Immigrants and Cruelty

Tomb of Eirene from the city of Byzantium, buried in
Piraeus, Athens. Her name is recorded in both Greek
and Phoenician script. 4th century BCE.
Photo by Rebecca Kennedy. 
There are days when my scholarship and teaching resonate with the modern world more than others. Today is one such day. Yesterday, Pres. Trump rescinded the executive order known as DACA, passed in 2012 to protect so-called "Dreamers," non-citizen residents of the US who were brought here as children and who have lived their entire lives here. DACA created a pathway for them to get work permits, legal identification, attend college, and generally participate in everyday life without fear of deportation to places they have never known. DACA isn't perfect--they had to register and re-register every 2 years. And it was only a deferment of possible deportation.

Although there is some talk of Congress acting to pass legislation that will replace the executive order, history suggests to me that there are enough members of Congress for whom the cruelty of deporting these individuals is "just business" that no law will come. AG Jeff Sessions seemed particularly pleased at the announcement. Because sometimes, let's be clear, what is morally right and what is legal are not the same thing; sometimes what is legal is morally reprehensible. This is especially the case when it comes to treatment of immigrants in democratic societies.

In my Eidolon article, "We Condone It by Our Silence," I laid out some of the laws Classical Athens had in place for treatment of immigrants. Its strict citizenship policy and its requirements that resident immigrants (known as metics) register every year with the city and pay an immigrant tax are well documented. The registration policy is actually quite similar to DACA, except that it was the universal policy for immigrants as there was no differentiation between "legal" and "illegal"immigrating, only a failure to register once you did. And failure to register meant sale into slavery--the "deportation" of the ancient world. It didn't matter how long you lived in Athens, even if you were born there and your grandparents were born there--you could rarely become a citizen. To register, you had to have a sponsor. The sponsor had to be a citizen (male, over the age of 30). If you were a man or a family immigrating, you paid 12 obols a year. If you were a single woman, you paid 6. I wrote a book on the women who fall into this latter category, and it is those women I am thinking about today.

We don't know a lot of women from Classical Athens--they weren't permitted to participate in politics and when they appear in court cases or histories, they are often left unnamed. We do see some of the names of metic women, though, in courtroom speeches. They are often being maligned or mistreated. We also see their names on tombstones, where we know they were immigrants because they recorded their city of origin. These women's lives often go unrecognized in our histories or, when they are mentioned, they are discussed as if the slanders of their male citizen attackers are truth. What I want to do in the rest of this post is simply describe a few of their experiences. Like the hundreds of thousands of immigrants in this country whose lives are being upended by the DACA decision, that these women were real people with real lives is too often forgotten or ignored.

Zobia: An immigrant woman in Athens, who had the misfortune of being involved with a citizen man named Aristogeiton. She lent him a cloak and some money one day and upon request for repayment, he seized her and dragged her to the court, seeking to denounce her as an unregistered immigrant. Lucky for her, the tax collector vouched for her as did her sponsor and denied Aristogeiton a chance to make money from selling her into slavery.

Aristogeiton's non-citizen sister: We don't know her name, but we are told a court case against him that he denounced her as an unregistered metic and sold her into slavery. Their brother may have intervened, but we don't know the outcome.

Theoris: Theoris was a n immigrant from Lemnos who seems to have made a living selling medicines and love charms. She got involved with Aristogeiton, who got caught selling fake epilepsy cures, and he offered up Theoris as to blame and as a witch. She and her entire family (including children) were executed for witchcraft.

The Nurse: In a speech attributed to Demosthenes (Against Evergus and Mnesibulus), we learn of an old former nanny, who had once been the speaker's family slave. We don't know her name, but we know how she died. The speaker's father freed her and she married and lived in Athens. After the death of her husband, in her old age, she returned to live with speaker, whom she had cared for when he was a child. In a dispute over a debt, the nurse was attacked by men attempting to rob the home. She was injured and died a few days later. The speaker was distraught, not just because she died, but because there was nothing he could do to punish the men who killed her. She wasn't his slave anymore and she wasn't his relative, so, according to the laws, she had noone to prosecute for her murder. Her death, the death of a former slave and metic, was not considered valuable enough in law to hold anyone accountable.

I am reminded of these immigrant women and more in Athens when I read of women dropping charges of domestic abuse for fear of deportation. Or women being granted sanctuary in a churches to avoid being deported and separated from her citizen children. The callousness of those who support the end of DACA, who will never be impacted by it personally, who say "just deport the whole family."  The idea that these women, because they were "immigrants," were somehow worth less than others, makes me angry. It should make us angry to see it still happening now.

All the talk of progress and here we are where the Athenians were 2500 years ago, treating some people as if they are as much cattle. What did they do to deserve this treatment? This disregard? What makes our nation so frightened of them? Or our land so limited and small or poor that we can't possibly house them? Aristogeiton preyed on these women because he could, because he clearly kept getting away with it. The court cases where these crimes are listed are not about those crimes, but about other offences against citizen men. The men who killed the nurse also got away with it. Immoral men still get away with hateful acts especially when they prey on non-citizens, those deemed somehow less worthy of human status. And I'm angry. And sad.