The individuals featured in Green Card Stories are representative of immigrants’ desire to contribute to U.S. society and to continue to improve their life. Many of the individuals have been recognized on local and national levels for the work that they have done.
Yi Kai’s artwork was displayed at Main Street Gallery in Pomona, CA in February and March. His artwork was also included in the Los Angeles International Art Expo in January 2013. Yi Kai is an individual in the Green Card Stories book who was able to freely express his art when he came to the U.S. after marching on Tiananmen Square.
I Am Neda, a film starring Mary Apick, was selected as a finalist at the Cannes Film Festival. I Am Neda also won the Best Picture Award at the World Music and Independent Film Festival in Washington, DC and was nominated for 3 awards, including Best Supporting Actress for Mary Apick. The film tells the true story of Neda Agha-Soltan who was killed by a sniper in the 2009 Iranian street protests. The film is also featured on the Huffington Post.
Hugo Ortega, a finalist for the James Beard award and individual included in Green Card Stories, has published a new cookbook Street Food of Mexico that was released on September 17. He is also featured in the August 1 issue of Saveur dedicated to Mexico. Saveur deems the book as one of the “essential Mexican cookbooks” placing Hugo alongside Rick Bayless and Patricia Quintana. Hugo contributed a full-page article on the central role of salsa in the Mexican cuisine.
Farah Bala was part of a volunteer team headed to Tanzania, Africa in June 2012 to work with children and teachers through the International Theater and Literacy Project. The students created an original performance piece and stage it for their community. In addition, Farah and the other volunteers designed and gave Personal Development workshops to the teachers in these schools so that they would be able to continue working with the children at the end of the project.
Mary Apick’s mother, Apick Youssefian, was honored by Iranian and Armenian celebrities at An Evening of Stars: A Tribute to Apick Youssefian in Glendale, CA May 20, 2012. Mary would not be where she is today without the guidance and support of her mother.
Three Iranian films starring Mary Apick were featured at the UCLA Celebration of Iranian Cinema from April 13-29, 2012:
Ferestadeh (The Mission)
Dead End (Bon Bast)
On April 20, 2012, La Voz Hispana de Connecticut ran a full story on Randolph Sealey’s life as an undocumented immigrant and now as an orthopedic surgeon.
César Domico was featured doing his magic tricks on Univision’s Despierta America on April 20, 2012.
Mary Apick was in the Persian Parade in New York City on April 15, 2012! She was dressed as a fairy on a float passing through 12 blocks of Madison Avenue with the NYC Police band. She promoted her children’s DVDs, A Fairy Tale in the Forest and Jewel of The Night. Check her out in last year’s parade.
Kirill Gerstein returned to his alma mater and to jazz on March 30, 2012. After focusing his career on classical piano, his return to Berklee College of Music also marked his reconnection with performing jazz music. The program included the world premiere of new works by Chick Corea and Brad Mehldau that Gerstein commissioned as part of his 2010 Gilmore Artist Award, a lucrative and prestigious honor granted every four years for “extraordinary piano artistry.’’ Read more about the concert and Gerstein’s background in the Boston Globe and in interview on DownBeat. The concert was also streamed on Concert Window.
Cleto Chazares won the Hillsborough Counselor Association High School Principal of the Year 2012!! He was also featured on Univision on February 22, 2012.
Yi Kai’s artwork was displayed at the San Francisco Arts of Pacific Asia Show Feb 2-5, 2012. Yi Kai is an individual in the Green Card Stories book who was able to freely express his art when he came to the U.S. after marching on Tiananmen Square.
Mary Apick was quoted on CNN.com regarding the Iranian actress, Golshifteh Farahani, who posed nude for a photo and video, causing an upset in the Iranian film industry. Mary stated, “It was impossible to be an actress in Iran when I was there, and it’s not gotten easier. It’s become harder. There is no honest art, so there is no art. The regime has no interest in women, (especially not) strong women characters in movies.”
Farah Bala was nominated for a Barrymore Award for her performance in ‘Around the World in 80 Days.’ Check the Outstanding Leading Actress in a Play category here.
On April 20, 2012,
Two of the four collaborators for Green Card Stories, Laura Danielson and Stephen Yale-Loehr, are prominent immigration lawyers who are often consulted on current immigration topics. The writer, Saundra Amrhein and the photographer, Ariana Lindquist are also recognized by the media.
Stephen Yale-Loehr has been frequently featured in the press regarding the proposed immigration reform. In the NBC News article “Progressives Pressure Obama on Immigration Reform Triggers,” published on February 6, 2013, Stephen emphasized the need for objective measures regarding the negotiations for immigration reform. He was interviewed on a nationally syndicated radio show about immigration reform. On January 30, 2013 Stephen was quoted in Bloomberg News . He noted, “Immigration reform, like tax and Social Security reform, is very complex. Even if everyone wants reform, it may still take a long time to get a bill through Congress.” In the Chronicle of Higher Education on immigration reform, published on January 28, 2013 he noted that the nation’s immigration system “took 20 years to get broken; it can’t be fixed overnight.” He said he doubted immigration reform legislation would be enacted this year, “but I hope I’m wrong.” Stephen was quoted on NBCLatino.com in an article, “Growing Number of States Grant Lower Tuition Rates for Undocumented Students,” published on January 18, 2013. Mr. Yale-Loehr noted that action at the state level may not be enough to address what is a nationwide issue. “Many of these students came at an early age and had no say in coming to the United States. As a practical matter we’re never going to deport them. Congress has to address comprehensive immigration reform.”
On March 29, 2013, Laura Danielson participated on a panel on Minnesota Public Radio focused on the shifting political landscape and its effect on immigration policy.
Two of the four collaborators for Green Card Stories, Laura Danielson and Stephen Yale-Loehr, are prominent immigration lawyers who are often consulted on current immigration topics. The writer, Saundra Amrhein and the photographer, Ariana Lindquist are also recognized by the media.
Stephen Yale-Loehr was quoted in the Gannett News Service article, “Latino Votes a Call for Immigration Reform”. He noted that pro-immigration organizations, in addition to immigrants themselves, are expecting immigration reform in President Obama’s second term. He also noted that while a large reform may not be feasible, smaller immigration bills could be passed in the next year, potentially including the Dream Act.
Stephen Yale-Loehr spoke on the role of newly naturalized citizens in this year’s election on WHCU on October 23, 2012.
Maria Popova described Green Card Stories as a “poignant portrait of a system caught between hope and despair” in her blog Brain Pickings on July 16, 2012. She also stated, “The project is in some ways a beautiful celebration of the triumph of hope embedded in the promise of the American Dream, and in others a poignant glimpse of a brutal system of struggle that can, if allowed to, eat away at one’s deepest sense of dignity.”
Green Card Stories has been featured on multiple immigration blogs. Angelo Paparelli dedicated a post on Nation of Immigrators to the importance of telling immigrant stories. Referring to the book, he stated, “These stories, like all well-told immigration biographies, humanize the demonized and prove that they are worthy of welcome. These dramatically revealed tales of truth and hardship, often extreme and exceptional, unmask the lies of the nativists and the naïve, who make or believe the make-believe memes about immigration, legal and illegal.” Cyrus Mehta also published a blog entry on The Insightful Immigration Blog highlighting the humanizing factor of telling these immigrant stories. He states, “Putting a human face to immigration is the best way to convince others about who they are and the benefits they bring to this country through their struggles, inspiration, ambition and successes.” The Immigration Direct blog gave a description of Green Card Stories on February 8, 2012. Greg Siskind also included the book in his blog post on ILW.com on June 29, 2012. The GC Immigration Working Group, a student organization housed at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York featured Green Card Stories on their blog on June 30, 2012.
In the CRI article “Straightening out the Country’s Immigration Laws” published June 29, 2012, Laura Danielson commented on the proposed changes in China’s immigration system. The changes are to crack down on visitors who enter and overstay visas or enter or exit illegally. These would be the first changes to the immigration law since 1985. Ms. Danielson noted that “[o]ne impact it might have of course is that more people are likely to apply for work permits. And multinational companies sending employees to China on temporary business trips will need to either limit their stays or apply for work permits.”
Stephen Yale-Loehr served as a primary source for the media on the Supreme Court’s ruling on Arizona’s immigration law on June 25, 2012. This will impede other states from imposing restrictive immigration policies. See his interviews on Voice of America, WNYC, La Opinion, Contra Costa Times, BBC International News and NPR’s All Things Considered.
Mary Apick was interviewed in a full article in the May/June 2012 issue of Zan Magazine, a publication dedicated to modern Iranian American women. Mary spoke of her experience of being included in the book and what it’s meant to be an immigrant in the United States.
Stephen Yale-Loehr was quoted in the USA Today article, “Illegal Immigrants Find Paths to College, Careers.” Finding a grey area in the immigration law, many undocumented immigrants are working as independent contractors. Hiring a contractor does not require the proof of immigration status. Mr. Yale-Loehr stated, “while self-employed illegal immigrants still violate immigration law, they may avoid additional grounds for deportation if they don’t present counterfeit documents.”
The Hennepin Lawyer, the Hennepin County Bar Association publication in Minneapolis, MN, published a full-length article by Laura Danielson. She discussed the changing evolution of U.S. immigration law and policy. Also, Ms. Danilson outlined the various manners in which to obtain a green card and the difficulties in gaining permanent residency.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune covered the reunion of one of Laura Danielson’s pro bono clients that had to make the decision to leave their 3-year-old son, Ramzi, in Togo to come to the US six years ago. After an error with his visa lottery application, the family couldn’t admit to having another son in Togo when applying for their own visas. This was considered a fraudulent act and prevented them from applying for Ramzi’s reunion. The truth was finally revealed when his father applied for citizenship risking the possibility of deportation. Laura Danielson stated, “There really has to be some kind of intent to defraud when there’s fraud, and in this case, I think the immigration service felt he’s paid enough.” Ramzi arrived in Minneapolis/St. Paul on Saturday, January 7, 2012.
The Dallas Morning News published an article on January 4 covering the U.S. citizen 14-year-old who was mistakenly deported to Colombia. When arrested for theft, Jakadrien Larise Turner claimed a false identity that belonged to a 21-year-old immigrant. After being turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, her identification was run through the the Secure Communities program that flagged the individual as not legally residing in the U.S. Stephen Yale-Loehr commented, “This case is just one of hundreds where immigration officials have wrongly detained or deported U.S. citizens. The problem will get worse when the Secure Communities program goes nationwide.”
Stephen Yale-Loehr was quoted in the NAFSA January/February 2012 International Educator article covering the DREAM Act. Mr. Yale-Loehr compared the Dream Act to the civil rights movement and environmental movement. He stated, “The Dream Act students have been very good at mobilizing and marching and advocating and doing sit-ins. Although it’s a painful process that takes a long time, I think that is their best chance of making significant changes, rather than just sitting back and hoping that somebody’s going to do it on their behalf.”
On June 16, 2012, Saundra Amhrein, the writer for Green Card Stories, was honored with the Community Spirit Award for her coverage of refugee families, asylees and asylum seekers through the years by the Tampa Bay Refugee Task Force. An event was held in recognition of World Refugee Day, which is officially on June 20, at Jefferson High School in Tampa for refugee families and asylees resettled throughout Tampa Bay.
Last fall I was at a local immigrant right’s benefit promoting Green Card Stories from a table that I had set up, with a portion of profits going to the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota. The movie Tony and Janina’s American Wedding, which is a powerful documentary about the long-term separation of a Polish family due to immigration complexities, was being shown and the event was open to the public.
When the movie ended a number of people wandered over and perhaps because of the sign on my table saying Green Card Stories, began telling me theirs. One woman who was with her teenaged daughter said, “I should be in your book, but I have had temporary status for 21 years.” She explained that she is from El Salvador and fled the war at the end of the 1980′s. She has lived here ever since, annually renewing her work permit but unable to apply for her green card.
Temporary protected status (TPS) is granted to nationals of certain countries during times of emergency and political strife and is renewed annually, but only if the U.S. administration agrees that there are still dangers inherent in returning. Salvadorans were granted something very similar to TPS called Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) back in 1992, followed by other legal protections but in 2001 were granted TPS as a result of earthquakes in the region.
Twenty one years is an extraordinarily long time to be in “temporary” status. It is unfathomable for most TPS holders, who have settled into permanent lives in the U.S., that at any point the U.S. government will decide that “the coast is clear” and it is time to go “home”. Living with that constant fear for decades is incredibly challenging for families. These are, after all, people lawfully in the U.S. with work permission, who still worry daily about being told that they will have to leave.
I commiserated a little with the woman and agreed that being on TPS for so long was very difficult. Her U.S. citizen daughter was browsing through the information on my book and looked up to tell me that she was doing a report on immigration for her class in school and was looking for materials to use. Her mother had already bought a CD of the movie and had signed up to buy a book, which I thought was generous. Then the mother said, “My daughter really wants to tell her friends about what is happening with immigration. Her father was deported a few years ago because he didn’t have TPS with me.”
I said, “Wow, that must be really hard.” She looked me in the eye and said without emotion, “He tried to come back four months ago but he was killed in the desert.” I was stunned at the raw truth of this. Now I understood why this mother had taken her daughter to the movie and was buying materials for her to try to explain what had happened to her classmates. The girl said simply, “My dad wasn’t a criminal. No one understands.”
Almost twenty years ago the Clinton administration launched Operation Gatekeeper, which was an effort at deterrence, to seal off traditional border crossing routes, making illegal border crossing more dangerous and more difficult. Over the years, we have built hundreds of miles of fencing and armed Border Patrol agents not only with high-powered weapons but with sophisticated electronic sensor systems, stadium lights, infrared night scopes, and four-wheel-drive vehicles to hunt down immigrants.
Prior to Operation Gatekeeper border crossing deaths were few and far between, estimated at only one or two a month. Fifteen years after Operation Gatekeeper the ACLU released a 76 page report finding that there had been more than 5000 deaths in that time period, with the risk of dying 17 times greater in 2009 than in 1998. Because migrants have been pushed to cross the border in increasingly remote and dangerous areas, deaths have increased substantially despite fewer making the attempt and a steady drop in apprehensions by the Border Patrol. In fact, today there is a net zero increase in the influx of undocumented workers from Mexico, but this is seen to be more a result of our economic downturn than the result of increased border enforcement.
The number of people who have died on the Mexican border is the same as U.S. casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. People are dying from drowning, exposure, snake bites, debilitating blisters that make walking impossible, and dehydration. Humanitarian relief organizations set up water and aide stations in the desert but are thwarted by those sabotaging their efforts by slashing water containers or by local law enforcers prosecuting them as trespassers.
Some deaths are from other than natural causes, such as vans over-filled with immigrants crashing as a result of deadly high speed chases or, according to the ACLU report, nails put onto the road to stop smugglers. Some are killed directly by border patrol agents, as was the case with a fifteen year old shot and killed on the Texas border two years ago or the tasing and beating of the 25-year U.S. resident and father of five U.S. citizen children (shown in this recently released, appalling video). Others are murdered by rifle-toting camouflaged border vigilantes, as happened to two innocent migrants in Arizona last month.
Many more are dying on the Mexico side before ever making it to the U.S., as brutal drug cartels have expanded into the human smuggling business. Or gangs have made their money by demanding ransom from migrants’ families and killing them when those ransoms aren’t paid (as happened two summers ago when 72 migrants were massacred at once for refusing to pay ransoms to one of Mexico’s most powerful drug cartels.)
So, one wonders, why do people even consider attempting such a dangerous crossing into the U.S. with all of these obstacles? Are they oblivious to the dangers? Not at all. The ACLU report found that most border crossers understand that there are serious risks involved but they are still willing to take them. Why? Just as with the father of the girl I mention at the beginning of this post, they are driven by the desire for a better life and most of all to be reunited with their loved ones who already live here. As a business man from Iowa who attended an event I spoke at on immigrant investment said to me in passing, “I tell you what, if my family was living in poverty and I knew that the only way I could provide a better life for them was by illegally crossing the border into Canada, I bet you that I would.”
So that is why – love of family. I recently heard Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez give an impassioned speech about immigration in which he described the dangerous lengths to which people will go to be reunited with their families in the U.S. He said something like this:
I know that our laws look harshly on someone who is caught trying to re-enter the U.S. after being deported, but I don’t want to know the person who would not try to come back to be re-united with family. To me, the father or mother who would not make every effort to come back is not a person I would admire. The good person, the one whom I would want to know, is the one who would risk everything to be with family again.
NOTE: I had a couple of weeks’ hiatus from writing my blog due to the fact that I was in China and blogspot is banned there. But I’m back at it again.
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:
- the importance of exercising prosecutorial discretion (prioritizing resources on the deportation of criminals rather than young adults who were brought here as kids or parents of U.S. children);
- the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (which encourages crime victims to come forward, seek protection, and work with law enforcement to see violent perpetrators apprehended);
- supporting ICE’s budget request for increased alternatives to immigration detention funding, which this year is over $2 billion for the detention of 34,000 immigrants per day, including 40% who have no criminal history;
- the redesignation of the EB-5 regional center program, which expires on September 30 and has brought billions of investment dollars to the U.S. in order to enhance job creation for Americans;
- and encouraging positive business immigration reform measures that will allow companies to secure visas for top employees and farmers (and others) to more easily get visas for badly needed skilled and unskilled workers.
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.”
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.
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.
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:
by Laura Danielson, a collaborator on the Green Card Stories book
“Come over legally, fine. Come over illegally and we should be able to shoot you!”
“Children born to illegals are illegal…the ‘Native’ Americans came from Asia many years ago and settled here so they are immigrants too. The Europeans came here legally and built this country up. Look what’s happening to it now because of illegals.”
“The great majority of Americans have no problem with immigrants. Many of us have a problem with ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS….This article paints a picture of those who came here legally. ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION is a whole different picture.”
These are a few of the comments that were received (among a number of supportive ones) in response to CNN’s recent article about our book, Green Card Stories. This type of response, which is pervasive on the web, makes me wonder how we have come to this point in time where people draw such easy distinctions between “illegals” and “legals”, as if there is a clear-cut line. For example, when I gave Green Card Stories to a rather conservative friend, the first thing she said was, “Thank you. You know I support LEGAL IMMIGRATION. It is just the ILLEGALS that I have no time for.”
Those of us who work in the trenches know that immigration law is so nuanced and difficult that it is often only a combination of timing, luck and good counsel that lands people in the camp that holds their green cards, as many of our stories explain. A more detailed, excellent description of the complex legal twists and turns that one can face is found in immigration lawyer Helen Parsonage’s recent post about a man on the brink of deportation who was granted permanent residence only after an uphill and arduous battle. The real reason we have so many undocumented people in the U.S. is because we do not have a workable immigration system. Quite simply, there is no easy and correct way for most people to acquire U.S. residency and there is absolutely no line that the vast majority of our necessary skilled and unskilled labor force can stand and wait in until they become legal.
The American discourse regarding “illegals” seems to be far more prevalent today than it was when I started practicing immigration law, shortly after Ronald Regan approved legislation that both granted amnesty to a large number of undocumented individuals and imposed sanctions on employers who failed to check their workers’ documentation going forward. Back then, I called what I did “happy law” because most of the time we could find immigration solutions for our clients. The law was more favorable, the immigration officials had more discretion, and we weren’t hamstrung by the lack of solutions that exist today. The general attitude of employers, neighbors and American family members back then was that my clients’ immigration difficulties did not in any way detract from their overall qualities as loyal, hard-working and law abiding people. Certainly no one referred to them as “illegals”.
Of course, there have always been loud-mouths and racists, such as Peter Brimelow, an immigrant himself who now that he has been allowed in wants to shut the door to others who do not come from similar backgrounds. He is quoted as saying that immigration is creating a “Spanish speaking underclass parallel to the African American underclass.” Further, he said, “These are people who are completely dysfunctional. They’re on welfare; they’re not doing any kind of work – at least not legal work – and their children are having a terrible time. They’re dropping out of school; there’s an increase in teenage pregnancy.”
Never mind that none of that is true: undocumented people do not qualify for welfare; they are doing critical work that no one else will; and their children are dropping out of school because until the Dream Act passes having an education is useless without employment authorization. Actual facts seldom sway people who have strong emotional beliefs, however. As my partner often reminds me, people make decisions and form opinions based more on emotion than on reason. My bigger concern, then, is that Mr. Brimelow was given a platform for his baseless and reprehensible views at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), a few weeks ago:
How many are listening to and absorbing this vitriol? And how much of it is filtering into our mainstream discourse? It seems that it has become commonplace to demonize a large segment of our immigrant workforce along with their American-born children by classifying them as ”illegals”. My state’s Congresswoman Michele Bachmann did her part recently by stating to Bill O’Reilly that she saw no problem with dragging parents onto buses to be deported in front of their crying children. She also said, in defiance of our U.S. Constitution, “Well, Bill, what we have to do is end the practice of anchor babies in the United States” because that’s when “illegal aliens come in.”
Similarly, Rick Santorum, speaking at a campaign stop in Iowa, said families that include undocumented immigrants “should be broken up when the law is broken.”
Despite how painful and difficult it is right now for the immigrants among us to suffer the invective I described at the beginning of this post, I do have a sense that we are reaching a tipping point. Good-hearted Americans just won’t allow things to reach such hysterical proportions that we routinely deny American children foodstamps, deport mentally ill people without legal representation, take custody of American children away from their undocumented parents, and deport American veterans. They just can’t. We just can’t.
One thing I often wonder when I notice people slamming out angry anonymous responses on the web or calling in and shouting back on shock jock shows, is whether these are the opposite of what used to be called the “silent majority” – the “clamorous minority”. They are getting so much attention that politicians are confused into thinking that they are reflective of the real mood in our nation. Knowing full well that something must be done to address the urgent and pressing immigration problems we face, they cower in fear that if they speak out they will suffer a backlash from their constituencies. Reputable studies, such as the latest United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll have repeatedly shown, however, that the vast majority of Americans prefer to allow some or all undocumented immigrants to be able to remain in the U.S. Only a quarter of Americans believe that we should kick everyone out no matter how long they’ve been here.
On a more personal positive note and in contrast to the ugly messages I described above, over a three week period I have been the recipient of numerous anonymous postcards as part of a little-known campaign called Postcard Undergound, in which people from all across the country put pen to paper, lick a stamp, and send their support to someone they think has been doing good work. In my case they are acknowledging the work that my immigration team did in helping an African kid get reunited with his newly naturalized U.S. citizen family after many years of separation.
I’m not writing this to highlight our work, which is typical of the work that ALL of my good immigration colleagues do on a regular basis without fanfare. I’m writing to say that in my mind these postcards represent the quiet 75%, the good hearted majority who still believe in the importance of caring for our neighbors. These postcards are from people who still believe in the inscription on the Statue of Liberty and they give me hope.