Posts Tagged ‘english’

The State of the State of Minnesota, Re. Immigration

June 13, 2009

While the 2009 spring session for the Minnesota Legislature just ended amidst a controversial decision by Governor Pawlenty to balance the budget by himself, many important immigration bills were debated in this past session. Admirably, the Land of 10,000 Lakes voted to prohibit state compliance with the Real ID Act, a catch-all piece of 2006 federal legislation which enabled the Department of Homeland Security to waive any and all laws in the construction of our border wall and would have required a national id card to be carried by everyone in the U.S., a thinly cloaked anti-immigrant measure. This bill, HF 988, will protect Minnesota’s growing immigrant community in this particularly vulnerable time of economic turmoil from an intrusive federal law.

SF 1514 was also passed  on May 21 by the Minnesota legislature, recognizing the crime of sex trafficking for the first time with harsh penalties of up to 25 years in jail while also granting victims a means of legal recourse regardless of their citizenship status.

Also important were the bills rejected by Minnesota’s lawmakers, many of which were targeted specifically at the immigrant community.  SF 505, which would have required the removal of all head coverings in order to procure state ids, was defeated, along with SF 144, which would have made government employees liable if they knew of an undocumented immigrant and failed to report it.  SF 577 was also defeated in its efforts to make English the official language (interestingly enough, just before the turn of the 20th century the same debates were being had about making Norwegian the official state language).

A couple of important federal bills might also impact Minnesota.  AgJOBS, reintroduced in the Senate by Senator Diane Feinstein (S. 1038) and in the House by Representatives Howard Berman and Adam Putnam (H.R. 2414), would allow immigrant farm workers the opportunity to earn the legal right to permanently stay in this country through continuing work in agriculture while also amending the current H2A guest worker program to grant growers a safer and more stable workforce. (Souza, Christine. California Farm Bureau Federation).  Similarly, the Visa Recapture Bill (or the “Reuniting Families Act”) introduced by Senators Robert Menendez and Charles Schumer would go a long way in reforming the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act. First, Visas unused due to lack of governmnet action dating back to 1992 would be added to the current year limits, and prospectively any surplus would added to the new year’s allowable visa limits. Second, spouses and minor children of legal permanent residents would be able to obtain visas (whereas now only citizens can really petition for immediate relatives), and it changes the age of minor children from 18 to 21.  Third, the overally level of family-sponsored immigrant visas would be expanded to 480,000/year, along with raising the number of employment-based visas to 140,000/year.

Advocates with the project Familias Unidas, along with the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, have worked to include Minneapolis on this collaborative’s national tour to 20 cities.  In its attempt to encourage support for comprehensive immigration reform this year, Representatives Luis Gutierrez and Keith Ellison will hold a community forum at the Incarnation Church in Minneapolis on June 14 at 2:30.  This multi-faith, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual event is aimed at getting Obama to follow through on his promise earlier this year to pass comprehensive immigration reform in 2009.  The petition they will be signing at this event is as follows – feel free to print it off and send it to our President yourself:

The Honorable Barack Obama

President of the United States

The White House

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue

Washington, DC 20500

Dear President Obama,

My name is _____________________________________, and I am petitioning on behalf of my

______________________ who has no realistic options to gain legal status under our current

immigration laws.

President Obama, as a result of our broken immigration system, my loved one is at risk of being

deported/ has been deported:  causing the destruction and separation of our family.

This has caused us all to live with constant anxiety and fear about the future of our family.

As you eloquently stated in your inauguration speech,

“The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation:

the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free and all deserve a chance to pursue their

full measure of happiness.”

On behalf of my family and the millions of other families like mine, I urge you to stop the

misguided raids and deportations that are tearing our marriages, our childrens’ lives, and

our communities apart.

We are hopeful that you will indeed fulfill your campaign promise to work with Congress to move quickly to enact just and humane comprehensive immigration reform that includes

family reunification, faster due process, a reasonable path to citizenship, and workers’ protection.

We are hopeful that you will indeed fulfill your campaign promise to work tirelessly to bring forth the change necessary to ensure that all people have an opportunity to dream, to live, and to pursue their full measure of happiness.

We are hopeful that you will indeed fulfill your campaign promise of Si Se Puede; Yes We Can!

Sincerely,

________________________________________    ________________________________

Signature                                                                      Date

__________________________________________________________ (Address)

__________________________________________________________ (City, State, Zip Code)

__________________________________________________________ (Phone)

__________________________________________________________ (E-Mail)

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)

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.

VOICES

February 3, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

In this Together

February 1, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.

Iraqis seeking refuge in Detroit Rock City

December 8, 2008


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

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

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

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

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

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…

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)

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.


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