Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Standing With Immigrants

This article, like most others, first appeared in Veer Magazine.

I am, like many, shaken by the recent demonization and deportation of immigrants from Mexico and Central America. I was please recently to see a local restaurant, Jessy’s Taco Bistro in Ghent and Jessy’s Tienda y Taqueria in Ocean View participating in a national Day Without Immigrants protest by closing for the day. I was also gratified that his business increased significantly in the days following that effort. I was one of those patrons expressing support. I'd held off going there previously because I'm plagued with food allergies but they were more than accommodating. The cuisine offered was delicious and fresh with entrees and salsas made in-house. I'll certainly be a regular.

I also went in search of personal stories. The owner, Jorge Romero, was welcoming and helpful in providing contacts with immigrants living in our area – all legal now but not always so. Frank Chavez came here with his family at the age of eight and lived here undocumented for years. He became a citizen as an adult and now manages a wholesale food distribution business, contributing to our local economy. Frank told me from his own experience, the fears, difficulties and insecurity that people have who live here undocumented. How difficult it is to even get a driver's license or make a living. He voiced real fears people have over the break-up of families due to deportations – even deportations of people who came here as young children, “Dreamers” who have taken advantage of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. This program, begun by Obama, allows renewable two year deferments and work permits for those who grew up here as children of undocumented parents. As Frank said, there are more productive and humane ways to deal with immigration by streamlining the process and making it easier for people to get work permits.

Vianey Bueno-Becknell came here from Mexico. She explains: Back in 2001 in Mexico City I was working as assistant to a famous Mexican painter, and I was a student of the EDA (Escuela de Artesanias) of the National Institute of Fine Arts. In that time I didn’t have a choice or much time to get out of an abusive relationship and Mexico didn’t have a protective order or protection that would help me be in a safe place. At the same time my sister was visiting her daughters so my escape, by coming to the United States, was a decision that I made to save my life.

My life in Virginia was not easy in the beginning. I started cleaning rooms in a hotel in Ocean View. I remember when my friends back in Mexico use to asked me 'Where do you work now?' I was kind of ashamed telling them that I was cleaning rooms. Back in Mexico I used to work in a University or I was the publicity assistant for the International Cervantino Festival, so it was a big change. Now my work consisted of cleaning cars or being a housekeeper in a big hotel in Downtown Norfolk. Back in 2001 I was only planning to stay here for 6 months and then go back to Mexico, however that changed when I met the father of my daughter. He was my first husband and he was an American Indian. We got married and try to legalize my situation, but at that time the only hope was for me to go back to Mexico, ask for forgiveness and see if the United States would let me back in. I talked to several lawyers and they advised me not to leave the country so I lived in hiding for a very long time. It’s like living in the shadows with many people not knowing what you have gone through. Working in the United States I paid my taxes every year. Even when you are illegal the IRS gives you a “ITN” number, so that you could pay your taxes. It just goes to show you that even if you are an illegal immigrant the United States still finds a way to collect taxes.

Ms Bueno-Becknell described the difficulty of daily living as an undocumented immigrant, trying to get a drivers license. I didn’t have a drivers license. One day I took it upon myself to start driving and I got stopped by the police for a traffic violation. The Judge told me that if the police stop me again without a drivers license I would be put in jail, so I had to do what I had to do to get a drivers license. I decided to go to Washington State and get a Drivers License because at that time Washington State allowed illegal immigrants to get drivers licenses.

Vianey has since become a legal resident but she told me, I consider myself a very blessed person, and I know how hard it is to live in the U.S. and live in fear of what could happen tomorrow. I have heard so many racist comments and I confront people all the time because they don’t understand what is it like to live in the United States as an illegal immigrant. When I used to work in a car insurance agency I saw every month how Hispanic people would come and make their car insurance payment on time. Hispanic people here contribute by paying fines and doing legal business here just the same as American citizens. Hispanic people here are the most responsible people because they don’t want to get in trouble. All they want to do is be given the chance to become American citizens or at least have some kind of legal residence.

My job now is to work with Hispanics. Mostly all the time I hear first hand their concern: they are worried and they are afraid of what could happen tomorrow. This hatred that our current president is showing is just unbelievable. Every day we as immigrants have to watch the news just to see how bad it is now. Since the election, all kinds of hope have disappeared and the uncertainty grows every day. For me as a Hispanic person its common sense. Just by going to Florida and seeing the fields in Ave Maria and Immokalee you can see how immigrants live and work there or by going to Washington State and seeing the onion fields with only Hispanic hands. This country’s infrastructure was built by immigrant hands. Immigrants play a vital role in our country. Our country will not survive without immigrants.

The fears these two people express are not unfounded as Trump's policy of aggressive deportation escalates to include those here legally. On February 8, Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos went to her yearly check-in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Phoenix, Arizona, something she has done every year since 2008. This time, instead of being sent home to her family, she was loaded into a van and deported to Mexico, despite a group of her friends, family and supporters placing their bodies in the way of the van. Her 14-year-old daughter had to pack her things for her; she, along with her brother and father, would be staying behind. Daniel Ramirez Medina, a 23-year-old father was detained by ICE in Des Moines, Washington, even though he has permission to live and work in the United States under the DACA program. His lawyers have called his detention "unprecedented and unjustified." There are many, many other cases around the country. Imagine yourself suddenly arrested, ripped from your family, your children, and deported to a country where you face imminent danger, or if you grew up in the U.S., that you know little about -- a place where you don't speak the language or know anyone.

As reported in the New York Times, “President Trump has directed his administration to enforce the nation’s immigration laws more aggressively, unleashing the full force of the federal government to find, arrest and deport those in the country illegally, regardless of whether they have committed serious crimes. Documents released by the Department of Homeland Security revealed the broad scope of the president’s ambitions: to publicize crimes by undocumented immigrants; strip such immigrants of privacy protections; enlist local police officers as enforcers; erect new detention facilities; discourage asylum seekers; and, ultimately, speed up deportations. The new enforcement policies put into practice language that Mr. Trump used on the campaign trail, vastly expanding the definition of “criminal aliens” and warning that such unauthorized immigrants 'routinely victimize Americans,' disregard the rule of law and pose a threat to people in communities across the United States.”

Despite the scapegoating we hear from right-wing media and the Trump junta the reality is that undocumented immigrants are far more law abiding than native-born Americans. According to an analysis of data from the 2010 American Community Survey roughly 1.6 percent of immigrant males age 18-39 are incarcerated compared to 3.3 percent of the native-born. The 2010 Census data reveals that incarceration rates among the young, less-educated Mexican, Salvadoran, and Guatemalan men who make up the bulk of the unauthorized population are significantly lower than the incarceration rate among native-born young men without a high-school diploma.

The constant accusations of immigrant criminality and threats to list such crimes weekly by this administration smack of the kind of scapegoating by other regimes which have lead to genocide. The scapegoating of Muslims and of Hispanics; the blaming of a minority for the woes of the majority and the libeling of an ethnicity as a national threat are classic fascist tactics to strengthen support for an authoritarian regime using hate and fear. We should remember that even the nazi holocaust started with such libel and efforts to “cleanse” Germany by deporting Jews. Decent people must reject and stand against dangerous racist scapegoating.

I believe we have to place the issue of undocumented immigration in context before we can even begin to understand and discuss it. Trump has presented this issue as a crisis but the reality is that there are one million fewer Mexicans living in the United States today than in 2007. Many of the undocumented people coming here now are coming from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. You may wonder why that is so.

Much of the answer lies in the history of the region directly related to US policy. A full and detailed account of our involvement in Central America would take much more space than this article allows. Beginning with the overthrow of the elected government of Guatemala in 1956 we have installed, trained and armed brutal, bloody dictatorships in the region. The CIA coup in Guatemala, a reaction to land reform efforts, was to secure U.S. control and to serve the interests of the United Fruit corporation. The result has been a continuing brutal rule which culminated in a genocidal bloodbath under Reagan-backed dictator Rios Montt. President Reagan increased U.S. support of bloody, death squad dictatorships in El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980s. This included the training and arming of murderous military police and later, of the “contras” in Nicaragua – even in defiance of Congress. Some will recall not only the horrific tales of violence but the purchase of weapons from Iran with money raised from drug-smuggling by the CIA to arm “contra” terrorists. These are facts which have been well documented by journalists like Alexander Cockburn and Gary Webb.

Inflicted dictatorships, human rights violations, the drug trade and war aside, there are devastating economic policies forcefully imposed on the region. For Mexico, NAFTA and the privatization of their oil began the economic slide leading to immigration. Our foreign policy in support of corporations and World Bank debt colonialism is non-partisan. Every president over the last 50 years has toppled elected governments, trained and armed terrorists, installed brutal dictators and defied international law with military aggressions in Central America and around the world. Every recent president has pushed policies of debt and privatization which have broken the economies of other countries and has affected our own country as well. This includes Reagan, Clinton, both Bushes and Obama. These policies, like borders themselves, serve corporate interests but leave a devastating wake of poverty, violence and refugees.

The latest example of this was the 2009 coup in Honduras ousting poplar President Zelaya. This was supported by Obama and Clinton. The “reforms” demanded of the newly installed junta in Honduras included rollbacks in social programs, education and healthcare as well as privatization of the public sector. The result is that economic inequality in Honduras has increased dramatically, foreign mining and logging corporations have been empowered, and resisters and human rights activists killed. Since 2010 poverty has worsened, unemployment has increased and underemployment has risen sharply with many more workers receiving less than the minimum wage. The story is the same in neighboring countries, though the details vary. Social turmoil, extreme poverty and the legacy of war have left Central America plagued by lack of opportunity, by crime, and record violence. In short, the people that risk everything, often in fear for their lives, to leave and migrate here undocumented, are refugees of our own making. The victims in this unfortunate reality are not the criminals.

Another question I've heard repeated, often indignantly, is why immigrants don't just come here legally? If only it was that easy! As explained by the American Immigration Council, immigration to the United States on a temporary or permanent basis is generally limited to three different routes: employment, family reunification, or humanitarian protection. Many refugees do not have family here. Very real fears of imminent danger are often difficult to prove and politically uncomfortable to acknowledge, especially to judges who are skeptical at best. Coming here for employment requires one to have a job lined up and an eligible sponsoring employer. Each year the United States sets a numerical limit on how many refugees will be admitted for humanitarian reasons. To be admitted as refugees, individuals must be screened by multiple international and U.S. agencies and prove that they have a “well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, membership in a particular social group, political opinion, or national origin.” There are also significant backlogs based on our quotas for immigration. Even if one can qualify it can take 10 to 25 years to get a visa. Most if not all of the people coming here from Central America cannot wait that long and they are hardly the only refugees desperate for a safe haven.

As Trump's racist scapegoating, roundups and deportations escalate I have to wonder what can I do? What can and must we do? No simple or easy solution seem clear. It is frightening and frustrating. As a witness, a person of conscience, and as a Jew always cognizant of the not-so-distant past, I feel a sense of urgency and commitment.

I've called our state representatives to urge defeat of HB2000, a bill sponsored by Charles Poindexter to prohibit cities from sponsoring ordinances that restrict enforcement of federal immigration laws – prohibiting sanctuary cities. This has passed the State Senate and will hopefully be defeated by Governor McAuliff. The ACLU has sent a letter to our Governor urging a veto of legislation, HB 1468 which would force Sheriffs to detain undocumented residents and report them to federal Immigration Enforcement. Governor McAuliff needs to hear from us on these issues.

I was proud to read that Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney signed a Mayoral directive in response to a citizen petition reaffirming his commitment to protect and promote the safety of all members of the community regardless of their immigration or refugee status. I called our own Mayor and heard similar, but vague, intentions from a city representative that they will continue to treat all Norfolk residents with dignity and respect. No official statement was made regarding cooperation with immigration. Time will tell what this means. As in Richmond, public pressure can make a difference.

Local churches and interfaith communities are beginning to come together on this issue, however the details are sensitive for obvious reasons. There is an effort to have churches post signs saying,”All Welcome Here.” This is something more of us should consider doing and maybe in Spanish; Bienvenidos AquĆ­. The more of us who do this, the more of us who publicly object and actively resist this nightmare, the safer we will all be.

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