Posts Tagged ‘Laos’

Citizenship Day 2009

April 19, 2009

Yesterday, April 18, was National Citizenship Day.  This yearly event is sponsored by the Minnesota/Dakotas Chapter of AILA (American Immigration Lawyer’s Association). Though there are few immigration attorneys in my home of Rochester, MN, three years ago Rochester was the first city to host Citizenship Day. The veterans of this event recounted to me the lines on that day in 2007, how they snaked out the door of the Hawthorne Education Center and down the street.  Over a hundred people went through the naturalization process that day, with a steady line of people from 9:30 to 4:00.

That year was special, because in 2007 the rates for N-400 forms (the forms for Legal Permanent Residents to naturalize into Citizens) jumped from under $300 to their current price of $675.  While the Citizenship Day charges a meager $20 processing fee for the immigrants to complete their forms and snap a passport photo, this hike in fees was and still is prohibitive for many individuals, so in 2007 whole families rushed to naturalize en masse.

This year about 50 immigrants came through Hawthorne Education Center.  Many of them were shocked at the $675 government processing fee, but they still wanted to pursue citizenship so they could vote, or bring a loved on to the United States faster (6-8 months, rather than 8-10 years), or get a government job, or travel frequently out of the United States. (Odrcic, Davorin. “When a Lawful Permanent Resident Should Consider Naturalizing: The Benefits to U.S. Citizenship“)  It was delightful to work in the Form Preparation room, where I had the unique opportunity to speak with so many immigrants from countries as diverse as Laos, Bosnia, Somalia, Sudan, Iraq, Mexico, and Colombia.  They came by themselves, clutching all their forms in one hand, or they came as a family, proud to be taking this final step to full participation in American civics.  Little children, themselves citizens, proudly watched their parents filling out the forms to finally be able to vote (so many were frustrated they couldn’t participate in 2008’s electoral process).  Some high-school children came in to fill out the forms for their parents who were at work this Saturday.  Russian, Arabic, Spanish, Somali, and Hmong were all spoken in this tiny room. It hit me that this is America, this is citizenship.

Throughout the day, I had the privilege to work alongside many volunteers, including several local attorneys such as Chris Wendt and JoMarie Morris, paralegal students from Winona State University, and nuns from Assisi Heights.  It was refreshing to see such a diverse group interacting with immigrants and the complicated American immigration system.  Whatever their first preconceptions, by the end of the day everyone was impressed by just how complicated the naturalization process was and how prohibitively expensive it was going to be for these families.  The Assisi Sisters were amazing and uniquely equipped for legal work, simply because of their profound gift for listening.  I saw several tears throughout the day as immigrants told their stories and as families realized it might be a few more years before they could become citizens.  It meant so much to the immigrants and volunteers when Mayor Brede visited and made a public proclamation in support of Citizenship Day.  Whereas so many immigrants are made to live in the shadows of society, how freeing and empowering it must for these individuals to finally be filling out that final form and here, with the blessing of the local mayor.

Throughout Minnesota this same process was underway all day.  AILA Citizenship Day has now spread to St. Paul, Bloomington, Fargo, and St. Cloud.   Though I cannot speak for the rest of the sites, in Rochester the food was amazing.  Local businesses like Daube’s Bakery and Great Harvest Bread Co. baked breads and doughnuts for breakfast, while local Somali and Iraqi refugee families cooked up some delicious ethnic foods.  It was an honor to have the chance to work with Mary Alessio, the head of Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement here in the Winona diocese, and I look forward to Citizenship Day next year.

A highlight of the day was speaking with Graciela, who had gained citizenship through this process last year and was now back as a volunteer translator.  She was overjoyed to be a citizen, and she felt it was her duty to help others do the same.  Similarly, the Sisters of Assisi were amazed by all the bureaucracy immigrants needed to undergo just to gain something we had all been granted simply through happenstance of where we were born.  At the end of this Citizenship Day, everyone emerged with a greater appreciation of what it means to be a citizen.

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)

People of Faith United For Immigrants- Lutheran Church

February 9, 2008

While the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS) claims to have no “…special wisdom from the Word of God to determine which laws should be changed, if any, or how to change them,” it still has come out strongly in favor of increased refugee admittance and family reunification. Unlike LCMS, The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) focuses some humanitarian efforts on “newcomers without legal status” as “a permanent sub-group of people who live without recourse to effective legal protection opens the door for their massive abuse and exploitation and harms the common good.” <http://www.elca.org/socialstatements/immigration/> Both of these churches, despite their divergent views on extralegal residents, have historically striven for justice for the refugee and the asylum seeker.

The stance of the ELCA echoes the LCMS, however, in its call for increasing the number of admitted refugees and asylum seekers into the United States. According to the ELCA website, after WWI, when 1/6 of Lutherans were a refugee or asylum seeker, their church became very active in advocating for displaced peoples, resettling some 57,000 people. Although refugee numbers have been decreasing in the past couple years, Lutherans continue to help about 10,000 refugees resettle a year, 1/8 of the annual total for the entire country. I can personally attest to this church’s effective refugee advocacy, having taught refugee children from Bosnia, Somalia, Sudan, Kenya, China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Laos, and Vietnam in Minnesota ESL summer school. For its efforts in reforming refugee and asylum-seeker policy, the Lutheran Church should truly be lauded.

 

In its 2006 Resolution to Support Refugee/Immigrant/Asylee Resettlment, the LCMS states the following:

WHEREAS, Holy Scripture directs Christians to show love, care, hospitality, and assistance toward the strangers and foreigners in our lands; and

WHEREAS, Millions of refugees are in desperate need of our Christian charity and support; and

WHEREAS, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) is the second largest agency currently providing for the orderly admission of refugees to the United States (as regulated by Congress); and

WHEREAS, The ministries of LIRS offer congregations opportunities to provide Christian charity and support; therefore be it

Resolved, That we encourage our congregations, Districts, synodical church officials, boards, and agencies to petition our federal and state governments and their agencies to continue funding existing refugee or immigrant or

asylee resettlement programs and agencies; and be it further

Resolved, That we encourage our congregations, individually or jointly, to contact LIRS, LCMS World Relief, and/or local Lutheran social agencies or services for information and assistance to resettle at least one refugee or immigrant or asylee family as soon as possible and that this action be taken to carry out the Great Commission.

http://www.lcms.org/

The most challenging, and progressive, portion of this resolution is its call to parishioners to get involved. If every single American sponsored an undocumented resident or refugee, then millions of people currently living without rights and in constant fear could have the chance to live open lives, work for a fair wage, and enjoy the rights of the country in which they reside. If our definition of refugee and asylum seeker was broadened to also include immigrants from countries with any large “push” factor (economics, drought, lack of meaningful work, education), then surely the majority of extralegal residents here in the United States would be covered by American, and Lutheran, refugee policy.

 

Although the ELCA and LCMS has not officially supported the 2008 No Border Wall Walk from Roma to Brownsville, TX, from March 8-16, the ideals and objectives of the sponsoring Border Ambassadors would most certainly align with most of their church doctrine. Real immigration reform, immigration reform which stresses family reunification and the humane immigration of many more refugees in need, is the ultimate goal of this nonviolent community act. A border wall is, at best, a poor substitute or farce for real, lasting reform in immigration and bi-national policies. At its worst, such a wall will only make for more restrictive immigration legislation, will serve as an affront to our Southern neighbors, and further criminalize the newcomers in our country without documents. Undoubtedly, the Lutheran Church has welcomed countless angels without knowing it (Hebrews 13:2), and the Secure Fence Act of 2006 will only serve to tighten immigration laws and make it harder for churches like the Lutherans to continue to minister to refugees and asylum-seekers.