Visiting the Hill: Where is the Political Will?

by Laura Danielson, a collaborator on the Green Card Stories book
The Lamp Beside the Golden Door

I just returned last night from the American Immigration Lawyer’s Association’s 2012 National Day of Action, which happens every spring as surely as Washington D.C.’s cherry trees blossom.

During this event hundreds of immigration lawyers of various political persuasions coalesce at the Capitol and then fan out to visit their respective Congressional representatives to discuss the important immigration issues of the day.  This being an election year, there is no new immigration reform legislation on the table to discuss, despite how badly broken our system has become.  We did have some important talking points that included:

In visiting representatives from Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota (which comprise our immigration district) I was struck by the fact that nearly all of the Congressional aides acknowledged the problems and were well aware of them. Even our most conservative representatives had heard repeatedly from farmers about how crippling and unworkable the current agricultural visa system is.  Their dilemma is that they fear their constituencies.  Immigration is such a hot button topic that they would rather remain silent on immigration than risk coming under political fire (the way that Rick Perry did for supporting in-state tuition for unauthorized residents of Texas.) And yet, recent studies show that 70% of Americans support immigration reform for farm workers.

This inertia isn’t unique to immigration, either.  As one Senatorial aide told us, nothing significant is going to happen until after the next election.  He said that there is a window of about 18 months in every six year cycle when things can actually get done.

There were still a few moments of fresh air on that beautiful spring day, such as an empassioned lunch-time speech by Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez, chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Immigration Taskforce, who believes that immigration reform cannot wait simply because of the fears of politicians. He said, “Folks, we need you to tell your stories! These stories need to be heard!” This immediately led me to wait for him outside and hand him a copy of Green Card Stories, which does exactly that.  When he heard what the book was about he literally grabbed me and kissed me . My friend who was standing nearby reported that he saw tears well up in Representative Gutierrez’s eyes on hearing that we’d created such a book, which is exactly the response we’d been hoping for in our campaign to get a book onto the coffee table of every member of Congress (which you can participate in here.)

Next year, once the Presidential election hoopla is over, will be the most critical period for bringing about reform.  One measure is particularly on my mind, and it relates to many of the others mentioned above.  We need honest reform legislation that will allow our nation’s agricultural and other essential workers to work legally in this country.  Every Congressional aide we spoke with in our district agreed that an unfair burden has been placed on farmers and similar business people who are trying to do the lawful thing in hiring badly needed workers to bring in the crops, milk cows, and process meat.  As I’ve seen from first-hand experience, our current migrant worker program is expensive, unwieldy and unworkable. The truth is that most employers in these industries hire workers whom they fear may have improper documents, but they have no alternatives.    As Mother Jones reports in this month’s story on the impact on Alabama farmers of its recent immigration crack-down, there simply aren’t enough American workers willing and able to do the back-breaking work that immigrant workers have long done in our country.  While most of the employers I see do not exploit these workers, it certainly is easier to do so in today’s climate of detention, deportation, and separation from family.

Which brings us to the fact that today, March 31, is Cesar Chavez Day.  Today would be the 85th birthday of this great civil right’s leader, who came from a family of migrant farm workers.  He fought for humane treatment and fair wages for farm workers through boycotts and marches back in the 1970’s, when I was in high school.  I still remember my family doing its small bit by boycotting lettuce.  While his activism helped improve the lives of many, Cesar Chavez warned that the struggle would never end, which rings truer today than it ever has.  If only we could devise a fair and honest system of immigration for the   essential workers our country we would no longer need to worry so much about the devastating aftermath of our deportation policies, as we would see a major decline in deportation instead of the current, steady increase.

Finally, I want to mention a man of similar background to Cesar Chavez, who was honored at the American Immigration Council’s annual Immigrant Achievement Awards Thursday night in D.C.  Dr. Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa came to the U.S. at age 19 from Mexico without documents, picked cotton, shared a one room apartment with five family members, and aspired to something more.  He studied English, excelled in school, and graduated cum laude from Harvard Medical School, eventually becoming a professor of neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Medical Center, working on a cure for brain cancer.

He reports that working in the fields was more difficult for him than going through medical school. When he received his award he didn’t dwell on his accomplishments, but rather spoke about how much it pains him that today’s young people in similar circumstances do not have the opportunity to utilize their talents because they have no practical way of becoming legalized.

As a society, we urgently need to change our immigration policies so that people like Dr. Q (as he is called) can come out of hiding and lend their talents to the development of our great immigrant nation.  We can overcome the lack of political will by showing our leadership that we care and that we support reform. Cesar Chavez is famous for something else, by the way, which is the expression, “Sí se puede.”   Translation:  “Yes we can.”

Words Matter

by Laura Danielson, a collaborator on the Green Card Stories book
The Lamp Beside the Golden Door

When I was a child and someone called me a name or said something hurtful I shielded myself with these magic words . . . “Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me.” Brave and sometimes helpful though these words were, they weren’t true. Words really can hurt us deeply. We realize as we grow that in fact words are powerful and that the words we choose matter. We learn that there are evocative, racist, sexist, or hateful words that shouldn’t be spoken.

My Grandma referred to African Americans as “nigros”, which I thought was appallingly close to a really bad word and mortified me every time she said it. At first I cut her some slack, allowing for the fact that she was an older woman (born in 1900) unaware of  how the words describing race had changed in her lifetime. But then my brother dated a woman from India and Grandma asked, “But isn’t she a nigro?” It confirmed my suspicion that the word wasn’t spoken in innocence. In Grandma’s mind the word “nigro” meant someone who is outside our acceptable circle. It was an ostracizing word that made clear that we white people were different, that we were better.

The word “illegals” has similar power. It connotes the idea of people who are far outside our circle of acceptable friends. We, the “legal” ones, are better than they are. When I think about the word “illegals” the first thing that strikes me is that it is a descriptive phrase that has been turned into a noun, which has happened only recently. When I first started practicing immigration law over twenty years ago no one ever referred to “illegals”. They might be “undocumented people”, “people without papers”, or even the offensive “illegal aliens” (how’s that for a phrase connoting outsiders?)  but never just “illegals”.  The use of nouns to distance ourselves from other groups of people is common. Overweight people are “fatties”. Homosexual people are “homos”. We recognize, however, that these words aren’t polite or kind and most of us know better than to use them.

We do call people who’ve committed crimes “criminals” because they’ve engaged in behavior that divides them from polite and civilized society. Ostracizing them is considered ok because they’ve done something bad. They deserve it, at least up until the point at which they’ve paid their dues. A friend of mine who is never soft on crime once argued that it is ok to call undocumented people “illegals” for the same reason that we call people “criminals”. Reasoning that the undocumented people among us have committed crimes, which is what has made them “illegal” in the first place, it is acceptable to shun them.

So let’s examine what crimes have been committed by those who are unauthorized to be in the U.S. Those adults who enter the U.S. without inspection have committed a federal misdemeanor which carries a fine of between $25 and $250 or a maximum imprisonment of 6 months. As such, it is a Class B federal misdemeanor, a petty offense which is on a par with a first time DUI. There is no crime greater than this for first time offenders. (Do we brand those who have first-time DUI’s as “criminals” or do we look upon them more as petty offenders, who can redeem themselves and learn from their mistakes?)

For the vast majority of unauthorized people, however, it is critical to realize that NO crime has been committed. As my colleague Dan Kowalski argues eloquently, citing Keith Cunningham-Parmeter and his excellent law review article, Alien Language: Immigration Metaphors and the Jurisprudence of Otherness, “[N]early half of all people described as ‘illegal aliens’ obtained their ‘illegal’ status by overstaying valid visas — a civil immigration violation that involves no criminal conduct whatsoever.”

Add them to the groups of people who were brought to the U.S. as innocent children, the asylum seekers who are awaiting their day in court, and the students who have failed to maintain their full course of study and you have a group far larger than those Class B petty offenders, all branded as “illegals” who have not committed any crimes.

The other thing at play here is race. If you close your eyes and imagine a person who fits the word “illegal” I would bet that you don’t envision a Canadian (even though we see plenty of Canadians who’ve wandered south and for a variety of reasons have never gone home.) As Keith Cunningham-Parmeter says, “Through metaphor, the immigrant becomes the alien, the alien becomes the illegal, and the illegal becomes the Mexican.” This is why nearly half of all Latino voters polled find the term “illegal immigrant” offensive. We’re talking about Latino U.S. citizens who feel this way, which is something politicians would be smart to pay attention to.

If you still don’t believe a metaphoric link has been created between Latinos and “illegals”, watch this clip of the Southern Mississippi Band chanting “Where’s your green card?” as a (very legal) Puerto-Rican born player from the other team shoots free throws. It is likely no coincidence, either, that this happened within hours of the Mississippi house passing an Arizona-style immigration bill.

In response to the racism and hatred that the word “illegals” engenders, the on-line magazine Colorlines began a campaign two years ago called “Drop the I Word”.  Even though this word remains pervasive in our media, the 7800-member Society of Professional Journalists recognized its powerful, insidious effect and  voted to drop it last fall. We can do our bit too and take the pledge to relegate “illegals” to that obscure place where my Grandma’s offensive word “nigros” now rests. I just did.

Let’s Not Deny Our Kids Their Dreams…

by Laura Danielson, a collaborator on the Green Card Stories book
The Lamp Beside the Golden Door

One of the biggest moments in a parent’s life is seeing his or her child off to school.  It first happens at age five or six, when the child climbs onto that bus in September, all dressed up and excited in new school clothes, Mom or Dad wiping away a tear and waving goodbye. Here is my son, Jake, on his first day of kindergarten back in 1987:

And for many parents it happens again at age 18, when that child first steps foot on a college campus. I will never forget my own experience with my daughter, who hastily waved me off at her new school hundreds of miles away from home, eager to shirk off her past and embrace her new life. As I walked away quickly while trying to maintain composure I passed dozens of parents all doing the same. We glanced at one another in our shared bond of one of life’s most important moments – launching our children  into a world of their own making, a future spun by their own dreams.

Some kids make other important choices, such as going into the military. Only a few weeks ago I was dropping a friend off at the airport and I witnessed two parents saying goodbye to their son, dressed bravely in his military fatigues but looking so young and scared. As his mother hugged her son for the third time and wept, his father looked around uncomfortably and caught my eye. We held that look for a moment in silent understanding that this marked the moment when his son had grown up.

All around us today we have children raised in American cities and towns who are eager to do likewise – to take their talents and aspirations and charge into their futures with the same level of hope and excited anticipation as their friends – but they cannot. Their parents, often out of desperation to find a better life for their children, made choices long ago that have now left their kids without documents – unable to get a driver’s license, work, or in many instances attend school. (See for example the recent bill passed by the Georgia senate that, if enacted, would join Alabama and South Carolina in prohibiting undocumented students from attending public colleges.) Even if colleges will admit undocumented students, these students face serious financial obstacles because they are ineligible for federal and most state-based financial aid, including grants, work study jobs, or loans. According to E4FC (Educators for Fair Consideration), only thirteen states allow qualifying students to pay in-state tuition and most private colleges treat them as international students, requiring them to compete with students world-wide for only a few financial aid slots to cover the four-year $80,000 – $200,000 price tag.

E4FC reports that there are millions of children impacted, including 65,000 new high school graduates each year who have attended American schools for at least five years. It should be pointed out that for the most part their parents are working in skilled or low-skilled jobs in our country for employers who withhold taxes from their paychecks just as they do from their other workers – taxes which help to pay for the schools that all of their children attend (which is the reason that some states, like Texas, allow for in-state tuition.) There are those among us, of course, who blame parents for bringing their children into this situation in the first place. Perhaps they don’t fully comprehend the fear and anxiety that has led those parents to seek a better life for their kids. Or the despair that made one young mother in Tucson, an employee at Little America working with fake documents, kill herself and her eleven-year old daughter last month after being caught and targeted for deportation. According to the report, she couldn’t imagine bringing her child back to the life of domestic violence and crushing poverty from which she had escaped.

Even for those lucky enough to graduate from college, there are no legal jobs at the end of the rainbow. I’ve really got to hand it to people like Cesar Vargas, who entered the U.S. at age five and worked his way all  the way through law school, hoping against hope that he’d be able to work in the legal profession upon graduation. For now, though, he will have to join the ranks of talented, well educated young professionals who not only cannot find jobs in their fields, they cannot lawfully do ANY work. While there are some who will look at this situation and say, “So what? There aren’t enough jobs to go around for American graduates,” does it make any sense to force joblessness upon productive and talented people who might well turn out to become job creators in future?

I see the families who live under these conditions. They often include multiple adults struggling together in one household, residing with the few who are either lucky enough to have lawful status or undetected false documents and who support all the others. Recently a grandmother (who has U.S citizenship) told me that she and her granddaughter (who also has U.S. citizenship) heard an unexpected knock on the door and both hid together under a table in panic because the girl’s well educated and unemployed mother is undocumented. Since the girl’s mother was out buying groceries, the girl asked, “Grandma, why are we hiding?” As they recounted this story, which in one sense was funny, the twelve-year-old girl could not stop crying. She said all she thinks about is someone coming to take away her mother (which recently happened to one of her friends.)  Meanwhile, Grandpa, who got his green card through sponsorship by an employer after his daughter and son were too old to benefit, supports everyone. He feels guilty because he brought them into this situation. And they all worry about the adult son, who with nothing to do hangs around with the wrong crowd.

Probably more than any of our other complex immigration problems, this one has an easy and excellent legislative solution, and it comes in the form of the DREAM Act. This is bi-partisan legislation (first introduced more than ten years ago) that would provide a path to U.S. citizenship for qualifying youth  (those high school or GED graduates who entered the U.S. before age sixteen, are of good moral character, have lived in the U.S. for at least five years when the bill is passed, and are between the ages of 12 and 35 at the time of application.) Within a six year period after applying, these individuals must complete either two years of college education or military service. The latest version of the Dream Act was passed by the House over a year ago, but failed in the Senate after it was added to a defense-spending bill.

Impatient with the situation, some Silicon Valley executives have taken the matter into their own hands and are working with E4FC not only to provide scholarships to help kids through school, but are exploring the idea of providing them unpaid internships (since paid internships would violate the I-9 regulations). They argue that the U.S. is losing its competitive edge in the fields of science and technology and that we really shouldn’t be wasting this talent. One undocumented engineering graduate reported that he had to turn down five jobs in the last month because there is so much demand for high-tech workers.

Dream Act kids, as they are called, are taking the matter into their own hands as well. Recently they have coalesced and come out of hiding in large numbers, holding rallies around the country and gaining momentum. Hopeful that maybe the DREAM Act will finally get passed, they are telling their powerful stories to American voters – stories such as Leonardo’s (who, abandoned by his mother, left Mexico at age twelve when his grandmother became too ill to care from him, shuffled between homelessness and distant relatives in the U.S., and is now a Stanford student) or Daniela Palaez, the North Miami valedictorian who recently won a two year reprieve from deportation to Columbia and has become something of a poster child for the cause.

Our book, Green Card Stories, tells similar stories of individuals who were lucky enough to have figured out a rare (and now mostly defunct) path to permanent residence. These include Randy Sealey  (who went from being an undocumented kid in Brooklyn to an orthopedic surgeon in Connecticut),

Cleto Chazarez (the child of a Mexican migrant worker who was rescued from being a drop-out and gang member by a very determined guidance counselor and went on to become an educator – recently honored by the Florida Hillsborough Counselor Association as High School Principal of the Year),  and Luis De La Cruz (who entered the U.S. at age seven and at sixteen was left alone to raise his younger brother in a small garage in Phoenix when his father was deported.) Luis counted on the DREAM Act at first, but since many years had passed without its enactment and he was still young enough, he bravely revealed to his boss that not only was he undocumented, using a fake ID, but that he needed her to sponsor his brother and him as foster kids under a program that helps abused and abandoned children get green cards. In a tearful meeting, his boss told him that she would have to fire him, but then after consideration decided that she and her husband would make a life-time commitment to become the kids’ foster parents. Luis is now completing his junior year in college and has a dream of going to law school and then into American politics.

The point of these stories is that given the opportunity, these undocumented children can pursue their dreams and become functioning, productive members of American society. Some, as described in these stories, will excel magnificently. And as with children everywhere, not all will succeed. But aren’t they really our children – raised together in the same system? Many of the above stories involve Americans who have surely thought so. They have generously stepped in and extended these kids a helping hand – putting them through school, providing mentorship, and even taking them into their own homes. They recognize that these kids are entitled to at least give life a shot, the same as our own kids get. As a community and a nation, can we even imagine the alternative? Who wants to live in a country where more and more talented graduates are required to languish in permanent, jobless, hopeless obscurity? Please consider doing whatever you can to get the Dream Act passed this time around so that we don’t have to.

What Would Jesus Do?

by Laura Danielson, a collaborator on the Green Card Stories book
The Lamp Beside the Golden Door

Those who know me may be surprised that I begin this post with a phrase that is most often associated with evangelical Christians. After all, as the daughter of a Lutheran missionary father who became Unitarian upon retirement, I am decidedly agnostic.  Maybe it is the fact that I spent my formative years in a south Asian land swirling with the world’s religions, but I’ve never been able to say the Creed (which is a statement of faith that there is one and only one god before me.)  Still, I do notice when people of any faith stand up and do the right thing, as many religious groups are  beginning to do when it comes to the subject of immigration in America.

As the Rev. Gabriel Salguero, president of the New York-based National Latino Evangelical Coalition recently told a conference of evangelical leaders in Birmingham, “Because I’m a Christian I believe in comprehensive, common-sense, humane immigration policy…Hospitality is not at the margins of scripture. Jesus wasn’t kidding around when he said, ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me.'”

Alabama’s recent immigration law was designed to put such a tight squeeze on undocumented people that it would make life impossible, forcing people to depart.  Last summer, shortly after the bill was signed, twenty different faith groups joined forces with the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Immigration Law Center and the Southern Poverty Law Center to file a federal lawsuit arguing that the law is unconstitutional and would lead to racial profiling and unlawful searches and seizures that violate the 4th Amendment.  The faith based groups also raised 1st Amendment concerns that the law “violates core values of various faiths because it criminalizes acts of love and hospitality – commandments from our God of many names.”

This is not just happening in Alabama.  As conditions worsen for immigrants across the country, all kinds of faith groups are advocating for immigrant rights, such as in McAllen, Texas, where Catholics and Protestants coalesced for the Second Annual Interfaith Convocation for Immigration Reform.  In Chicago last October eleven religious congregations announced that they are “immigrant welcoming” communities.  A Rabbi in New York reminded his followers last summer that Jews have  been outsiders and strangers throughout history and that it is incumbent upon them to empathize with and support undocumented workers, advocating for reform.  The Mormon Church (which is at odds with Mitt Romney in this regard) supported  a law signed last year by Utah’s governor that allows undocumented immigrants to remain in the state if they worked and didn’t commit crimes. A statement issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops back in 2003 even goes so far as to assert that all human beings have the right to migrate to support themselves and their families and that sovereign nations have the right to control their borders for the common good, but not when the human rights of individuals are violated.

As a kid I always got a weekly dose of Sunday School, and I took the stories about Jesus to heart because they were stories about doing the right thing. I learned that Jesus was kind to strangers, turned the other cheek to his enemies, championed the cause of the oppressed, and stood up to authority when justice required it. As Rev. Joseph Darby, of the Morris Brown AME Church wrote in December, “(Jesus) added no qualifying terms about nationality…The words, deeds and life experience of Jesus don’t describe someone who was hostile, divisive, mean-spirited or exclusionary, but someone who embraced all humankind and worked to better the lives of those shunned and oppressed by the religious and political powers who controlled his nation.”

And speaking of people doing the right thing, here are shining examples from the last few weeks:

  • Brody Smith, the opponent running against the undocumented student Jose Luis Zelaya in the Texas A&M student  body presidential election said when the subject was raised that he thought it an unfair question and that he would trust Zelaya if he was elected and that, “He has an Aggie ring on his finger…And we all bleed maroon.”
  • Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck came out in support of the idea of granting undocumented people driver’s licenses, stating, “Why wouldn’t you want to put people through a rigorous testing process? Why wouldn’t you want to better identify people who are going to be here?”
  • On Friday more than 2000 students walked out of class at North Miami High School in a show of support for the school’s valedictorian, Daniela Pelaez, who had just been ordered deported. “Over my dead body will this student be deported,” said the school system’s superintendent, Alberto Carvalho, who held her hand and walked with her.
  • The Association of Departments of Family Medicine cancelled the location of its national convention , which was scheduled to be in Mobile, Alabama, citing its overly-strict immigration law.
  • Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake issued an executive order prohibiting police from asking about a person’s citizenship status days before the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was due to implement a program there that would check the immigration status of everyone arrested. She cited concerns that the program would have a chilling effect on people working with law enforcement.
  • ICE announced Thursday that it was exerting “prosecutorial discretion” and would not be deporting undocumented protesters in North Carolina for disrupting a legislative meeting on immigration.

And finally, there’s this:

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