Sixty-five Million Migrant Stories

Talk of “Immigrants” and “Migrants” is part of life today: some 65 million human beings are on the move, forced from their homes by war, flood, hunger, persecution, living in overcrowded camps, or simply walking. The talk can obscure the fact that these are 65 million individual stories. This is one of them.

Ke at Calvary 10.8.17

The author with Ke

My new friend Ke came to Calvary Presbyterian Church recently, speaking first to the entire congregation and later to a group grappling with the issue of becoming a Sanctuary Church. More on that later. Ke accompanied the Rev. Deborah Lee, Senior Program Director of Immigration, with the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, whose credentials include several decades of work for social justice despite appearing (to this octogenarian at least) to be 15 or 16 years old at most. Rev. Lee and her organization work to help vulnerable people, and to help people like this writer and others understand how they might help.

It is Ke’s story that I want to tell.

Ke came to the U.S. forty years ago as a very young child, escaping the horrors of the raging Vietnam war. If you’re old enough to remember those days you will remember Vietnam as one of the seriously ill-advised wars of our country’s history. But Ke – whose full name is Nghiep Ke Lam – was lucky to survive the perilous journey to freedom and was granted refugee status. According to this writer’s unscientific research, some 800,000 Vietnamese refugees were resettled in the U.S. in those years, not all into ideal circumstances.

Ke’s family found a place to live in an unsavory San Francisco neighborhood. When he was 7 years old he was confronted by a group of bullies who gave him the option of running for his life or fighting one of them. He decided to fight. After he pummeled the older bully to the ground the others congratulated him – an early lesson in problem-solving by violence. When he was 8 he took a year off from school to care for his new baby brother; his father had left the family and his mother was struggling to make ends meet. Once he returned to school Ke did well enough to be accepted into the city’s most prestigious public high school – but because it was too far from his neighborhood he couldn’t take advantage of the opportunity.

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         Vietnam War 1972                               Photo by Raymond Depardon

At 17 Ke committed a crime that would send him to prison for the next two decades. While there he stayed fit, avoided trouble and took advantage of every chance to pick up new skills and credentials. “I can fix the plumbing in your house,” he told the church congregation. “I can also offer counseling.” But he found a stronger calling: he now serves as fulltime Reentry Coordinator for the Asian Prisoner Support Committee, helping others who face the challenges he faced on being released from prison with no money and no job. A number of sources help Ke find used bicycles which he restores to working condition; he then gives them to those released from incarceration (usually having to teach the new bike owners how to ride) so they are able to seek and find work.

Will Calvary become a Sanctuary Church? We don’t have facilities to offer physical sanctuary, but could offer other levels of help such as advocacy or accompaniment (it can be scary to go to deportation hearings,) those sorts of perfectly legal things. There is no unanimity of opinion on this. Presbyterians tend to be strongly opinionated, and seldom opinionated in unison. Most of us do, though, spend time considering what Jesus might have to say about it all.

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Photo by Thomas Hawk

Meanwhile, Ke is at risk of deportation. The country to which he would be sent is not currently accepting deportees, something the Trump administration is pressuring countries to change. Also at risk of deportation are the 11+ million individuals now living in the U.S. Some of those human beings are bad people most Americans would want deported. Some of them are working hard at jobs, like Ke’s, that help others and strengthen our nation. Some of them are running businesses they’ve run for decades. Some of them have been in the U.S. since they were toddlers, never knowing any other homeland. Every one is an individual story.

And there are 65 million stories.

Immigrants, Refugees, Human Beings

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“It would just be like my life ending,” he said. He was an attractive 20-something with piercing black eyes and a neatly trimmed beard. “I was a Dreamer,” he added, “but now I just have nightmares. I’ve lived here since I was 8. I did really well in high school and am halfway through college. But I could be sent back to a country I hardly know, to a very dangerous situation. I’m afraid for my whole family.”

His name is Antonio, and he is an undocumented immigrant. He is one of at least 11 million people in the U.S. today who go to bed with the fear they might wake up to their worst nightmare, deportation. It’s a fear that will be multiplied many times over with installation of an administration that came to power with more than a little help from ripples of xenophobia.

Immigrants. Refugees. Migrants. Humans.

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Worldwide, well over sixty-five million people have been forced to flee their homes, with one source reporting that 24 people were displaced from their homes every day in 2015. By now, most of us have an overload of images in our heads – Syrian children fleeing war-torn cities, terrified people clinging to the sides of capsized boats, acres of tent cities housing human beings facing an unknown future.

Some hope for the hordes of migrants and refugees in Europe lies in the countries and organizations – UNICEF, Save the Children, other nonprofits – that provide shelter in the form of “temporary” camps. The people there, many of whom spend years of their lives simply existing, at least receive food and minimal care. But it’s hard not to consider how little the U.S. is doing (and how much less we’re likely to do in the coming years)

Among the organizations working to ease the burdens of undocumented immigrants on our own soil is the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity. Senior Program Director Rev. Deborah Lee was speaking of her group’s work at the interfaith event where Antonio told his own story.

“What is our unique role, as religious communities, and how can we put it into practice?” Lee asked. “Does our faith require us to provide sanctuary for those who feel threatened?”

The IMHI maintains the answer to that latter question is a loud Yes. “There is a growing need for faith communities to be a part of the (sanctuary) map,” she says, “which already includes college campuses and cities around the country – responding to God’s law of offering protection to the vulnerable.”

Her organization, Lee explains, hopes to enlist one (or more) “sanctuary congregations” in cities across the U.S. where someone facing final deportation orders can find protection. There are also migrant families arriving in the San Francisco Bay area, Lee says, “who are seeking protection from deportation and applying for asylum, but who are without official refugee status and resettlement services.” For these, IMHI seeks congregations that can provide either support or hospitality housing.

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The idea of sixty-five million+ people forced to flee their homes looks like a tragedy too big to consider. But listening to Deborah Lee talk about how every human being is sacred, or having coffee with Antonio, puts a face on possibility.

I . . Am . . The Refugee

Refugees are human beings

“If I’d been caught,” she said quietly, “I would have been sent back to North Korea where I would have faced prison, or possibly execution.” She had escaped into China, only to find that refugees were not exactly welcome there. “My parents (who had helped her, and a brother, escape) told the government that my brother and I were dead. For several years, they were closely watched because the government didn’t believe them, but it is somewhat better now.”

The young woman with a shy smile spoke through an interpreter at an event at Calvary Presbyterian Church, in recognition of World Refugee Day – which you may have missed, in the tsunami of news/tweets/rumors about suffering refugees, undesirable immigrants and assorted boundary walls and fences.

The young woman speaker eventually made it to Thailand, and from there to the U.S. where nonprofits such as the International Rescue Committee and Refugee Transitions are helping her piece together a life. It took her seven years. She does not expect ever to see her parents again. We were asked not to take pictures, to protect her.

At a later event on the same day another young woman spoke. Her English was immeasurably better than my Pashto or Dari would be if I studied really hard for the next 10 years. Born in 1992 into an educated Afghan family, she repeatedly cited having educated parents as setting her apart. Most Afghan women of her generation (as with other generations) face a life strictly limited to the confines of the family home. But by the time she was five, the Taliban had taken over and educating girls was forbidden. In her city there was one underground school where girls could learn to read and write, and she and her parents decided to risk it. During regular government inspections the children would hide textbooks in garbage cans. But she survived, and received a rudimentary education that was greatly expanded after 2011 when the U.S. entered Afghanistan. (“In our prayers, we gave thanks for the Americans,” she said. That was surprising, and gratifying, to this American reporter.)  She came to the U.S. on a student visa several years ago. By the time she graduated it was clear that she could not return to her country – which has known nothing but war for forty years – to help young women and girls as her hopes and plans had been. So she became a refugee. A refugee is, by definition, “a person who has been forced to leave his or her country in order to escape war, famine, persecution or natural disaster.”

“So many things are hard,” the young woman from Afghanistan says. “For instance, pronunciation. You want to renew your ‘weesa,’ and they don’t know what you’re saying because it’s ‘visa.’” Other things are harder still. Because she was on a student visa, she could not work. After graduation she “couch-hopped,” staying wherever she could, “because the only people I knew were my professors and my classmates.” She has now applied for asylum — a process that also prohibits working for at least 150 days. She was fortunate to find a family who has taken her in, and she hopes to make a life in the U.S.

For many in the audience, it was hard to imagine the endless bureaucratic mazes refugees encounter and patiently endure — possibly because they often come from countries where government bureaucracy is a daily fact of life. It was even harder to imagine spending two or three years of one’s life (a minimum) or well over a decade (an average) in a refugee camp.

Refugees - UNHCR

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, 33,972 people are forced to flee their homes every day because of conflict and persecution. That is 33,972 people every day. There are, UNHCR reports, 65.3 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. That is sixty-five and three/tenths million homeless/stateless people. Human beings. Many of these are simply desperate to escape; a small percentage hope – and yearn – to return to their homeland if it can be safe (and livable) again.

The United States, a nation of immigrants (we won’t get into the viewpoint of Native Americans here) accepts a few thousand refugees per year.

This writer felt, at the end of the day, she should go home and count her blessings.

The Afghan woman, now – though a long way from citizenship still – an American woman, was asked what those in the audience could do to help.

“Support any of the nonprofits that work to help refugees,” she said. “If you have money, that’s good. But if not, you can give your time – or your prayers.”

But the big thing is, both of these refugees said, echoing the clergy of all faiths who have been speaking out in recent days, not only to give something, but simply to see other individuals not as ‘the other,’ but as members of the community of humankind we share.

Repeatedly, citizens and refugees alike said, somewhat wishfully, “Open your hearts.”

Immigrants? Which immigrants? – – – – An Ohlone comments, & Nancy Pelosi adds a few words at interfaith gathering

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Native American vestments draped over his 2015 business suit, Ohlone descendant Andrew Galvan, whose ancestral lands encompass the San Francisco Bay area, smiled broadly at the 400+ paying guests at a recent event in San Francisco. The attendees had just responded to queries about when their ancestors first emigrated to the U.S.: some in the 21st century, most in the 20th century, a few in the 19th, 18th or 17th.

“My ancestors,” Galvan observed, “apparently welcomed all of you.” Coming at a time of crisis and dissension over new immigrants seeking welcome in these old lands, the message was not lost on anyone.

The occasion was the 18th Annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Prayer Breakfast hosted by the San Francisco Interfaith Council. Some 800 churches, synagogues, mosques and other faith communities are part of the SFIC. Months before refugees and immigration became a global humanitarian crisis and a U.S. political tinderbox, plans were underway for this year’s breakfast. Its theme? “Faith and Sanctuary: There Are No Strangers.”

Galvan explained that his ancestors acknowledged a Grandfather creator-god – who worked in cooperation with Grandmother Earth. He then led prayers of thanksgiving, with explanations, to the four directions:

To the East, “where the new day begins and we have the opportunity to begin again and again.”

American Indian Movement Flag

To the South, “where the warm winds come from, as well as our brother the fire. Grandfather, we ask you to control and contain our brother the fire.”

To the West, “where brother sun sets and the moon and stars are in control; and we enter dreamland. Grandfather, protect the children who sleep and keep us clear of nightmares. Teach us to live right that we may die right.” And :

To the North, “where are the snow-capped mountaintops. Grandfather, thank you for our sister water. We thank and praise you for the gifts of Nature.”

There were other explanatory elements, but most notable, for the multi-ethnic group representative of so many contemporary religions, was the business of cooperation among all those Grandfathers and Grandmothers, brothers and sisters.

Toward the end of the program former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi arrived, slightly late, offering as her apology the fact that she had been outside on her cellphone (“You could probably hear me . . .”) with colleagues in Washington threatening to shut down the government unless we stop admitting refugees. “These children,” Pelosi said with no attempt to control her wrath. “Fleeing war and unimaginable Pelosi at SFIC 11.23.15horrors.” She went on to cite facts about the current refugee population – such as that well over one-third are children, about one-half are women, a large percentage are elderly – and only two percent are in the category (younger, male) that could, though it’s unlikely, constitute a threat. “And if you are in the U.S. today,” Pelosi continued, “and you are a young male on a terrorist watch list, you can walk into almost any gun store and walk out with the weapon of your choice.”

At one largely Presbyterian table (where a few What Would Jesus Do? comments had been made about the current U.S. debate,) someone remarked, “Grandfather and Grandmother are among the refugees. And I think the Great Spirit is not pleased.”

Immigration Then and Now: Three families, three stories

PRELUDE: A contemporary story –

Maluki had what she thought was a minor infection in her chest. She took a couple of pain relief tablets. She is undocumented and uninsured. She had no access to a community clinic where she might have seen a doctor with no questions asked; no one in her suburban family had heard that such things exist. Within a few weeks Maluki was doubled over with pain and was rushed by a neighbor to an emergency room at a major public hospital two hours away.

Two surgeries later the 38-year-old mother of three will be out of work for a very long time. Her husband, partly disabled, works irregular hours when he can, leaving the family dependent on what money the teenaged children – all U.S. citizens – can bring in. The children still hope somehow to finish high school and attend college.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Almost everything, if you asked the five California experts on a recent Commonwealth Club panel in San Francisco. “Undocumented and Uninsured” brought together two heads of clinics where treatment is available to all and two others with unique insight and perspectives. Moderated by Daniel Weintraub, Editor in Chief and Project Director, California Health Report, the panel included John Gressman, President and CEO, San Francisco Community Clinic Consortium and Scott Hauge, President of CAL Insurance & Associates Inc and Co-Founder and Vice Chairman, Clinic by the Bay; Laurel Lucia, Associate Policy Specialist, UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education; and Jirayut New Latthivongskorn, Co-Founder of Pre-Health Dreamers. They were looking at how the Affordable Care Act will impact immigrants unable to get health insurance, and what the healthcare future might hold for them.

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There are, by one estimate, 11.7 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Some have health coverage through their jobs, and a few have private coverage; but the vast majority of these are uninsured. The resulting costs, in human terms such as the case above, are inestimable; the costs in dollars are also significant. “If we get the patient into basic care for colds and flu,” said Gressman, “we save thousands in hospital care.” In California, care is widely available through publicly funded community clinics as well as nonprofits – the problem is in getting the word out and building trust. “We look at how to get the patient to care,” Hauge said, “not at anyone’s immigration status.”

While Gressman, Hauge and Lucia each brought extensive understanding of both the policy and the real-world details affecting healthcare needs of undocumented immigrants, it is the personal stories of Lucia and Latthivongskorn that illuminate the remarkable richness of our immigrant nation.

Nearly a century before she was invited to bring her expert knowledge to a Commonwealth Club panel, Laurel Lucia’s great-grandfather was a frequent speaker at the Commonwealth Club himself. Felipe N. Puente was memorialized in the Club’s Journal upon his death in January, 1951. He was, his obituary reads, “by far the most important personal tie between Northern Californians and the Republic of Mexico for nearly a quarter of a century.

“Commencing as a colorful revolutionary Mexican leader in 1917 (as Jefe de Transportacion for the late Revolutionary General Francisco Villa), he had for 25 years been a resident of San Francisco, with five children in our public schools, and the long-time Manager of the Mexican National Railways, San Francisco division, in the Monadnock Building.

“Although a railroadman by profession, his expert and sagacious advice was freely at the service of American travelers by sea, highway or air, and a letter from ‘el Puente de San Francisco’ (the San Francisco Bridge) as he was affectionately known clear down to the border of Guatemala, opened all doors in Mexico.” Great-grandfather Puente’s expertise reached beyond transportation to government affairs. In a Commonwealth Club speech broadcast over KYA Radio in 1942 he spoke of the importance of Mexican-American cooperation in the war efforts, citing cargo lanes and Mexican ores that were critical to the U.S. and quoting President Avila Camacho as saying, “Mexican soldiers are willing to shed their blood anywhere in the world where they may be needed.” His Journal obituary began and ended, “Adios, Amigo Felipe N.Puente!”

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Lucia missed out on knowing her notable ancestor, “but I was quite close to his daughter, my grandmother.” She had not, she says, ever made any connection between his immigrant status and her current work – as a Policy Analyst for the UC Berkeley Labor Center – which partly seeks to strengthen the safety net for those more recently arriving on our shores.

 

Laurel Lucia with Moderator Weintraub

As for the other young person on the “Undocumented and Uninsured” panel, Jiryat New Latthivongskorn (hereafter identified by his familiar name, New) confesses to having been a little startled to hear himself constantly referred to during the evening as “the first undocumented student to be admitted to UCSF (the University of California San Francisco) Medical School.” But that is, in fact, part of his current resume, and a not insignificant achievement.

There were 7,453 applicants to UCSF Medical School for New’s class, out of which pool 490 were interviewed and 149 were accepted. The overall grade point average was 3.77.

New Latthivongskorn came to this country with his parents when he was 9 years old. His parents worked in Thai restaurants every night until 11:00. But whenever he tried to help, he said in an interview on KQED Radio last May, “the answer never changed. ‘Don’t worry, and do your job.’ My job was to get an education.” So far, he appears to have done his job quite well. New never considered the idea of being a doctor until one scary incident during his junior year in high school when his mother fell gravely ill and had to be taken to the emergency room. The family had, until that time, relied on a medicine cabinet full of remedies for colds and pain and a few old antibiotics from Thailand. But in the ER, when his mother couldn’t understand the doctors and they couldn’t understand her, New realized his job might be more than just a translator.

There are those, including a few who commented on the KQED program, who argue that anyone who is in this country illegally should simply be sent back to wherever he or she came from and until then should receive no benefits – and certainly no healthcare. That may, however, be an overly simplistic – not to mention cruel and unusual – answer to a very complex issue.

“Immigrants don’t come here,” New told the Commonwealth Club audience, “for free healthcare. They come here to escape danger or terrible conditions; they come here to work.” In short, to create a better life for themselves and their families, and ultimately to give back to the communities of their new world. That was definitely true for immigrant Puente a century ago, and is demonstrated by the hard-working parents of doctor-to-be New.

Other than the Native Americans who pre-date most of us, it would be hard to find many U.S. citizens whose ancestors didn’t have similar stories.

 

 

The fears behind Arizona immigration law

If immigration reform has been on the back burner, despite President Obama’s campaign promises to tackle the issue, the May Day marchers hope to move it back to the front, and turn up the heat. They turned out in New York — 5,000+ in Manhattan’s Foley Square, in Los Angeles — fired up by singer Gloria Estefan and Catholic Cardinal Roger Mahony, and here in San Francisco — where the basic fears raised by Arizona’s new law were evident. SB 1070, signed by Governor Jan Brewer last week, makes it a state crime to be in the U.S. illegally.

The (San Francisco) march, part of the annual worldwide May Day workers’ rights demonstrations, stretched four to five blocks and ended at City Hall, where members of the conservative Tea Party and local Golden Gate Minutemen held a counter-protest.

Jim Homer, a business manager for Local 216 of the Laborers International Union of North America, whose 100-member group led the march, said many fellow construction laborers fear Arizona’s SB1070 will spread to California and create cultural hostility toward foreign-born workers.

“The immigration system is set up to blame the workers who come here,” Homer said. “There needs to be reform of the immigration laws that put more focus on the employers and their responsibilities, not just on the people who come to this country to make a living.”

The two primary sides to the immigration issue were in sharp focus on the west coast:

(W)orkers and immigrants at the San Francisco march – and others like it in Oakland and San Jose – said the law will give police the right to check for immigration papers of any brown-skinned citizens.

At the Civic Center counter-protest, Elizabeth Kelly, an Alameda resident who supports the Golden Gate Minutemen, said she also wants immigration reform. The Minutemen are a local branch of the controversial national group that voluntarily patrols the border, trying to stop undocumented immigrants from entering the country.

“Close the border,” she said. “I want to see them go back. That’d be my immigration reform.”

The Golden Gate Minutemen, whose Web site features some scary stuff (May Day! May Day! Invaders Coming!) is part of the fear factor for a number of recent immigrant — some legal, some not — friends of mine. “They’re not going to ask questions first, they’re going to send you to jail or out of the country, and ask questions later,” said one.

Most reports say Obama won’t do much beyond tightening border control in the near future. A lot more is needed. Until we get real reform, including some reasonable guest worker provisions and amnesty for those who have proved themselves good citizens already, we’re going to continue to be a nation not just of immigrants, but of fear. Not a very comfortable social system for anyone.

Big S.F. protest of Arizona immigration law.

One immigrant's plight v Arizona law

My friend Maria is among the fairly good-sized community of illegal immigrants living in San Francisco. She works hard, buys local, supports her church and her daughter’s school, adds a lot to the city and state economy and functions in every way as a model citizen except she doesn’t pay income taxes. She would like to pay those taxes, but over the years that she’s been here she has not found an opening to apply for citizenship.

Once I asked Maria about her car, a nice one on which she paid hefty sales taxes but which, of course, she drives without a license.”I just drive very, very carefully,” she said, “and keep everything perfect with the car. If you’re stopped, maybe for a turn light being out, it’s $1,000 minimum.”

“A thousand dollars?” I said; “you’re kidding.”

“They impound your car. You have to find someone with a valid license, get them to go get your car for you, plus paying the fine and all the fees.” Maria said this in a quiet voice while I exhaled.

Now, if Maria is stopped in Arizona she will simply be sent home. And this makes very little sense to me. President Obama said the Arizona law threatens “to undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans, as well as the trust between police and our communities that is so crucial to keeping us safe.”

He also said that he is monitoring the Arizona bill for civil rights and other implications.

“If we continue to fail to act at a federal level, we will continue to see misguided efforts opening up around the country,” Mr. Obama said.

In his remarks, the president didn’t offer a timetable for trying to pursue an overhaul of immigration laws in Congress.

Something seems not only unfair but un-American about making it legal for Maria to be summarily sent home after a traffic stop. Or some other kind of stop, no matter how vehemently everyone insists that racial profiling will never happen. We welcome Maria and her family in — after all, we need their labor if we’re going to eat strawberries — but once they’ve proven themselves solid citizen potential we throw them out.  Maria has cousins who were migrant workers although she herself has always been a small step up the ladder from that back-breaking job.

Admittedly, illegal immigrants come here for less than good-citizen motives. Certainly we must protect our boundaries. Arizona’s abuse-inviting law does not seem the right way to fix our immigration policies.

Obama Slams Arizona’s Immigration Bill – The Caucus Blog – NYTimes.com.