Posts Tagged ‘Spanish’

The Assets of Immigrants

July 2, 2009

6 people sat around a dinner table in Oronoco township last night discussing the assets of immigrants.  The dialogue was part of the Table Talk series funded by VOICES [Valuing Our Immigrants’ Contributions to Economic Success] and the Rochester Diversity Council.  Rather than delving into the political or the emotionally charged aspects of immigration debate, this discussion centered on the assets immigrants bring to our community.  “Community” was widely defined, as we had participants from Winona, Austin, and Rochester.

Table Talk in Oronoco

Table Talk in Oronoco

Throughout the two-and-a-half hours, we discussed the many seen and unseen ways in which immigrants add value to our community.  We discussed how immigrants’ work ethic has enabled many American businesses to stay here in the U.S. rather than outsource.  We discussed how immigrants bring a world perspective to any community, how international events and comity are much more real when one knows people from that region.  We discussed how immigrants are forcing the United States to adapt and succeed in a globalized economy.  Immigrants also bring globalization to the U.S. in the many different foods, languages, and customs they carry with them.

During the discussion, there were some probing questions about whether these assets actually had negative counterparts to them.  One participant inquired whether immigrants are a drain on our economy, in that they use welfare, social services, and healthcare.  The group addressed this idea, coming to the conclusion that immigrants, and particularly the undocumented immigrants at whom this question was directed, live in the shadows and are the last people to try to use public benefits.  Additionally, since immigration doesn’t occur in a vacuum, it is overly simplistic and intellectually dishonest to conclude that immigrants strain or drain the economy without looking at the money they put back into the community through sales, purchases, work product, taxes, and tithes to the church.

Even in a small group of this size, the personal experiences of each individual with immigrants were extensive.  From social service work with a Sudanese family to a clothing shelf geared to Latinos, from migrant farmworker legal issues to Vietnamese co-workers in a commercial cleaning agency, from ESL students and international college students to the previous VOICES for a where Somali and Hmong communities voiced their ideas about their contribution and integration in Rochester’s community – it was easy to see the multitudinous ways in which we had all been influenced and impacted by immigrants. And while it is a sweeping generalization to even use the word “immigrant,” most of us who had interacted with immigrants, asylum-seekers, refugees, and migrants all knew what amazing people they were and how much we had to learn from them. [For more information, read article by Christina Killion-Valdez in the Rochester Post-Bulletin]

Picture 008

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

Post-Postville America

March 6, 2009

Though it only occurred last May, the ICE raids in Postville, Iowa, keep resurfacing to the forefront of immigration policy in the United States. On February 25, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano ordered a review of a raid the day before. This raid on the Yamato Engine Specialists engine repair shop in Washington resulted in the arrest of 28 individuals and the first such raid under the new Obama administration (Stark, John and Anna Walters. Bellingham Herald). A top official suggested that Napolitano did not know of the raid beforehand, stating that, “She was not happy about it because it’s inconsistent with her position, and the president’s position on these matters.” The fate of these workers, most of whom await trial in a Tacoma detention center, will also signal the resolve of the Obama administration to focus more on noncompliant employers rather than the employees. So close to the events of Postville where nearly 400 immigrants were arrested and adjudicated in rapid fashion, Napolitano’s review of the raid will demonstrate how far we’ve come as a nation in ten months. (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/26/washington/26immig.html?emc=tnt&tntemail1=y)

Also last week, the Supreme Court heard the oral arguments of Flores-Figueroa v. United States. This case is a test case aimed at getting the Supreme Court to issue a binding national ruling on identity theft. 18 U.S.C. §1028 is an aggravated identity theft statute which extends criminal sentences by two years per charge. §1028 intersects with immigration law, however, when undocumented immigrants make up Social Security numbers which happen to belong to real people.

Six District Courts are evenly split over the extent of mens rea (foreknowledge) required for this crime. Currently, six District Courts are evenly divided in the interpretation of the ambiguous term “knowingly” within 18 U.S.C. §1028(a). The 4th, 8th, and 11th Courts have ruled no mens rea as to the person’s identity is necessary, while the 1st, 9th, and D.C. Circuits have ruled it a requirement. United States v. Villanueva-Sotelo, 380 U.S. App. D.C. 11, 515 F.3d 1234 (D.C. Cir. 2008)(explaining necessity for mens rea because theft is not mere misappropriation); United States v. Sanchez, 2008 U.S. Dist. Lexis 35460 (E.D.N.Y. April 30, 2008)(requiring government to prove scienter for identity theft); United States v. Mejorada-Cordova, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 44634 (D. Utah, June 5, 2008); United States v. Salazar-Montero, 520 F. Supp. 2d 1079 (N.D. Iowa 2007) (mens rea needed due to statutory ambiguity).

“There’s a basic problem here,” said Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.. “You get an extra two years if it just so happens that the number you picked out of the air belonged to somebody else.” Kevin Russell, attorney for the defendant, is arguing that, at the very least, the rule of lenity requires that ambiguous statutes such as §1028 be resolved in favor of the defendant in criminal cases. Ignacio Flores-Figueroa worked with false identification for years at a steel plant in Illinois. After six years, he changed his false identification documents and was arrested shortly thereafter. The Eighth Circuit convicted Flores on the basis that he knowingly used false identification, despite the fact he was ignorant of a true person’s identity. (Faitek, Adam. New York Times)

10 months ago in Iowa, 270 of the 400 immigrants working in a kosher meatpacking plant were criminally charged with using false identification. A marked departure from past instances where immigrants had faced only civil charges, the predominantly Guatemalan Spanish-speakers were penned in a cattle-barn and hurried through the mobile trailer-courthouse. Prof. Erik Camayd-Freixas of Florida International University, an interpreter who risked his professional life to speak out against the atrocities he witnessed that May, stated that most of the immigrants had no idea what a Social Security card was, let alone that they had “stolen” someone’s identity.

While much of this may seem like obscure legal arguments, what this realistically means for immigrants charged under §1028 is that, rather than the speedy deportation for which they were hoping, they may have to spend years in an American jail. Anxious to return to any jobsite to earn precious money for their families, the long sentences associated with §1028 condemn them and their families to a meager existence. Moreover, the arbitrary nature of §1028’s application means that some unlucky individuals who picked the wrong number are serving the same jail sentence as professional thieves who bilked thousands of dollars from unsuspecting internet users.

With the oral arguments in, the Supreme Court is now deliberating. Their published opinion will be released later this year, and it will certainly have far-reaching repercussions for the immigrant community. Hopefully their decision will ensure that in a post-Postville America immigrants will be guaranteed a fair civil trial.

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.

How do you Communicate your Love for a Foreign Land?

January 7, 2009

This past Monday was the deadline for braceros to file for money owed them from the government of Mexico. During the Bracero Program, Mexico was given money for each bracero, but few received this money when they repatriated.  Between 1942-46, 250,000 braceros invested money into this automatic deduction program.  The Border Farmworkers Center/Centro de Trabajadores Fronterizos in El Paso participated in the Bracero Program, helping to register some 100,000 Mexican farmworkers eligible for the program. Eight years ago, six migrant farmworkers sued Wells Fargo, the US and Mexican government in a US federal district court.  While not admitting they did anything wrong, the Mexican government set up a $14.5 million fund to reimbures qualified braceros with up to $3,500. (El Paso Times)

As evidenced by El Paso’s commitment to registering braceros, they are a largely an immigrant-friendly city.  The Mexican Consulate in El Paso vaccinated over 600 Mexican immigrants in 2008.  Additionally, the Consulate has offered a free clinic to many immigrants afraid to go hospitals for fear of being reported.

Other groups in El Paso also reach out to a community too often voiceless and without rights.  Casa Anunciacion, an immigrant safe house which houses and feeds immigrants as they seek to integrate into American life, look for a job, try to relocate a spouse, or any other host of reasons that causes someone to endure hardships in order to migrate to a new land.  The house is a haven for women affected by spousal abuse, who have to wait upwards of a year before receiving relief thru VAWA (Violence Against Women Act).  It’s also a haven for teen mothers, or unacompanied children, or new arrivals, or recently jobless immigrants.  (Latin American Herald Tribune)

It is strange for me to live on the border again.  It feels like home in some ways, full of the life generated by so much diversity and interchange between such large nations.  It feels like a return to form to be working with immigrants one step over the Rio Grande and one step towards citizenship. I’m flooded with memories of  Brownsville, of the tight-knit immigrant communities all along la frontera, of the machismo but also the deep faith, of the fascination with futbol and the foreignness of the downtown markets.

It is also weird for me to return with people unacquainted with la vida en la frontera.  I vaguely remember when my ears perked up at hearing Spanish in the grocery store or when Mexican license plates were second nature. I recall when I thought border life was boring, that nothing was going on because I couldn’t read about much of it in the paper or online. Still, it frustrates me that I cannot fluently communicate my appreciation for the border to a group of Minnesota students, many of whom have traveled the world and are surely bound for great things.  I feel an ambassador of the border, and perhaps I am, but I don’t know if I have been able to make them passionate for it as I am.

Maybe it is a slow process.  Maybe my law-school friends see it in the faces of detained children anxiously awaiting the outcome of their asylum application. Maybe they recognize the grave injustice in a quota system that makes immigrants wait a decade to come legally to the United States.  Perhaps they see the dusty mesquite mountains in a new light after working with an asylum applicant who has been moved from New York to Houston, from Minnesota to El Paso, from Arizona to Harlingen.  Maybe they will read stories about immigrants differently now that they can associate names with faces instead of numbers.  Maybe…

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.

Homeland Security

July 11, 2008

When we speak of homeland security, it is vital we define our terms. “Homeland security” must not mean defending the buildings and properties of the United States, or else the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) would be busy repairing bridges, condemning buildings, and fireproofing houses. It is impossible for “homeland security” to mean protecting the American people, because what we mean by the “American people” will have grown and changed by the time you finish reading this article. “Homeland security” cannot even mean preserving our nation’s heritage and culture, or else its name would be homeland taxidermy instead.

No, “homeland security” rightly understood must mean the protection of our nation’s laws. If society is a social contract, then people come to the United States and remain in the U.S. because they agree to live by the law in a land where others do the same, thus gaining civil rights while submitting to the authority elected to enforce those laws. Defined as such, the biggest threat to homeland security today could very well be the Department of Homeland Security.

Since the 1990s, and more aggressively since 2006, DHS has been militarizing the border. Having lived in the border town of Brownsville, Texas, I can personally attest to the effects this militarization has had on local residents from California and Arizona to Texas. I have had a gun pulled on me by a Border Patrol agent as I ran on a dirt trail along the border, not unlike so many cross-country trails here in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Countless friends of mine have faced aggravation and humiliation as they crossed the secure border checkpoint more than 30 miles north of the Rio Grande. Third and fourth-generation Americans have been followed and questioned by police in every one of these border towns, simply because of the color of their skin or their fluency in Spanish.

With the Secure Fence Act of 2006, the law which mandates nearly 700 miles of border wall for our nation’s southern border, these dehumanizing factors were magnified in border communities. The Department of Homeland Security has used the REAL-ID Act to waive 11 laws in Arizona and more than 30 environmental and local laws in the Rio Grande Valley in order to expedite the construction of an eighteen-foot wall between the U.S. and Latin America. With the REAL ID Act, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, an unelected official, has been granted the unconditional power to waive any and all laws “necessary to ensure expeditious construction of the barriers and roads under this section;” in effect, this gives Chertoff the power to undo countless laws voted on by elected officials in our nation’s Legislative Branch, thereby undermining the very “homeland security” it purports to protect, not to mention our system of checks and balances.

Despite the dour state of affairs in our nation’s handling of the border region and immigration, we have all seen real homeland security take place in our communities. Leaders like Father Paul Oderkirk in towns like Pottsville, Iowa, have offered support and banded together with immigrants after the terror of an ICE raid on their Agriprocessors Inc. kosher slaughterhouse in May. Organizations like the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, the University of Texas at Brownsville, and the Texas Border Coalition of mayors have all sought to defend homeland security by opposing the Secure Fence Act which divides rather than cooperates with our neighbors and the REAL ID Act which negates our nation’s checks and balances. We have seen homeland security in the integration of our community sports teams, English-as-a-Second-Language classes, hospitals, and churches. Every time a recent immigrant is welcomed, each instant someone takes the time to help another get involved, there is homeland security. Please show your solidarity by supporting immigrant resource centers like Rochester’s Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement and the Advocates for Human Rights, as well as writing your encouragement to beleaguered Americans on our southern border. Additionally, a letter to our senators Norm Coleman and Amy Klobuchar could go a long way to encouraging real “homeland security” instead of distracting and costly excuses for real immigration reform.

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

Matt Smith’s Newest Video

June 13, 2008

My good friend and tocallo (Spanish for namesake) Matt Smith recently posted a powerful videon on Youtube.  For anyone looking for an entry point to the oft-confusing world of immigration legislation and the current border wall proposed as its solution, this is 4 minutes and 7 seconds well spent.  Keep up the great work down in Brownsville, Matt!

Leaving Borders

June 9, 2008

In Irun, the small town on the Spanish border with Spain, there has long been a border culture. During their revolutions and civil wars, residents of both countries traversed the imaginary line separating these two lands. A complex culture of smuggling developed, as in most border towns. People, goods, drugs- the rules of supply and demand are never bound by borders, however much governments might like to believe. While in Irun, I was told a story of a man who crossed and recrossed the border every day on his bicycle. The border patrol agents checked and rechecked this man, suspecting that he was transporting some contraband. Never once in the twenty years did they realize he was riding to France on an old bike and returning with a brand new model.

These sort of trickster stories, and the border culture they exhibit, have been made irrelevant by the erasure of borders in the European Union. America’s border with Mexico, though, must be creating hundreds of thousands of tricksters with the increasing militarization of la frontera and the constantly impending border wall now scheduled in Hidalgo County for July.

Driving out of the Rio Grande Valley on either 77 or 83, the only two evacuation routes, one encounters a military checkpoint complete with automatic weapons, drug-sniffing dogs, patrol cars, and heaps of bureaucracy. As I wait in line, my car packed to the hilt with all my earthly possessions, I contemplate that this is one of the many signs that the Rio Grande Valley is considered outside the mainlaind United States. Brownsville, the poorest city in the United States, is left below this second border in a no-man’s land, left to fend for itself. In fact, the talk of the town last week was that the United States Border Patrol was going to be checking the residency status of individuals during hurricane evacuations (Brownsville Herald) . That its citizenry must be questioned and searched before entering the rest of the continental U.S. is a stunning assumption of criminality. When it is my turn with the Border Patrol agents, I am waved along because of my white skin and American accent.

Tacitus once wrote in his Annals, “Once we suffered from our vices; today we suffer from our laws.” Indeed, unjust laws create criminals out of upstanding individuals, and in no area of legislation is this more true than immigration. Extralegal immigrants, many of whom came to the United States legally, are punished by our current law primarily for doing precisely the actions for which we praise our citizenry. The motivation of the majority of immigrants is religious freedom, economic opportunity, family safety, education, freedom of speech, liberty – how can an antiquated quota system cause some to be punished for acting on these principles and others to be praised?

As I drive north, farther and farther away from the Rio Grande Valley I’ve called home for the past two years, I pass the fertile hills of Kansas and the wide expanses of open grazing in Oklahoma and the lush fields of Iowa. I look at these natural wonders and think of how blessed I am to live in this land, and how attractive this must be to people receiving less than 8x the income we enjoy in our prosperous nation. I look at this massive farmland and know that extralegal immigrants know this land far better than I will ever understand; without them, many of these fields would lie fallow, so many of our meals would remain uncooked, so many houses would never be built, so many ideas never imparted, so many languages never added to the multiplicity of cultures here in the United States. Driving through the natural beauty along Highway 35, it is easy to see that natural law and constructed law clash when it comes to the issue of immigration in these United States. If we will only take a good look at our country and realize just how blessed we are, we would be more understanding of people desirous of migrating here. If we would only appreciate the perspectives and culture and language and talents that immigrants always bring, we would see extralegal and legal immigrants as the assets they are. If Spanish were not viewed as a language subservient to English, then perhaps we could learn from the Spanish immigration system as well as from Mexican and Latin-American immigrants themselves. As I leave the border region where the “rights” and “wrongs” of immigration laws are as muddy as the Rio Bravo and as I head north to study immigration law at the University of Minnesota this coming fall, I realize that I will never leave the border because the border is not a place on a map but a place in people’s hearts. In telling stories about the good people of la frontera and in studying the laws of immigration, I hope to turn the borders of American hearts into E.U. borders instead of the walled border in California and Arizona.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.