Posts Tagged ‘Ellis Island’

El Paso del Mundo

January 6, 2009
Las Americas Asylum Law Project

Las Americas Asylum Law Project

El Paso is closer to Los Angeles than Houston, closer to three other state capitals than its own, 12 hours from Brownsville, Texas.  It is part New Mexico, part Tejano, part Mexico, part Wild West, all frontera.  With a population of 700,000 and separated from a 1.5 million city by a tiny rivulet called the Rio Grande, El Paso melds with Juarez in culture, language, music, food, and la gente.

11 University of Minnesota Law School students arrived in El Paso, Texas, on Sunday, January 4. We came as part of the Asylum Law Project to volunteer with nonprofit groups such as Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services, Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project, and Las Americas Advocacy Center.  We came to volunteer, but as always, we assuredly will gain more than we give.

Our first day in El Paso, we attended immigration court and saw the inside of a client interview room.  The immigration court was informal, the judge joking about Burn after Reading and giving informal history lessons about Ellis Island.  The hardest cases were the pro-se ones, where we had to watch a 19-year-old boy with oversized clothes sit silently in front of the judge as he was told he had to wait for the LA judge to reopen his case.  Beside him, a Korean man was whispering prayer upon prayer, eyes closed.  Inside the interview room, the circle chairs and the square table were stainless steel.  A woman from El Salvador had been transported from San Francisco to Los Angeles to Arizona to Houston to El Paso.  Her son was watching her younger children and attending Stanford, and this meeting was to gather some last-minute details so that she could apply for a change of venue.  The steel room was empty and echoed, her small voice enunciated each word of Spanish thoughtfully and deliberately.

That same day, we were told by numerous attorneys and well-meaning citizens not to venture across the bridge to Juarez.  Granted there were more than 1,600 murders in Juarez in 2008 and a group of hueros would generally attract a lot of attention; however, it is that same sort of terror that has depressed the economy on both sides of the river and has lent credence to the drug dealers and thugs like the Zetas.  It is that same fear that led Congress to pass the Secure Fence Act of 2006, the same fear that drives Bill O’Reilly’s ratings, the same fear that enables shows like ABC’s “Homeland Security USA” to exist.  As we crossed the El Paso del Norte Bridge and were greeted by the smell of tacos al pastor and the sight of cheap meds and fast surgeries, none of us felt threatened.  Even as we walked by the federales with their automatic rifles and teenage faces, it was impossible to see much of a difference between one side of the river and the other.  We watched Texas beat Ohio State for the Fiesta Bowl as we sat in the Yankees bar, across the centro from the Kentucky Bar where Marilyn Monroe bought drinks for everyone the day she divorced Arthur Miller.  Both sides of this river are hopelessly interconnected.

We are staying in the Gardner Hotel/El Paso International Hostel, a hotel from the 1920s that has hosted John Dillinger and Cormac McCarthy. An old PacBell phone booth stands sentry at the doorway, and an old-time telephone switchboard stands next to the check-in booth.  With its high ceilings and transoms, old charm and new faces daily, many languages and few rules, this hostel is as good a metaphor for El Paso and Juarez as one can imagine.

Tonight we visited Casa Anunciacion, an immigrant safe house.  Dreamed up by 5 Christian men more than 30 years ago, this organization operates in the historically most impoverished portion of El Paso.  It serves as a home for immigrants, whether for one night or for 8 months.  Families, abused women, single teens, mothers and babies, fathers – the house is full to the brim with immigrants seeking shelter and a change.  This particular night Juan Carlos cooked dinner for all 55 tenants and all 11 of us.  We sat next to immigrants from Guatemala and Sinaloa, El Salvador and Lebanon, Juarez, and Honduras.  After dinner, I washed dishes alongside Federico as everyone worked together to clean the facilities.  Although the house was raided by ICE several years ago, it still continues to offer hope to many seeking a better job and life.

The border towns of El Paso and Juarez serve as a microcosm of worldwide immigration patterns.  When goods are freely transportable in a globalizing world, it only stands to reason that people will desire to move freely legally or not.  Border lines are human conventions, and as one looks at the picnic cloth of stars between the Sierra Madre and Rocky Mountains that is El Paso/Juarez at night, it is impossible to see where one ends and the other begins.  Perhaps that would just be a perfunctory exercise anyway.

Castle Clinton, Then and Now

October 13, 2008

Last week, I heard the best compliment about the United States. Two LLM international law students from Ghana were talking about their lasting impressions of the United States and the University of Minnesota Law School, respectively. Unlike Europe, they both said, no one in the U.S. has ever asked them when they were going to leave.

This could be written off as merely overblown American pride. But it could also be the expression of something much deeper, much more important. Perhaps Brihan and Peter have never been asked about their exit because it is assumed they are here to stay and succeed, like so many other immigrants before them. And although the melting pot is a flawed metaphor, the beauty is that everyone is accepted because everyone is assumed to be striving for the same acceptance, same success, the same happiness.

Yesterday I found myself at Castle Clinton in Battery Park of New York City. Standing inside the circular battlements first designed to ward of the British in the War of 1812, I thought of the new welcome people receive coming to our shores. Since the World Trade Center towers fell just a few blocks from here, America has doubled its Border Patrol agents, tripled its budget, and is spending millions deporting some 250,000 extralegal immigrants every year (http://visalawcanada.blogspot.com/2008/10/interesting-perspective-on-canada-us.html). Lines lengthen on our northern border and nativism heightens on our southern boundary in the form of a border wall. Gone are the orange cones between Vermont and Canada which once designated the border and represented our mutual trust.

In 2001, Tom Ridge was instrumental in passing the Smart Accords, border security measures which simultaneously attempted to curb criminal activity on the border while expediting legitimate economic activity. The idea was to “manage risk” by submitting questionable vehicles to lengthy inspection while speeding daily commuters through on their weekday drive from Detroit to Windsor. Canada even went so far as offering the United States a section of Canadian ground for pre-clearance facilities, to cut down on border wait times. The U.S. government, however, pushed for full sovereignty on Canadian soil, and so this Smart Accords measure has stalled.

Our nation’s economic recession changes nothing in the way of its pull for immigrants. While Americans may feel that the “economic crisis” is being borne hardest by us, this is simply not the truth. Any look at international exchange rates or foreign papers will show the fear and downward plunge of foreign markets. No, this change in economy will not solve our immigration problems any more than a wall will. As Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles has stated, our country has posted both “Help Wanted” and “No Trespassing” signs – only one of which it is possible for us to change immediately (Heyer, Kristin http://www.americamagazine.org/content/article.cfm?article_id=11117). With hate crimes against Hispanics on the rise 25% since 2004, it is clear that the xenophobia behind the protectionist anti-immigrant sentiments is alive and well. May we learn to welcome the stranger among us.

It is clear that our current frenzy of border security measures has only rerouted undocumented immigration into more dangerous, tougher-to-enforce areas. While apprehensions in San Diego dropped by two-thirds from 1994-2000, the deaths have skied to more than 1,000 since the turn of the century(in contrast, 300 people died attempting to cross the Berlin Wall throughout its entire 28 years of operation). http://www.economist.com/displaystory.cfm?story_id=12332971)

As I turn around, taking in Castle Clinton and the unique view of Ellis Island from its stone archway, I think of the 8 million immigrants who came here before it closed its doors in 1890. My ancestors received basic healthcare exams and a brief orientation within these walls before they were set loose on the Pennsylvania coal mines.

New York is a microcosm of American immigration. Walking its streets once again, I am struck by how seamlessly ambassadors from a veritable league of nations pass each other on the busy avenues. In a quiet Midtown café this morning, the barista saw pesos in my hand as I scrambled to make change. “Could I have that to add to my collection?” And in a simple transaction at a café counter between a Minnesota law student and a Kansas-New Yorker, I am reminded how welcoming and curious we Americans truly are. Hopefully our immigrant policies will reflect that in the next presidency.

Bring me your Tired, Dame Sus Pobres

March 29, 2008

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”

 

    Emma Lazarus put these words on the base of the Statue of Liberty in 1903, years before it would become the beacon of hope which drew over 12 million immigrants to Ellis Island. Despite the fact that Lady Liberty and Ellis Island are now only museums, 12 million men, women, and children today are within our borders, floating on the sea of insecurity that comes without papers. They came from war-ravaged lands, they came to give their children hope, they overstayed visas in attempts to get a job deserving of their education, they came to work menial manual labor jobs because it represented the first rung on the Ladder of American Dreams. They came because they heard Emma Lazarus’s words in their own language, calling them to come to the United States.

 

    The sad thing, though, is that too many corrupt individuals are also voicing these words. Coyotes on our southern border are whispering “Dame sus Cansados, dame sus Pobres.” Too many American employers send recruiters to equate the American promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” with the underpaid, overworked conditions in their factories and fields. Countless individuals without scruples see these people without papers as easy targets for bribery, coercion, and corruption.

 

    A headline in the Brownsville Herald yesterday stated that over 20 immigrants were hurled from the back of a pickup truck in an accident on March 27 near La Joya, Texas. Three men and women were killed when the F-150 wrecked. The driver, as usual, fled the scene and is probably whispering his smuggler’s promises to a new batch of hopeful Americalmosts.

 

    It is vital that our nation begin to shift its treatment of extralegal immigrants from one of a “lawbreaker” to one of “victim.” The same shift happened in the American Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King did not overcome segregation despite his jail sentences; John Lewis did not lead students to prisons across the South by accident. No, the breaking of these unjust laws was vital to the Civil Rights Movement because it highlighted the fact that these men and women were victims not violent criminals. As Thoreau so eloquently wrote back in 1849, “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison” (Civil Disobedience). If virtuous men and women are being punished for living on the other side of a law, the American public must come to the realization that this law must be changed.

    Extralegal residents, and those who might currently be contemplating a risky transaction with a coyote smuggler because the waiting list for citizenship is 10 years long and growing, do not break the law because they have no respect for America, no respect for the Border Patrol or our polices, no respect for our way of life. In fact, they are coming to America precisely because they honor these traditions and institutions of ours. No, if and when they break laws in order to become residents of this great nation, they are doing it only because they cannot recognize the validity, Justice, or Morality of a broken immigration system.

    We must push our nation’s leaders to return to the Table of Immigration Reform which they were seated at two years ago. We must charge them to strike the Secure Fence Act, the only piece of legislation to emerge from those talks. We must call for them to dialogue seriously about real immigration reform so there will be no more immigrants thrown from the backs of pickup trucks, no more residents coerced into corruption in hopes of a green card, no more victims at the hands of our unresponsive immigration laws. The time for change must be now – it is far too late to dismantle Lady Liberty and that poem on which she stands.

Liberty in Court Cartoon

The Power of Nomenclature

January 20, 2008

Willacy County Processing Center

Driving north on Highway 77 from the Rio Grande Valley, one passes through the town of Ramondville. Its motto is “City with a Smile,” but just to the east of the highway is visible the nation’s largest immigrant detention center. For this town of 10,000 people, the 2,000 detained immigrants would constitute 1/5 of their population and currently provides many jobs for their economy. This Willacy County Processing Center extends for miles – miles of barbed wire twisted against the horizon, miles of fences, miles of spotlights and long prison warehouses.

Currently, the United States has eight Service Processing Centers, offering no other service but that of detaining people who prayed the American dream was real. The U.S. also uses seven other contract detention facilities. These centers are a large part of the $1 billion budget of ICE, a large portion of the detention of some 27,500 immigrants each year. (http://www.bordc.org/threats/detention.php)

Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” These 27,500 extralegal residents are seen as not having any inherent rights. There can be no justice when one party has no rights; absolute power corrupts absolutely. Because of nomenclature, though, these Americalmosts are detained anywhere from a month to several years with little hope of political or judicial recourse.

The game of nomenclature has been around for centuries. During the long fight for civil rights, African-Americans had to overcome names such as “slave” and “stock” in order to demand equal rights; the same fight continues today with the “N” word. In terms of immigration, nomenclature has always been used by nativists as a means of keeping new immigrants voiceless and without rights. When the first Chinese immigrants came to these United States, they were met by the Naturalization Act of 1870 which naturalized only “white persons and persons of African descent” and left them as Asians and their brother Latinos without rights or hope of change for almost eight decades (Coming to America p.271). Throughout the years, people have used the rhetoric of sojourner to mean someone uninterested in assimilating but rather intent on sending all their money to their home country (a fact that is born more out of restrictive immigration policies than a desire to “milk” this country’s resources). The concept of guest worker has officially been around in the U.S. since the Bracero Programs of the 1950s, and since that time guest workers have been granted scant rights because they are seen as diametrically different than permanent citizens. Refugees and asylum seekers now account for a large portion of the annual immigration outside of the quota system; these immigrant hopefuls are taken on a case-by-case basis because our immigration laws have not been substantively overhauled since Kennedy. Even now, Somalis wait for years in Kenyan refugee camps, patiently waiting until their refugee card is called.

The idea of nomenclature granting or denying rights has a long, sad history in these United States. Now, the rhetoric has shifted to aliens, undesirables, and illegals. None of these names connote the human they seek to identify. With well over 12 million extralegal residents, we are terrifyingly complacent with the idea of so many living within our borders without basic human rights. Admittedly, a system which creates 12 million lawbreakers (and millions more who aid them) is a broken system. The United States must re-imagine its immigration laws so as not to ignore this pocket of people greater than the population of New York City. We must honestly confront our failed quota system and draft new immigration laws which behoove both our nation and those seeking to become citizens.

Until that day, every citizen of these United States is living with inflated rights. This past year our housing market plummeted because the sub-prime mortgage market was drastically inflated. What will happen when we and the rest of the world realize that our democratic rights are inflated as well, that they only apply to some of us, that some Americans are “more equal than others?”

Ellis Island is the symbol of immigration in the United States. Up until 1932, it was truly an “island of hope,” ushering in 12 million new citizens to America. After 1932, though, this island’s open hand of welcome became a closed fist as it morphed into a detention center and an “island of tears.” During WWII, it was even briefly used as an internment center for enemy aliens (Coming to America p.273). It is high time the United States sought to change the image of Ellis Island once more. By allowing every resident within our borders an honest chance at receiving rights through the all-powerful and elusive nomenclature of citizen (call it earned amnesty or gradual naturalization), Ellis Island can once again welcome the globalizing world to our shores.

Raymondville Detention Center

 

 


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