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Post Persecution, Immigration, and St Dominic (from Gary Moore)
Created by John Eipper on 03/14/19 4:19 AM

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Persecution, Immigration, and St Dominic (from Gary Moore) (John Eipper, USA, 03/14/19 4:19 am)

Gary Moore writes:

Following Henry Levin and Rodolfo Neirotti (February 17, March 10), the passage below seeks a way beyond the political point of view to mutual understanding. Expert eyes may find various points to question:

In a bygone millennium, the gentle figure of St. Dominic, often barefoot, founding the Dominican monastic order in CE 1215, would be reworked after his death. As the Inquisition era bloomed, Church propaganda hailed Dominic as having been an avid “Persecutor haereticorum.”

That first word hides a world.  Since the second word means “heretic,” the whole phrase would seem gruesomely obvious, right? Weren’t they saying “a persecutor of heretics”? Well, not really. In modern languages, one tiny word—“to persecute”—compresses within its poisoned folds a half-millennium’s blind journey into modern sensibilities, a journey still so fumbling and incomplete that we pilgrims sometimes eerily avoid questioning our linguistic vehicles.

Fast-forward to 2019. Today, more than 400 harried individuals form a secretive US front-line corps of immigration interviewers called “Asylum Officers” ($79,000 a year, high turnover). These shadowy minions endlessly invoke, but perhaps never have the time to dissect, the word “persecution.” In hushed cubicles or hurried phone interviews, this publicly invisible cadre lives to test an astonishingly scant 16 words in a single article of the US Code: Article 42 of Section 201, Title II, as reworked through 1948, 1951, 1952, 1965, 1968, and finally 1980. The asylum officers conduct “credible fear” interviews, testing anxious individuals—foreign petitioners seeking US entry on special terms of humanitarian asylum—to see if each petitioner has “credible” fear of meeting, back in the old country, “persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion” (the 16 words).

This is no triviality. The record 76,000-plus known irregular border crossers flooding to the US in just the past month, February 2019 alone, represent an 11-year high, confirming a longer wave mounting toward levels of concern not seen since the Bush and Clinton administrations—though now the trend has a twist. It largely rests on previously small-seeming loopholes in the law, which have risen to epochal influence as our present age does its own reworking, putting its own stamp on the fast-changing, seldom-defined canon of modern sensibilities—that is, the sense of what feels right and wrong.

The majority of the 76,000 are asylum seekers, not old-style “illegal aliens”—and the great majority of these could easily seem, if one actually reads the 16 words in the law, to be spurious asylum seekers. The 16 words were laboriously crafted—back in 1980—to reflect what in that age seemed a timeless truth: that a dark bend in human nature can swell to single out certain categories of people as superstitiously defined targets, objects of persecution. The United States, proudly recalling its World War II high-ground against Nazism (not to mention the Mayflower), was approving refuge for such people, if the bigoted rage targeting them should become inescapable back home. Such a danger, it surely seemed (at least to Senator Edward Kennedy and others crafting the 1980 law) was “persecution.”

But pressures change. For the first time now, the new wave in irregular immigration comes more from Central America than from nearer, larger Mexico. In the smaller, barely governable nations of northern Central America, old expectations that political violence would be the game-changer have melted before mere crime, as gang killings synergize with mob lynchings in crucibles of poverty and fear, which many people there naturally want to leave behind. Under these pressures, rumor networks and sales pitches from people smugglers have spread word, with stunning effectiveness, that such migrants can make use of US asylum law, by crafting cases (often with the help of altruistic lawyer-activists) that cast them as fleeing not because of economics or general difficulties and fear, but very specifically because they can be redefined as persecuted. Such claims, presented at the US border, mean automatic access to an asylum officer under US law, and a “credible fear” interview, intended as a (now woefully backlogged and delayed) first step toward eventually appearing before a full-fledged immigration judge, in a courtroom, for a ruling on permanent asylum.

That’s in theory. In practice, the huge new crowds, peaking past the now-famous 2018 “caravans” of thousands of petitioners hitchhiking together up to 2,000 miles, as well as border-bound bus convoys like regular tour groups, along with high-fee truckloads periodically turning fatal in wrecks or overpacking—all these together mean that most of the new arrivals who use one of several previously under-appreciated points of phrasing in US law will—presto!—get to remain inside the United States, at least for months or years awaiting full trial, and in many cases permanently. The shouting that such a system is “broken,” “past capacity,” or badly needs overhaul comes from both sides of the political aisle, left and right—but each side holds a very different vision of what should be changed.

The confusion--including The Wall--typically overlooks a simple question, perhaps because of its hidden labyrinths: Why don’t those 400-to-500 asylum officers, tasked to do initial “credible fear” screening of the surging applicants, simply apply the 16 letters, and refuse most of those applicants on the spot, as clearly being not persecuted—that is, not being members of a superstitiously or politically targeted group of pariahs forced by bigotry to flee, making them unlike, say, the 937 desperate passengers in 1939 (also often misremembered) on the iconic refugee ship St. Louis. Today, immigration attorneys have argued that a Guatemalan housewife fearing spouse abuse, or a Honduran father whose son fears abusive gang recruitment, qualify as being “persecuted”—though no pariah status or blanket bigotry is involved. And asylum officers have often agreed, ruling that such applicants do indeed have “credible fear” of persecution back home. The majority of “credible fear” applicants are approved by the interviews; in some venues the great majority.

The reasons seem to go beyond law and language to a more powerful force, the Zeitgeist, or emotional and cultural spirit of any given age—which you, the reader, may logically take to be (much as they did in 1980) the highest guide. Even when directly ordered to obey the 16 letters (as happened last July), asylum officers have protested vehemently--and the redefinitions have continued, essentially saying, in a voice more powerful than fiats up the chain, that the approvals feel right, by insuperable new consensus, and hence the applicants most certainly should be allowed in, because of their suffering, or their painful backgrounds, so that the law must be tacitly or even unconsciously reinterpreted or re-envisioned.

In a world today that 1980 would have seen as science-fiction—a world of picture phones and bionic limbs, but also of global population levels previously feared as apocalyptic—international borders themselves come under not just physical pressures from caravans and crowds, but crucial emotional pressures from within the soul-searching citadels, pressures of empathy and conscience. On the age-old battleground between these factors and the grumbling resistance offered by pragmatism, self-interest or reaction, the meaning of words becomes one more weapon.

Which takes us back to Domingo de Guzman, or St. Dominc. After his death in CE 1221, Dominic's enshrinement as “Persecutor haereticorum” meant, to quote an insightful historian, that he was “not necessarily the persecutor but the pursuer of heretics” (Will Durant).

On this very point, today's "credible fear" interviews face an unheralded linguistic divide, the gulf between “pursue” and “persecute," which marks modernity’s journey into admitting that something called “persecution” can exist at all. In the Latin still used in Dominic’s Middle Ages, there was essentially only one word for both forms of pursuit: the broad, neutral form, and the narrow, toxic form (which was still undistinguished in 1221). The single word for both together came from the old Roman persequi, and notably its past participle. If someone—and especially some august governmental authority—was in pursuit, well, surely this must be a worthy pursuit: noble, justified, even divinely inspired. It was only in the slow agonies of the Inquisition, the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the dawning scientific age, that a new linguistic niche was found necessary, and was addressed by tweaking and splitting the old word "pursue" to form a new sub-type—ultimately meaning a special kind of pursuit, a bad and reprehensible kind, born of narrow-minded personal illusions that stamp such special pursuits as being unconscionable—at least in the eyes of the most highly-informed.

Just here, in the struggling phraseology of the paragraph you’ve met above, can be seen the difficulty faced by modernity in reconciling its codified laws, its indispensable pragmatism, and its rapidly evolving sense of what feels right.

Not to mention the ironies. As far as has publicly appeared, none of the 400-to-500 US asylum officers, or the millions affected in some way by them, seems to have pointed out an extra layer of language difficulty. Not all modern languages, as it turns out, seemed to find a half-millennium’s need to craft a new term of opprobrium, by adding a new variant of “pursue.” English, French, and Italian arguably did find their ways to name the newly discerned type of illegitimate hatred. In today’s English, to say a police officer “pursues” a stolen car is quite different from saying he “persecutes” its driver—perhaps by bigoted harassment, racial profiling, or some other de-legitimizing psychological quirk.

But in a peninsular expanse of the old Roman empire, growing noted (at times unfairly but at times not) for the horrors of the Inquisition, the need for a special new word—a flag for a new age to wave as condemnation—seemed less operant, which echoes down to the harried office cubicles of border bureaucracy today.

Perhaps because there are so many different kinds of shouting on border issues, no one seems to have pointed out, with regard to “credible fear” interviews—conducted largely in Spanish—that a homonym hides in the mix. As rules and weary inquisitors essentially ask, “¿Tiene usted miedo de persecución?” hurried translations can cause half a millennium’s distinction to disappear.

For in Spanish, “persecución” still means any kind of pursuit, with no special prejudice necessarily attached, much as in St. Dominic’s day.

A “persecución en varias calles” made news in Mexico in January when two gangs chased one another in a shootout. Neither side was being portrayed as bigoted or targeted by bigotry. The event was simply “a pursuit through various streets.” In 2017 a prediction that authorities would chase criminals—“perseguirán”—was not saying that innocent targets would be persecuted. It simply promised “pursuit,” no perverted obsessions implied.

Spanish (except perhaps for some whispers creeping in from long-memoried Occitans) seems to have no popular usage equating to Voltaire’s indignant “persécuter,” or to the Puritans and “persecute.” Hence, a Central American asylum seeker shaping a plea to common usage in Spanish—“perseguir/persecución” —may find a twilight area of feeling generally distressed, desperate, hard-pressed. Do I feel hard-pressed, pursued? Well, why would I be here seeking escape if I didn’t feel in some way hard-pressed? Of course I fear “persecución.”

Then, for both the weary and perhaps conscience-stricken inquisitor, and for the hopefully anxious asylee, the case can be quickly closed. This party does indeed feel credible fear, a fear of “persecución.” So the door must be opened. No need to consult St. Dominic.

JE comments:  This is an original and very incisive essay, Gary.  You've shown us that old-fashioned philology can shine much lux on the political controversies of today.  We should also recall that St Dominic's heirs, in the form of Antonio de Montesinos and Bartolomé de las Casas, were the first defenders of what we would now call "human rights" in the Americas--arguably in the entire world.  In his famous 1511 sermon, Montesinos rhetorically asked, "Are they [the natives] not men?"  If we include women too, the Asylum Officers would do well to recall Montesino's words.

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  • Persecution and the 1511 Montesinos Sermon; from Gary Moore (John Eipper, USA 03/16/19 2:45 PM)

    Gary Moore writes:

    Reading John Eipper's considerate reply to my essay on the word "persecution" (March 14th),
    I wondered whether the landmark sermon he referred to, by Montesinos
    in 1511, in the much-abused Spanish Caribbean, might shed light on the words
    used by Montesinos, and by his more famed amanuensis Las Casas, to express the
    idea of persecution.

    Thus my naiveté struck again--for of course, in their epochal
    defense of human rights, these two Dominican voices didn't have to define an idea
    of persecution. They weren't talking about persecution. The urgent issue before
    them was exploitation, enslavement, quite a different matter--not an obsessive
    targeting of dissidence or difference, but merely unconcerned usage of fellow humans.
    The difference found in Caribbean natives may have helped deepen the excuses or
    rationalizations for the abuse, but it wasn't "persecution."

    Ironically, that realm was
    left to quarters like the Dominican order itself--so mere definition of what that problem
    consists of was arguably still off on the horizons of future centuries. As JE rightly
    pointed out, the Montesinos sermon is still a millennial beacon: if not the world's first
    declaration of universal human rights, still a high flag on the slope:

    "¿Estos no son hombres? ¿No tienen ánimas racionales? ¿No estáis obligados a
    amarlos como a vosotros mismos? ¿Esto no entendéis? ¿Cómo estáis en tanta
    profundidad de sueño tan letárgico dormidos?"

    ("Are these not men? Do they not have rational souls? Are you not obliged
    to love them as your very selves? Do you not understand this? How could you
    be so deeply sunk in dreams, so lethargically asleep?")

    The ironies here presage the coming half millennium's struggle over whose rights
    deserve notice. "Rational souls?" This idea--that Platonic-style rationality could embrace
    bleeding wafers and virginity miracles, was in step with scholasticism and Church doctrine
    of that day, reminding that the "rationality" each age takes for granted--as our only tool for
    beating back superstitious excess--has also required half a millennium for at least partial
    distinction from the "lethargic sleep."


    JE comments:  An important distinction.  Gary, as you pointed out in your post on St Dominic, "persecution" could be considered a virtue in the old days.  Consider the very nature of the Inquisition's work.

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    • Rampant Persecution of Muslims in Xinjiang (Paul Levine, Denmark 03/17/19 4:37 AM)

      Speaking of persecution. While we have been worrying about Trump, Brexit, Putin, Maduro, Catalan separatists, Franco idolators and other crimes and misdemeanours, a true catastrophe is taking place on the other side of the world.

      The incarceration of a million Chinese citizens in the Xinjiang region is certainly a crime of major proportions. In NYRB James Millward reports: "There may be as many as 1,200 such camps in Xinjiang, imprisoning up to a million people, including Kazhaks, Kyrgyz, and especially Uighurs, who make up around 48 percent of Xinjiang's population." The vast majority of these citizens have committed no crime. Unless it is now a crime in the PRC not being born Han Chinese.

      When was the last time a self-respecting sovereign nation locked up a million of its citizens without demonstrating they had committed a crime? The historical parallels are alarming.

      Is Xi Jinping criminal or is he crazy? The regime claims the purpose of the camps is to "re-educate" its Xinjiang citizens into industrious Han Chinese. In a matter of months the regime proposes to "brainwash" half the provincial population and convert them from an ancient belief in Islam to an instant faith in the Party. Does the regime really believe this inanity? Already a provincial government official has claimed that "the happiest Muslims in the world live in Xinjiang." Has the Party officially embraced Orwellian language? Has Xi Dada watched The Manchurian Candidate too many times?

      Indeed, we have seen this film (Party repression and Regime criminality) before: during the Cultural Revolution under Mao; the Tiananmen Massacre under Deng; the Falun Gong persecution under Jiang Yemin; the imprisonment of Nobel Prize-winner Liu Xiaobo and others under Hu Jintao; and the current lockup of dissidents and incarceration of civil rights lawyers under Xi Dada.

      Where will it end? Not in a good place, I fear. James Millward concludes: "What is sometimes called the ‘Xinjiang Problem' is but one dimension of a broader question: Can today's PRC tolerate diversity? Or does it plan to resolves its Tibet Problem, its Hong Kong Problem, and its Taiwan Problem as it does its Xinjiang Problem: with concentration camps?"

      Xi's China Dream is in the process of becoming Xi's Chinese Nightmare.

      JE comments:  Paul Levine attached an extensive bibliography from The Guardian, BBC, Foreign Policy, NYRB, and other sources.  There is a human rights apocalypse in Xinjiang, and the world barely notices.  Instead of Cultural Revolution, will future historians be talking about a Cultural Genocide?

      To James Millward's question above, we could add a more troubling one:  can anything be done to improve the lot of China's persecuted Muslims?

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