Posts Tagged ‘St. Paul’

Guilty as Suspected

December 21, 2009

After listing off his numerous legal options over the phone and across the plexiglass, Fidencio looks right at me and says, “Yo quiero salir. Quiero regresar.”  I translate to the Minnesota Detention Project attorney that he simply wants to leave, to return home.  She explains briefly that this will result in a ten-year bar to his re-entry, that it will be very difficult for him to get back in again.  Fidencio shuffles his feet, chains jangle, and he crosses his arms across his orange County prison jumpsuit.  “No importa, I just want to get out. I can’t stay another week at Ramsey. Every day I stay in here I cannot make money for my family.  Just get me out ahora.”

And so another father and husband is deported back to Honduras, his family left here to continue living in the shadows or to return to a country with little opportunity.  About 8,000 people in Minnesota are currently in deportation proceedings, and some 200 to 300 are housed in one of five county jails where Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) rents space.  The Ramsey County Jail in St. Paul typically houses 50-75 detainees, most of whom do not have any criminal conviction and are merely suspected of illegal entry.  They share residence with indicted murderers, rapists, burglars, and drug addicts.  Since most county jails are designed for one-night stays, few have outdoor yards and, as a result, detainees rarely see the light of day.  At Ramsey County, detainees are incarcerated an average of 100 days.  Most immigrants, by the time their day in Immigration Court finally arrives, will argue their case pro se before the Court and simply beg the judge to deport them back to their country of citizenship. [Aslanian, Sasha. MPR]

The number of immigrants detained each night in the United States is roughly 32,000.  Many of that number have not been convicted or even charged with a crime but are, according to ICE, a flight risk.   Immigrants represent the few civil court defendants incarcerated in such a way.  Despite the obvious flight risk of certain delinquent fathers awaiting judgment on child support or traffic offenders awaiting their day in court, few other civil defendants are held in jail at all, let alone for months on end.  Although anklet transponders are used by parole officers in oyhrt areas of law, ICE has so far rarely used such minimal safeguards for supposedly “innocent until proven guilty” immigrants, opting instead to pay $80/night for a total of $1.8 million/year. [Aslanian, Sasha. MPR].

Anklet Transponder

Nationally, the housing and transfer system is so haphazard that some detainees are moved to a new detention facility without ever being served a notice detailing why they are being held.  From 1999 to 2008 some 1.4 million detainee transfers occurred, often moving longtime residents of New York and LA to remote jails in Texas or Louisiana, far away from friends, legal counsel, or evidence for their immigration case.  These detainee transfders typically send immigrants to the Fifth Circuit, the most hostile jurisdiction toward immigrants and the worst ration of immigration lawyers to detainees.  [Bernstein, Nina. “Immigration Detention System Lapses Detailed. NYTimes].

This week, Rep. Gutierrez from Illinois introduced the first of a new wave of comprehensive immigration reform bills, this one entitled C.I.R. A.S.A.P.  As Congress wraps up healthcare debates and begin to take up the issue  Obama shelved until 2010, any comphrensive bill must seek to alleviate and remedy the current system of criminal detention of civil immigrant cases.

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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.

The First of May – the International Day of Workers for Everywhere but the U.S.

May 2, 2008

Yesterday was the first of May.  In the United States, the day would have passed like any other Thursday.  I would have gone to school, taught my immigrant students English as a second language, and would have returned to my house to lesson plan and prepare for another day´s work.  Here in Santiago, however, May 1 is an important holiday.  Not only does it mark the Ascension of Christ – it also is the day to celebrate workers all around the world.  All across Europe, this day is remembered, but here in Galicia El Dia de los Trabajadores is an important festival, all the more important now that immigrants have internationalized the Spanish workforce. 

The narrow cobbled streets here in Santiago are teeming with people, but it is hard to pay them mind.  Vendors are standing in their doorways, offering passersby free samples of the traditionaly Galician almond cookie.  Gaelic bagpipe bands march through the streets, their beautiful music reverberating off the ancient facades of Santiago´s downtown.  I am fortunate enough to witness a traditional Gallegos dance, where the men jig around women who balance a giant loaf of bread upon their heads.  The symbolism for the working class is clearcut, yet hauntingly beautiful – it would do the United States well to have a dance on MTV celebrating life´s simple gifts of our daily bread and friendship.

Above the plaza, the park is full of people.  Pulperias sell grilled octopus, churrerias hawk tasty churros in chocolate, and gitanos advertise their carnival rides to anyone who will listen. It is a veritable sea of people, a river of workers celebrating their collective productivity and diversity as they chomp on cotton candy and ride kiddie rides.  Atop the ferris wheel, I view the entire 100,000 people of Santiago from a vantage point on par with the highest peak of the Saint James Cathedral.  It is easy to be filled with awe when one stops to think about the magnitude of so many life-works going on right now, and I rededicate myself to advocating for the migrant workers who hope to contribute their life´s work to a new country.

The mass at La Cathedral de Apostolo Santiago de Compostelo is stunning.  It is part holy, part bazaar.  Hundreds and hundreds of people mill around the main wings of the church as the various priests conduct the mass.  Dozens of confessional booths are set up for busy workers to confess on this rare weekday holiday.  A red light above the booth intimates that a priest is ready and waiting to listen.  The interior of the church is amazing.  Gold, which must have taken thousands and thousands of workers´tithes to purchase, is shaped into the most impressive angels and saints and Saviors.  Granite walls echo the message of the Father, and the massive double-breasted organ takes up two entire walls.  When those pipes are filled with the liturgy, it is impossible to ignore the Spirit. 

During the service, I meander behind the cantors.  In the background of the priests, there is a passageway which crosses behind a figure of Jesus.  In keeping with tradition, I give him a quick abrazo like so many millions before me. After this warm hug, I pass beneath the cathedral into the crypt where James the Apostle is believed to be buried.  It is cold, stony, and I pray quickly before leaving. 

For the communion prayer, the ancient priest invites several other priests to say prayers in their language.  It is beautiful to hear bequests to God in Spanish, Gallegos, Italian, German, and French.  The priest closes these prayers by stating that God knows the language of our hearts; every worker in the crowd nods with understanding at this.  Watching the people take communion, I see pilgrims who have walked over 100 miles to finish here at the cathedral in Santiago. I see persons who are obviously staying in the finest hotels, and local workers who have not had a holiday in ages.  I see devout women who remind me of my grandmothers, and proud fathers similar to my own. 

The service finishes with a trademark tradition.  As a traditional zither plays music, 5 priests maneuver a long rope which runs up to the very top of the cathedral´s spire.  A holy incense box swings back and forth, gaining momentum like a kid arcing heavenward at the schoolyard.  The aroma of prayer wafts over the crowd, all of whom snap pictures as if the incense container were a death-defying trapeze artist.  Incense everywhere, all the workers looking up, music harmonizing to the sounds of people praying – every one of us is overwhelmed.  Whether this is the last thing a peregrino pilgrim will see on their Camino de Santiago, or this is merely the capstone of the International Day of Workers, it is a memory which will always mark the first of May for me.  How overwhelming, to think of workers the world over clinging to faith in order to derive meaning from each day´s labor.  From Santiago to San Francisco, from the twin cities of Brownsville and Matamoros to the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, my heart goes out to immigrants working thanklessly, yearning for recognition of their work and their lives, longing for basic rights and hope of citizenship.  When next I celebrate the International Day of Workers, I pray that we all will have done something more for the voiceless workers of our world.