Posts Tagged ‘American’

The Pulse of The United States – May 2009

May 2, 2009

Last night, I spent almost half an hour filling out the 2009 American Community Survey, part of the 2010 census.  As my wife and I filled it out, I wondered what the census would show this year.  Many predict that Minnesota will lose a seat in the House, that some serious redistricting will go on, and that the answers from the census will be analyzed and implemented in everything from political campaigns to television commercials.

Although the American public won’t get the results from the 2010 census for a while now, and when it does immigrants and minorities will still probably be underrepresented, this past week saw some encouraging polls released from the New York Times, CBS, ABC, and the Washington Post, just in time for the initiation of immigration reform discussion before the Senate Immigration Subcommittee on Thursday, April 30. (Belanger, Maurice). The New York Times and CBS polls asked:

Which comes closest to your view about illegal immigrants who are currently working in the U.S.: 1. They should be allowed to stay in their jobs, and to eventually apply for U.S. citizenship; OR 2. They should be allowed to stay in their jobs only as temporary guest workers, but NOT to apply for U.S. citizenship; OR 3. They should be required to leave their jobs and leave the U.S. [NYTimes]

44% said they favored allowing immigrants to stay and eventually apply for citizenship, while 21% said they should be allowed to stay in their jobs as temporary guest workers.  Refreshingly contrary to national pundits who typically pit African Americans against recent immigrants, 55% of African Americans favored allowing undocumented workers to stay and work, with only 19% stating they should be required to leave their jobs and the U.S. (Belanger, Maurice)

The Washington Post/ABC poll released on Thursday was similarly encouraging news.  The survey asked,

Would you support or oppose a program giving ILLEGAL immigrants now living in the United States the right to live here LEGALLY if they pay a fine and meet other requirements? [ABC]

61% said they favored allowing undocumented immigrants to continue to live here and have a viable path to citizenship.  Liberals supported this (70%), Democrats supported it (68%), Republicans and Independents supported it (59%), and moderates (63%) and conservatives supported it (56%). (Belanger, Maurice) Despite the repeated statements from nativists that this is a partisan issue and that humane immigration reform is contrary to rule of law in the United States, the poll speaks loudly that the majority of Americans are in favor of treating these new Americans humanely and reasonably.

With 73% of Americans under 30 supporting such legislation (compared to 42% of seniors), this comprehensive immigration reform seems to be the mandate of the future. As the Senate debates the finer points of specific immigration bills, it is highly encouraging to know that the American people have not caved in to nativist and xenophobic fears during this time of economic depression, but instead have chosen to recognize that as Dr. King said, we are all “inextricably linked in the garment of destiny.”

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Integration- The Ongoing Immigration Reform

March 16, 2009

As school budgets dry up and the immigration debate remains tabled for the moment, immigrants are often left without the resources needed to integrate into American society. A long article in the New York Times this past week highlighted some schools in the Northeast that are struggling to overcome the isolationism of immigrant students, but this is an issue in every state in the U.S. Without an effective English-as-a-Second-Language program and a school that actively works to engage immigrant students with the entire student body, these new Americans often feel isolated, discriminated, separate. Currently more than 5.1 million students are ESL or ELL learners – 1 in 10 of all students enrolled in public schools- a number which has increased by 60% from 1995 to 2005. (Thomspon, Ginger. “Where Education and Assimilation Collide”)

Some of the immigration influx is from Mexico’s downturned economy in the 1980s and early 1990s, as well as the Mexican baby boom that followed on the heels of the American one. But this only explains a portion of the immigration phenomenon in the United States in 2009. Our immigrant population is growing more and more diverse, with refugees coming from Somalia, Sudan, eastern Europe, Central America, south Asia. Our workforce is now made up of new Americans from India and China, Liberia and Guinea, Iraq and Laos.

ESL teacher Ms. Cain explained the current situation succinctly. “I used to tell my students that they had to stay in school, because eventually the laws would change, they would become citizens of this country, and they needed their diplomas so they could make something of themselves as Americans. I don’t tell them that anymore. Now I tell them they need to get their diplomas because an education will help them no matter what side of the border they’re on.” As the Obama administration nears its two-month mark, immigrant advocates and international families are growing worried that some of his campaign promises might get overshadowed by the economic times, that comprehensive immigration reform might get side-staged by stimulus checks, although immigration reform arguably promises a more sustainable and enduring change for our economy. (Thomspon, Ginger. “Where Education and Assimilation Collide”)

One of the groups who could use some comprehensive immigration reform is Liberian-Americans. If their temporary protected status [TPS] is not renewed by President Obama, they could be deported beginning March 31. President Bush extended TPS in 2007 to this group of 3600 refugees who fled Liberia two decades ago during a grisly civil war. Here in Minnesota, nearly 1,000 of the 3600 Liberians who call Minneapolis “home” could be deported in March, sent back to a country that held elections in 2006 but is far from stable. Many of these families have lived in the U.S. for almost 20 years and are active members in the community and local economy. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., previously introduced legislation that would provide Liberians with an opportunity to apply for permanent residency, but it has not been passed yet. Therefore, it’s up to President Obama to ensure that these refugees are not only permitted to stay in the U.S. until their country is repaired but also extend to them the hand of permanent residency, an act that would greatly aid in this community’s integration into American life. (http://www.startribune.com/opinion/editorials/41056182.html?elr=KArksc8P:Pc:UthPacyPE7iUiD3aPc:_Yyc:aULPQL7PQLanchO7DiUr)

Similarly, some 30,000 Haitian immigrants face deportation in the coming months, despite the fact that their country, the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, is ill-equipped to handle such an influx. Already short on water, food, housing and natural resources since the tropical storms last summer, some say such deportations could tax the tiny country beyond what it can handle. Despite appeals from the Haitian government to stay such deportations, the Department of Homeland Security has stated it intends to continue deporting undocumented Haitian immigrants. (Thompson, Ginger. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/04/us/04brfs-HAITIANDEPOR_BRF.html?emc=tnt&tntemail1=y)

Recent news highlights our failure to adequately integrate certain immigrant groups into our nation. This past week, several Somali leaders from Minneapolis testified at a Senate Homeland Security Meeting in Washington, DC. The meeting’s purpose was to probe the mysterious disappearance of several Somali youths over the past few months, including one Shirwa Ahmed who was a suicide bomber in Somalia. Osman Ahmed, president of the Riverside Plaza Tenants Association, and Abdirahman Mukhtar, youth program manager at the Brian Coyle Community Center both testified at the DHS meeting. The concern arises from the alleged recruiting of Al-Shabaab — meaning “the youth” or “young guys” in Arabic – which has been able to attract some disaffected, un-integrated, jobless youth in the Somali community. With more than 200,000 Somalis living in the United States, Al-Shabaab poses a problem; however, it is paled in comparison to a failed integration and immigration system which creates such easy prey for extremist groups. While homeland security demands we investigate such terrorist recruiting claims, it is vital we do not forget that empty hands are very easily formed into closed fists. (Star Tribune)

Our government has not totally forgotten this root tenet of community integration. Congress recently passed Consolidated Security, Disaster Assistance and Continuing Appropriations Act of 2009 (Public Law 110-329), creating the Fiscal Year 2009 Citizenship Grant Program.  Awarding approximately $1.2 million of federal funding in the form of $100,000 individual awards, this grant program is aimed to support citizenship programs for legal permanent residents (LPRs). When LPRs make the shift from residents to citizens, everyone wins. The naturalized citizens gain the right to vote and receive benefits; our communities gain involved members and a greater constituency; and our nation integrates one more immigrant family. This grant for community-based organizations will do more than facilitate ESL classes, civics review sessions, and N-400 applications – it will serve to more fully involve and integrate denizens into American life. We can all hope to see more initiatives like this through the Obama administration. (USCIS)

Students Experience Flawed Immigration System

January 25, 2009

On Friday, the Minnesota Daily ran an article about America’s flawed immigration system.  While it uses words like “illegal alien,” the thrust of the article is focused on the harsh realities of an immigration system which criminalizes children and families and which detains men and women for extended periods of time.  It was truly an honor to partner with groups like Las Americas and Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services and Texas Civil Rights Project; please support them in their ongoing efforts to represent our nation’s most vulnerable community.

U students experience flawed immigration system


BY Alex Robinson
PUBLISHED: 01/22/2009

As immigration issues continue to frequent court rooms, political speeches and circles of public debate, about 70 first-year law students helped illegal immigrants work their way through the legal process during their winter break.

The law students, who were all members of the Asylum Law Project spent about a week scattered across the country volunteering with nonprofit legal aid organizations that specialize in assisting illegal immigrants.

The students filed briefs, met with clients and helped lawyers fight through their heavy caseloads.

Asylum Law Project President Jordan Shepherd volunteered in border town El Paso, Texas and said it was an invaluable experience.

“I was finally able to get my hands dirty in law,” Shepherd said. “It was a lot of people’s first opportunity to get actual legal experience.”

While the students enjoyed their first taste of legal work, they also witnessed glaring problems with the current immigration system.

“There are difficult things that lie ahead for [immigrants],” Shepherd said. “Immigration courts have their hands full.”

Problems in border town

First-year law student Matthew Webster also volunteered in El Paso and said that he met with many detainees who were being held in detention for unreasonably long time periods.

Webster said he met a man from Mexico who had been held at the immigration detention center for about 14 months and the man still did not know where he was going to be sent. He also said there were children detained in El Paso; the youngest he saw was only six months old.

“Most of the rhetoric focuses on crimes or laws but too often we forget these are people,” Webster said.

There are three centers that detain children in El Paso, and combined they can hold about 160 children, said Adriana Salcedo , a lawyer who worked with the law students in El Paso. In the summer they’re completely full.

Salcedo’s organization, Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, located in El Paso, turns away clients every week because case loads are too heavy.

Illegal immigrants are not appointed an attorney because they are not U.S. citizens, Salcedo said.

If they cannot afford a lawyer and they are not lucky enough to get representation from a nonprofit organization, they are forced to explore their legal options on their own.

Salcedo said some detained illegal immigrants simply choose deportation instead trying to work through the legal system.

“They do not know what their legal rights are and they don’t recognize they have some sort of immigration relief,” Salcedo said.

Border fence controversy

University student Webster marched 125 miles along the Texas border last March to protest the 670-mile border fence which is currently under construction and is projected to cost about $1.6 billion.

Only days after Webster returned from his volunteer trip with the Asylum Law Project this January, the Texas Border Coalition asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear its case, which claims the fence violates a variety of state and local laws.

Proponents of the border fence argue that it will reduce crime and drug trafficking by illegal immigrants, and many politicians voted in favor of it in the Senate in 2006, including President Barack Obama, Sen. John McCain and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

However, Chad Foster , chairman of TBC and mayor of Eagle Pass, Texas — another border town — said the fence is a waste of resources and will only slow much needed immigration reform. The fence is currently under construction in Eagle Pass.

According to Foster, border security and illegal immigration are not a border town problem, but rather a national problem.

“If you want to clean up undocumented immigrants you have to start within the Beltway because they are serving the Department of Homeland Security coffee,” Foster said.

Increasing the amount of border patrol and implementing more new technology to guard the border would be far more effective than a border fence, Foster said.

Foster said he has good relationships with some politicians in Mexico, and working with his neighbors to the south is far more productive than trying to fence them off and lock them out.

But proponents of the fence have given Foster plenty of heat for his stance on border security.

“I’ve been called a narcotraficante ,” he said. “People ask me if I’m an American.”

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.


An All-American Thanksgiving

November 30, 2008

Akmed and Dea were both at the Apache Mall for its 4 o’clock opening on Black Friday. Despite their fears of American malls from the numerous cinematic chase scenes set there, they both braved the cold and the crowds to witness this uniquely American phenomenon. Both were glad to find out that Iraqis were not the only ones to clamor for goods at market; both were equally contented to know that, unlike the movies, there are not “naked people running around everywhere.”

Though both left behind practically everything when they came to the United States as refugees through Catholic Charities and its Refugee Resettlement Program, they and their families are quickly acculturating and making Rochester, Minnesota, their home. Their children had seen snow in Iraq only once before and were amazed when I told them that in our cold winters your spit freezes before it hits the ground. These men and women are scrambling to get the necessary paperwork together for their driver’s licenses, scouring the classifieds for jobs and cheap furnishings they can afford, and studying late into the night to master English or to comprehend the material for the MCAT.

Last night, we celebrated a belated Thanksgiving with 3 of the 5 Iraqi families here in Rochester. My father-in-law has worked hard to help them get jobs and settle in to their new community, and as such they view him as a paternal figure. They are hard workers, evidenced by Pat’s newly tiled bathroom or Gassuon’s remodeled junker. All of them are trying to rebuild lives which had grown increasingly chaotic since the late 1980s conflict with Iran. The latest United States occupation has unsettled what little order there was, making it increasingly dangerous for businessmen and their families.

A few days before at our family Thanksgiving, a dear relative asked why the Iraqi refugees should have jobs ahead of all the laid-off “American” employees. When we responded that they were extremely talented and had earned the positions, this relative’s only answer was a huff and harrumph. In these times of economic uncertainty, some are calling for our borders to be closed indefinitely. Some might say that our problems are being caused by unauthorized working immigrants or these refugees.

In fact, we can look no further than our own devotion to devastation as we seek to uncover the root of the housing crisis or banking downturn. In the faces of these refugees and the 4 million displaced Iraqis they represent, one is instantly aware of the $720 million the United States spends on the Iraq War every day rather than healing its own or bringing true peace to international communities through positive relationship-building.

Eating turkey and sweet potatoes with these wonderful new Americans, I am reminded of that familiar line from the Christmas classic, “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.” When these refugees came into my life, my heart grew three sizes that day; when they came to be working residents of the U.S., our nation of immigrants grew by the size of five families that day. And they are already making plans to be at the mall for what they hear are the amazing closeouts on New Year’s Day…

A Vote for Un-Americans

November 4, 2008


Standing in line at the tiny Oronoco City Hall, many locals had stickers or buttons representing a veteran for whom they were voting. Coming on the heels of the Day of the Dead, perhaps this is fitting top honor those who have died fighting for a cause they believed to be just.

Today, however, I voted for the un-American among us. Since Michelle Bachman uttered her inflammatory statement last month, I have been fixated on her classification of Obama and others as “un-American.” Smacking of McCarthyism, it is a bald assertion of nativism and xenophobia. When Bachman says she would like to form a committee to examine the un-American tendencies of elected officials, this is born of a deep-rooted belief that life is dualistic, that “they are either fer or agin’ us,” that people are either full-blooded “American” or outsiders merely positioned within our arbitrary geographic borders.

I voted for all those un-Americans, like my carpool mate who listens constantly to politics on the radio and knows more about the electoral college than most citizens, but is still unable to vote because the process of naturalization takes so long. I waited an hour to vote today for all those un-American high-school students of mine down in Brownsville, Texas, who are studying hard and hoping they win the lottery of the quota system before they graduate so they can attend the college they deserve. I wore my “I voted “ sticker all day for those 23 un-Americans from India who were arrested this past week in North Dakota after walking off their jobs with Signal International who they claim is human trafficking (Preston, Julia). I got my free “voter appreciation” Starbucks coffee for those Americans who were made to feel un-American, to fear the ballot boxes 40 years ago in the South and 40 minutes ago when an immigrant made the decision to stay away from the booth because of nativism.

According to a recent AP article, Barack Obama’s Aunt Zeituni Onyango was instructed to leave the country in 2004. In response to concerns that she was living in subsidized Boston housing, Massachusetts Republican Senator Robert L. Hedlund Jr. stated that he has tried to close this “massive, absurd loophole” which enables noncitizens or “un-Americans” the right to subsidized housing. (Boston Herald). Mudslinging Republican campaigns have seized on this chance to tarnish Obama’s image just before Election Day, implying that un-Americans are criminals deserving of deportation, ostracization, and that all people related to them are guilty of wrongdoing.

Un-Americans were often barred from education in Texas prior to the landmark Peter Schey case allowing all children to attend schools regardless of citizenship status. Un-Americans were brought to our country during WWII through the Bracero Program, kept un-American as they worked, and then “repatriated” willingly or not back to Mexico. Un-Americans sit in “processing centers” right now, waiting to hear the charges brought against them, wondering when they can get out and begin to earn a wage for their hungry families once more. Nearly 4 million un-Americans became Americans after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, thought it would be another 102 years before the 1965 Voting Rights Act would ensure literacy, citizenship, or poll-taxes would not keep them un-American on November 4.

A vote is never enough. If democracy is nothing more than a vote, then we are only a democratic nation but once a year. No, being a voice for the voiceless is democracy. Living and working for mutual benefits and universal principles are democracy. Opposing a wall between two neighbors, be it physical or spiritual, is democracy at its best. Realizing that there is no such thing as un-American, that all of us are only Americalmosts, that we are only as “American” as our actions towards others, that the word American surely was not meant to deny the rights and protections for some 12 million extralegal immigrants within our borders. Thinking back to this morning, as I filled in the bubbles representing people representing people, it is immediately evident that this morning’s action is necessary but wildly insufficient. If all men and women are inherently good, it is not so much the people we vote into office today that matter, but the people who hold these candidates to socially uplifting principles and prohibit them from morally devastating acts that count for the next four years. That is why I voted for the un-Americans.

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.

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.

A Labor Day Salute to All Resident Workers

September 1, 2008

This September 1st, it is only fitting to laud the accomplishments of the unnoticed and disenfranchised of America’s workforce – the Immigrant.  In a nation that is still bent on building a wall and has popular public figures campaigning for mass deportation, immigrants still managed to excel in 33 of the spots on the American Olympic team. In a nation where immigrants legal and extralegal quake at the thought of ICE raids like that which detained more than 350 workers this past week in Laurel, Mississippi (New York Times), immigrants of undocumented parents (desparagingly referred to as “anchor babies” by American media) like Henry Cejudo worked tirelessly to upset the heavily favored Japanese free wrestler Tomohiro Matsunaga in the gold-medal match in Beijing (Navarrette, Ruben).  With hard workers like these thankless millions, Labor Day means a day without work for most of us.

This past week, the national spotlight was turned to the perilous job of the window-washers in New York City.  On Tuesday, August 28, two window-washers were narrowly rescued while a third plunged to his death in Manhattan.  49-year-old Robert Domaszowec was a Ukrainian immigrant who had received his dangerous calling from his father (New York Times).  Much of the City’s window-washers are first or second-generation immigrants who quietly risk their lives day in and day out to improve the view of millions.

Like so many immigrants, their lives are largely invisible to mainstream American culture.  Unless we read about a rare crime committed by an extralegal immigrant or watch an incendiary nativistic talk show on television, these workers who earn their Labor Day often work in underpaid jobs with scant hope for advancement.  When they are noticed, it is often with disdain, xenophobia, or worse.  This past week Tennessee changed its state law to allow pregnant inmates to be unchained and uncuffed during childbirth.  This came only after a Mexican immigrant, detained in Davidson County on the charge of “careless driving,” was left handcuffed to the bed for all but a few minutes of her labor.  The Sheriff went on record as saying this recently overturned policy was, “a little more than may have been necessary in every case” (New York Times.

On this Labor Day, it is vital we appreciate our nation’s success over the years and the people to whom we owe a deep thanks.  At the risk of sounding repetitive and Kennedy-esque, our nation truly is a land of immigrants, new and long-established, coming and going.  On Labor Day it is important to remember those who are not even allowed to join labor unions but still work 10-hour days in our factories and fields, houses and skyscrapers.  This Labor Day let us say a prayer for our nation, that it may not forget those things which make it strong (such as immigrants) and that it may cease those things which weaken it daily (such as the wars of the past 40 years).  If our nation would rise to its self-proclaimed status as world power, if we would acknowledge both the push and pull of immigrants coming to this country, if we would work to incorporate and integrate and empower every resident within our borders, then Labor Day could truly be a holiday celebrated by everyone in the United States instead of just those with papers.

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