Crime & Immigrant Youth
Publication Year: 1999
Subject: Juvenile/Youth Crime & Delinquency
Crime and Immigrant Youth is a unique study of migration as a process that sometimes leads to youthful crime beyond the norms of either the home or host culture. Tony Waters uses data from 100 years of United States immigration records to examine immigrant groups such as Laotians, Koreans and Mexicans in the late 20th century, as well as Mexicans and Molkan Russians in the early years of the century. The study reveals the sequential consequences of a high proportion of young males in an immigrant group: patterned misunderstanding between parents and children; deviant subcultures such as gangs; structural rather than cultural differences with the host community. Tony Waters also devotes a large part of this study to show where and why crime does not ...
- Front Matter
- Back Matter
- Subject Index
Part I: Framing the Problem
- Chapter 1: Explaining Youthful Crime in Immigrant Communities
- Conventional Wisdom?
- Why Immigrant Groups are Different
- Migration as a Social Process
- Migration as a Process and the Concept of Becoming
- Becoming and Disbecoming: A New Society Emerges
- The Structural Uncertainty of Immigrant Children: An Example
- Peer Group Culture in Immigrant Groups
- A Hypothesis: Youthful Crime in Immigrant Communities and the Process of Migration
- A Theory of Youthful Crime and the Process of Migration
- Chapter 2: Youthful Crime and Migration: The View from Criminology
- Specifying the Problem
- Social Disorganization: An Early Attempt at Theory and Generalization
- Strain Theory: The Role of Social Class and Blocked Opportunities
- The Empirical Record: Analyzing Groups
- European Immigrants: The 19th and Early 20th Centuries
- Youthful Crime in Immigrant Groups: The Early 20th Century
- Mexican Immigrant Communities and Gangs
- Pauline Young's View and the Molokan Russians
- Youthful Crime in other Immigrant Groups: The Late 20th Century
- Three Examples from other Countries
- Conclusions: The Patterns in the Existing Data
- First Conclusion: A Halo for the Foreign-Born
- Second Conclusion: The Limitations of the Existing Data
- Third Conclusion: Age Structure
- Fourth Conclusion: The Contextuality of Criminal Law
- Fifth Conclusion: Searching for an Appropriate Methodology
- Chapter 3: Explaining Youthful Crime in Immigrant Communities: How to Do it? How Much is There?
- Comparative Historical Sociology: Describing a Robust Process
- Validity: Eliminating or Confirming Different Hypotheses
- The Problem of Definition and Measurement: Youthful Crime, Criminals, and Delinquents
- Testing the Theory
- Methods: Developing the Variable Youthful Crime
- Constructing the Dependent Variable: Serious Youthful Crime in California Immigrant Groups
- Laotians, 1975-Present
- Gang Activity among Laotian Youth
- Koreans, 1970-Present
- Mexicans, 1930s and 1940s
- Mexicans, 1965-Present
- Molokan Russians, 1904–1950
- Summary: The Dependent Variable
Part II: Answering the Question Why: Community and Structure
- Chapter 4: Demographics and the Process of Migration
- The Demographics of Immigrant Groups
- Mexicans, 1990 Census
- Molokan Russians, 1920
- Mexicans, 1920 and 1940 Censuses
- Modern Cases (Laotians, Koreans, and Mexicans) and the Question Why
- Early-20th-Century Cases (Mexicans and Molokan Russians) and the Question How
- Chapter 5: Social Cohesiveness and the Process of Migration
- Molokan Russians
- Mexicans in the Early 20th Century
- Social Solidarity and Gang Activity in East Los Angeles, 1940–1950
- Mexicans, 1960-Present
- Chapter 6: Status Adjustment, Socioeconomic Mobility, and the Process of Migration
- Mexicans, 1920–1950
- Mexicans, 1960-Present
- Molokan Russians
Part III: Answering the Question How
- Chapter 7: Legal Pluralism and the Understanding of Youthful Crime
- Why Legal Pluralism?
- Theoretical Approach: Describing Youthful Crime and Legal Pluralism
- Legitimation of Law in Immigrant Society: Cognitive Acquisition and Contingent Rules
- Conclusions: Criminal Law as a Dynamic Variable
- Case Studies: Changing Legal Epistemologies
- Molokan Russians
- Mexicans, 1920–1950
- Mexicans after World War II
- Summary and Conclusions
- The “How” of Youthful Crime in Immigrant Populations
- Acquisition of Legal Norms: Three Patterns
- Acquisition of Legal Norms and Identity Transformation
Part iv: Conclusions
- Chapter 8: What Can Be Said about Youthful Crime in Immigrant Communities?
- Why Youthful Crime Occurs in Immigrant Groups
- Social Structure as Variables: Demographics, Social Cohesion, and Urban Residence
- The Acceleration Effect: The Law and its Uses in Immigrant Communities
- Answering Broader Questions about Youthful Crime: Applying the Model
- Theoretical Conclusions
- The Migration Process
- Implications for Criminology
- Policy Implications
- Things That Will Not Work
- Some Things That Can Work
Books Under the General Editorship of Daniel Curran[Page ii]
CRIME AS STRUCTURED ACTION
by James W. Messerschmidt
EMERGING CRIMINAL JUSTICE
Three Pillars for a Proactive Justice System
by Paul H. Hahn
CRIME CONTROL AND WOMEN
Implications of Criminal Justice Policy
edited by Susan L. Miller
HOW TO RECOGNIZE GOOD POLICING
Problems and Issues
edited by Jean-Paul Brodeur
CRIME AND IMMIGRANT YOUTH
By Tony Waters
Copyright © 1999 by Sage Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Crime and immigrant youth / by Tony Waters.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 0-7619-1684-9 (cloth: acid-free paper)
ISBN 0-7619-1685-7 (pbk.: acid-free paper)
1. Juvenile delinquents—United States. 2. Teenage immigrants—United States. I. Title.
HV9104 .W423 1998
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In the 1990 U.S. Census, Southeast Asians made up 1.5% of California's population. Logically, then, Southeast Asians should make up 1.5% of the prison inmates in California, 1.5% of the college graduates, 1.5% of the engineers, 1.5% of the retirees, and so forth. But they do not. Just how far off this magic 1.5% mark Southeast Asians are was illustrated for me when I reviewed the statistics of the California Youth Authority in 1991. I found that 4.5% of California's most incorrigible youth were Southeast Asian. Of the roughly 9,000 wards of the CYA, 4.5% were Southeast Asians, mostly perpetrators and victims of California's gang wars.
The idea of the Southeast Asian gangster does not fit well, however, with another common stereotype of Southeast Asian youth, the common observation that Vietnamese immigrants are the state's latest “model minority.” Here again, a random statistic backs up the point of how well Southeast Asian youth are doing: 8.5% of the 1991 incoming freshman class at the University of California, Davis, were Southeast Asians.
What causes this unusual distribution of Southeast Asian youth in California's juvenile justice system and in its universities? Does this mean that Southeast Asian youth are more delinquent than other youth? Does it meant that they are smarter or more diligent? Is this an issue that is specific to Southeast Asians, or is it the consequence of a more general social process?
The answer this book provides is that “waves” of juvenile delinquency are part of the migration process itself. Analysis of other [Page x]migrant groups shows that deviant youthful subcultures (i.e., gangs) occur among second-generation immigrant youth in a predictable and systematic fashion. The wealth of data available from the past 100 years of immigration, to California in particular and the United States in general, points to this consequence. This book is about how this conclusion was reached.
Why hasn't this conclusion been reached before? The answer to this question is that migration has rarely been studied as a process. Rather, single migrations are studied, or social issues associated with ethnic groups are analyzed. Migration as a process that human groups undergo is missed in such specific formulations.
Analyses of the Southeast Asians in California illustrate these problems well. Thus Southeast Asian success is attributed to Confucian ethics or Vietnamese concepts of filial piety. Crime is explained as a response to inner-city residence, habits learned during the Vietnam War, or the inadequacy of school programs. Such explanations are overly convenient, however, because they ignore the fact that other Asian immigrant societies, including Asian Indians, Koreans, and Chinese, are also sending large numbers of students to America's universities without sharing the legacy of gang activity. Likewise, other immigrant groups that have not had the legacy of a cruel war have had gang activity. Mexican, Molokan Russian, Irish, and Polish immigrants all come to mind.
Anecdotal evidence supporting my hypothesis was unexpectedly offered to me in the summer of 1993, when I gave an introductory sociology lecture about social psychologist Erving Goffman's concept of family or tribal stigma. To illustrate the point that family members share the stigma of an errant family member, I related stories my mother had recently told me about the youthful escapades of her Uncle Charles, some 50 years previously. Uncle Charles had been involved in gunfights with his neighbors in rural Colorado, ostensibly over “water rights.” My mother was embarrassed about her favorite uncle's delinquencies and, as a result, was somewhat hesitant when relating the incidents to me. To illustrate my point about Goffman's concept of family stigma, I pointed out that the families of today's gang members have much the same attitude of embarrassment about the delinquencies of their cousins, nephews, sons, and brothers.
What happened next was somewhat surprising. The class I was addressing was 15% Southeast Asian, and virtually every one of those [Page xi]students looked like they wanted to crawl under their desks. Later, one of the Lao students whom I knew better than the others, Kathy, came up to me and explained their reaction. She said, “I thought that you were talking about my 13-year-old brother who has been arrested so many times, and that the whole class would find out. I was sure that you were talking about me.” The more I talked with her, and the more I have reflected about her experience and that of my grandfather's family, the more I have come to believe that both family stories illustrate the incongruity that arises when college kids and delinquents come from the same family. These two family histories are, I think, a good way to introduce the central thesis presented here: that immigrant populations have an idiosyncratic relationship with the host society that is best understood as a patterned process. The reason immigrant populations are unusual has more to do with relationships emerging out of the structural circumstances in the host country than with an “Asian work ethic” or “gangland mentality” imported from the home country. There are social structural reasons that both college kids and delinquents emerge from America's immigrant families in such unusual proportions.1 The following stories about two immigrant families illustrate my point.Kathy and Sak
Kathy left Laos for Thailand in the late 1970s as a 5-year-old. In Thailand, she lived in refugee camps with her family until approximately 1982, when she emigrated to the United States. She eventually ended up in North Highlands, one of the poorer areas of Sacramento.
I came to know Kathy better than I know most of my students because a friend of mine, Grant Denney, came to give a guest lecture to my introductory sociology class. I had invited Grant because he has an unusual history of working with Laotian refugees in Sacramento as a result of his two jobs: one as a Sacramento County sheriff's deputy assigned to the county jail, where he is the jail's Asian gang expert, and the other as a fifth- and sixth-grade teacher in the poorer areas of Sacramento. This odd combination of jobs gives Grant an unusual perspective on Sacramento's immigrant communities. The day before Grant was to speak, Kathy introduced herself to me and asked whether the speaker was the same man who had been her fifth-grade teacher [Page xii]and soccer coach. He was. As a result of conversations with Kathy and Grant, I have been able to piece together the story of Kathy's background as a Laotian immigrant in Sacramento.
When Kathy was in Grant's class in 1984, his school district had been recently confronted with an influx of refugee Hmong, Mien, and Laotian students who did not speak English. In an attempt to control the unusual situation, they established special “English as a second language” programs in one of the area junior high schools. Grant, however, picked out Kathy and one other student for “mainstreaming” into a regular English-speaking classroom, even though her language skills were inadequate at the time. As a result, she was sent to the local junior high school. Several years later, concerned with the upsurge in gang activity in the area, Kathy and her family moved into another area of Sacramento, where she attended another of the inner-city high schools. By this time, her mainstreaming was taken for granted, and she took a college-preparation course.
At high school, Kathy had little trouble making good grades. It was at this high school that, relative to the other Lao students who formed her peer group, she emerged as a “college girl.” She remembers resisting the pressures from her boyfriend, family, peers, and her own impulses to get married, have children, and reproduce the working-class life—a course that would have been easily available to her. Instead, she somehow managed to find her way to the University of California, Davis, as a freshman in 1990. She did well as a dietetics major and had hopes of going to nursing school after graduation in June 1994. Her social life at college focused on other Lao students and a boyfriend who was half Thai and half Caucasian, but otherwise her focus was directed homeward. She very much felt the weight of responsibility for her younger siblings, her parents, and a 1-year-old nephew who lived with Kathy's parents in Sacramento.2
As do many of the immigrant students in my classes, Kathy moved back and forth between the modern college student life and that of her immigrant home. In particular, she has always been concerned about fulfilling her duties as a good daughter to her monolingual Laotian parents, a characteristic that the mass media might attribute to the “Confucian ethic,” or to the idea of Asians as a “model minority.” In fulfilling this role, she relied on the very different values that her family brought from rural Laos and those she found in the United States. For example, Kathy was particularly pleased that a younger sister had had the character to resist the temptations presented by the “gangsters” at [Page xiii]her high school, and had begun classes at San Jose State University in the fall of 1993. Kathy complained to me that this had not always been so; her sister had, as a sophomore and junior, given in to baser impulses and run with a “wild” group, with whom she partied at the expense of studying. Kathy felt so protective of her sister that in early September 1993, she requested time off from my class to accompany her sister to San Jose, a situation made necessary, she explained, by the fact that her monolingual parents would not be able to read the road signs necessary to complete the trip.
Kathy's major familial concern, however, is her 13-year-old brother, Sak, who, far from being the “model minority,” has been detained regularly by police since the age of 11. Typically, he has been arrested for violations involving cars and weapons, and has been released fairly quickly due to his age. She says that he is 6 feet tall, which is unusual in the Lao community, and matured physically at a young age. Kathy reports that he is always arrested when he is in association with his “gang” because of his inability to make good judgments in the presence of his friends—a situation that criminologists regard as typical. As a result, he has been arrested a number of times for theft and possession of weapons. Kathy is angry with the American legal system, which she says never scared Sak sufficiently to make him choose better friends.
Kathy thinks that a long period in juvenile detention would at least keep Sak safe from vengeful gangs, even if it does not reform him. A recent gang-related shooting in which one of Sak's friends was paralyzed drove home this point to Kathy, if not Sak. She points out that when Sak is in detention, he always promises to straighten up. Nevertheless, he always ends up hanging around his old friends again, with arrest the inevitable result. Sak's most recent arrest (January 1994) is perhaps illustrative of how Kathy's family has tried to come to grips with what is happening to their family in the United States. Kathy related the story to me after ruefully admitting, with a tip of her head, that once again her brother was “in.” My notes of how she described the incident illustrate the paradoxes that are part of the immigrant situation. These include an emphasis on sibling and peer relations (as opposed to parent-child relations); a concern for the concept of “shame,” which may have roots in a cultural perspective brought from Asia; and inconsistent beliefs about how the police should behave. Thus at one point Kathy is critical of the police for behaving aggressively, and at another she points out that juvenile detention will be of benefit to her brother. My notes of what Kathy had to say follow:
[Page xiv]Ten policemen came with all of their lights on to arrest my brother because they suspected him in a recent shooting. They made everyone in the house come out, but my brother then locked himself in his room. They made him come out and lie on the pavement while they searched his room, but they didn't find any weapons or anything else. They didn't have anything on him! They shouldn't have done it like that, it wasn't right. It shamed my parents so much to have the police come in like that. Then they took [Sak] in on a warrant because he had not been going to school [i.e., violating a judge's probation order that he attend school]. Why should not going to school result in such an extreme response? …I am the only member of our family to whom [Sak] still talks. I visited him in detention recently, and we both cried. He promises that when he gets out he will go to school and do the right thing. I know he would try, but I'm not sure that he can. Maybe the detention will shake him up. But I don't know. Each time they keep him only for a week or two and release him, I guess because the jails are too crowded. I wish they would keep him longer. At least when he is in they cannot kill him. Maybe it is better. This helps my mother too since she is afraid all the time for him.
Much of Kathy's concern for Sak focuses on the effects that his troubles have had on her mother. In particular, she believes that her mother has steadily lost weight worrying about whether or not Sak will return home. Nevertheless, Kathy has hopes for her brother. She thinks that he is quite clever in his own way, and recalls with amusement how, 2 years previously, at age 11, he taught his then 19-year-old college-girl sister to drive a manual transmission car.Grandpa and Uncle Charles
The story of Kathy and Sak is ultimately just an individual anecdote. It is an interesting story, but is it illustrative of a wider problem of youthful crime in immigrant communities? A first step toward an affirmative answer is to examine yet another anecdote, this one from a group and location far removed from today's inner-city Sacramento. The story is from my own family, part of which migrated from rural [Page xv]Sweden to the Rocky Mountains of Colorado in the 1890s. Although the cultures and places are very different, this story and that of Kathy and Sak illustrate very well the dynamics between immigrant parents and their children, as well as between second-generation siblings.
I have always known that my grandfather was the son of Swedish immigrants, but until recently I never identified him or his siblings with the issues of delinquency. Recent recollections by my mother and hindsight provided by this project, however, have begun to make me believe that they are as typical of the immigrant experience as Kathy and her brother Sak.
My great-grandparents came to the United States in the 1890s and settled in a Colorado gold-mining town. My great-grandfather managed to find at least some gold, and was able to buy a 640-acre ranch high in the Rocky Mountains. His first son, my grandfather, was born there in 1904. Seven more children, six boys and a girl, followed. Six of the eight children, all boys, survived to maturity. Uncle Charles was the second son, born in 1908.
My grandfather was the “college boy” of the family, and to this day presents himself as the straight arrow. In a journal he recently gave me, he proudly quotes his first-grade teacher, who wrote in 1911: “You were a very good and industrious boy. I remember that I walked down with you at recess one time and we could roll rocks down the hill into the Lake Fork River. You said, in a short while ‘Let's go back and do some more reading writin’ and arithmetic.’” My grandfather left the ranch at an early age, and although always conscientious about his family duties, he fulfilled them from a distance. By 1930 he had a college degree, was married, and was living in Los Angeles, where my mother was born in 1931.
My information about Uncle Charles comes from my mother, who visited the ranch as a girl. He was her favorite uncle. Unlike my grandfather, he never bothered to finish college, and by the time my mother came to know him in the 1930s, he had acquired an eccentric image, letting his hair and beard grow. He was a doting uncle, which was important for a city girl in the wilds of Colorado. In particular she recalls his efforts to teach her to ride a horse, a pregnant mare by the name of Flicka.
On the other hand, my mother acquired in the city her father's college-boy repulsion for Uncle Charles's other exploits. Two sets of incidents remain in her mind. First, he obtained a commission as a [Page xvi]forest ranger, which he then used as a license to shoot deer out of season; and second, there were legends about the gunfights he had had with a neighboring family, ostensibly over rights to ditch water for cattle, but as likely over issues of youthful honor.
Uncle Charles has, of course, stopped his poaching and gunslinging. After the ranch was sold in the 1940s, he had an itinerant career staking out his own diamond and gold mines in Arizona, Colorado, and Arkansas with his mother, for whom he cared until her death in 1973, a service highly appreciated by his more conventional older brother. In the 1960s, because he did not want to become identified with the hippie movement, he cut his hair. He has, however, kept his beard. Obviously, he has not led a conventional middle-class life, as his brother sought. Currently, he lives in a trailer in a small Colorado town and is known as a quiet eccentric.
Do the two sets of life histories described above—that of a Sacramento Lao college girl and her delinquent brother, and that of my grandfather and his brother in turn-of-the-century rural Colorado—have anything to do with each other? Might Sak simply become a quiet “aged-out” eccentric like Uncle Charles? In 50 or 60 years, will Kathy recollect the time she spent with her brother in juvenile hall, or will that simply become an unmentioned part of the autobiography she relates to her grandchildren? More important for this study, do the experiences of Kathy's family and my family have anything to do with the statistics that show that Southeast Asian youth are incarcerated in the California Youth Authority and attend UC Davis in disproportionately large numbers?
There is no definitive answer with respect to these individuals. However, it is my belief that these examples illustrate a common social process rooted in migration. Both cases illustrate a process in which children from immigrant communities grow up with unusual relationships with their parents and peers. Kathy's unusual relationship with her brother, and her insistence that she is needed “to read the signs on the road to San Jose,” is an unusual reversal in the normal child-parent dependency relationship, to say the least—as does the case of Uncle Charles. Another consequence is that the younger generations of immigrant families create subcultures independent of the control of their elders. This results in their unusually strong dependence on peer relationships.[Page xvii]Notes
1. This is a reference to criminologist Albert Cohen's (1955) description of working-class society in the United States in the 1950s. In developing strain theory to explain juvenile delinquency, Cohen said that working-class youth responded to the blocked opportunities created by poverty by conforming, by overcompensating and becoming “college-boy” overachievers, or by inverting middle-class values and becoming delinquents.
2. This nephew is the son of an older sister who lives in Texas.[Page xviii]
In reviewing this volume, I am impressed at how much my central theoretical thrust emerges out of conversations with Frank Hirtz. He first pointed out to me the centrality of the “process of migration,” and that this idea leads to a conclusion that youthful crime waves will not be particularly sensitive to policy prescriptions. He also developed my interest in the sociology of law, forming one of the two legs on which the work stands.
Jack Goldstone encouraged me to pursue studies of comparative historical techniques for this work, as well as a number of other papers. Jim Cramer pointed me toward the demographic works that are the basis of the demography portion of this book. In his statistics classes he also taught me to think of many social problems in terms of dependent and independent variables.
Norman Skonovd, through his applied work at the California Youth Authority and his experience teaching at the University of California, Davis, bridged many of the gaps between academia and field research. Because of this he was able to offer incisive comments. I am also grateful for the access that his introductions gave me to the law enforcement community.
Lyn Lofland and Diane Felmlee both taught me about the social psychological perspective, which greatly informs Chapter 7 as well as much of my other sociological work. Discussions with Debora Paterniti helped develop the “definition of the situation,” a concept that underlies Chapter 7.
[Page xx]The initial research for this project and my doctoral dissertation (Waters, 1995a) was funded by a 1991 California Policy Seminar grant; my thanks go to the California Policy Seminar for permission to use here some of the material from the working paper that grew out of that project, Laotians in the Criminal Justice System (Waters & Cohen, 1993). Likewise, the criminological background presented in Chapter 2 owes much to Professor Cohen's advice.
Many others have wittingly and unwittingly contributed to my thinking about immigrant and/or juvenile delinquency. These include Kouei Cho Saeteurn, Trang Duong, Fred Goraieb, Pearl Del Rosario, Ed Lemert, Meng Chiew Saeteurn, Dario Melossi, Alan Kobayashi, Grant Denney, Somkhit Khounamany, Laura Leonelli, Kao Vang, Saeng Saechao, Bill Waroff, Vince Macias, Joe Astin, Manh Cho Saeteurn, Bob Shadley, Roy Ropp, Randy Yen, Kathy Negri, Roberto Sarabia, Ray Rodriguez, Susan Hardwick, Nou Vang, La Khamphilanavoung, Maria Anguiano, and Jason Taylor. Candy Priano and Laura Sederberg assisted with the conversion of the figures into camera-ready Pagemaker documents.
At California State University, Chico, the collegiality of the Department of Sociology and Social Work has provided an excellent working environment for me to complete my work on this volume.
Appendix A: The Case of the Migrating Bushtit[Page 207]
In August 1989, I was called to Willows, California, to act as a Lao/English interpreter in the local justice court. A Laotian man had been arrested for shooting a bird in the local park with a pellet gun. In order to make a point to the local Lao community that birds were not to be shot in the park, the game officer had written out a ticket for the infraction. The case was called to court, and I was the interpreter for a short, quizzical Lao man whose name I forget. This doesn't matter, however, as this anecdote is about the difference between American law as it is written in the lawbooks and as it is administered in the courtroom. As you will see, the identity of the Lao man is tangential to this basic issue.
Under normal circumstances, the Lao man would have been urged to plead guilty by his court-appointed attorney, who would then have asked the judge to issue a warning and a suspended sentence. The district attorney would have insisted on a fine, maybe $30.00 or $40.00, and been done with the case. All would have been negotiated in a courthouse hallway or even side alley, which is how most of American justice is dispensed.
Willows, however, is a quiet place, and the defense attorney was an energetic fellow who was tired of pleading off a succession of methamphetamine, petty theft, and burglary charges out in the hallway. For that matter, the district attorney, a tall man who cultivated a good-ol'-boy drawl and wore a cowboy hat and elaborate belt buckle to court, was also probably bored. To make a long story short, standing outside a side door on one of Willows's thoroughfares, the public defender asked the Lao man to plead not guilty and give the prosecution a chance to prove its case. He brushed aside the district attorney's efforts to negotiate a more standard settlement. The confused Lao man was ready to accommodate any authority figure, and apparently assumed that a public defender in a hallway was such an august personage.
Upon arriving in the courtroom, the Lao man began to have doubts, and quizzed me (the only person he actually talked to—he probably thought I had [Page 208]some power too) about what the point of all this was, and whether it should just be pushed aside. He pointed out that he was just trying out his gun, and had had no intention of eating the bird, as some Willows residents believed. Dutifully, I translated his questions for his attorney, in order to avoid the ultimate interpreter's sin of practicing law without a license. The public defender had more in mind, however, and brushed the questions aside. Certainly he didn't care that his client had never intended to eat the bird; such intent has nothing to do with the law.
The case was called, and the three of us were pushed forward. The Lao man dutifully pled not guilty. The state was required to make its case.
The first (and only) witness was the game warden who had issued the ticket. A young blond man in uniform with movie-star good looks, he was uncomfortable in his role as witness. Indeed, it was well-known in Willows that he had worked carefully with the Lao community to ensure that they observed California's legal codes dealing with fishing, hunting, gathering snails, and other things Laotians were wont to do. (I also served as interpreter for a Lao woman who had received a ticket for snail poaching in Willows. She pled guilty for a public defender who had no sense of humor—but that is another story.) The warden told the district attorney how he had observed the man shooting the bushtit. Very solemnly, he produced a freezer box, from which he took a small plastic bag. In the bag was the bushtit itself. The bird was entered into evidence.
Then it was the defense's turn. Very solemnly, the public defender read the relevant code section having to do with the hunting of native birds. He then cross-examined the game warden on his credentials (a master's degree in wildlife biology), and asked him to identify and describe the bushtit. The bushtit was slate gray, 2.5 inches long, and had a number of other distinguishing characteristics. It had been shot with a pellet at a distance of 20 feet. This created some confusion for me, because I did not know the Lao or Thai (or the English) words for various parts of the bird's anatomy. I even became flustered over the word for gray. The issue was then broached: How do we know that this bushtit was a native of California? How could the game warden tell where the bird came from?
By this time everyone in the courtroom was red-faced with suppressed laughter. Nevertheless, the judge pushed the case along, as did the public defender and district attorney. Fortunately for me, no one could check my Lao translation, which at this point was becoming garbled. In search of a respite, I reached for my dictionary in order to look up “slate gray.” The judge said that “gray” would do.
Finally the judge pronounced, “Guilty!!” and fined the poor man $30.00. The man, relieved, agreed to pay immediately. The judge dismissed court after this case, and left for his chambers; I never did hear what he thought of the case. I shuffled toward the back door with the attorneys and the defendant, and the game warden rushed toward the poor Lao man to shake his hand and to apologize for the inconvenience of the proceedings. I ambled into the hallway with the two adversarial attorneys, who, once outside the courtroom, burst into laughter—not at the case itself, but in utter amazement that the Lao man had managed to shoot a 2.5-inch bird with a pellet gun at all.
Appendix B: Modern Bureaucratized Man Abroad: The Legal Epistemology of Stung Ducks[Page 209]
In the West we assume that the rule of law is rational and reasonable, and, according to our own epistemological assumptions, it is. However, as the following example shows, what is actually rational and reasonable is a social construction in which are embedded, among other things, jurisprudential assumptions about what are legitimate items for dispute. An immigrant, of course, has not necessarily been socialized to understand what items are appropriate for legal adjudication and what are not. I will illustrate the tenuous hold the law has over an immigrant through a story of my own encounter with unwritten but potent traditional laws in rural Tanzania. This encounter created confusion within me about my rights and responsibilities vis-à-vis another man. I still have doubts about whether I ever fulfilled the moral obligations I may have had under Tanzanian traditional law. More important, this story shows why individuals who are in unfamiliar legal situations tend to shrink from any confrontation.
In 1986, I was involved in purchasing oxen for an ox-training program in Kigoma, Western Tanzania. On the particular trip during which my legal dispute arose, I was assigned the task of purchasing 12 oxen in an open-air field, putting them in a covered truck, and returning to Kigoma. By the second day of the trip, we had purchased enough oxen that we needed to rent a tree under which we could graze our oxen while completing our purchases. After paying a nominal sum to the owner of the tree to do this, we returned to purchase the rest of our oxen. At midmorning, however, I was approached by the truck driver and told that there was something of a crisis back at the tree. Our oxen had excited a beehive in the tree above them, and the bees had in turn created some havoc among the tree owner's flock of ducks. The driver [Page 210]agreed with my initial assessment that the claim itself was probably based in the farmer's interest in squeezing money out of a “rich” foreigner. The driver agreed also that the bees probably had swarmed spontaneously without reference to our oxen, and that the victimization of the ducks was not really our fault. Nevertheless, he also pointed out that if it was in fact our oxen that had excited the bees, we would in fact be liable for any damage incurred by the farmer. On a more practical level, the driver also pointed out that under traditional law, we would not be able to reclaim our oxen from underneath the tree until the claim was settled. This led to an immediate parley near the tree, because all present agreed that I was potentially liable for the ducks’ suffering.
The parley quickly turned into a paralegal affair conducted near our still-content oxen. The “trial” was conducted in the Kisukuma language by a “judge” who I was told was a local elder of some authority. Our “defense lawyer” immediately turned to the ox trainer in our group, who was the only one who spoke that language, and he in turn translated the proceedings into Kiswahili, the national language of Tanzania, for the benefit of the truck driver and myself. The first order of business was to determine that yes, I was liable for any damages that my oxen might have caused by exciting the bees who in turn stung the ducks. I am not sure how my “guilt” was determined, but it was impressed on me that I had lost the case in very quick order. All that remained was to assess the amount of damages, which it was agreed should follow the local market's price. This turned out to be problematic, given that no ducks had actually died and it was not clear whether the duck meat had actually been damaged by the bee stings; no real market value could be set on the ducks’ pain and suffering.
After this impasse had been reached, our Kisukuma-speaking defender pointed out that the farmer had failed to obtain a government permit for a beehive in the first place, and therefore our cattle were not liable for exciting the bees. This legalism depended on a law that, as far as I could determine, was generally unenforced. But then I was the only one present who had never heard of this licensing law, and as it helped my case, I agreed to take it very seriously. Anyway, this whole process took place over a period of about 6 hours, and it was finally concluded that I was not responsible for the ducks’ pain and suffering. Or so I was told.
Appendix C: A Long Hot Summer in the Polk Street Apartments[Page 211]
(adapted from Waters & Cohen, 1993, pp. 59–61)
The Polk Street and Behringer Court Apartments are home to one of the two concentrations of Mien in North Highlands, California, in Sacramento County. For local citizens, the complex is sometimes portrayed as being an idyllic throwback to a rural Laotian village.
Laotian village or not, the new reputation for the Polk Street Apartments among Mien is one of violence and an atmosphere of fear—and with good reason. At the time this project began (in June 1991), the complex was known for housing the quieter and less volatile of the two Mien populations. Indeed, in our June 1991 notes, we speculate about why the Polk Street Mien population of North Highlands was so much better than the Oak Park (a poor downtown area of Sacramento) Mien, who had been subject to the raids of the Sacramento Bad Boys gang during 1989–1990.
A chronology of the summer's events illustrates how quickly a once “model” society can turn into a place of fear and violence.
- May 1991: A federal sting operation results in the arrest of two individuals for opium trafficking.
- June 1991: The landlord begins evictions, apparently with the aim of controlling gang activity. In retaliation, the windows of the manager's apartment are shot out. No one is hurt or arrested.
- June 1991: As a result of a gang-related dispute over a girl, a 39-year-old Mien man is stabbed to death across the street from the Polk Street Apartments.
- June 1991: A Hmong man and four Mien juveniles are arrested for possession of a pipe bomb and an assault rifle in the complex. It turns out that the Hmong man had been ostracized from the Hmong community some time ago. Authorities have no idea why these boys would have use for a pipe bomb. [Page 212]
- July 1991: A security company is hired by the management and posts a young Caucasian guard at the complex. On his second night, the man is hit on the head with a baseball bat. Three Mien and one Lao youth from another area are arrested. The crime was reported in progress by two Mien families, who called 911 and said that four youths were involved. These families were contacted by the police, who have their apartment numbers, but they refuse to talk. Police arrest four young men who are seen hanging around together, and find a broken and bloodied baseball bat in the bushes. After the victim recovers, he indicates that he saw one of the four arrested men shortly before being hit on the head. Otherwise, he remembers nothing. About this time, we begin to approach people to ask them if they would be willing to talk to us for this project. Oak Park Mien warn us away, saying that Polk Street has become a “bad place.” Our sources also express satisfaction about the four who have been arrested and express the hope that they will all be put in jail for a “long, long time.” We are also told that one of the perpetrators remains free.
- July 1991: One Lao juvenile is arrested for the June murder. Lack of willing witnesses does not permit the investigation to go further.
- August 1991: Charges are dismissed against three of the four defendants in the baseball bat case due to lack of evidence (see Appendix D). The fourth is released on $3,000 bail after the pretrial hearing. The defense attorney tells me that he will drag out the case on the remaining defendant as long as possible, and points out that the only actual legally admissible evidence against his client is the testimony of the victim, whose memory is questionable in the first place, due to the fact that he was subsequently hit on the head with a baseball bat. The victim did not see the defendant with the baseball bat, or with the others with whom he was arrested. The people who made the report in the first place refuse to testify.
- August 1991: After a neighborhood watch program is conducted by the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department and a new security agency is hired—Freedom Security, which is owned and operated by ethnic Lao—the complex calms down. A representative of the Sheriff's Department expresses to us the belief that this security agency has better control over the complex than the previous agency. For the month of August, the complex is “quiet.”
- September 1991: After getting an introduction, I visit the Polk Street Apartments. PSB (Polk Street Boys) graffiti are present in one corner of the complex. However, when I talk to one of the elderly leaders, he indicates that the complex is calm. He and a friend of his credit Freedom Security, which they say is more effective because the company uses older men as guards, and not “children,” like the 19-year-old man who was beaten with the baseball bat. Otherwise, they speak only in generalities. At the second house, the Lao youth we had been told to contact is away at school, but his sister gives us the phone number.
- September 1991: A 39-year-old Caucasian woman is shot in the shoulder while sitting in her car after a dispute involving Mien members of the Polk Street Boys. We finally contact the Lao youth. He refuses to talk to us because “I don't know nothing about that stuff…. I just want to go to school…. When they [the gangs] ask me to come join them, I just tell them that I want to go to school.”
Appendix D: The Baseball Bat Case: An Overzealous Prosecution or the Yankees at Bat?[Page 213]
The case of People v. Saephan et al. (August 6, 1991) dominated relations between the Mien community and law enforcement in the summer of 1991. Within the Mien community, it cemented the perception that the police are “soft on crime,” because three of the four suspects had the charges against them dropped and the fourth was released on bail. In effect, the defendants had already been tried and convicted in the court of Mien opinion before any court trial could take place.
The case also focused the law enforcement community's frustration with the Mien community. Two calls had been made to 911 to report the incident, but neither of the callers would agree to testify about the identity of the attackers in what was a particularly brutal case. As a consequence of their fmstration, the prosecuting attorney and others involved in the case made a number of rather cynical references to the defendants being just a “poor baseball team” during court recesses.
The defense attorneys were able to take advantage of the mutual frustration between the potential Mien witnesses and the prosecution that in fact there was no evidence at all connecting the defendants to what they agreed was a brutal crime.
The following observations are based on my notes from the pretrial hearing, after which three of the four defendants were released for lack of evidence.
Account of Officer Parker, witness, sheriff's deputy for 13 years (July 12, 1991, early morning):
4930 Polk Street—two calls. Apartment 84 anonymous call to 911. Complainant says that Asian youths are beating up a security guard. Parker found the security guard about 12:45 a.m. The security guard (Zanotti) said that he had had a verbal confrontation with four Asians who had damaged a car. When Parker found Zanotti, the security guard was there leaning against car.
[Page 214]The officer asked Zanotti if the defendant Soumeng Saephan was involved. Zanotti said no, but Parker patted Saephan down anyway because of where his hands were being held.
Because of concern with gangs at Polk Street, Parker told Zanotti to stay near office the office of the building. Parker left at 1:00 a.m.
Parker returned at 2:07 a.m.. in response to another anonymous call, this one from Apartment 86. The caller said that a security guard was being beaten up.
The guard was found on Lenore Street about two blocks away from the complex by another sheriff's deputy. SSI, the security officer company that had employed Zanotti, actually found him. Zanotti had screamed for help over radio. SSI had responded and found him. The sheriff's deputy actually found Zanotti on a living room table. Zanotti told Parker that “guy you patted down earlier is the guy who did this.” According to Parker, the only guy patted down earlier was Saephan.
All anonymous calls say that four Asian youths beat Zanotti with baseball bat and kicked him.
Zanotti—Saephan motioned for attack by tilting head? Belief of Zanotti. After motion of the head, was hit. Then lost consciousness momentarily. Woke up and saw Saephan kicking him.
Parker knew Saephan from numerous other calls to Apartment 104. For this reason, he parked by the telephone pole near 104. From there, he saw four Asian males standing in front of Apartment 104. When they saw Parker, they went inside of 104. Parker went and knocked on door, then went inside and saw four Asian youths sitting and watching TV. Made arrest. Broken bat found in complex. Only half found, and had blood stains.
Cross-examination of Parker and Zanotti for defense by Clinkenbeard:
Defendant (Saephan) had on New York Yankees shirt, blue. Blue baseball hat. Mr. Zanotti said that he didn't know who had the bat.
100% sure that Mr. Saephan kicked him. But that night, didn't mention about “nodding head.” Nodding head only came up after discussion in office yesterday. Mr. Rodrigues, resident in Apartment 104, also in apartment during arrest.
Zanotti not sure of number of youths. Thought that there were four, maybe five guys in the gang.
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About the Author[Page 233]
Tony Waters is Assistant Professor at California State University, Chico. He earned his PhD in sociology at the University of California, Davis, in 1995. From 1980 to 1983, he was a Peace Corps volunteer and refugee camp worker in Thailand, where he learned to speak Thai and Lao. Since then, he has remained in contact on a social level with Laotian refugees living in Northern California; some of the data collected for this book are a result of these continuing contacts. He has published articles about Southeast Asian refugees in Thailand and the United States in Ethnic Groups and Disasters, and is coauthor (with Lawrence E. Cohen) of a California Policy Seminar working paper titled Laotians in the Criminal Justice System. His recent publications have focused on issues of refugees and development in Tanzania, where he worked on the Burundi and Rwanda borders in 1984–1987 and 1994–1996. His articles about development and refugees in Tanzania have appeared in African Studies Review, Journal of Modern African Studies, Disasters, and other journals. His current scholarly interests are focused on developing undergraduate courses at CSU Chico in criminology, macro-sociology, and sociology of Southeast Asia. He is also writing a book about the sociology of refugee relief operations based on his experiences in Tanzania.[Page 234]