Posts Tagged ‘Catholic’

What does May Day mean in 2009?

April 27, 2009

As May Day 2009 fast approaches, it is important to look back at the original celebration and what it did and did not do.  On May 1, 2006, millions of immigrant workers left their jobs for an hour or a whole day to bring home the message that they are an integral part of American society.  In cities like Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Houston, Tucson, and Portland, May 1 was an important day of immigrant empowerment and a powerful symbol of solidarity.  However, that same year, the immigration legislation failed to pass Congress and the Secure Fence Act was enacted.

For nonviolence to be an effective tool, it cannot be only a negative force.  It must be constructive as well. As Dr. King wrote, “True peace is not merely the absence of some negative force — tension, confusion or war; it is the presence of some positive force — justice, good will and brotherhood” (“Nonviolence and Racial Justice“).  For nonviolence to change hearts and minds, it must not only protest injustice but also present solutions.  Unlike the May Day celebrations of 2006, as well as the ones being planned for this year in countless cities across the United States, a much smaller but more determined group of people are actively engaged in a nonviolence which highlights the injustices inherent in our current immigration system but which also positively provide for real needs.

Founded in 2004 by Catholic bishop Gerald Kikanas, Presbyterian minister John Fife, and several leaders of the local Tucson Jewish community, No More Deaths has been dealing with the negative human effects resulting from Operation Gatekeeper.  The increased militarization of the border through deportation, detention, armed forces, and border wall construction have merely rerouted desperate human migration through the most dangerous portions of the desert.  The Pima County Medical Examiner’s office, for example, has reported 84 deaths annually between 2000 and 2005, up from 14 in the ’90s.  No More Deaths attempts to save border-crossing families by leaving out water in the desert and tending to the medical needs of injured crossers. [Wikipedia] According to their website, 50 individuals have died  attempting to enter Arizona.

No More Deaths operates under some basic faith-based principles:

  • Recognize that the current Militarized Border Enforcement Strategy is a failed policy
  • Address the status of undocumented persons currently living in the US
  • Make family unity and reunification the cornerstone of the US immigration system
  • Allow workers and their families to enter the US to live and work in a safe, legal, orderly, and humane manner through an Employment-Focused immigration program
  • Recognize that root causes of migration lie in environmental, economic, and trade inequities[4]

While No More Deaths meets the needs of immgirants, they are forbidden to aid them in crossing, but in times of dire emergency they are instructed to call an on-call medical expert and, if need be, transport the seriously injured immigrant to the local hospital.  On July 9, 2005, however, two No More Deaths volunteers were arrested by the Border Patrol for transporting three border-crossers to a nearby hospital.  Daniel Strauss and Shanti Sellz were accused transporting and conspiring to transport undocumented immigrants, both felonies under US law. If convicted, they would have faced 15 years in prison and/or $500,000 in fines.  After more than a year, Judge Collins dismissed the charges in September 2006, stating that these two volunteers had followed pre-approved protocol and that further litigation would violate their Due Process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. [Wikipedia]


Currently, Dan Millis is appealing to the 9th Circuit to contest the Arizona ruling that he and other volunteers had littered by placing water jugs for migrants in the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge.  Despite the five milk crates of trash the volunteers had picked up, they were issued citations by the US Fish & Wildlife Service officers.  Two days before, Millis had found the body of a 14-year-old girl who had died of exposure. As Dan Millis has said, ““We pick up trash, distribute food and water, and administer first aid to people who desperately need it. We are not criminals.” [Guntzel, Jeff Severens. Utne Reader]

As communities prepare for May Day 2009, it is important to stress real issues and practical solutions.  Obama has pledged that comprehensive immigration reform is on the table for 2009.  The DREAM Act is still a potentiality, as is the Border Security and Responsbility Act [HR 2076] sponsored by Rep. Grijalva last week.  Immigrants from Rochester to Brownsville need more than a token march or a one-day protest – campaign for real change by advocating locally and nationally for meaningful reform for immigrants.

Saint Patrick’s Day in Postville

March 25, 2009

Saint Bridget is one of Ireland’s patron saints.  Born to Dubhthach, a pagan chieftain of Leinster, and Brocca, a Christian Pict who had been baptized by Saint Patrick, Bridget went on to found an important monastery in Kildare or Cill-dara, the “church of the oak.”  Her symbol is the Saint Brigid’s cross, representative of a time when she wove some reeds together to form a cross in the house of a dying peasant in order to teach him the Gospel story.

Driving into Postville, Iowa, on Saint Patrick’s Day, I was immediately struck by the ghost-town feel of the western half of this town that used to boast a population of 2,000.  Dozens of chicken-coop semi-trucks were parked outside the abandoned Agriprocessor’s slaughterhouse.  Hundreds of coops sat outside, vacant, waiting.  A piece of heavy machinery was driving through the property, disposing with some of the tons of junk littered around the lot.  With the whine of its engine, it seems to be disposing with the evidence of what happened here last May.

Agriprocessors slaughterhouse

Agriprocessors slaughterhouse

On this dusty day, one can hardly imagine the cacophony of sounds here before the ICE raid on May 12, 2008.  Chickens squawking, machines whirring, blades thudding, trucks chugging, people shouting to be heard over the din of machinery.  Spanish mixed with Yiddish mixed with Arabic numerals preceded by $ signs.

In this abandoned slaughterhouse site, though, it is all too easy to imagine the eerie silence when the machines stopped, when 900 ICE agents increased the town’s population by 40%, when 389 immigrants were detained and interned in a cattle barn, when the chickens lived to squawk some more and this peaceful Iowa town screeched to a halt.  Only five immigrant workers had prior criminal records, but all were sentenced with working under false documents.  (Bobo, Kim. Religious Leaders Protest Postville Raid)  The public defenders, the translators, the immigration judge – everyone had been told to keep this date open on their calendars, ensuring a speedy process where nearly all the immigrants from Central America pled guilty to charges they didn’t understand in hopes of reduced sentences.  Professional interpreter Camayd-Freixas was so appalled that he published his eyewitness account with the New York Times.

Just down the street, I sit with Father Ouderkirk for a half-hour.  He is the father of St. Bridget’s Catholic Church here in Postville, a safe haven for many of the terrorized families still remaining after that fateful day in May.  “You should have been here earlier,” this once-retired priest tells me.  “On Tuesdays and Thursdays, this turns into the best restaurant in town.’”  Taking his job seriously as pastor to this reeling community, Ouderkirk serves Latino food to needy families on these days, in addition to working to provide housing funds for the scores of families who lost dads, moms, and children in this raid.  “You wouldn’t believe how much we spend each month, trying to keep a roof over their heads.”

Some of the women he serves at St. Bridget’s have been wearing an ankle bracelet for 10 months.  Some of the children haven’t seen or heard from their fathers for almost a year.  Many of the mothers are torn between returning to Central America to reunite with their husbands or staying here so their citizen children can receive a good education.  These families are facing excruciatingly difficult choices, choices one should never have to make.  Father Ouderkirk wipes with his handkerchief and tells me what we really need is comprehensive immigration reform.

As I leave Postville on Tuesday, the day after the mayor announced his resignation, the boarded-up windows and streams of For-Sale signs are a constant reminder that this town was dealt a devastating blow last May.  With a new administration and new DHS Secretary Napolitano, many are hopeful that the days of Postville and Oxford, Mississippi raids are over.  It is not enough, though, to merely hope that this administration will make the hard choices it must to ensure that comprehensive immigration reform wins out over high-profile, low-impact raids such as this.  We must make it very clear that criminalizing immigrant families is useless and inhumane, while opportunistic employers who lure workers under false pretenses (and, as here, actually provide the false identification documents to their unknowing workers) is the appropriate focus of workplace reform.  We must remind Obama that, if he is really attempting to out-do the New Deal, he should learn from FDR’s Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins who shut down the Department of Labor division that was then carrying out workplace raids (Bobo, Kim). We must encourage Napolitano to ensure that such Sinclair-like Jungle conditions never occur again, where immigrants are both victimized and criminalized.  We must urge our judicial department to reexamine current immigration policies which allow such a rushed, clandestine mockery of Due Process.

Father Ouderkirk will be traveling to my home in Rochester on April 2, to give a presentation at Pax Christi Catholic Church.  I encourage anyone and everyone to come and hear this man of faith who is earnestly working for immigration reform.  For all those afar, it is vital that we do not forget such tragedies as Postville.  We must stare at such instances with unblinking eyes and learn from them.  Please urge our administration to do the same.

Saint Bridget's Catholic Church, Postville, IA

Saint Bridget's Catholic Church, Postville, IA

VOICES

February 3, 2009

At a time when immigrants are being scapegoated by some as a partial reason for the economic crisis, this Thursday, immigrants are being given a voice in Rochester, Minnesota. VOICES (Valuing Our Immigrants Contributions to Economic Success) is a community-wide initiative to open dialogue in the community. Started by the Diversity Council through a Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation grant, VOICES began by posing questions to focus groups through 10 of the most common languages here: Khmer, Spanish, Bosnian, Vietnamese, the languages of India, Somalia, Arabic, Lao, Hmong and English.(Valdez, Christina. The Post-Bulletin)

This Thursday from 6-8:30 at the Heintz Center the community will come together to discuss the contributions immigrants have on the local economy and community. Often talked about in a passive voice, this VOICES town hall meeting is a unique opportunity for immigrants to tell their side of the story. I hope all of Rochester is listening Thursday evening. ((Valdez, Christina. The Post-Bulletin)

Another intriguing initiative to give publicity to a seldom-explored area of the country is the International League of Conservation Photographers’ Borderlands RAVE Blog. This project’s purpose is to compile photos of the precious yet fragile border environment which is being profoundly impacted by our lack of comprehensive immigration reform and our construction of a devastating border wall. One look at a close-up of an ocelot or a panoramic of the desert sands instantly brings the inefficacy of a border wall into painful focus.

However, while a border wall continues solidifying a divide through El Paso and Juarez and other similar sister cities along our 2,000 mile southern border, some faith-based organizations are seeking to bridge the divide and speak to the real underlying issues. The Kino Initiative is a collaboration of six Roman Catholic organizations from Mexico and the United States providing aid and other services to deported immigrants. In Nogales, Mexico, the Kino Initiative has made a start by providing deported people with food, clothing, shelter, and health care. Having seen firsthand the bottleneck effect of immigrants in border towns such as Nogales, the Kino Initiative is speaking to a deep need. As Mexican nationals are often merely dropped across the border, regardless of where their home state may be, towns along la frontera become Casablanca to so many, places where they are extremely vulnerable, without community, and largely without hope. The Diocese of Tucson and Archdiocese of Hermosillo in the Mexican state of Sonora; Jesuit organizations from California and Mexico; Missionary Sisters of the Eucharist, a religious congregation in Colima, Mexico, and the Jesuit Refugee Service U.S.A. are all seeking to affect these immediate needs, while bearing daily witness to the necessity for comprehensive immigration reform and across-the-aisle, across-the-river negotiations that engage both sending and receiving countries in real migration solutions that stress human dignity.(Associated Press)

While the border wall continues marring our southern border for want of real change, programs like the Kino Initiative and VOICES are engaging Americans in the pressing civil rights issue of this century. May this only be the beginning.

In this Together

February 1, 2009

On January 23, Nashville 43% of Nashville voters voted in favor of a bill touted as being able to unite their city and save it money in these difficult economic times. Had it passed, this Tennessee city would have become the nation’s largest to enact such legislation. In 1780, John Adams proposed similar legislation to the Continental Congress, stating it would help to “purify, develop, and dictate usage of” English; his proposal was rejected as undemocratic. Still, some 30 states and a dozen cities have made English their official language, showing not only intolerance to immigrants and international travelers but also a Pollyanna longing for the bygone days before globalization. (Cousins, Juanita)  It is truly scary that only 57% of Nashville voters weighed in against this “English First” proposal. Mayor Karl Dean said, “The results of this special election reaffirms Nashville’s identity as a welcoming and friendly city, and our ability to come together as a community,” but the nation’s largest Kurdish community must have felt more than a little terrified that the vote had been so close. If the economy continues on its downward trend and politicians look to scapegoat, immigrant communities around the States may be faced with similar nativist proposals. (Cousins, Juanita)

Already, immigrants and refugees throughout the nation are struggling to make ends meet. Always the most vulnerable community in any country, refugees arrive in the United States with about $450 of federal aid and a little temporary financial help from private agencies for 3 months. After that, they are on their own. While Nashville proposed English First legislation to help that city’s budget, Utah is answering the cries of low-income families in a different way. Beginning this month, Utah will provide recently arrived families rent subsidies for a period of 2 years. The money, drawn from unspent federal welfare reserves, will mean a world of difference for refugees living with the heat off this winter. Utah will disburse this money through refugee aid organizations like International Rescue Committee and Catholic Community Services. Utah’s compassionate new legislation will mean a world of difference for 1,000 new refugees each year, but for the other 59,000 the United States accepted last year, 2009 looks bleak. (Eckholm, Erik)

An editorial in the New York Times yesterday detailed the horrors xenophobia and its self-defeating nature. According to the article, the American Cause spoke at the National Press Club in Washington, declaring that the GOP’s November defeats were due to Republicans being too soft on immigrants, rather than too harsh. The author points out anti-amnesty and anti-immigrant thinking like this cost House and Senate seats in 2006 and 2008. Xenophobes like Lou Barletta of Hazleton, PA, or former congressman J.D. Hayworth of Arizona both lost due to their harsh stance toward immigrants and diversity. (New York Times) After Latinos’ huge showing in the polls this past election, this author correctly states that any political party which bases its success on the exclusion of immigrants risks deserved irrelevance.

Historically, nativist groups have flourished in troubled times. The Know-Nothings came to power in the 1840s and 1850s on a platform of anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant policies. Their rise to power coincided with the disintegration of the 2-party system, the increasing resistance to slavery, and the influx of Irish immigrants. Similarly, the revival of the Klu Klux Klan in 1915 coincided with the Great Migration of Africa-Americans and low-income whites from the South to the North, as well as a large number of immigrants from southern and Eastern Europe. The influence of this anti-minority, nativist organization eventually faded, but not before Calvin Coolidge signed the Immigration Act of 1924 which limited immigrants based on their national origin (severely restricting Asian and Eastern European immigration). (http://www.historicaldocuments.com/ImmigrationActof1924.htm)

This latest economic situation could instigate the same. However, it also could be a time when the United States grows closer together, seeking to integrate the immigrants within its borders and to become a nation that lives up to its moral responsibility toward refugees. As bank accounts shrink and jobs disappear over the coming months, we must be vigilant to ensure that no one is scapegoated. We are truly all in this thing together.

* Editor’s Note: Monday night’s edition of “The O’Reilly Factor” declared war on the New York Times because of the editorial mentioned in this article.  Pointedly, Bill O’Reilly took offense at the editorial’s mention of his statement that the Times wanted “…to break down the white, Christian, male power structure, which you’re a part, and so am I, and they want to bring in millions of foreign nationals to basically break down the structure that we have.”  Hurrah for such an article, Editorial Director Andrew Rosenthal.


Iraqis seeking refuge in Detroit Rock City

December 8, 2008


Nancy and Sharon are two of the newest kids in Rochester Public School District. Sharon’s the top of her class right now, and she’s preparing to take her 5th grade finals. Nancy learned English well enough from movies and American television to be on the verge of exiting her ESL program. She divides her time between doing her homework and acting as interpreter for both her parents who know only Arabic.

Her parents, Gary and Darlene, are Chaldeans, a strict Catholic sect which speaks Aramaic (believed to be the language of Jesus), are struggling as they seek to feel at home here in southeast Minnesota. They recently got a GMC Safari, and as so excited that they can drive their Iraqi friends around in it. Gary’s fighting to find a job that uses his skills as an expert mosaic artist, and both of them are still trying to get adjusted to a Catholic mass where they can speak to the Father.

Gary and Darlene and the kids are some of the 13,823 Iraqi refugees to be admitted in the fiscal year 2008. In 2006, only 189 of the 41,053 refugees admitted to the United States were Iraqis. Despite the fact that it’s been going on since 2003, the United States only recently began responding to the more than 2 million people who have been displaced within Iraq and the more than 2.7 million who have fled the country (numbers according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). Next year some 17,000 are expected, still just a small portion of the number of people displaced by the United States’ prolonged occupation of Iraq. (Svboda, Sandra. Metro Times)

The past three decades have not been good for anyone in Iraq. After the Iran conflicts, the Gulf War in the 1990s, the UN sanctions limiting food and medicine, the awful end of Hussein’s regime, and the ongoing nightmare of the United States’ occupation hasn’t been good for Sunnis, Shiites, or Christians. Until now, though, it has fallen on all equally. The Christians have been targeted since 2003, with many like Darlene and Gary being kidnapped, held for ransom, picking up and fleeing with only the clothes on their backs because they are being blamed for the invasion and duration. (Svboda, Sandra. Metro Times)

Rochester is not alone. Detroit is the city with the second largest Iraqi population in the United States, and despite the fact that the downturned economy has caused them to begin closing their doors to refugees, more than 120,000 Iraqi-Americans live and work and contribute to their economy. As more and more refugees come to the United States hoping for peace and longing to provide for their families, we can be proud of Nancy and Gary, Sharon and Darlene. We may pray that all the displaced Iraqis, many as a result of our own doing, may find a place they might once again call home. (Neuffer, Elizabeth. Boston.com)

The ABC of Agriprocessors

December 7, 2008

Nearly seven months after their Postville processing plant was raided by Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE), Agriprocessors pled not guilty on all charges Friday, December 5, 2008. Their lawyer, who phoned in to make the plea, did not mention the plight of the 389 unauthorized immigrants or their families (http://www.desmoinesregister.com/article/20081205/NEWS/81205033). He didn’t highlight the fact that these hard workers were steered into cattle barns and misled to believe that if they admitted all charges against them the process would somehow be easier and more lenient. Agriprocessors’ attorney didn’t mention their Nebraska plant that closed down or the Chapter 11 bankruptcy the company filed on November 4 to “reinvigorate the company,” according to their bankruptcy lawyer Kevin Nash. (Preston, Julia. New York Times)

The saddest aspect of Agriprocessors’ court proceedings is that they are being tried for the wrong crimes. Agriprocessors will face a jury trial on January 20 on the charges of “harboring and aiding undocumented workers, document fraud, identity theft and bank fraud.” (http://www.postbulletin.com/newsmanager/templates/localnews_story.asp?z=7&a=374130) They are not awaiting judgment for their notorious safety violations, underpayment of their immigrant workers, and mandatory unpaid overtime, all of which community members like Rev. Paul Oderkirk of Saint Bridget’s Catholic Church had been decrying for years. They are on trial for “aiding” unauthorized” workers that they intentionally recruited and then kept illegal so as to have a docile, underpaid workforce. They are on trial for helping immigrants rather than for the fact that they worked to keep their workforce illegal because unauthorized workers can’t unionize or lobby for better conditions. They are being prosecuted to the full extent of the law for helping immigrants but not even being chastised for filling the deported immigrants’ positions with Latino workers scooped out of Texas homeless shelters this past June (http://immigrationmexicanamerican.blogspot.com/2008/06/breaking-news-agriprocessors.html).  This kosher meatpacking plant that boasted revenues of $300 million will not be sitting before the jury for its criminal hourly wages or its exploitation of the most vulnerable community within our borders. No, they are on trial for “harboring and aiding undocumented workers.”


It is deeply saddening that immigrants are criminalized so deeply in this country that everyone associated with them becomes guilty by association rather than by exploitation. When people are made criminal by unjust laws, the worst crime imaginable is aiding and abetting them. Harking back to the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 which were repealed just a few years later in the infancy of our nation, these laws are even more shameful in that they prosecute rather than protect the most vulnerable, unrepresented sector of American society, the 12 million extralegal immigrant workers living within our borders with little chance of effectively working toward citizenship.

14 days before Agriprocessors’ jury trial, ABC will be airing its new reality television show “Homeland Security USA.” This new series which profits off the often-fatal journey of immigrants through the most dangerous parts of desert borderland seems perfectly congruous with Agriprocessors’ charges of harboring and aiding extralegal immigrants (Stelter, Brian. New York Times). Something is fundamentally flawed in the United States when we are entertained by the criminalization, hunting, and deportation of people whose only crime is the desire for work and enough money for their family. Both ABC and Agriprocessors’ board of directors share this understanding and have figured out ways to profit from others’ painful, life-threatening choice to seek work in America.


The Remaking of America, Saturday by Saturday

October 4, 2008

The glaring sun almost makes a Minnesota October afternoon seem warm.  It is one of the last Saturdays when the swings will be alive with children, one of the last weekends when the community barbeque pits never entirely cool, one of the last weekends men can drink beer straddling a cooler and talking college football.  We are a bunch of strangers picnicking.

It is the first annual Iraqi refugee picnic here in Rochester.  There are 4 million Iraqis displaced, half within their ravaged nation and the other half wandering about the world.  The United States has agreed to receive 6,000.

Twenty are gathered here at Soldier’s Field Veteran Memorial Park.  One came after Desert Storm and is proud of her long-standing status in America. The others came two months ago, two weeks ago.  They are trying to understand why everyone here is in their house by 9:00, so unlike Amman, so unlike home.  They are trying to get used to hamburgers and tikka, kosher pickles and their pickled artichokes, ketchup and kebabs, chocolate cake and hummus.  They are also getting used to each other.

In Rochester, Minnesota, the women wearing designer hijabs are laughing as they help make a chicken dinner with Iraqi Christians and American Catholics. Back in Iraq, the women wearing the trendy hijabs wouldn’t associate with the girls wearing all black garb, and would certainly not associate with anyone who followed the Jew named Jesus.  Here, as they struggle to learn English and acquire their first American jobs, they are all banded together as so many immigrants before.

One is a professional upholsterer hoping to get a job as a concierge.  Another was the first-place winner of the national Lebanon competition for mosaic washbowls who can’t speak English and is eager to do anything to make that first American dollar.  Some have lived for the past few years in Jordan, waiting for their opportunity to come to the U.S., others just left a country changed beyond recognition.  All are amazed at the rural America so unlike the movies. Each of them is intrigued by the fact that American high-school teachers seem to care, that classes are easier but more fun here, that the buses are new and the lawns are bigger.  This is America, immigrants coming to it thinking they’ve discovered something new and little realizing that they are making it new every day.

Something there is that doesn’t love a Wall, Part 6

July 22, 2008

           Belfast once vied with Dublin for the heart of Ireland.  It was there the Titanic was constructed; it was here C.S. Lewis, the famous Christian apologist and novelist of the Chronicles of Narnia came into the world. 

            After the Troubles started in the 1960s, however, this important port in Northern Ireland took a drastic turn.  The already tense situation of British control of a predominantly Irish city burst into violence by terrorist groups of both sides, the IRA and the UVF.  Beginning in the early 1970s, the first “peace lines” or intra-city barriers were erected in Belfast.

            These walls have increased to more than 40 today, covering over 13 miles and segregating much of this once-thriving city.  Alternately built of steel, iron, and brick, these walls stretch up to 25-feet high and prohibit the movement of people from the Irish-Catholic parts of town to the British-Protestant sections.  Some are open during the day and closed at night; some are manned by police; all were intended to bring “peace” by segregating sectarian groups.  The most famous of these walls runs parallel to Shankill Road, a site of several terrorist attacks.  ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belfast_Peace_Lines)

            Today, some of the tension has lessened since the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement.  The walls still stand, though, and they draw thousands of tourists a year.  The “peace lines” are still eerie and haunting, stark in the way they divvy up houses and roads, slicing their way through what must have once been a beautiful city.  Unlike the walls of houses, and even unlike the colorful propagandist murals peppering the city, these walls stand ominous and dark against the city skyline.

 

            While some may argue the walls saved a few lives over the years by separating the citizenry of Belfast and Northern Ireland, in reality it was always the cooperation of the people that staved off violence and determined such compromises and peace accords such as the Good Friday Agreement.  The walls had nothing to do with peace, serving instead to segregate people further, reinforce rifts between families, and replace real negotiations and co-habitation talks with solid, uncompromising walls.  It was only when the Irish and the British met without walls and were able to dialogue that any real progress was made in the line of peace.

 

            We in the United States have much to learn from the island of Eire across the Atlantic.  For as much as we hope to bring about “peace” and homeland security by erecting a 700-mile border wall on our southern border as per the Secure Fence Act of 2006, it will never be more than a negative peace. This negative peace, defined by Dr. King as an “absence of tension,” is also an absence of progress, a stultifying of cooperative relationships.  If we further open up the lines of communication with Canada and Mexico rather than erecting walls and militarizing our borders, perhaps the symptoms of extralegal immigration and terrorism will be able to be mutually solved in the Americas rather than in a bubble between Ottawa and Oaxaca.  God forbid that tourists should one day board Black Taxis in Texas, listening as the tour guide speaks about the failed “peace line” of yet another border wall of segregation.  

           

Color in Your Cheeks

June 17, 2008

She came in on the redeye to Dallas-Fort Worth.
all the way from sunny Taipei.
skin the color of a walnut shell,
and a baseball cap holding down her black hair.
and she came here after midnight.
the hot weather made her feel right at home.
come on in, we haven’t slept for weeks.
drink some of this. it’ll put color in your cheeks…

(The Mountain Goats, “Color in Your Cheeks”)

It was my first day in an immigration attorney’s office. Rochester, Minnesota, is a small city of 100,000, and Michael York is one of the only people who practice immigration law exclusively. Although Rochester is small and a non-traditional immigrant center, the population has changed much in the last years because of international workers coming to the Mayo Clinic and to IBM. Other immigrants are refugees sponsored by the Catholic or Lutheran Churches which have a big presence in Olmsted County and throughout the Midwest.

In a matter of one day, I was introduced to immigrants and residents comprising virtually every conceivable situation. Some were applying for marriage licenses, hoping to gain the same citizenship as the woman or man whom they loved. Others were trying to bring their entire family of seven from Durango, Mexico, after having spent the better part of their life working in the United States in order to prepare for this day. Still others were calling the office every day, wondering how the paperwork was coming along for their wife who had been left voluntarily under threat of deportation a year ago. Still others were hoping that, after applying for temporary asylum status every year for more than ten years, they could finally change their citizenship from their war-torn home country which has changed hands some dozen times in the last nineteen years.

…he drove from in from Mexicali, no worse for wear.
money to burn, time to kill.
but five minutes looking in his eyes and we all knew he
was broken pretty bad, so we gave him what we had.
we cleared a space for him to sleep in,
and we let the silence that’s our trademark
make its presence felt.
come on in, we haven’t slept for weeks.
drink some of this. it’ll put color in your cheeks…

(The Mountain Goats, “Color in Your Cheeks”)


Despite the fact it was my first day, I felt I was able to contribute both to the attorney and these clients, these people. I enjoyed speaking Spanish with a Mexican man who has been working here for years and is attempting to get employer-sponsored citizenship. My heart went out to a woman who was calling about her husband’s file, a husband she has not seen for two years since he was forced to leave the country. I thumbed through thousands of files, thousands of lives and stories and situations, thousands of big dreams and tiny legalities.

The problem with our immigration system is that it is reactionary,” the attorney said. Ever since the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the legislative bodies of the United States have been playing a form of eugenics or race-based selection through the inclusions and glaring exclusions of our immigration policies. From the Japanese Gentleman’s Agreement and the 1924 literacy test to today’s surviving questions on immigration forms which ask about McCarthy-ian Communist ties, our laws are still reactionary and therefore not comprehensive or fully just. Until the laws change to more ably reflect the current state of immigration and globalization, each year will see more and more individual exceptions and exemptions costing billions of dollars in bureaucracy.


…they came in by the dozens, walking or crawling.
some were bright-eyed.
some were dead on their feet.
and they came from Zimbabwe,
or from Soviet Georgia.
east Saint Louis, or from Paris, or they lived across the street.
but they came, and when they’d finally made it here,
it was the least that we could do to make our welcome clear.
come on in, we haven’t slept for weeks.
drink some of this. it’ll put color in your cheeks.

(The Mountain Goats, “Color in Your Cheeks”)

“Our immigration system is like a rewards or benefits program,” York said coolly. “You can come to our country if your grandfather fought with our troops at one point, if you were struck by lightning twice, and if you have never ever lied to another human being. Pictures also help.” At first, this statement seemed a calloused joke, but the more I thought about our immigration laws and our nation’s underlying philosophy, it all made sense. Our laws are set up in such a way that we refuse to admit the benefit immigrants inevitably bring to our economy, society, culture, and communities. Our laws and statutes are meant to be prohibitive, to let in merely a fraction of the desirable and desirous immigrants who long to live and work within our borders. Like a lottery or a rewards system, no one is actually meant to win.

As I packed my bag at 6:00 to leave for the day, another person called. Frustrated, I had to remind myself that this was not a client of the firm. This was not just a number, or a passport picture, or an INS file, or even just a story. This immigrant on the other end of the line is a person, a person caught in a game that few are supposed to win, a game based on rules few Americans would agree with if stated explicitly, a competition which pits them against individuals and systems they should be working with rather than against. I answer the phone in such a way that hopefully brings color to her cheeks and a smile to her eyes.

http://borderstories.org/index.php/nogales-born-and-raised.html

Quinceaneras and Coming of Age as a Mexican-American

April 22, 2008

It is hard for my students to understand that Mexican is a dirty word in some stretches of middle America. Here in Brownsville, most of my freshman prefer Mexico to the United States in terms of life – not living standards, not poverty level, not economic potential or educational excellence, but vida life. Many of my high-school children do not understand why Brownsville is so quiet at night, why no one walks the streets after dark, why there are so many cul-de-sacs and so few nightclubs. Though they complain that Matamoros always floods after rain, these 14 and 15-year-olds prefer its untidy reality to the American sprawl they see in the strip malls and the vacant 30-story hotels in Brownsville’s historic downtown.

The wall proposed for the Rio Grande Valley and, locally, between Matamoros and Brownsville, would force my students to make a choice they should never have to make – between their cultural past and their economic future. The Secure Fence Act is selective division, and while none of us want a similar wall with Canada or on our Atlantic beach front, the wall seems to be a pointed affront to Latino culture. A border wall through la frontera here in Texas would make the hyphen between Mexican-American more like a minus sign than a symbol of cohesion.

Each xenophobic nativist and any anti-Mexican Minuteman would surely change his/her mind about a Mexican border wall if only they were invited to a quinceanera. This past Saturday I had the profound privilege to attend a the fifteenth-birthday celebration of one of my freshman ESL students. As is a rite of passage when driving in Mexico, my fiance and I got hopelessly lost. Every person we spoke to was very understanding of our direction-less driving, as well as the green coolant leaking out of my tired ’94 Dodge Spirit. Finally, we followed a kindly man and his wife to the Salon de Santa Fe.

Although we missed the religious ceremonies at La Iglesia San Juan de los Lagos, I was immediately struck by the profound meaning of the quinceanera. It was a beautiful event, less like a Sweet Sixteen birthday party and more like a full-blown wedding. Each table had elaborate floral arrangements, hors d’oeuvres, and decorations. We were escorted to our table by the mother of my English-as-a-Second-Language student. She speaks no English, but she is entrusting me and my fellow American teachers with her daughter’s education every week. Her daughter Vero leaves their Mexican house on Sunday evening, not to return until Friday night. Her mom can visit Vero on a day-visa, but she would be outside of the law if she tried to make a permanent residence north of the Rio Grande. Vero is torn between her mother’s love and her aptitude for academics, and so she makes the long trip across the narrow river every week. And all this at fifteen years old.

I beam with pride to see my young student say goodbye to childhood through several dances with her father, her tios, and her childhood boy friends. The Vero who waltzes with her father is the same Vero who aces my vocabulary tests in English. The same girl who giggles and screams unabashedly as she pulls out a kitten from her giant birthday box is the same staid student who always is on time, always helps others, always gives her all. The same girl going table to table to thank all her family friends of Mexico is the same Vero who blesses her newfound American community by volunteering many hours each month.

La frontera is more than just the last home for endangered animals like the ocelot and Sonoran Pronghorn; this borderland is also one of the few places in the United States that celebrates quinceaneras. The quinceanera is a proud moment where a girls’ entire community is able to affirm her life and celebrate her maturation into womanhood. It speaks to the best in Mexican culture. As we snack on avocados and pickled peppers and watch a slide show of her life, I wish all America could witness this beautiful celebration. Dancing cumbias and salsas alongside my students and their vecinos, singing corridos and romanticos with grandmothers and granddaughters, I realize this culture calls out the best in family. The world would do well to look to the Mexican mode of making events significant. In 2007, the Catholic Church officially recognized this profound event with its own liturgy; America and all people of faith could learn a lot about community from this Mexican tradition.

Loving God,
you created all the people of the world
and you know each of us by name.
We thank you for Vero,
who today celebrates her fifteenth birthday.
Bless her with your love and friendship
that she may grow in wisdom, knowledge, and grace.
May she love her family always
and be faithful to her friends.
Grant this through Christ our Lord.

(Quinceanera Liturgy)

Driving back across the Mexican-American border checkpoint on the international bridge, past the barbed wire and racial profiling, past the sniffing dogs and warning signs, I ponder why anyone would want to wall off the culture of quinceaneras. While the United States is busy enacting bills like the REAL ID Act and the Secure Fence Act, students like Vero will continue coming of age in a multi-cultural community which is best when it learns from all its immigrants.


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