Our Species’ Perilous Infancy

“I’ll meet you further on up the road.” 


Dragon’s blood tree on the island of Socotra, Yemen. Source.


I sometimes wish we could fast-forward through this messy period of human history. I imagine that our descendants will be embarrassed by how sectarian and insular we were. It will probably take generations, but it seems almost inevitable that the world will keep shrinking until it becomes the prevailing wisdom that all people share a common ancestry and that our commonalities outweigh our differences.  

Yet, here we are. Ethno-nationalism is on the rise in Europe, with many people increasingly angered by the influx of Muslim refugees. In the United States, I.C.E. is rounding up and deporting people who have lived here for decades and who pose a threat to no one, including military veterans, a doctor, a mother of four children, and a college professor. President Trump infamously referred to several countries — including El Salvador, Haiti, and all of Africa —  as “shitholes, and implied that people from those places should not be allowed to immigrate to the U.S. Left unspoken, this presumes that a country’s political or economic struggles are a reflection of the character of all of the people who live there.

A common refrain in these stories is the perception that outsiders are a threat, either in the form of direct violence or indirectly to “our way of life.” Again, in 2016 when Trump was still a candidate, he visited my home state of Rhode Island for a fund raiser and suggested that thousands of Syrian refugees were being resettled there without any screening and that they were akin to a Trojan horse:

“We can’t let this happen. But you have a lot of them resettling in Rhode Island. Just enjoy your — lock your doors, folks.”

At the time, there was one resettled family from Syria — a young couple and their three beautiful young children. The calculated wielding of fear as a weapon against five harmless human beings struck many people, including me, as cynical and reprehensible.

As for the threat to “our way of life,” a state senator from New Jersey named Mike Doherty epitomized this sentiment when he said that the U.S. should limit immigration from “non-European” nations that are not part of a “Judeo-Christian culture” because: 

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“Is Destroying Water Left for Migrants a Crime?”

I recently saw the video below featuring the humanitarian organization No More Deaths, under the title “Is Giving Water to Migrants a Crime?” However, an alternative title could have been “Is Destroying Water Left for Migrants a Crime?”  In the video, we see U.S. Border Agents in southern Arizona destroying water left by volunteers for migrants crossing via Mexico. We also learn that one of the group’s volunteers was arrested for “harboring two undocumented immigrants and giving them food, water and clean clothes.”

The area is home to the Sonoran Desert and is notorious for migrants dying from the heat and dehydration, from hypothermia (in winter), and from injuries and getting lost during the exhausting journey.  Between 1999 and 2013, an estimated 2,400 people died in the area, according to the organization Human Borders. Certainly, more have died since. According to Betzi Younglas, a volunteer with the organization, “When the US began walling off the border cities and erecting a barrier right across Texas, they thought the danger of coming through here would deter the migrants. But they underestimated their desperation.”


Therefore, groups like “No More Deaths” are literally saving lives. Leaving aside the nuances of the debates about undocumented immigration, most (reasonable) people would agree that crossing an international border without proper paperwork should not be a death sentence (though here is an unreasonable example).

It occurred to me that border agents who damage food and water supplies left for migrants is something that would not be tolerated in war time. In 2016, referring to the war in Syria, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon bluntly stated “Let me be clear: The use of starvation as a weapon of war is a war crime.” Of course, this applies to the deliberate deprivation of drinking water as well. According to Leslie Alan Horvitz and Christopher Catherwood’s book “The Encyclopedia of War Crimes and Genocide” (2014: 406-7):

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The Dreams of Refugees

Do yourself a favor and watch this 6 minute short film on refugee children. You won’t regret it. 

Collateral Damage and the Coming Immigration Raids

A report from the San Francisco Gate indicates that immigration officials may soon try to arrest up to 1,500 undocumented people in the Bay Area of California (“Feds planning massive Northern California immigration sweep to strike against sanctuary laws”). If true, it is likely to have an effect on the wider community.

A 2017 study by Nicole Novak and colleagues looked at the effects of a major government raid against migrant workers in Postville, Iowa — most of whom were Latino — who were suspected of being undocumented (Novak et al 2017). In May of 2008, nearly 400 workers were arrested at a meat-processing plant in Postville by 900 ICE agents in a surprise raid that used military tactics, including a Black Hawk helicopter. Two hundred and ninety-seven people were eventually deported after a five month prison sentence. However, even those who were not deported (or even arrested) were affected.

Novak et al. looked beyond Postville for their sample, including 52,344 births across Iowa from 2007 to 2009. Infants who were born in the 37 weeks following the raid were classified as being prenatally “exposed” to the raid’s effects. The results showed that for White and Latina mothers, rates of low birth weight (LBW) were steady before the raid. However, after the events at Postville, LBW rates increased by 24%, though only among Latina mothers. This was true for both foreign-born and U.S. born Latinas and their infants, showing a widespread effect that was due to ethnicity, rather than immigration status. The effect appeared to be greatest among those mothers who were exposed to the raid in the first trimester.

From Novak et al. 2017. Rates of LBW in three groups of mothers/infants in Iowa: Whites, U.S. born Latinas, and foreign-born Latinas.

Because data were only available at the state rather than local level, Novak et al. were unable to determine if rates of LBW were even higher among Latina mothers who lived closer to Postville than those in more distant parts of the state. However, the authors reasoned that Latina mothers throughout Iowa (and possibly outside of the state as well) were likely aware of the raid, either through following the news or direct communications with friends and relatives. Given that rates increased among U.S. born and foreign-born Latinas, it is certainly possible that Latina mothers felt vulnerable or anxious about raids targeting them for their ethnicity, and that the stress from this could trickle down to their infants.

If the raids in the U.S. continue, like the one apparently planned in California, there will likely be more collateral damage in terms of the health of Latina mothers and the development of their future infants, including those who are U.S. citizens. Furthermore, there is evidence that poor early development in life can have lasting health deficits. Somewhere in the debates about undocumented immigration, that should be factored into the equation of things to weigh. 



Novak NL, Geronimus AT, Martinez-Cardoso AM. 2017. Change in birth outcomes among infants born to Latina mothers after a major immigration raid. International Journal of Epidemiology. 46(3): 839-49. Link

R.I.P. Dolores O’Riordan

“You’ll always be special to me.”

Yesterday, it was reported that singer Dolores O’Riordan passed away unexpectedly at age 46. This one was a gut punch to me. I must have played The Cranberries‘ CD’s hundreds of times in college and graduate school, and I often had their songs on my playlist while traveling, including on a long, memorable bus ride through the mountains of Laos. Her voice and lyrics will be with me for a long time.

Somewhere between Phonsavan and Luang Prabang in northern Laos, 2009. I’ll long remember the breathtaking scenery, paired with the Cranberries’ music.

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8th Anniversary at a Crossroads

“The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences.” – Ruth Benedict

“Imagine what seven billion people could accomplish if we all loved and respected each other.” – Anthony Douglas Williams


I just received notice from WordPress that it is the 8th anniversary for this site. To be honest, I have not been feeling too great about this site lately. Readership is down noticeably, and it has been harder to get the attention of my targeted audiences. I’ve even contemplated folding the tent.

Surely, part of that is me, as I’ve found it hard to maintain the volume of essays compared to prior years. Perhaps it’s merely the nature of today’s Internet. Eight years ago, there were fewer personal blogs and sites to compete for readers’ attention, and people seem to prefer shorter, more digestible, essays before moving on to the next item on their list. I understand. Time is finite, and we have things to do. 

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The Fog of Warnings

Earlier today there was a report that people in Hawaii received a warning that a missile was incoming. This turned out to be a false alarm, but for approximately twenty minutes many people believed a missile attack, possibly a nuclear one from North Korea, was imminent. 


As with everything these days, the discussion online seemed to revolve around who was to blame. It appears that someone pushed the wrong button, causing anxiety and fear for many people. It could have been worse, had the wrong people panicked.

I immediately thought of Robert McNamara’s recollection of the Cuban Missile Crisis from the documentary “The Fog of War,” and the lessons he learned from that episode. 

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