (say a frequent customer at a store).  Other than fortune telling and in some circles musicians, no professions are associated with the American Roma and when Americans think of “Gypsy thieves” they think of Eastern Europeans, if they know that “Gypsies” are a real ethnic group at all.  The racist phrase “to get gypped” (to be robbed/cheated) is widespread but the vast majority of Americans have no clue as to its origins and are surprised to learn the terms offensive origins.  Nobody has worried about the Roma here since perhaps the 1870s, when they first began immigrating in mass, often brought over by circus promoters along with their trained bears. 
The Roma, it should be noted, are neither a “nomadic” population nor a homogeneous one.  Most Roma, whether in Romania, Afghanistan, Brazil or New York City live in the same place their entire lives.  They sometimes switch between summer and winter residences but the vast majority of Roma are not nomadic by any means.  They live where they find steady work, usually relying upon extended family networks for resources.  The Roma are also a kaleidoscope of interrelated ethnic groups separated by languages and sub-dialects, kinship networks based on extended families, and professions that are common (and in some cases near universal) among specific subgroups (metalworking, music, circus performance, fortunetelling, carpentry, clothing production, landscaping etc).  Much like Hasidic sects, Roma subgroups identify based on the geographic origin of their subgroup and on local traditions acquired there.  The major group in the Philadelphia area is known as the “black Dutch” and not surprisingly originates from Holland.  They are, however, nearly entirely English speaking. In fact, a majority of the world’s Roma no longer speak a variety of Romani.  In Spain and England they speak mixed languages which incorporate Romani words and grammar into the local language.  In New York and Northern New Jersey one hears Romani spoken, especially in Manhattan during the winter.  I’ve been told that the sub-group that lives and works in the garment district has been in America for four or five generations but maintains their language and close contact with family overseas.  Hundreds of thousands of Romani have also immigrated to America in the two decades since the fall of the USSR. 
The real mystery, of course, is why the Roma encounter such prejudices in Europe and become headline news while in America they remain unnoticed.  They don’t live within mainstream society on either continent.  Their children generally don’t go to school, they often forgo normal housing.  They often speak another language and make a living in uncommon trades.  But yet on one continent they are the object of massive fear and derision and on the other most people aren’t even aware of their existence.  Perhaps Americans have enough to fear and worry about already?
As far as the Roma in France, I don’t know too much about them.  Whether the Romanian immigrants and the “indigenous” French Romani are from the same ethnic groups or interact with one another is unclear.  I know that French Roma know French but whether they speak Romani among themselves is unclear.  The Romanian immigrants have been interviewed in Romanian on the news reports I’ve seen but probably speak their own language(s) among themselves. If anyone could shed light on these particulars that would be great. 

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Class Warfare on New Jersey’s Rails

I meet many more foreign visitors to the US and have more foreign friends than the vast majority of Americans. And one thing that is always mentioned when we discuss the US, or especially when I try to convince someone to visit me here is how “big” the US is. Size wise the US is obviously bigger than the vast majority of countries; it’s the third largest after all. But the States would seem bigger than all of Europe and Japan stuck together because of its “effective distance” (a term coined by a friend), i.e. the amount of time it takes to get around the country is significantly greater than in Western Europe or Japan. This is of course the result of America’s antiquated rail lines and lack of high speed trains, coupled with expensive airfare. While the US invested billions into creating the most sophisticated highways in the world, Europe and Japan spent decades laying the groundwork for rail systems which transport people more quickly, efficiently and cleanly than anything airplanes or cars could ever muster.

I knew all of this before I left for Spain but I never gave the matter much thought while I was there. I noticed that the AVE* trains went significantly faster than their American counterparts and were so quiet and smooth that I felt like I wasn’t really on a train but rather on some sort of hovercraft. I quickly learned that a trip from Valencia to Madrid would take about 3 hours and a trip from Barcelona to Madrid would take about 4.5. Nonetheless I didn’t put much thought into the distances involved nor did I compare them to more familiar US geography because after all I thought, America is big and Spain is small. I really didn’t have a sense of the magnitude of the differences and their impact on daily life until the Philadelphia Inquirer ran an excellent four part special on the topic around the same time that a serious illness in the family turned my life upside down.

After getting back from Spain in late June I began a night-class at Rutgers main campus (New Brunswick, NJ). I don’t drive. New Brunswick is only 53 miles from Philadelphia but to get there I had to take two very slow trains (the Pennsylvania based SEPTA’s R7 to Trenton NJ, then the NJ Transit Northeast Corridor Line to New Brunswick). On a good day this is a 2.5 hour trip one way. On a bad day it’s a four hour trip. On a really bad day (say when someone decides to kill him/herself on the tracks, something that happens some 20 times a year in NJ), the commute can take six hours. So in short I had to leave home at 3:30 for a 6:30 class and hope for the best. When a relative took ill in NYC and the situation required lots of attention from my family including overnight stays, I found myself effectively living in three cities at the same time. Within a span of a month I ended up spending more time on trains than I normally do in a whole year. The obscene amount of time spent bounding back and forth over NJ in slow trains gave me plenty of opportunities to ponder the differences between the Spanish and American train networks.

There are two different train companies that provide service between Philadelphia and New York. Between the two firms there are a meager five routes available, which run on one set of tracks (so they’re not really “routes” in the traditional sense but rather trains that make different combinations of stops). Both companies are owned and operated by government agencies. SEPTA is the public transportation agency for Southeastern Pennsylvania (most importantly covering the Philly metro area) and NJ Transit provides buses and trains within NJ and to some bordering areas of PA and NY (conveniently including routes ending in NYC). To get to NY by train from Philly the cheapest route is to take the same combination of trains I take to Rutgers but to continue on the NJ transit train until Manhattan. The NJ transit train from New Brunswick to NYC usually takes 90 minutes (occasionally there are express trains that take 45), so added on to the original time it takes to get to New Brunswick the full trip from Philly to NYC, a mere 86 miles, ends up being 3.5 to 4 hours. The price all together is $27 to $33 dollars. The other option is Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor line, which depending on the train selected makes only 1 to 3 stops and takes about 1.5 hours. These trains, run by a federal government agency, usually cost between $70 and $140 dollars. If the same routes were served on the Spanish AVE train, the trip would only take 37 minutes and would cost about 20 Euros, roughly 35 dollars. Since I cannot afford to take the AMTRAK, the difference would amount to me being able to get to NYC in 1/5 of the time. This would enable me to live in Philadelphia and work in Manhattan, or even to occasionally attend Yiddish events in the city without a four hour commute both ways (something I occasionally do as is). On the Spanish system my friends who live in Pittsburgh would be able to commute home in some 2.5 hours, rather than the current 9 to 10. The impact that this would have on daily life, as well as on towns lucky enough to get a stop along the high-speed route would be astounding. Considering the fact that many Philadelphians commute daily into Manhattan using Amtrak (1.5 hours, 70-140$ both ways), it’s not unrealistic to imagine that on a truly high speed network it would be possible for someone from DC to commute to NYC (or vice-versa) every day. But high-speed rail in the US remains a dream and a far off one at that. The current rail system is here to stay, along with its barely hidden class conflicts (un)neatly tucked away in the corner.

SEPTA/NJ Transit vs. Amtrak.

Officially, America has no social classes. Everyone from the janitor to the billionaire is addressed as “sir.” Working class people, especially blacks, often dress more elegantly for church on Sunday than their upper class counterparts. There are few institutions that reject members based on their ethnic or religious origins or how much money their family had five generations ago. American English does not have class based accents like British English (with the exception of one acquired upper class accent which is rare these days), and in theory all a person needs to enter what Americans would consider the “upper class” is money. So in the general American conception of class, money itself is class, not a family’s historical prominence nor what pastimes they’d chose to spend their money on (say, investing in racehorses/polo vs. season tickets for NASCAR) . Some of these class barriers that ostensibly don’t exist re-appear, however, when one compares Septa/NJ Transit with Amtrak.

Septa service itself is socially stratified. All routes either originate going downtown or leaving downtown. Every train passes through the same three downtown stations, no matter its final destination, making some of the routes considerably longer than they would be if they were designed to get people from point A to point B as quickly as possible. This feature was built into the lines to transport middle and upper-class Philadelphians with white-collar office jobs from the suburbs or outlying city neighborhoods to Center City (downtown) and West Philly (where the universities are congregated). Neighborhood to neighborhood transportation is mostly provided by Septa bus service, whose passengers are solidly working class. Some of the trains do attract a more working class clientele, especially the R7 to Trenton which is my first train to New Brunswick/NYC. This is because most of the businesspeople traveling to/through Trenton are going to NYC and hence using Amtrak. NJ transit trains have more business people but still have a predominantly working class ridership, especially during off-peak hours.

Septa trains are noisy, usually filthy, and have absolutely no amenities, not even bathrooms. Seats are not individual but rather double or triple. Eating is technically not permitted but people bring their lunches and dinners aboard all the time. Copies of the Daily News or the Metro are left behind on seats. NJ transit trains, by comparison, are much nicer. Passengers are generally quieter; the trains are cleaned more regularly. All of the trains have bathrooms. There are individual seats and even electric outlets to plug in computers or charge cell phones. Eating is strictly prohibited but drinking is permitted. Riders can often read left behind copies of the Metro, NY Post and Daily News as well as the more highbrow Philadelphia Inquirer and New York Times. Unlike Septa passengers NJ transit riders are provided with designated waiting areas at the major train stations. But even with these extra comforts neither company comes anywhere near matching Amtrak, which compared to its competition is like a limousine being rated against a donkey cart. The guts of Amtrak trains are basically modeled after passenger planes. There are individual seats that recline, space for every passenger to plug in electronics, lots of clean bathrooms, and even a dining car! Most of the passengers are businesspeople whose trips are being written off as business expenses or are being paid for directly as part of their fee. There are few children and few people not in suits. Instead of CD players (remember those?) or I-Pods most of the riders have touch-screen computers on which they are editing work related documents. If they don’t have computers they are most likely reading a business related document or reading the Wall Street Journal. (Other than the aforementioned activities most people are sleeping which of course has nothing to do with social class). Upon arrival at the station(s) Amtrak passengers are segregated from NJ transit or Septa passengers. They get their own waiting areas which are separated from the rest of the station by walls and curtains. The “rich man’s waiting lounge” can only be entered after the appropriate ticket is checked by what basically amounts to a bouncer.

Class Warfare

As for the routes themselves, the Northeast Corridor lines only have two tracks dedicated to each direction. The faster traveling Amtrak usually takes the inner track seeing as it only stops two to five times. The slower Septa/NJ transit trains take the outer track which meets the platform at every station. Amtrak (and hence the federal government) actually own the track, which NJ Transit (and hence the state government) leases. When Amtrak trains take the outer track they always go ahead of the NJ transit trains so as to avoid the Amtrak train catching up with the NJ Transit train (which would delay the Amtrak train or cause a collision). This in effect delays the NJ transit train should it become necessary for an Amtrak train to travel on the outer tracks.

This parasitic relationship with the working class trains being subservient to their wealthier counterparts usually works well enough assuming nothing goes wrong. However, between the aforementioned frequent suicides and a summer full of terrible weather, much has been going wrong as of late. And the results amount to open class warfare that is blatant, obvious and at times Kafkaesque.

I got caught in the middle of one of these “battles” a few weeks back after a storm knocked down a tree, taking some of the track-signals with it. The signal problems stopped all traffic for a good hour and twenty minutes. I had just taken an exam the night before and as such had schlepped my ten pound dictionary and my laptop along with me. I planned to catch an early express train to NYC that would have gotten me there in roughly 45 minutes to visit my relative in the ICU. After that I would high-tail it back to Philly on a Megabus. I arrived at the New Brunswick train station around 10:30 to find about a hundred people waiting for the train. I was informed that not a single train had come or gone for an hour but no announcement was made and the two workers at the train station knew nothing. Among the people waiting for the various trains which had never come were conductors who were supposed to begin work on these very trains. Even they had not been informed of the signal problems.

At this point it was nearing 90 degrees but despite the heat people were in good spirits and finding humor in the situation. A half hour later an announcement over the crackly loud speaker informed us that no trains were running (duh!) and that train service for NJ transit would resume on the outer tracks in 20 minutes. As the first station is about 30 minutes from New Brunswick I decided to flee to the air-conditioning for the next fifty minutes. The station itself soon became hot, however, after another hundred or so people arrived and I decided to go back onto the platform, where about 150 people were now crowded. Babies cried, adults whined and everyone pushed and shoved in hopes of clearing a little personal space. I found a railing to lean my 20 pound backpack on. Three elegantly dressed white women, all wearing pearls, ended up next to me. One was in her late 20s and the other two were middle aged. The younger woman, clutching a purse which even empty was probably more valuable than my computer, looked at me nervously and said “we’ve never taken NJ Transit before, is it usually this crowded?” I could barely contain my laughter and explained the unfortunate predicament to them. “How long do you think it will be until the trains start running again?” chimed in her mother, pronouncing every syllable of every word in a way that revealed a boarding school upbringing (think Catcher and the Rye). I told them that I didn’t know but that we probably wouldn’t get on a train for another hour at least and it wouldn’t be an express like they had counted on. “But we have theater tickets!” they protested. “We didn’t drive only because we saw an advert(!) that said we could take this train specifically to get to the Broadway matinees.” I politely told them that there wasn’t a snowballs chance in hell that they’d get to NYC on time and that they should take up the issue with their State Senators. I went into my usual spiel about how the federal government paves highways, makes airports but does not support trains. They looked at me dumbfounded and asked if I knew where “management” was. Management. MANAGEMENT! This time I couldn’t control my laughter. I stopped laughing for a moment, choked out an apology and began laughing again. First off, I explained, the people who manage the trains aren’t in a station. And even if they were they certainly wouldn’t be in New Brunswick. Secondly, the sizable New Brunswick train station only has two employees at any given time because 80% of them were replaced with vending machines a few years ago that sell the tickets in their stead. The remaining two employees are there to sell ticket packages and to absorb the various complaints about the trains that should reach “the management” which runs the trains from some hidden place.

Still, despite my explanations and protestations, the women decided to complain at the ticket counter and dragged me along. The oldest of the three, twirling a bead of her pearl necklace and staring at the employee responded to his answers by saying “but couldn’t you do something, this is absolutely dreadful.” The ticket-man, a black kid my age with a rural southern accent said “I reckon t’at ‘bout describes it Mam.” I went back on the platform, right in time for the first of the Amtrak trains to whiz by.

Amtrak trains in New Brunswick can be downright scary. They go by on the inner tracks at about 130 mph and can be heard a mile away. The fast wind, dust, and wall of sound are disorienting no matter how many times you have experienced them. It can be downright terrifying to stand 20 feet away from anything going by at that speed but when you throw in its weight and mass a feeling of utter helplessness often sets in. The experience is made worse for me, however, because a friend of mine threw himself in front of one of these very trains my freshman year and every whizzing tornado of steel is a reminder of his senseless action.

“Trains are runnin’ again” someone said stating the obvious. More people crowded onto the platform and I occupied the time trying to estimate their number. I decided upon 350 persons. Then something downright terrifying happened. Without any warning an Amtrak train raced by us on the tracks closest to us at about 100 MPH, passing less than a foot from the people on the edge of the overcrowded platform. Lots of us screamed. People grabbed their children or their wives or held onto any available surface for dear life. Still, three or four dozen people were knocked over by the wind and a panic started. The train was gone nearly as soon as it had arrived, leaving behind a cloud of profanities and leaving the people closest to the edge to look over the gap to see if anyone had been struck by the train. To the surprise of many in the crowd, myself included, nobody had. If there had been but on person leaning an arm over the platform, or a skirt that extended an inch too far the person would have been torn to shreds without even noticing that something had happened.

The situation repeated itself another eight times over the next two hours that I was stuck there. (Obviously we all stayed far away from the edge of the platform.) While some New Jersey Transit passengers waited five hours to board a train (I waited four), the Amtrak trains were run with minimal interruption. A person arriving in Trenton or Philadelphia at 11 am for an Amtrak train wouldn’t have even noticed the delay because their train ran on schedule. But because of the extra trains sent to pick up the stranded Amtrak passengers, and the fact that Amtrak trains are never halted for NJ transit trains, Amtrak used all four tracks for its own trains for a full two hours. This left the poorer NJT riders stuck outside in 90 degree heat while Amtrak riders waited for their trains in air-conditioned private waiting rooms that only they were permitted to use. And as the (mostly) working class people baking in the sun looked at the trains whizzing by carrying the rich in a luxury we could not afford, I began to wonder what exactly was going through everyone’s minds. They knew, of course, that we were being delayed an additional two hours so that Amtrak passengers wouldn’t be inconvenienced. “Why don’t they split it up,” a kid asked his father in Spanish. “Why don’t they let one stop for us and then one fast train go by?” I looked at the two of them and said in Spanish “cariño (dear/little one), that would be taking turns. The rich don’t do that.”

A few minutes later the three rich ladies thanked me for talking to them (I have no idea why), and told me that they were going home. “Next time we’ll drive to Trenton and take the Amtrak train. Or maybe we’ll just bite the bullet and park in New York” one of them said. Then the one with the Holden Caulfield accent looked at me and said “I’d recommend you try Amtrak next time. Unfortunately most of the people here probably couldn’t afford it.” I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or punch her in the nose. Instead, I told her that I couldn’t afford it either and wished them well. I wondered if they had learned anything from temporarily finding themselves on the losing side in open class warfare.

1. AVE is an acronym for “High Speed Spanish.” It is also a pun because AVE in Spanish means “bird” (think “avian” in English.)
2. The word “advert” is archaic. The woman’s whole diction would have sounded educated forty years ago but now sounds quite unnatural. This was the stereotypical upper class WASP accent of a bygone era.