Posts Tagged ‘border’

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)

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High Time for Social Uplift

February 24, 2009

If a local law enforcement agency incarcerated 81 innocent people for every 19 criminals it caught, we would say it was violating civil rights and was wildly inept. When that same jurisdiction continued to hold those innocent 81, sometimes for a year, the media would run an expose and the public would be crying out for resignations.

This scenario is currently being played out through America’s immigration strategy of massive deportation over the last 15 years. Last week the Pew Hispanic Center revealed that Latinos make up 40% of those sentences in federal courts in 2008 while comprising only 13% of the adult population. It went on to state that Latinos are 1/3 of federal prison inmates as of 2007. With our prisons facing massive overcrowding and public defender’s offices around the nation facing debilitating budget cuts, one would assume that this prison population was all dangerous felons, but in fact, 81% of them did nothing more than cross an imaginary line in a desert or overstay a student visa. (“Enforcement Gone Bad. New York Times)


Earlier this month, the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute published findings that while the Department of Homeland Security’s budget went from $9 million in 2003 to $218 million last year, it ceased to arrest the undocumented felons and “terrorists” it was charged with capturing and instead shifted its focus to families, workers, children, women – none of whom had a previous record or anything besides an overstayed visa or lack of documentation. Of the 72,000 arrested through February 2008, 73% had no criminal record. (“Enforcement Gone Bad. New York Times)


As Homeland Security USA continues to run on ABC, the reality is that since 2006, DHS has shifted its focus to more “easily apprehended” targets. The raids on factories like Postville, Iowa, and on homes netted few criminals but a myriad of working families. Catchy names like “Operation Return to Sender” fail to mask the fact that while there were more than ½ million immigrants with removal orders in 2006, ICE raids honed in on families and workers rather than criminals and terrorists. According to the Migration Policy Institute’s report, internal directives in 2006 set quotas for operatives in the National Fugitive Operations Program but disbanded the standard that 75% of apprehended individuals be criminals. Fugitives with criminal records dropped to 9% of those captured, while immigrants without deportation orders increased to account for 40%. The 2006 directive sent by acting director John P. Torres raised each team’s goal to 1,000 a year, from 125. (Bernstein, Nina. “Target of Immigrant Raids Shifted”)

An author of the report, Yale Law Professor Michael Wishnie stated that random arrests of extralegal immigrants in such residential raids was “dramatically different from how ICE has sold this program to Congress,” not to mention the civil and human rights issues it raises where ICE agents enter private homes without consent and/or warrants. From New Haven to Brownsville, from Maricopa County to San Diego County, ICE abused its power by passing legislation in one form and then enforcing it in a completely different format. As she reviews the agency, Janet Napolitano must take this into account, realizing that our resources must be spent on legalizing our workforce and apprehending our criminals, and never the twain shall meet. (Bernstein, Nina. “Target of Immigrant Raids Shifted”)


DHS recently released statistics of the last decade’s deportations, and of the 2.2 million immigrants deported from 1997-2007, 108,000 of them were parents of legal American citizens. If these immigrants even had two children [a low estimate], then more than 200,000 children were affected. And if they took their children with them when they were removed, then essentially the United States was deporting two legal citizens for every undocumented one. Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies, Mark Krikorian, revealed a calloused, nativist sentiment when he responded, “Should those parents get off the hook just because their kids are put in a difficult position? Children often suffer because of the mistakes of their parents.” Mr. Krikorian seems to have a firm grasp on the Old Testament principle that Yahweh will punish “the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation” [Exodus 34:7], though he seems to have stopped his reading of the Torah just before 2 Chronicles 25:4 which repeals this vengeful promise [“Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sins.”] (Falcone, Michael. New York Times). Children are not acceptable collateral damage.

In the spirit of reform under the new administration, one would hope that high on Attorney General Eric Holder’s agenda would be reversing Mukasey’s January ruling that immigrants lack the Constitutional rights to effective representation as secured by the Due Process Clause and the 5th and 14th Amendments. Mukasey’s eleventh-hour statement overruled a twenty-year standard. Because immigration cases are civil cases rather than criminal, there is no requirement for representation [a single day in immigration court drives home the fact that this default to pro se representation is manifestly unfair for the majority of immigrants who cannot speak English yet]. (“Deportation and Due Process. New York Times)

In 2009, the United States stands as a country in an economic depression which is poring vast amounts of money into detaining its workforce, deporting its own citizens, and constructing a 700-mile during peacetime. As Dr. King warned, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” It’s high time we renounced our declaration of war against the 12 million extralegal people within our borders and instead moved towards a nonpartisan, comprehensive immigration reform which affirms the humanity of all.

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.”

Children caught up in an Unresponsive Laws

January 12, 2009

Stepping through the door of this nondescript building which houses young immigrant children awaiting their court dates, I am struck by its diametrically different feel. Whereas the purpose of adult detention centers (euphemistically called “processing centers”) is to keep those inside from getting out, the intent of these children’s homes is to protect children and keep people from getting in. Some of these children are government informants against human traffickers, and others owe thousands of dollars to smugglers who exploited them and their families. Additionally, these children are the most vulnerable people within our borders today – it is good to see the government realize that and do their best to ensure their safety.

Only 5 children were present at the Lutheran Social Services (LSS) children’s home when we arrived at 10:00. These children were going through picture dictionaries, the staff offering them one-on-one assistance as they try to teach some basic literacy during their short stays (averaging 36 days). The other children were on a tour of the Immigration Court in the El Paso Federal Building downtown. LSS makes it a point to introduce the kids to the court room and Judge Hough, so they’re not terrified when they are called to respond to the government’s pleadings against them.

Most of these 5-12 year-old kids leave LSS after 36 days, usually because they are reunified with some family or sponsor. Some are deported prior to that, however. All these kids are placed in temporary foster homes, where they are welcomed into loving Spanish-speaking homes. The foster parents even go so far as to stop serving the traditional Chihuahua fare of tortillas de harina for corn tortillas.

Even after kids are reunified, however, they can still be deported. It is hard to think of children like this being sent back to Guatemala or El Salvador. It is even harder to think of them coming up by themselves, with an aunt, with a younger brother.

LSS does a good job by these kids, and they are excitedly awaiting the time in a few weeks when they can finally move into a bigger facility. There are no signs on the outside of this small building, but they do manage to evaluate children’s academic levels and send progress reports home. The children don’t seem to mind the cramped quarters at all. When we say Adios to the children at LSS, all of us wish them this in its truest sense.

Since children were banned from being detained with adults and their care was transferred from DHS (which contains ICE, the department which has enthusiastically raided workplaces, patrolled streets, and hunted immigrants down the last few years) to human services, these children’s care has improved tremendously. Rather than the drab walls of a prison cell, they are allowed to decorate the walls with their schoolwork and drawings. Instead of waiting impatiently, educational services have been provided to these children so that their detainment time isn’t totally wasted.

After visiting LSS on Friday, Sister Phyllis then took us to Canutillo to visit the Southwest Key children’s home there. This facility got its name because it attempts to be a key in the Southwest to a better life for immigrant children. The Canutillo establishment is much bigger, with capacity for 94, and their children are from 13-17. One of the saddest days in the home is an 18th birthday; on that day, the child is transferred from this warm welcoming environment to the adult detention center down the road.

Since Reno v. Flores established some basic guidelines for the detainment of children (such as their right not just to liberty but also custody), facilities like Southwest Keys have risen to the challenge to nurture the lives of these children for as long as they’re in the United States. The site offers English literacy and math classes, but it also offers some highly-popular vocational classes. I have never seen a cake decorated as nice as the penguin cake the kids decorated just last month, and the murals on every wall in the building showcase that these kids have true talent.

Additionally, this facility has on-site counselors and social workers, to ensure that all their needs are met. Some children come in with chemical dependency, or horror stories from their home country or their long journey north. The staff was incredible at welcoming the children and helping them begin to heal. Looking at them, I am reminded of my own high-school students. Only a paper distinguishes these kids from any others.

Louie, the executive director, finished our tour by reminding us that with the increased militarization of the US border policy, along with the violence of the escalating drug wars in Latin America, more and more kids are stranded in Juarez without access to such facilities as LSS and Southwest Keys. My heart goes out, realizing that a half-mile away kids are wandering the streets wondering about their family back home (if they have any) and hoping for a new life just on the other side of the river. I pray they may find a home somewhere.

El Paso Times Article

January 9, 2009

Here’s a local write-up of Day 3 of our Asylum Law Project trip to El Paso.

“Help for immigrants: Minnesota law students lend hand”

By Darren Meritz / El Paso Times

Posted: 01/08/2009 12:00:00 AM MST


University of Minnesota law students Cortney Jones, left, and John Kevinge wrote appellate briefs for pending immigration cases at the Diocesan Migrant and Refrugee Services at 2400 E. Yandell Wednesday. Three groups of students will come to El Paso in a univeristy program that is in its 15th year. (Rudy Gutierrez/El Paso Times)

EL PASO — Immigrants escaping persecution and trying to find a better life in the United States are getting help in El Paso this week from out-of-state law students.

First-year University of Minnesota law students are spending time in El Paso to learn more about immigration law and to lend a hand to immigrant advocacy organizations such as Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, the Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services and Texas Rural Legal Aid.

It’s the program’s 15th year.

About 11 students — the first of three groups coming to El Paso — are here this week participating in the University of Minnesota’s Asylum Law Project. The project is effort to give students an opportunity to work with immigrants and people seeking asylum who look for help from local immigrant advocacy groups.

“Just as a nation, we’re somewhat distanced with what’s going on in the world, especially when it comes to human-rights abuses,” said Raymundo Elí Rojas, executive director of Las Americas.

“I think with programs like this, if the students were not already aware of the plight of people persecuted in their home country, I hope by the end of the week they become aware of what’s going on.”

Students in the Asylum Law Project at Minnesota Law said that immigrants face a slew of obstacles before they can freely set foot in the United States.

“They’re in such a tough spot,” said Matthew Webster, a vice president with the Asylum Law Project. “They’re largely a voiceless population and don’t have a lot of the protections that we take for granted.”

Law student Ashley Engels said she spoke with a woman who had to wait 12 years before she could apply for legal residency.

Engels also worked on a case in which a juvenile had to wait 18 months in detention before he could apply.

“A lot of times, the people at detention centers get hopeless and say, ‘I just want to be sent back,’ ” she said.

“It’s crazy how long it takes,” Engels said. “A lot of them have really good cases, but I don’t think they realize.”

Darren Meritz may be reached at dmeritz@elpasotimes.com; 546-6127.


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.

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.

Barriers to Integration

October 26, 2008

Friendship Park in Imperial Beach, California, has long stood as a symbol of Amistad and brotherhood between the United States and Mexico. 160 years after the border was established at this point, people now speak and kiss and sing through the wire fence. At times it is eerily reminiscent of prison visitations, with legal immigrants like Manuel Meza sharing coffee through the fence with his wife who was deported several years ago (Archibold, Randal). If they concentrate on each other’s faces, the fence almost seems to disappear as it moves out of focus…

The Department of Homeland Security, however, is repartitioning this monument to international goodwill. New fencing will create a no-man’s land barrier, ending Meza’s routine coffee hour with his wife, interrupting the yoga sessions that occur on both sides of the border concurrently, solidifying a distance which doesn’t exist between the Mexicans and Americans of San Diego. Another part of this new DHS plan is to fill in Smuggler’s Gulch with tons of dirt, yet one more sacrifice of beauty in exchange for control. Years ago, Pat Nixon came to this place and said, “I hate to see a fence anywhere.” Representative Bob Filner is opposing DHS’s plans to destroy this park & the cooperation it represents, while chief patrol officer Michael Fisher says, “It’s a real shame…[b]ut unfortunately, any time you have an area that is open, the criminal organizations are going to exploit that.” One might say it is akin to permanently shutting down the airports to prevent another 9/11, opting for maximum security at the sake of freedom.

But for now, San Diego and Tijuana are still united, if only here at Friendship Park. Rev. John Fanestil, a United Methodist minister, still conducts communion through the fence to people like Juventino Martin Gonzalez who was deported last month after 20 years working and raising a family on the other side of that fence. It is easy to understand the real reason why a wire fence will no longer do – one look across that fence, north or south, can only remind the viewer that we are all united, all the same, all one. (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/22/us/22border.html?_r=1&emc=tnt&tntemail1=y&oref=slogin)

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Another barrier to immigration is the employers who would just as soon see extralegal immigrants remain illegal and undocumented. As long as our laws allow economy to trump dignity, this abuse of power will continue. This past week, though, Knickerbocker Avenue in Brooklyn saw a victory for immigrant workers. After years of hard work, Andrew Friedman and the Make the Road New York organization have successfully brought civil suits against employers who extorted and took advantage of immigrant workers. The courts ruled that a local fruit stand owed $28,000 in back pay, a dollar store owed $70,000, a sneaker chain $400,000. Yet for every one of these employers, hundreds more continue to profit from the inability of their workers to achieve full citizenship status. (Clines, Francis)

If citizenship is the first step, education is the next on the path to integration. A Migration Policy Institute survey just found that 1/5 immigrants with college degrees are unemployed or working in unskilled labor fields. (Aizenman, N.C.) These 1.3 million legal and extralegal immigrants could be vital contributors to our economy, yet their lack of English fluency and nativist feelings keep them from using their valuable skills. More than half of Latin-American college graduates are working unskilled jobs, and that number only falls to 1/3 for those living here 10 years or more. African immigrants have the highest unemployed rates of all immigrant groups in the U.S.

Iraqi refugees are given three-month stipends when they come here. Pressed to find a job and integrate rapidly, many highly-skilled professionals are scrambling for a minimum-wage job. My friend and ESL conversation partner starts his job at a furniture factory tomorrow, despite the fact that he ran two such factories in Iraq. His friend, a nationally renowned sculptor, hopes to get a job laying bathroom tile.

Because few foreign credentials transfer to the United States and few immigrants are given the language education they need, we miss out on the contributions of so many. Surely we can do better.

(http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/story/2008/10/23/ST2008102300319.html)

$4.8 Million Dollars a Mile

September 23, 2008

The United States government signed contracts to build the border wall in south Texas yesterday, Sept. 22.  DHS negotiated contracts with Clute, MCC, and Keiwit to construct 7.6 miles of barrier for $37 million.  After Congress approved a $400 million appropriations request for the enactment of the Secure Fence Act of 2006, DHS contracts on Monday to spend $4.8 million for land in Los Indios, El Calaboz, La Paloma, and Bluetown, all of which are towns formed by Spanish land grants dating back to the 18th century. (http://www.brownsvilleherald.com/news/construction_90253___article.html/million_contracts.html)

My heart goes out to the families of these border towns who are more afraid of decrepit levees than illegal immigrants.  As the Rio Grande Valley is moved one step closer to having a border wall slice through its communities, one wonders how the United States can justify begininning to spend $400 million on a border wall which is clearly unpopular when our banks are declaring bankruptcy, millions are foreclosing, the War drags on, and the dollar falls in relation to oil prices.  I pray these actions and these contracts are forestalled long enough for a new administration to realize the lack of logic in building a border wall while neglecting immigration reform and for the country to finally hear the cries of these border towns in the way.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, Part 5

July 21, 2008

Westbank barrier.png

It would one day stretch 436 miles, and is over halfway completed already.  Supporters of this eight-meter-high barrier state that this is the only way to protect civilians from terroism, that it is a matter of national security and homeland security.  Opponents, however, argue that the wall is really a ploy to annex Palestinian lands in the name of the “war on terror,” that it violates international law, preempts status negotiations, and severely limits the lives of those Palestinians living on the border of the barrier. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Israeli_West_Bank_wall#cite_note-humanitarianinfo_Rprt05-37)

While The Jerusalem Post recently stated that the wall might not be finished until 2010, seven years behind schedule, thousands of Jordanians and Israelis are currently living behind the West Bank Barrier.  This wall has already gathered many names around its base, names which are all true and signify its different meanings on both sides.  Israelis alternatively refer to the wall as the “separation wall,” “security fence,” or “anti-terror fence,” intimating their trust and hope that the wall will provide all three of these ends.  Palestinians living just on the other side of this sixty-meter-wide seclusion area have dubbed the barrier the “racial segregation wall” or the “Apartheid Wall.”  A good friend of mine told me stories of those living on both sides of the wall and the daily hardships they faced trying to get to the other side for bread, milk, cheese, education. 

 

The Israeli government has stated that, “An absolute halt in terrorist activities has been noticed in the West Bank areas where the fence has been constructed,” though many experts claim that the increased number of Israeli intelligence operations against terrorist groups has actually precipitated the decrease in attacks.  The U.N.’s 2005 report states,

it is difficult to overstate the humanitarian impact of the Barrier. The route inside the West Bank severs communities, people’s access to services, livelihoods and religious and cultural amenities. In addition, plans for the Barrier’s exact route and crossing points through it are often not fully revealed until days before construction commences. This has led to considerable anxiety amongst Palestinians about how their future lives will be impacted…The land between the Barrier and the Green Line constitutes some of the most fertile in the West Bank. It is currently the home for 49,400 West Bank Palestinians living in 38 villages and towns. (http://www.humanitarianinfo.org/opt/docs/UN/OCHA/OCHABarRprt05_Full.pdf, emphasis added)

Palestinians who have lived on this land for generations now must re-register if they are to remain in their homes and continue with life as they know it.  By May 2004, the fence construction had already destroyed over 100,000 Palestinian olive and citrus trees, 75 acres of greenhouses and more than 20 miles of irrigation. Many physicians and human rights groups such as Médecins du Monde, the Palestinian Red Crescent Society and Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, have all highlighted that the wall makes healthcare much harder for individuals living on the wrong side.  Upwards of 130,000 Palestinian children will be prevented from receiving immunizations, and more than 100,000 high-risk pregnancies will be re-routed away from nearby medical facilities in Israel.  Groups such as the Red Cross decry the wall as in violation of the Geneva Conventions, and groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch take offense at the way the land was obtained and the routing of the wall through important population centers.  

 

In 2004, the World Council of Churches released a statement calling for Israel to halt and reverse construction of the wall and to begin to right their numerable human rights violations against Palestinians.  President Bush in 2003 said, ““I think the wall is a problem…It is very difficult to develop confidence between the Palestinians and Israel with a wall snaking through the West Bank.”  Bush reiterated this in 2005, months before the Secure Fence Act of 2006 was passed in his own country.

 

Residents on the North and South Banks of the Rio Grande are thinking the same thing on this July 21, 2008.  As the wall approaches its supposed ground-breaking this week, the men and women on both sides of the border tremble at its assured repercussions.  They must be looking at their patch of the river with renewed love for its water, its mesquite tree banks, its children diving from the mud-caked walls on either side, its fish, its serenity.  Residents on the North Bank are being offered paltry cheques form the federal government in the realm of $10-20,000, and although this may be the face value of these homes in some of the poorest parts of our nation, none of these people will be able to replace their home and their lives with a check the size of a used F-150.  Mexicans must be looking north where the wall is intended and then looking out to sea, where a hurricane is developing right now in the Gulf of Mexico; they must surely be wondering what a wall and levee in violation of international accords will do to their flood-level during the upcoming hurricane seasons.  The thousands of winter Texans, eco-tourists, struggling grapefruit farmers, AMFEL mechanics, maquilladora factory workers, migrant laborers, Border Patrol agents, coyotes, Americalmosts, English-as-a-Second-Language students, first-generation immigrants, multi-generational land grand families – all of them must be wondering now, as we all should, whether so-called preventitive measures in the name of national security can ever be justified in the light of so many certain drawbacks.  Should the wall go up in Hidalgo County this week, and should it spread its concrete tendrils up and down the Rio Grande, our entire nation will mourn the loss of land, Nature, livelihood and life that this 700-mile border wall already has come to represent in California and Arizona.   May the people of the West Bank pray five times a day for the Mexican-Americans on the North Bank, and may we Americans also work towards a wall without walls in Palestine and Israel as well as in our own land.