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Omaha Area Sanctuary Network: Caring cohort goes the distance for undocumented residents caught in the immigraton vice grip


Part I
Going the distance
Omaha sanctuary network gives refuge to family separated at the border
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico (el-perico.com)
Editor’s Note:
Welcome to Part I of a two-part story about the Omaha Area Sanctuary Network, which supports undocumented individuals embroiled in the immigration justice system. Part I focuses on a family separated at the border that’s found reunification and ongoing aid from the network. The parent’s names have been changed. The interview was conducted with the assistance of a translator.
In January 2018 Carlos and Sofia fled gang-ridden Acapulco, Mexico with their four young children. They risked everything in a run for the border. At the San Ysidro port of entry they sought asylum only to be forcibly separated and detained. They’ve since been reunited with support from the Omaha Area Sanctuary Network (OASN). The nonprofit aids undocumented individuals whose immigration status is in question.
Rampant violence in the family’s homeland created an environment of fear. The children witnessed shootings. Family friends went missing. The last straw was Carlos getting beaten and stabbed.
“Our family felt threatened,” said Sophia, adding that leaving seemed the only option. “Sometimes one doesn’t act for one’s self. We do it for the kids.”
Their odyssey’s ultimate destination was Omaha, where Sofia’s sister already lived, Even though the U.S. immigration crackdown was not yet in effect, this intact family seeking refuge from a credible threat still found themselves separated. Sofia and the kids did not get to say goodbye to Carlos before their release.
“I tried to get his attention to tell him we were leaving, but he didn’t understand. They wouldn’t let you speak with anyone. They wouldn’t let us get close to him.”
A desperate Carlos was transferred to detention centers in Arizona and Georgia. He pestered officials until the Southern Poverty Law Center took his case via its Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI).
An attorney arranged for his parole to Omaha pending a local sponsor coming forward. Calls to local immigration organizations led to then-sanctuary network president Lawrence Jensen. Meanwhile, Carlos and his family anxiously awaited a resolution to a separation that lasted four months.
“To go from every day interacting with your family and in one moment they’re taken away, there are no words to describe it. One feels, I don’t know, incomplete,” Carlos said. “While incarcerated you feel that urge to see them, to hold them, but you’re not able to do anything. When I would talk with her (Sofia) on the phone, I would feel good but at the same time bad because it wasn’t the same thing, I would tell her that sometimes i wouldn’t even eat because I could not stop thinking about them.”
Image result for urban abbey
As bad as it was being separated at the border,”being so far away from them was much worse,” he said.

It was no easier on Sofia and the children.
“It’s was very difficult,” she said. “The kids would cry a lot for their dad and that makes you feel bad. Every day they would ask, ‘Is my dad going to be home yet?’ I would say, ‘I don’t when he’s going to be here, but he’ll be here.’ I would talk to him (Carlos) and he would cry. It would make me feel bad.”
Separation trauma made the oldest children ill.
As Spanish-speakers, the family faced hurdles trying to explain their plight to English speakers.
OASN, which does education and advocacy work around immigration, stepped up to help the family only months after making accompaniment its first priority. The group was frustrated in efforts to find a church offering physical sanctuary. Now, volunteers attend immigration court hearings, provide food and personal items in emergencies and make detention center visits.
“The focus on accompaniment seemed to revitalize the group. Participants find it rewarding,” Jensen said. “Thus, the ground was prepared when we connected with Carlos. Here was a need we could help. Sponsorship would be accompaniment at a deeper level. We agreed we would legally sponsor him but also fully support his wife and children.”
OASN secured resources and volunteers to satisfy federal sponsorship requirements of a supervised place to live, financial support for a year and ensuring Carlos attended all court hearings and Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) check-ins.
With $20,000 in pledges raised and commitments for more as needed, OASN got approved as sponsors in April. Due to red tape another month passed without his release. The one direct conversation Jensen had with Carlos was a brief phone call. Jensen only had time to share an OASN contact. More weeks passed, until, without advance notice, Carlos was released.
“The officer was like, ‘Hurry up, grab your stuff,’ because it was my time to go,” Carlos said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
He was taken to a Greyhound Bus station and left to fend for himself. Angela only found out about his release once he was on the road.
A sanctuary supporter got him much needed food and money at a stop en route. He didn’t know what to expect upon arriving in Omaha.
“Then I heard the kids screaming, ‘There’s my daddy.'”
The emotional reunion was a huge relief after months apart and uncertanity.
Jensen and Carlos finally met. “Despite the language difficulty, we were instant friends. He was good-humored, outgoing and amazingly composed considering the ordeal he had been through,” Jensen said.
The network went all out for the family.
“When Carlos got here they gave him a welcome party,” Sofia said. “We met a lot of people. They brought us bikes. Everything that we have here – furniture, food, clothes, they have given to us.”
Jensen became a frequent visitor to the apartment the family shares and OASN pays rent on.
“They’ve become good friends and an important part of my life,” Jensen said. “They are good, responsible people. The children are delightful.”
Though Jensen’s since moved outside Nebraska, he still stays in touch. Local sanctuary members make sure the family has what it needs.
“They have helped us a lot,” Sofia said. “We don’t know how to thank them.”
The family’s school-age children are thriving since their father’s return. Staff at Field Club Elementary, Sofia said, are sensitive to their emotional needs.
Through it all, not knowing has been the hardest part for this family that left everything they knew to find safety. The couple’s asylum cases are still pending.
“I have my hearing in July and Carlos has his hearing in April,” she said. “Our attorney (paid for by the network) is working on getting the cases joined. It’s been a journey. We don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Meanwhile, the network’s close to finally confirming a church to provide a dedicated physical sanctuary space. It’s also working to create an immigration crisis hotline.
What to look for in Part II:
Evolution of the Omaha Area Sanctuary Network
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.
______________________________________________
Part II
A caring cohort supports the undocumented through uncertain times 
©by Leo Adam Biga
Editor’s Note:
Welcome to Part II of a two-part story about the Omaha Area Sanctuary Network, which supports undocumented individuals embroiled in the immigration justice system. Part II focuses on how the network has evolved to respond to needs and crises that arise around individuals facing detention, separation, adjudication and deportation.
In 2017, some concerned area citizens formed the Omaha Area Sanctuary Network (OASN) in response to draconian immigration enforcement raids, detentions and deportations.
The U.S. government’s crackdown on the undocumented affects not only new arrivals but people long living and working in the country. With the specter of arrest and separation a more tangible fear for many, the local network offers refuge and support.
OASN is part of a loosely affiliated nationwide sanctuary movement. Many group members belong to progressive churches.
Sanctuary can mean different things in different situations. Thus far in Nebraska, said OASN president Yvonne Sosa, “it is just being there and bearing witness to what the immigrant is going through,” including  shows of support by attending court hearings and providing financial assistance.
“To me, personally, sanctuary means being part of a community that is safe and accepting of all people, regardless of where they are born, the color of their skin, their religion, sexual orientation, their personal beliefs. Sanctuary is the act of honoring the dignity of others,” said OASN vice-president Jeri Thurber. “Our organization is defining sanctuary as creating a safe community for all people, but we’re specifically focusing on immigration issues right now. In the immigration arena this can mean advocacy or resistance or bearing witness. It is an active way of protecting others from injustice and hate.
“Specifically, we provide accompaniment to hearings and to checkins if requested by people. We’ve had as few as three and as many as 20 members at a hearing.”
The women believe the group’s actions make an impact.
“When judges see that the defendant has community support there, it can lead to lowering or not issuing a high bond,” Thurber said. “The compassion we’re showing the judge in the courtroom is showing that we all see this detainee as a human being.
“I am very vocal about the fact I attend hearings in support of people in our community. I think it’s important  others know these hearings are happening and I think they should be there, too.”
Since early last year, OASNs aided a family that fled gang violence in Acapulco, Mexico and sought asylum in America. The family was detained and separated. The father, Carlos. ended up in a Georgia detention center. The mother, Sofia, and her children were released to join her sister in Omaha. The family was reunited on humanitarian grounds in May after OASN pledged to support Carlos, Sofia and the kids. Network members will be at the couple’s hearings later this year.
Thurber is sure OASN assurances of support convinced officials to release Carlos to rejoin his family. Otherwise, said Yvonne Sosa, Carlos’s confinement “could have been longer.” She added, “I feel like because of the organization’s efforts and commitment to provide housing and financial support we were able to get them reunited. But for those commitments, he may still have been in detention.”
The network found an apartment for the family and pays rent on it. OASN also provides food, clothes, incidentals and pays for the couple’s legal defense.
In the event other undocumented individuals need shelter to avoid deportation, the network wants a church to make a dedicated physical sanctuary space available.
“We have not been successful in that yet, but we’re still working on it.” said Thurber, adding that an area church has recently expressed interest in accommodating the need. “I truly think if someone needed physical sanctuary somebody would provide it. I think for a lot of congregations right now an immediate need would be more attractive than merely a plan.”
Sosa surmises the reason no local church has been willing to put itself on the line yet is due to the politics and threats opponents attach to sanctuary. In such a rancorous climate, she said, “there’s a hesitancy to commit” the resources and to run the risks. “But I want to believe, too, if there were an immediate need there would be sanctuary for that person.”
Network volunteers learn the ins and out of sanctuary in all its various forms through educational forums.
“We have had representatives from the Austin (Texas) Sanctuary Network and Grassroots Leadership flown here to provide training on Sanctuary in the Streets and ways to resist ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) that are nonviolent as well as on accompaniment as a formal process,” said Thurber.
Image result for lawrence jensen omaha OASN
OASN’s local community partners include Latino Center of the Midlands, Immigrant Legal Center, United Women of Nebraska, Omaha Together One Community and several churches. The group holds workshops on sanctuary strategies and on immigrant rights.
Much of the network’s focus is on information and mobilization.
“We send out alerts via email whenever someone requests accompaniment at a court hearing or checkin,” Thurber said. “We have had training about how to be present and resist at raids. However, ICE has gotten more sneaky about how they pick people up or raid businesses and so t is very hard to get notice that these things will happen. For example, instead of going to someone’s home where they can call for assistance,  ICE will follow them and pick them up somewhere else, such as when they’re dropping a child off at school. “
“We feel like the immigration system is making it difficult even for us to advocate in a companioning way,” Sosa said. “On several occasions ICE has sent notices for hearings that ended up moved or changed or false. We’ve sent out requests for people to come and several have shown up only to find out it’s a fake date. There have even been instances where the individual detainee is there for a hearing that was never scheduled.
“They’re trying to discourage us. It’s just unfortunate. We try to verify dates before we send out the request.”
OASN is also working, Thurber said, “to get a hotline up and running where we could take phone calls from members of the community that need support.”
Thurber and Sosa hope to increase awareness of the network and to attract more supporters.
“There’s certainly enough work to go around,” Thurber said.
The surge in immigration rights events, she said, often finds OASN members onsite making the organization’s presence known.
Most of all, OASN wants the undocumented to know they are prepared to render support.
“We want people to know that if they reach out to us for help, we’re here,” Thurber said. “If we cannot provide help, we will do what we can to find somebody who can.”
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

 

Red tape, red flags – H-1B Visas pose real consequences

June 8, 2018 2 comments

Red tape, red flags – H-1B Visas pose real consequences

©Story by Leo Adam Biga

©Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Originally appeared in the May-June 2018 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com)

 

“People need to understand [H-1B] is particularly vital for small states like ours where we’ve got low unemployment and a high need for STEM jobs,” says Amy Peck, an immigration attorney with Jackson Lewis, P.C.

One recent search on the popular monster.com job searching database revealed more than 30 software development jobs in Omaha posted within one month—jobs for a field where the overall unemployment rate is 1.6 percent.

That’s why many in IT or other STEM-related fields paid attention when, in July 2017, President Donald Trump signed the “Buy American-Hire American” executive order, which subjects already hard-to-obtain work visas to even greater scrutiny.

This was a blow to those employers recruiting skilled labor on H-1B visas. The visa allows for 65,000 employees to be hired from abroad and 20,000 to be hired from students enrolled in U.S. colleges (under the H-1B advanced degree exemption). More than 200,000 applications are expected for H-1B visas in 2018.The application process opens on April 3, and, if the trend continues as it has in the past several years, applications will only be accepted for five to seven days.

Unlike hiring an employee from the United States, when the start date is often two weeks from the acceptance of a job offer, the earliest an H-1 B-status employee could begin work is Oct. 1…if the application is accepted.

Fortunately, there are plenty of folks who can help navigate the legal system. On behalf of clients, Peck fields increasing government reviewer challenges.

One of the biggest impacts this executive order may make is that employees seeking an extension to an H-1B visa will now face the same scrutiny they faced to obtain the visa.

“When we file extensions on cases that got approved without challenge before, they now get challenged even though the facts have not changed,” Peck says.

That means an employee on an H-1B visa who has worked hard, innovated, and generated income for a company could be denied an extension and the company could lose an employee for no reason other than checking the wrong box
on the paperwork.

Each denied visa extension would cost a company a skilled, trained worker, filing fees, lawyer fees, and much more.

“This change is very disturbing to employers who want to keep a good employee but fear they may lose them during the extension process,” says Omaha immigration attorney Mark Curley. “Foreign workers feel less secure in their employment. They understand their H-1B extensions could be denied.

“Employers could lose a good employee after three years if [U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services] re-adjudicates the petition and determines the occupation or employee do not meet H-1B requirements…There is already a backlog in the employment-based green card process for applicants from India and China working high IT-related jobs in Omaha.”

“The H-1B is a specialty occupation visa with very specific requirements,” Peck says. “The job must require at least a bachelor’s degree in a specific field or related field. The government has certain wage levels you’re required to pay. A very sophisticated analysis goes into that.

“So, this is not something employers are eager to do. Often, it can be the last resort because they can’t get U.S. workers to do the job. As an economy we rely on this visa category in ways many people don’t want to admit and would like to deny.”

Vetting is done by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services center officers. Requests for evidence usually challenge specialty occupation designations.

“We spend a lot of time and effort with employers to describe what the job is,” Peck says. “We cross reference that with the government database. Then we look within the company sponsoring the H-1B to determine if others in that job have a similar degree and we use that to support our submission. The vast majority of our cases are getting approved, but we’re having to really fight. It’s taking all of our skills, tools, and resources to maneuver successfully in this environment.”

First Data is among several Nebraska employers using H-1B visas due to a shortage of skilled U.S.-born workers.

“There’s a myth employers are undercutting the U.S. labor market by hiring H-1Bs, and it really isn’t the case because with H-1B labor there is a cost involved not present with a U.S. worker,” Peck says. “The filing fee alone if you’re an employer with 25 or more employees is $2,460. If you want your case expedited you add another $1,225—and then attorney fees on top of that.”

Pending federal legislation aims to further scrutinize H-1B visas.

“The practical effect will be fewer petitions filed,” Curley says. “It will decrease the number of foreign students who enroll in U.S. colleges and universities.”

One thing is certain. H-1Bs are a hot item—as a topic of business and political discussion.

Amy Peck


This article was printed in the April/May 2018 edition of B2B.

Eduardo Aguilar: Living a dream that would not be denied

April 26, 2018 Leave a comment

Eduardo Aguilar:

Living a dream that would not be denied

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in El Perico (el-perico.com)


As Eduardo Aguilar walked down an Omaha Creighton Prep hallway one school day last April, he had no idea a lifelong dream would soon be secured. Counselor Jim Swanson pulled the then-high school senior out of his international relations class on the pretext of seeing how he was doing. It’s something Swanson often did with Aguilar, whose undocumented parents were deported to Mexico when he was about ten. Aguilar lived with Swanson and his family an entire year – one in a succession of homes Aguilar resided in over six years.

The counselor and student talked that spring morning as they had countless times, only this time school president Father Tom Neitzke joined them. The priest shook Aguilar’s hand and invited him into his office, where several adults, including media members, awaited.

“I was confused and shocked,” Aguilar recalled. “I thought I was in trouble.”

Creighton University president Father Daniel Hendrickson then informed him he was receiving a full-ride scholarship worth $200,000 funded by donors and the G. Robert Muchemore Foundation.

Cameras captured it all.

“To have that news thrown at me out of nowhere was incredible,” Aguilar said. “I just felt like God answered my prayer because it was always my dream to go to Creighton. I was so happy.

“I still can’t believe it even happened. I’m forever grateful for the scholarship donors and for the people that believed in me.”

KMTV Channel 3 news reporter Maya Saenz, who filed a touching story on him, came away impressed by Aguilar.

“He’s a brilliant and hardworking guy and I feel privileged to have met him and to have highlighted his extraordinary efforts to reach the Mexican-American dream.”

The scholarship came just as Aguilar despaired his dream would go unrealized.

“There weren’t many options for me at that time and I was thinking, ‘Maybe this is the end of my journey – maybe I’m not going to go to college.’ I was in a bad mood about it that same day.”

After learning his good fortune, he called his parents, Loreny and Jose Aguilar.

“They were extremely excited to hear I’m continuing my education, especially at Creighton University, because they knew from a very young age I wanted to go there, They’re absolutely humbled their son received such a generous gift to attend such a prestigious place and that people believed in their son.

“Even though not having them here physically hurts, they’ve motivated me throughout. They’ve given me words of wisdom and advice. They’ve definitely pushed me to be best that I can.”

Aguilar also appreciates the support he’s received in his folks’ absence, first at Jesuit Academy, then at Prep, and now at CU, where he’s finishing his freshman year. He didn’t get to say goodbye to his parents, who are general laborers in Tijuana, when they got deported. He and his older brother Jose relied on family and friends.

“It was a very traumatizing experience,” Aguilar said. “I felt powerless. It really opened my eyes to the harsh place life can bring you at times. It definitely made me mature a lot faster than my peers.”

Jesuit Academy staff rallied behind him.

“They assured me everything would be okay, I decided I had to kick my academics into gear because it was the only thing to get me ahead without my parents here.”

Three months after that sudden separation, Aguilar and his folks were reunited in Mexico. He lived three years there with them.

“I enjoyed it down there with family. I learned a lot. It really humbled me and made me into the person I am today. Now, I’m just happy to be getting my education. I don’t really care about material possessions.”

By 13, his yearning for America would not be denied.

“I realized in Mexico I wouldn’t have the same opportunities I would here. My mom was very hesitant about me coming back because I was so young. But she agreed. Leaving was very difficult. I came back with a family member. I ended up staying with him for awhile and then i just moved from house to house.

“It’s been a journey.”

Few of his peers at Prep knew his situation.

“The majority of them found out on graduation day, They were surprised because they never saw me upset or sad. I was always smiling, happy. They were astonished I was able to go through all that, but it’s due to the support system I had.”

Prep staff took him under their wing his four years there.

“Jim Swanson has been a great motivator. He and his wife served as my second family. When I needed them the most, they opened the doors to their house to me. I see him as my second father. I have the utmost respect for him and his family.”

Aguilar also grew close to art teacher Jeremy Caniglia

“He left a great impact on me. I still reach out to him.”

Aguilar used art and slam poetry to process and express his intense feelings.

In college, he’s found professors sympathetic to his plight. He calls CU Vice Provost for Enrollment Mary Chase “one of my go-to persons,” adding, “She always checks up on me.”

“It really means a lot to me to have extra structure and support and to know these people actually care and believe I have potential to do something in life,” Aguilar said.

He’s studying international business and corporate law in CU’s 3-3 program, which will allow him to earn an undergraduate degree and a law degree in six years instead of seven. His dream job is with Tesla Motors, which produces mass-market electric cars.

“Renewable energy has always fascinated me and Elon Musk (Tesla founder-CEO) has always been one of my idols.”

Thus far, Aguilar said, “College has been an incredible, eye-opening experience.”

Aguilar hopes his personal story empowers others caught in the immigration vice.

“If this can serve any person going through a similar situation or hardship and help them to succeed, then I’m totally for that.”

Heartland Dreamers have their say in nation’s capitol

March 24, 2018 1 comment

Heartland Dreamers have their say in nation’s capitol

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico (el-perico.com)

Self-described social justice warrior, activist and community organizer Amor Habbab-Mills cannot sit idly by while lawmakers decide her fate as a Dreamer and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient.

With President Donald Trump’s deadline for Congress to revamp DACA unmet last fall, she organized a September 10 rally in South Omaha. Dreamers and allies gathered to show solidarity. She then shared her story in a Lincoln Journal-Star op-ed and in the locally produced documentary and play We Are Dreamers.

“It was great because people got to know a little more about our struggle,” she said.

Two weeks ago, with the March 5 deadline looming and redoubled U.S. immigration enforcement efforts placing more undocumented residents in detention, awaiting possible deportation, tensions ran high. True to her “drive to speak up against injustice,” she led a group of Nebraska Dreamers to Washington D.C. to join United We Dream demonstrations demanding Congress act to pass protections and paths for citizenship. It did not.

Thus, those affected like her remain in limbo with DACA provisions slated to end pending a new program.

She’s in the process of obtaining her Green Card.

Before she and her fellow travelers could make the trip, they had to find funds to cover air fare. United We Dream picked-up meals. She donated the hotel tab.

“We raised $1,676,” she said. “It was nice to see our community had our backs and they wanted us to go to D.C. This trip was so important to me and the local movement.”

The Omaha contingent arrived Feb. 28 and returned March 6. They were joined by activists from Centro Hispano in Columbus, Nebraska. The groups coordinated schedule to walk in a planned march.

“My goal was to be there when the Dream Act passed. I had a lot of hope the government would act on March 5 or before,” she said. “I wanted to be there to witness history happen. It did not happen. It was sad. But it was good to be there with other Dreamers. We just get each other. We know exactly what each other has been through. We all share the same heartbreak, the same roadblocks, the same fears.

“The trip opened our eyes about what’s going on in our government and how the Trump administration is pushing its racist agenda on our community.’

She won’t soon forget the experience of rubbing shoulders with thousands of kindred spirits, voicing pro-DACA chants, carrying signs with slogans, and seeing some protesters engage in acts of civil disobedience that resulted in arrest. All unfolding in front of national symbols of power, including the White House.

“It was empowering. It was a breath of fresh air and a reminder we’re not alone in the fight. it made me feel not as afraid, not as worried. It put things into perspective.

“The march was really the highlight of the visit. That’s why we went there. We walked to Capitol Hill. We had an ‘artivism’ moment where we put some paper flowers on the ground that read: ‘We Rose Unafraid.’ We wanted to beautify the word undocumented to bring attention that we’re not afraid” (and not apologetic).

“It was a great experience. It opened my eyes to how much support we actually have,” trip participant David Dominguez-Lopez said.

The local group plead their case to Nebraska Republican Congressman Don Bacon.

“We did a (peaceful) office takeover of Rep. Bacon’s office,” Habbab-Mills said. “We went there because he’s said he supports Dreamers. We appreciate that. But we don’t appreciate him supporting bills, such as the Secure and Succeed Act, that will harm our community.”

The proposed legislation seeks to secure the border, end chain migration, cancel the visa lottery and find a permanent solution for DACA tied to building a wall.

“We were there sharing our stories, chanting and asking him to not vote for the Secure Act. It’s this horrible bill that would build a stupid wall, give more money to the Department of Homeland Security so they can do raids and put more agents on the street.”

Given the Republican majority’s anti-immigration stance, Habbab-Mills is leery of promises. Distrust intensified when leaked government memos revealed discussions to use the National Guard to maintain border security

She’s concerned “more families are going to be apart” in the wake of immigration crackdowns.

“On a personal level, if my mom were to get pulled over by a cop who does not like immigrants, she faces a good chance of being deported. The fact I cannot help her, breaks my heart. Under the current political climate, we need a way to protect family members under attack.”

Another goal of the trip was “to plant the seed of social justice with the Dreamers who went,” she said, “and that’s what’s happened,” adding, “Everyone’s ready to get things going back home to stop the Secure Act.”

“it inspired me to learn more and be active in my community and to work with Amor and the rest of the ‘D.C. gang,'” said Dominguez-Lopez.

Habbab-Mills traces her own social activism to seeing disparity growing up in Mexico City and to doing Inclusive Communities camps here. She earned high marks at Duchesne Academy and Creighton University. She founded the advocacy group Nebraska Dreamers. She works as a legal assistant at a law firm and is eying law school. She hopes to practice immigration and human rights law.

Meanwhile, she amplifies Dreamer’s voices for change.

“If we’re not the ones speaking up, who else will? We want people to know we are educated and even though we cannot vote, we have the power to influence people on how they vote. Social media is huge for us.

“Bringing awareness to the issues is a way of creating change. Planting that seed will bloom into a more just society one day. I think it’s a duty to speak up when something’s not right. If i don’t, I’m part of the problem.”

Follow Nebraska Dreamers on Facebook.

Futures at stake for Dreamers with DACA in question

October 9, 2017 Leave a comment

Here is a followup to a story I did earlier this year about DACA or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. This executive order program of protections means everything to recipients. These so-called Dreamers and their supporters speak passionately about the need to keep DACA around and describe the devastating impact that losing it would have on recipients’ lives. President Trump has sent conflicting messages where immigration is concerned, No sooner did he decide to end the program or have it rescinded, then he gave Congress a deadline to find a compromise that would extend or solidify the program and therefore prevent young people who entered the country illegally as children from being deported and from losing certain privileges that allow them to work, obtain licenses, et cetera. My new story is part of the cover package in the October 2017 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).

Futures at stake for Dreamers with DACA in question

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

When, on September 5, President Donald Trump appealed to his base by ending Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a generation of American strivers became immigration reform’s collateral damage.

He’s since given Congress six months to enact a plan reinstating DACA protection from deportation for so-called DREAMers in exchange for more robust border security. DACA also provides permits for undocumented youth to work, attend school and obtain driver’s and professional licenses. Given the political divide on illegal immigrants’ rights, it’s unclear if any plan will provide DREAMers an unfettered permanent home here.

Thus, the futures of some 800,000 people in America (about 3,400 Nebraskans) hang in the balance. As lawmakers decide their status, this marginalized group is left with dreams deferred and lives suspended – their tenuous fate left to the capricious whims of power.

The situation’s created solidarity among DREAMers and supporters. Polls show most Americans sympathize with their plight. A coalition of public-private allies is staging rallies, pressing lawmakers and making themselves visible and heard to keep the issue and story alive.

Alejandra Ayotitla Cortez, who was a child when her family crossed illegally from Mexico, has raised her voice whenever DACA’s under assault. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln senior and El Centro de las Americas staffer has spoken at rallies and press conferences and testified before lawmakers.

“As Dreamers, we have been used as a political game by either party. Meanwhile, our futures and our contributions and everything we have done and want to do are at stake,” she said. “For a lot of us, having that protection under DACA was everything. It allowed us to work, have a driver’s license, go to school and pursue whatever we’re doing. After DACA ends, it affects everything in our life.

“It is frustrating. You’re trying to do things the right way. You go through the process, you pay the fees, you go to school, work, pay taxes, and then at the end of the day it’s not in your hands.”

If she could, she’d give Trump an earful.

“Just like people born here are contributing to the country, so are we. It’s only a piece of paper stopping us from doing a lot of the things we want to do. As immigrants, whether brought here as an infant or at age 10, like myself, we are contributing to the nation financially, academically, culturally. All we want is to be part of our communities and give back as much as we can. It’s only fair for those who represent us to respect the contributions we have made and all the procedures we’ve followed as DACA recipients.”

Justice for Our Neighbors (JFON) legal counsel Charles Shane Ellison is cautiously optimistic.

“I’m hopeful lawmakers can do whatever negotiating they need to do to come up with a common sense, bipartisan path to protect these young people. It makes no sense whatsoever to seek to punish these young people for actions over which they had no control.

“These are, in fact, the very kinds of young people we want in our country. Hard working individuals committed to obtaining higher education and contributing to their communities. It’s incumbent upon lawmakers to find a fair solution that does not create a whole category of second class individuals. Dreamers should have a pathway to obtain lawful permanent resident status and a pathway to U.S. citizenship.”

Tying DACA to border control concerns many.

“I wouldn’t feel comfortable if that was a compromise we had to arrive at,” Cortez said, “because it’s unnecessary to use a national security excuse and say we need increased border enforcement when in reality the border’s secure. It would be a waste of tax money and energy to implement something that isn’t necessary.”

Ellison opposes attempts to connect the human rights issue of DACA with political objectives or tradeoffs.

Not knowing what Trump and the GOP majority may do is stressful for those awaiting resolution.

“It’s always having to live with this uncertainty that one day it could be one thing and another day something else,” Cortez said. “It can paralyze you sometimes to think you don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

“We could have made this a priority without inserting so much apprehension into a community of really solid youth we want to try to encourage to stay,” Ellison said.

To ease fears, JFON held a September 7 briefing at College of Saint Mary.

“It was an effort to get information in the hands of DACA recipients and their allies,” Ellison said. “We had more than 400 people show up.”

Moving forward, he said, “it’s imperative” DREAMers get legal advice

“Some studies show 20 to 30 percent of DACA youth could be potentially eligible for other forms of relief that either got missed or they’ve since become eligible for after obtaining DACA. If, with legal counsel, they decide to renew their Deferred Action, they have until October 5 to do so. We provide pro-bono legal counsel and we’ll be seeing as many people as we can.”

Ellison said nothing can be taken for granted.

“It’s so important not just for DACA youth to take certain action For people who want to stand with DACA youth, now is not the time to be silent – now is the time to contact elected representatives and urge them to do the right thing.”

Alejandra Escobar, a University of Nebraska at Omaha sophomore and Heartland Workers Center employee, is one of those allies. She legally emigrated to the U.S. six years ago. As coordinator of Young Nebraskans in Action, she leads advocacy efforts.

“Most of my friends are DREAMers. I started getting involved with this issue because I didn’t know why my friends who were in this country for all their lives couldn’t be treated the same as I was. I didn’t think that was fair. This is their home, They’ve worked and shown they deserve to be here.

“There has been a lot of fear and this fear keeps people in a corner. I feel like what we do makes DACA recipients know they’re not alone. We’re trying to organize actions that keep emphasizing the importance of the protection for DACA recipients and a path to citizenship and that empower them.”

She feels her generation must hold lawmakers accountable.

“I’d like lawmakers to keep in mind that a lot of us allies protecting DREAMers are 18-19 years old that can vote and we’re going to keep civically engaged and emphasizing this issue because it’s really important.”

As a UNO pre-law student who works in an Omaha firm practicing immigration law, Linda Aguilar knows the fragile legal place she and fellow DREAMers occupy. She was brought illegally to America at age 6 from Guatemala and has two younger siblings who also depend on DACA. But she’s heartened by the support that business, labor and other concerns are showing.

“It has inspired me to continue being active and sharing with elected officials how much support there is for the DACA community.”

She hesitated speaking at a public event making the case for DACA before realizing she didn’t stand alone.

“Just knowing that behind me, around me were other DREAMers and I was there supporting them and they were there supporting me made me feel a lot stronger. Because we’re all in the same position, we all know what it feels like, we all walk in the same shoes.”

Alejandra Ayotitla Cortez won’t just be waiting for whatever happens by the March 5 deadline Trump’s given Congress.

“I am hoping for the best, but I am also taking action. not only me just hoping things will get better, it’s me educating my community so they know what actions we can take, such as calling our elected representatives to take action and to listen to our story and understand how urgent this is.”

Cortez, too, finds “encouraging” support “from people across the state, from leaders, from some of our state senators in Lincoln, from UNL professors and classmates.”

The Nebraska Immigration Legal Assistance hotline is 1-855-307-6730.

SAFE HARBOR: Activists working to create Omaha Area Sanctuary Network as refuge for undocumented persons in danger of arrest-deportation

June 29, 2017 2 comments

SAFE HARBOR: Activists working to create Omaha Area Sanctuary Network as refuge for undocumented persons in danger of arrest-deportation

©by Leo Adam Biga
Appeared in El Perico (el-perico.com)

 

 

Undocumented immigrants are among the culture war’s invisible victims. Asylum seekers risk everything to escape dangers in their homeland only to come here and face possible arrest, detainment and deportation. Application of illegal alien policies and laws vary by agents and judges. Defendants are at the mercy of capricious political winds.

Against this uncertain backdrop, some concerned citizens have formed the Omaha Area Sanctuary Network as part of a national safe haven movement. Based on refuge models in places like Austin, Texas, churches here would serve as sanctuary spaces for targets of Immigration and Customs Enforcement or other perceived injustice threats. Current custom and policy prevent ICE agents from going into “sensitive locations.” When arrest is eminent, the network would enact sanctuary. The affected person or persons would remain in sanctuary until their limbo status is resolved.

Recently, the Omaha group mobilized in response to a potential sanctuary situation, despite not yet having a church prepared to fill that role, said Lawrence Jensen, who helped launch the network. He said members volunteered their own homes before the case turned out to be a false alarm. The scenario proved a dry run for the group’s willingness to take action.

Jensen, a Union Pacific retiree, is a member of First United Methodist Church in Omaha, which has hosted network meetings. He attended an earlier event there in which two Guatemalan women who were in Austin sanctuary shared their stories.

“It was really moving to hear the things they had to go through and what was done for them because they were in sanctuary,” Jensen said. “Both of them felt they probably wouldn’t have survived if they went back to Guatemala. They needed a way to stay here.”

He said after the presentation he and others “decided we should try and do something similar,” adding, “It’s a faith issue more than anything to get involved where we see injustices and things that need to be acted on.”

Rev. Cyndi Simpson, a minister at Second Unitarian Church of Omaha, said, “This is absolutely a moral issue, a justice issue and a spiritual issue.” She said it’s “great there are other congregations and religious organizations interested in sanctuary because this will work best if we’re all woking together in a coalition.”

Simpson and Jensen know the network treadis on “tenuous” legal ground.

“There is no legal protection for the church,” Jensen said. “It’s just this policy, which so far has been respected. It could change just by an (executive) order.”

Technically, federal immigration law makes it a violation “for any person to conceal, harbor or shield from detection in any place … any alien who is in the United States in violation of law.”

“It’s not definite a church giving sanctuary would fall under that law, but it’s possible,” Jensen said. “It’s indefinite because it’s never been tested in the current climate.”

Though University of Nebraska at Omaha political science professor Jonathan Benjamin- Alvarado feels sanctuary churches are morally right, he cautions against them.

“The wide latitude granted ICE to ferret out ‘illegals’ would … put churches in the line of fire,” he said. “If schools, courts and government offices have already been deemed fair ground for the apprehension of individuals in violation of deportation orders, churches should take note. It has not happened yet, but if faced with the perception of ‘losing the war’ on immigration … churches may no longer be sacrosanct. An immigration raid on a church would be traumatic and potentially devastating for a church community.”

Simpson’s unswayed, saying, “To me, this is the work we’re called to do. So, let the consequences be what the consequences are. This is civil disobedience and that’s how change happens.”

Sanctuary’s been practiced before in America, Simpson is a veteran of the 1980s movement that took in political refugees fleeing Guatemalan civil war persecution.

“It’s very interesting to be here again,” she said.

Hosting someone in sanctuary means a commitment of resources for perhaps a year or more.

“During that time they’ve got to be fed and clothed, you have to see to their health needs, offer moral support. It may mean finding legal representation and accompanying them to court dates,” Jensen said,

Simpson said the Omaha network’s agreed to support family members when the main breadwinner’s imprisoned, deported or in sanctuary.

No one organization can do it alone.

“You can lessen the impact on the individual church by having lots of people sharing the work,” Jensen said.

The snag, thus far, is finding churches with a dedicated, facilities-ready physical space.

Simpson said the network’s expanded its search to include other kinds of religious organizations.

Network members say they’re also committed to conducting call campaigns and holding demonstrations to prod ICE to give up the chase and grant deferred action or freedom. When tipped off a raid will happen, activists plan doing “sanctuary in the streets” by notifying media and engaging in nonviolent disruption.

“ICE doesn’t like the publicity that comes with taking someone while the cameras are rolling,” Jensen said. “They’re liable to back off.”

Earlier this year, Jensen attended a sanctuary network conference in Denver. “There was a lot of discussion about exactly these kinds of things,” he said.

The network’s seeking what Jensen calls “natural allies” among groups like the Nebraska Democratic Party, Omaha Together One Community and Indivisible groups dedicated to resisting the Trump agenda.

Gauging who might step forward to offer sanctuary is difficult. As for his church, Jensen said, “It’s not at all certain the church as a whole would approve it, which is something that would have to happen. Most are progressive religiously and politically and socially, but there are some who would be concerned with the legality issues – so there would be some opposition. How it would play out, I’m not sure.”

Of Dreamers and doers, and one nation indivisible under…

February 21, 2017 2 comments

Of Dreamers and doers, and one nation indivisible under…
DACA youth and supporters hope protections are retained

©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (wwwthereader.com)

With immigration reform caught in the gap of a divided U.S. Congress, the long-proposed DREAM Act never got passed. In 2012 President Barack Obama issued an executive order creating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program as a temporary stop-gap giving young students who grew up here protections against removal and permits to work, allowing many to obtain drivers licenses and other basic privileges.

Conservative Nebraska officially opposed DACA. Then-Gov.Dave Heineman blocked issuing drivers licenses (Nebraska was the only state), welfare or other public benefits to DACA-eligible youth. Gov. Pete Ricketts continued the stand. But a broad coalition of rural and urban Nebraskans spanning party lines and ages, along with faith, law enforcement and business leaders – the Bible, Badge and Business coalition – along with such organizations as Justice for Our Neighbors Nebraska, Heartland Workers Center and Nebraska Appleseed, successfully advocated for legislation granting DREAMers drivers licenses and professional-commercial licenses.

The state legislature twice overturned governor vetoes to preserve these bills as law.

While never a panacea, DACA provided DREAMers and supporters hope that real, permanent immigration reform might follow. However, President Donald Trump made campaign promises to repeal DACA and crack down on undocumented immigrants. With his administration only weeks old, no one knows if or when he’ll end DACA and thus undo everything attained.

DREAMer Alejandra Ayotitla Cortez, a senior psychology student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is one of about 3,275 DACA recipients in Nebraska. As more young people age into DACA, that number will grow as long as the program continues, She echoes other recipients in saying, “Right now we are facing a lot of uncertainty. As much as I wish I knew what was going to happen with the program, it’s very hard to predict, and that’s what makes it harder. We’re in this limbo place. Obviously, if it does end, that would have a lot of negative consequences. Right now we are trying to focus on working with our representatives at the federal level to try to draft legislation that would protect the program.”

She was part of a contingent of DREAMers who met with Nebraska Congressional leaders in the nation’s capitol in January.

A coalition of Nebraska supporters signed a public letter to Nebraska members of Congress urging them to endorse DACA’s continuation on the grounds it allows aspirational young people like Alejandra the ability to reach their potential. The argument is that the work they do, the commerce they create, the taxes they pay strengthen, not deplete America. Recently proposed federal legislation called the BRIDGE Act would provide some safeguards in the event DACA isn’t renewed or until more lasting immigration reform emerges.

Nebraska Restaurant Association executive director Jim Partington said at a recent press conference in Lincoln announcing the letter, “There is no logical objection to anything about supporting these youths who were brought here at a very young age, have been educated in our school systems, and are now ready to go out into the work force and contribute to our economy and our society.”

Ayotitla Cortez also spoke at the conference. She previously testified before state senators.

“It’s important for us to share our stories so that we can show that DREAMers are here, we’re contributing, we’re doing the best we can to serve our communities,” she said.

Former DREAMer Lucy Aguilar, a University of Nebraska at Omaha student, advocated for DREAMers’ rights through Young Nebraskans in Action (YNA), a program of Heartland Workers Center (HWC).

She’s since gained permanent residency status. She stands by what she said two years ago: “I don’t think DACA-recipients should be tied to immigration policies or immigration terminology because we’re a much different thing. I know my status and it’s definitely not breaking the law in any sense. I’m here just like everybody else trying to make something out of my life, trying to accomplish goals — in my case trying to open a business and be successful in that.”

She supports DREAMers retaining their DACA protections.

HWC Senior Organizer Lucia Pedroza, who supervises YNA, said the issue’s catalyzed young people to participate and raise their collective voice and take collective action. Coalescing support for the bills that gave DREAMers licenses was a case in point.

“Young people started organizing themselves after coming to meetings and learning more about the legislative process and the issues in their community,” Pedroza said. “They knew what they had to do. They started organizing students and teachers at South High School. They were able to speak up for the bills and proposals.

“I’ve seen some who were afraid to speak up and share their own stories a few years ago now speaking their truth and working with us at the center. I’ve seen them grow and want to share their interest and passion with other young people. It’s a cool thing. They’re not just wanting to stay on the sidelines and complain, they want to do something more. They understand it’s not going to be just about them, they can’t do it alone, they need to have community support.”

Pedroza said YNA’s grassroots work “impacted the effort statewide in support of DACA.”

She and others make a pragmatic, do-the-right-thing, make-good-policy case for DREAMers being given pathways to full participation. Ayotitla Cortez uses herself as an example of how DACA impacts lives.

“As soon as I enrolled at UNL I started working at a daycare center at the university thanks to the work permit DACA provides. That was the first job I ever had. It helped me to support myself and paid for my living expenses and some of my school expenses. That was a great opportunity. Then my sophomore year I got the opportunity to work as a service assistant in the Nebraska Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families and Schools.

“Now I work at El Centro de las Americas — a non-profit that serves mainly the Latino Community. I’m the coordinator of the Adult Education Program. Helping my community is my main way of giving back some of what has been given to me.”

She wishes opponents would look past fears and stereotypes.

“I guess some people have a hard time seeing the human side or the social contributions DACA has provided. We’re working and putting money into city, state, federal revenues.”

Then there are myths that need overturning.

“As DACA-recipients we have to pay $485 every two years to renew our work permit, so it is something we are paying for, we’re not just getting it for free. If you multiply that by the nation’s 700,000 DACA-recipients, then that is bringing in money and helping the economy of every state. It’s creating jobs because we’re working, spending and some of us are even starting businesses.”

Pedroza said, “It’s about families and the well-being of human beings and giving opportunities to people who work hard and contribute as equally as citizens of the United States.”

Justice for Our Neighbors (JFON) Executive Director Emiliano Lerda feels the issue found enough support to buck the governor in the “very diverse coalition pushing for these changes,” adding, “you had strong, traditionally conservative and Republican-leaning organizations advocating side by side with what are traditionally known as more progressive organizations. This truly is a bipartisan issue that unfortunately has been utilized by politicians to galvanize a certain segment of the population for political support. But the vast aspects of this issue affect people across the aisles equally and the solutions will come from across the aisles from people who understand the economic impact and benefits of immigrants and the economic disaster we could face if we don’t have access to immigrant labor.”

Charles Shane Ellison, JFON deputy executive director-legal director, said it’s a win-win for everyone as employers benefit from DREAMers’ labor and DREAMers’ income boosts the economy. Then there’s the advanced degrees DREAMers earn, the expertise they practice, the services they provide, the products they produce, et cetera.

For Ellison, it’s also an issue of fairness and of undoing an overly broad application of law.

“Many of my clients who qualify for DACA came as babies. They don’t know any other country other than the United States. The law’s very unforgiving. It doesn’t make allowances for the fact they didn’t have any control over entering the country without status. These kids found themselves growing up blocked out of any opportunities to obtain work, to achieve dreams, so DACA was huge because it was this breakthrough, finally saying you can come out of the shadow and participate in the workforce towards your dreams in the only country you’ve known.

“Though inadequate and imperfect, it’s difficult to overstate the importance of what DACA’s meant to these young people.”

For St. Paul United Methodist Church (Lincoln) senior pastor David Lux, embracing DREAMers is about social justice.

“They live here and are part of our communities and have been for years. This is their home. Regardless of legal documentation they’re human beings worthy of fairness and a chance. They also contribute a lot to our communities and add to their richness.”

Besides, Pedroza said, with small population Nebraska struggling to retain young talent and America ever aging, the state and nation can’t afford to lose its best and brightest of child-rearing age.

Not everyone eligible for DACA applies for it.

Ellison said, “Nationally, 700,000 have been granted DACA since the program’s inception, I believe initial estimates of those eligible were well over a million. There’s a number of factors why only 700,000 applied. Some people are very risk averse, other people are not. Those who are risk averse, [do they] feel like paying fees to apply for a program soon to be done away with or potentially done away with, in addition to giving the government your private information they would need to apprehend you and seek your removal, [that] is not a very good bargain. So they’re not interested or willing to apply for it even if they qualify.

“A lot depends on the individual facts of the case. If a person’s already on immigration’s radar, they’re not really giving up much by applying.

“If they’re not on immigration’s radar, by applying with the potential the program will be done away with, they are taking some risk.

“I’ve actually been surprised by how many people want to apply, even post-election, who say, ‘I still want to renew my application because I feel like it’s worth a shot. If I don’t apply, I know I won’t get it. If I do apply, maybe President Trump will change his mind or something else will happen.’ It just shows how desperate folks were before DACA.”

Ellison added, “Certainly among my greatest concerns is that DACA will be done away and not be replaced with any kind of protection … that in addition to lack of compassion in immigration enforcement that tears families apart and disrupts communities.”

JFON urges recipients to prepare for DACA’s demise.

“We want folks to get plugged in with counsel so they can analyze what are their rights in any defenses they may have,” Ellison said. “If DACA is done away with, that’s going to be really important. We want people to know there are certain constitutional legal protections they may have and other forms of relief they may pursue that exist in law as opposed to policy. While the President can change immigration policy by doing away with the program, which is just an executive memoranda, he does not have the authority to unilaterally undue the law.

“There may be legal protections that exist for some DACA youth they don’t know about until they consult with an attorney. We provide referrals for the Nebraska Legal Immigration assistance hotline.”

Meanwhile, Pedroza, a Guatemalan immigrant, finds solace in the confederacy of common interests around the issue, such as the Bible, Badge and Business coalition that’s championed DACA. These coalitions signal to her America may not be as divided as the media portrays, but she concedes more consensus building is needed.

“What keeps me motivated is knowing for a fact we can do better to be a more welcoming community, state and nation and that we can work together to improve the quality of life for underserved people. Not everyone will see the same things I see, but we don’t have to have one way of doing things. The more collective and different perspectives we can add to the larger vision, the more impact we can have.”

With DACA up in the air and the path of immigration reform anybody’s guess, Pedroza hopes for bridges to dreams, not walls to exclusion.

“I have two children and I really care about their future. I want them to know there is something that can be done when you work with community members and elected officials. We can have dialogue. We don’t have to be on the defensive or offensive all the time. We need to have that space to negotiate in, and it’s possible. I think the national rhetoric doesn’t help. A lot of times, not everybody is open-minded or familiar with the other side of the story. That’s something we have to deal with. We’re not going to convince everybody. Not everybody’s going to see the issue the same way. But we can’t give up. We have to work with what we have and to do what we can do.”

She senses however things play out, DREAMers and supporters have started a movement that won’t go away.

“One thing we can do is help people empower themselves, so that they can continue to work for those solutions and look for other options. A lot of times as immigrant communities we feel powerless and so we don’t try to be a part of that change for our community.

“But that collective power really makes people feel they can do something. It can be like a domino effect where one thing leads to something bigger or we inspire people to get involved.”

Being seen and heard is a start.

Visit jfon-ne.org, http://www.heartlandworkerscenter.org, neappleseed.org.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The new administration issued its first immigration orders as we went to press. Local groups, especially the ones mentioned in this story, are organizing now to respond to changes in enforcement priorities that threaten to tear apart families and lives without any review process while diverting resources away from deporting the worst criminals. Stay tuned to them at the links at the end of this story and follow-up coverage in our sister publication El Perico and online at TheReader.com.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

2nd District Congressional race gives voters two distinct styles in incumbent Lee Terry and challenger Brad Ashford

October 31, 2014 Leave a comment

The Reader Oct. 30 - Nov. 5, 2014

 

I rarely write about politics.  Here is an exception.  It’s a cover story for The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/) about the two men vying for Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional seat in the U.S. House of Representatives: Republican incumbent Lee Terry and Democratic challenger Brad Ashford.

 

2nd District Congressional race gives voters two distinct styles in incumbent Lee Terry and challenger Brad Ashford

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/)

 

 

 

 

At the end of the day, voters want a choice. If nothing else, the tight Nebraska 2nd Congressional District race pitting incumbent Lee Terry against challenger Brad Ashford gives voters a distinct option.

Pre-election surveys indicate a neck-and-neck battle between these local boys made good from high profile Omaha families. Politicos have long viewed Terry as a vulnerable target. He nearly lost to John Ewing in 2012. The GOP poured millions into his campaign and even though the national Democratic Party declined to support Ewing, the challenger lost by only two percent of the popular vote. Ashford is getting some support from his national party headquarters in this race but his campaign’s still being outspent thanks to the Terry camp’s deep coffers and the GOP sinking big money into the race.

Terry is the 52-year-old hard-line Republican whose eight terms in the U.S. House of Representatives give voters a 16-year resume to consider. This Boomer weaned on the right wing philosophies of his father, former Omaha television anchor and commentator, Lee Terry Sr., and shaped by the doctrine of his political hero, Ronald Reagan, tows the traditional Republican Party line.

“I have a basic pro business, job creation conservative view and I’ve always stayed pretty loyal to that philosophy,” says Terry, who worked as a private practice attorney and served on the Omaha City Council before entering Congress in 1998.

Terry, with endorsements from law enforcement and veterans groups, is a staunch law and order guy and big military advocate. Given his father’s strong GOP leanings, Terry doesn’t have to look far for influences.

“My father’s a huge influence. But for my father I wouldn’t be in Congress or probably even care about politics,” he says. “As a kid my parents were very active in political work. I remember handing our fliers at polling places probably in the first grade and getting political lectures from my dad about how Ted Kennedy was going to hurt small businesses with his whatever legislation. That was our dinner table talk,”

“My dad knows his stuff, he does his research and he develops very strong opinions. When I was growing up he would tape his Sunday morning political show on Saturday and I would always go down to the station when they would film it.”

At one taping Terry met Sen. Roman Hruska, R-Neb. Hruska’s autograph went up next to Evil Knievel’s on his bedroom door at home.

Meeting Hruska, under whom Ashford served as an intern, was big but Terry says “someone that is legendary to me is Ronald Reagan.” Though he never met the two-term President he says the 1984 Reagan presidential campaign offered him a job but he turned it down to pursue a law degree at Creighton University.

 

 

Like Terry, the 64-year-old Ashford is a CU law grad. His wife, Omaha attorney and businesswoman Ann Ferlic Ashford, was a law classmate of Terry’s. The two men go back and they once shared the same party in common, though in sharp contrast to Terry, Ashford’s unbound by party affiliation. For this race though he’s a Democrat after previous forays as a Republican and Independent.

Where Terry was steeped in conservative Republican values, Ashford was immersed in his Republican family’s’ progressive social views. His grandfather Otto Swanson started the now defunct family business, Nebraska Clothing Company, and co-founded the National Conference of Christians and Jews (now known as Inclusive Communities) to counteract a boycott of local Jewish businesses. This social justice legacy became more than an anecdote for Ashford.

“It was a big part of how we were brought up,” he says. “We were tutored on how to watch for discrimination and intolerance. We didn’t live it in the sense that we suffered from it but we certainly were schooled in it and told that was a high value proposition – that when you see it you should try to find out what’s causing it and try to eradicate it.”

He grew up in Augustana Lutheran Church, which moved from conservative to liberal in the aftermath of the documentary A Time for Burning that focused on the rupture within the congregation when its new pastor attempted interracial fellowship there.

Ashford’s rising-tide-lifts-all-ships attitude formed from his family’s principles and business practices.

“For everybody to do well everybody has to have a bite at the apple. The economic growth of the country after World War II did pervade in society and today it’s not the case. You have very few people gaining economic power and most everybody else kind of struggling along. That’s really what’s happening. People have to have a better shot at success and there’s all sorts of obstacles to that, like student loans that are higher than mortgages and the banks getting bailed out while the middle class didn’t.

“Government has a role in evening out the inequality a little bit, making sure the middle class isn’t left out. If they’re left out than you can’t buy a tie and shirt from the clothing store and then the clothing store goes out of business and all the people that work there are unemployed.”

 

 

His 16-year record in the nonpartisan Nebraska Unicameral includes building coalitions that created tax credits for corporations when Omaha was at-risk of losing big business, advocating for intervention resources to help at-risk youth and crafting juvenile justice reforms.

Ashford’s prison reform work, including expansion of mental health programs and vocational training and finding community-based alternatives for nonviolent offenders, has been a target of Terry and his supporters. Pro-Terry ads by the National Republican Congressional Committee have raised ire for linking Ashford’s support of the good time law with the murders Nikko Jenkins was convicted of committing shortly after his early prison release in 2013. The tattooed face of Jenkins, an African-American, and blunt references to his horrific crimes strike many as exploitative. The ad’s been sharply criticized as being in poor taste, even by some prominent Republicans.

Terry’s own campaign is running ads with Jenkins’ image that suggest Ashford’s prison reform actions lead to “assault, robbery and murder.” Ashford is deeply offended the Terry camp has taken a reactionary approach playing on people’s emotions.

“I don’t understand how he cannot disavow such racially-charged ads,” Ashford says. “I mean, he’s really taken us back to the Bush-Dukakis race and the Willie Horton ads. In a town like Omaha that’s trying so hard to overcome decades of racial issues, he’s trying to mine the fears of people. That’s a hard one for me to accept. Why would we want to revisit those days? And that’s what he’s doing.

“I can’t imagine ever doing an ad that would cause people to be fearful
or I would never stand for such a thing.”

Terry says he does disapprove of the NRCC ad: “That’s a horrible ad, I hate it, I wouldn’t have done that. I totally disown that Nikko Jenkins ad.” Despite calls from outside his campaign for it to be removed, it’s kept running. Terry offers no apology for his own ads that use similar loaded images and language that blame Ashford for violent crime.

“Everything I’ve brought up in my commercials has been about his record. We’ve used good time but if you go back and look at my ads that I paid to produce and put on the air, we never mention Jenkins’ name and we never talk about that crime, and that’s out of respect for the victims’ families as well as the fact I didn’t want to glorify a mass murderer.

“But we always talk about how he (Ashford) bottled up good time and bad consequences occurred. That’s fair to talk about.”

Ashford believes it’s a crass strategy to distract voters.

“He’s trying to divert attention away from his lack of productiveness into trying to create fear among the electorate with his ads. He’s trying to convey that the laws of Neb. allow violent criminals to walk out willy nilly, which is absolutely not true. That’s a complex issue. It’s hard to answer that in a 30-second ad, so what we’re trying to say is we do have a good record on public safety.”

Ashford, who often uses “we’ to mean “I,” defends his own record.

“Certainly prison reform, the one issue they’re criticizing me on, is probably one of our greatest successes. We took an issue the governor had literally turned his back on and created a series of bills that will I think for a generation set the course for a prison system that’s smarter on crime and that will keep the public safer. That was very hard to do in the wake of Nikko Jenkins but we had actually started prior to that.

“When someone says you’re soft on crime it really doesn’t matter if you are or aren’t because if they have enough money to say you’re soft on crime than people will say, “He’s soft on crime.’ We’ve had a very balanced approach in the Legislature, we’ve been tough on gang crimes and sexual predators but we’re trying to find a way to get non-violent offenders into community-based services so they won’t get further into the system.”

 

 

When it comes to their respective records in public office, Ashford feels his achievements as a Neb. lawmaker far surpass anything Terry’s done as a congressman, saying of his opponent. “He can’t touch me.”

“Lee is not an effective representative. He has a very slim record.”

Ashford gained an unusually strong endorsement from the Omaha World-Herald that could have been written by his campaign.

“Well, they’ve been watching me,” he says of the paper. “One thing about the Legislature, we’re under the microscope of the press every day. We’re a very open, transparent kind of place unlike Congress where so much is done behind the scenes. So my record’s pretty much out there. I enjoy working on issues and I stick with issues. I don’t like taking partisan votes unless the partisan vote is something I believe in.

“Terry doesn’t have a record of any real consequence. The only thing he has is to attack. He’s a party guy. That’s the game he plays. I think that’s the main difference – I don’t care about parties. I don’t care really at all about parties other than I realize it’s a mechanism to get elected. I agree with the Democrats on lots of issues, certainly social issues, gay rights, immigration, but I’m sure I won’t agree with them on everything.”

 

 

Ashford almost goes so far to say Terry is a Republican mouthpiece.

“You can take a guy like Lee Terry who’s totally ineffective and get him elected simply by dumping $3 or 4 million into a place like Omaha and trashing the opponent. That’s what he’s done for two or three elections that I’ve followed closely.”

Terry takes exception to suggestions he’s done little in office and is strictly a party man.

“I handed an 18-page paper to the Omaha World-Herald showing all the things I’ve been able to accomplish, including pass six bills out of the House this year. Sometimes being effective means not letting a bill go forward. There’s two instances in the last session where the leadership wanted to bring up a bill and when I went in and educated them on how bad each bill really was they pulled the language out. One was Medicare supplemental and the other one was cyber security.

“Sixteen years ago I wouldn’t have had the credibility or the relationship or the knowledge to be able to just walk into the Speaker’s office or the Majority Leader’s office and say, ‘Here’s where you’re wrong.’ Not only did I walk in, but I also brought it up in conference in front of everybody and took on the Majority Leader in front of all my colleagues. Now I didn’t run to the press and brag about that because I also believe in Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment – Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.”

In terms of crafting legislation Terry, who’s chairman of the Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, says much of what he’s done “started as a bill but ended up an amendment to a different bill or to a bigger bill of the same theme.” As committee chair he and Democrat Jan Schakowsy from Chicago pushed through the Global Investment in American Jobs Act of 2013. The bill tasks the Department of Commerce to lead an interagency review and make recommendations to Congress on ways to make the U.S. more competitive in attracting foreign investment.

“When people say I don’t get along with the other side, well I worked with the most partisan, liberal person on our committee and got a bill done, negotiated, passed through committee, passed through the House. It’s sitting on (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid’s desk right now.”

Ashford has pledged to be led by what his local constituents say rather than be swayed by special interests and to build coalitions with colleagues from both parties as a wedge to help break gridlock.

“What I’m trying to tell people is that it is possible to make change by making government more responsive. That linkage between people and their government has been interrupted by special interests on all sides of the political spectrum. It’s really cut off individuals from their government.”

He says he’s interested in “developing policies around what’s going to help the entire society.” Even though he feels the Democrats were wrong “to push the Affordable Care Act through the way they did” he advocates fixing glaring problems with Obamacare and knocks Terry for repeatedly voting to repeal the law, which he says “only perpetuates the problem.” Terry, who like Ashford favors universal access, concedes he’s voted for ACA’s repeal but he says most of his votes concerning the law have been to amend it.

 

 

 

 

Ashford considers immigration reform an issue that will help the entire society “because it will bring more dollars into circulation,” adding, “Immigrants are hard workers, they’ll pay taxes, they’ll lend their efforts to the general prosperity of the country.”

He favors a stepped approach to immigration reform.

“You have to build a bill from the ground up in a bipartisan way, like the Senate bill on immigration reform, which identifies different classes of immigrants. Each class of immigrant would have certain legal status and with that status comes certain rights and responsibilities. So a DREAMer would have certain rights and obligations that are different from adults, for example, that would clearly show what they have to do to gain legal status. The same with adults and with people that just want to get work permits. I think it has to be very carefully constructed.”

Terry says his own view has evolved from forced expulsion to a more stepped approach that leads to citizenship for some and work permits for others, for example.

“In the last year or two since there’s been a lot of discussion and we now realize there’s a great deal of overlap and it’s not as divided as it appears or appeared in the past.”

On the other hand Terry says “there are four or five issues where it is really tough” to find bipartisan consensus on “because we are principally completely different. Like raising taxes just so you can bring up more revenue so you can spend more. I’m not going to support that. Now if you say, OK. let’s find a way to a balanced budget and let’s put everything on the table,’ then we could probably come up with a plan to get us to a balanced budget. But when you sit there and say we need more revenue and we need to increase taxes, you’re right, I’m going to differ with that and I’m just going to say no.”

The 2nd District foes agree that movement on big issues will only come when elected officials stay out of their ideological silos long enough to hear what the other side says and make necessary concessions.

Terry says, “We have to be able to get together on these. Reasonable people from both sides of the aisle can sit down and come to an agreement on these big deals, and the only way to get us to a balanced budget and really secure Medicare and Social Security for the future is if both parties are at the table.”

“In any of these issues in order to make change you have to convince your colleagues of the basic assumptions and if you can’t get people to do that you’re not going to be effective in making legislation,” says Ashford, who feels global warming is a good example. It turns out he and Terry share similar views on the subject.

“It does exist and we in Neb. should be extremely worried about it,” Ashford says, “because our economic driver is ag and agriculture relies on the environment and as the environment changes our ability to produce products, crops, whatever it is, also is impacted. There’s so much to learn about it. You have to be open-minded about it and
understand there is no one answer.”

Terry says, “I’m not the naysayer, I do believe there is climate change.
I do believe mankind has responsibility in this. I will not go to man-is- 100-percent” responsible. Now I am not in the camp that says we should just shut off fossil fuels. I do think we should be more energy efficient. I think we should use less of our resources and use resources like natural gas which have less emissions than gasoline.”

With the Nov. 4 election looming large each candidate is dealing with campaign fatigue, his own and voters’.

Ashford is upbeat, encouraged by a surge of Democrats who voted early. “It’s a close election, it’s expensive, my opponent has more resources than we do. But I think our message is getting out there. We have a chance to win, I’m hopeful we’re going to win, I believe we’re going to win.”

Meanwhile, Terry isn’t even considering the possibility he won’t be returned to office by voters. “I refuse to even think about it. The reality is my gut’s telling me things are going our way. When I’m out and about there’ an urgency in the feedback I’m getting of you’ve got to get out there and do this. The last three weeks I’ve really felt a shift.”

Should he not win re-election, does he have any plans? “No, there is no plan. My plan is to work my ass off and win.”

Harsh Life Revealed in Memoir Gives Way to Growth: Ruth Marimo Comes Out of Silence to Assert Her Voice

February 14, 2013 1 comment

The provocative cover of Ruth Marimo’s 2012 memoir, Freedom of An Illegal Immigrant, pictures her sitting nude, her legs drawn up to her chest and her arms crossed just below her knees, a hood covering her face and a GPS tracking device affixed, like a shackle, to one ankle.  It’s a powerful and unsettling image of bondage.  Beyond the metaphor and symbology, the image represents the reality that was Marimo’s life as an orphaned and undocumented immigrant from Zimbabwe who suffered through an abusive marriage with a man that did produce two beautiful children but that nearly cost her her life and her freedom.  Amidst all of that, she discovered and embraced her sexual identity as a lesbian.  As she describes in the article that follows, she went through hell and back before finding liberation and the life story she began writing in jail became a successful self-published memoir that’s sparked new opportunties for her as an author and inspirational speaker. My profile of Marimo will appear in a coming issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).

 

 

 

 

Harsh Life Revealed in Memoir Gives Way to Growth: Ruth Marimo Comes Out of Silence to Assert Her Voice

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Four years ago Marimo sat in the Cass County Jail contemplating suicide. The mother of two and then-undocumented immigrant from Zimbabwe, Africa was there because her estranged husband, whom she says verbally and physically abused her, reported her to authorities.

In the space of 30 days behind bars she seemingly lost everything. Her children, her home, her job, her will to live. She feared deportation and never seeing her kids again. It was all too much for a woman whose mother committed suicide when Marimo was 5 and whose only sibling died as a toddler. With things at their darkest Marimo began writing. Amid tears of despair she put her story down with a pen on the back of jail activity forms. She filled up dozens of sheets.

“I just kept writing and the pages kept adding up,” she says. “It was almost like something pushed all of these words out of me.”

Flash forward to today, when Marimo’s 2012 memoir Freedom of An Illegal Immigrant is a self-published success story that’s propelled a new career as an author and inspirational speaker. Marimo, who fought court battles to win sole custody of her children, is recently returned from her most prestigious speaking appearance yet, a Feb. 8 address for the IvyQ Conference at Yale University. The gathering of students and scholars from all the Ivy League schools seeks to empower young people in owning their sexual identities.

Marimo, who came out as a lesbian in the aftermath of her failed marriage, is a LGBT activist often called on to speak at equal rights rallies. She’s also a popular spoken word artist at Verbal Gumbo, where a poem of hers she performs there, “Who Am I?,  asserts her complex identity.

She next shares her momentous personal journey Feb. 20 in the Nebraska Room of the Milo Bail Student Center at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Her Noon talk is free. A Q&A follows and Marimo will also sign copies of her book.

 

 

Ruth Marimo

 

 

The happy, confident woman who addresses audiences these days would not exist, she says, without the crucible of her tragedies and traumas.

“Those are the things that helped me become the person I am today. Even in those times I want to feel sorry for myself there’s so much I am grateful for.”

The memory of her past struggles, she says, “is what pushes me to speak, to be passionate, to even want better for my kids,” adding, “That’s where I think my drive, my activism comes from,. Everything I’m doing now is very purposeful because I can’t forget who’ve I’ve been and what I’ve been through.”

She’s pleased that her story inspires others. “I’ve heard from people all over the world saying that my story’s touched them.” If more women would leave abusive relationships because of her story she’d be pleased but she despairs most will choose to stay put. She empathizes.

“I think for a long time I was that person that stuck around in the wrong relationship.

I had this husband, I had these two beautiful kids, but I was so lonely and miserable. I knew I was in the wrong marriage, an abusive marriage. He would choke me and then we would be out holding hands and everybody would see this totally different picture. There are so many people stuck in abusive relationships and they don’t have the courage to take the next step. They don’t have that drive to be willing to get out and risk everything.

“Of course, there’s a thousand reasons why you stay. I could have easily stayed in my marriage but it would not have changed anything. Even though I went to hell and back and lost everything, the peace of mind I have to be able to freely express myself is so much worth it.”

She shutters to think how different her life would be if she hadn’t left the marriage.

“You wouldn’t know this Ruth, I wouldn’t have written a book, I would still have been stuck in that mundane, everyday life of pleasing the world and not pleasing myself and not facing who I really am.”

Freedom is in the title of her book for a reason.

“It was a very purposeful naming. For me it refers to the freedom of me actually accepting and owning up to who I am – an undocumented, gay, African woman

who was orphaned. All this stuff I was trying to hide is who I am.

“We have all of these layers of who we and society thinks we should be or how we should act. A very small number of people are lucky enough to strip away those layers at some point and reveal for themselves who they really are. That I think is where the freedom was coming from.”

Life is good for Marimo now. She’s content raising her kids. She has financial security from the cleaning business she owns and operates. She’s fulfilled by her speaking gigs and writing projects, including completed manuscripts for a children’s book entitled But What is Africa Really Like?, a teen book of African folk tales, a poetry volume and an adult erotica novel. Omaha artist Gerard Pefung is illustrating the children’s book. She eagerly awaits getting her Green Card so that she can travel abroad and participate in the international seminars she’s invited to.

One day she fully expects to return to Africa, but she says it will need to be cautiously as her gay and women’s activism makes her a target there. Nothing though will get her to remain silent again.

“Peace of mind and inner happiness I’ve discovered are more important than anything,” she says. “To me, if you’re unhappy you’re essentially dying a slow death and you’re the only one that knows it.”

 

Project Improve aims to make best of bad situation with illegal immigrant detainees

July 24, 2012 2 comments

No matter how you feel about the issue of illegal immigration in the U.S. you have to sympathize with parents whose only crime is living here without proper documentation who have the misfortune of being arrested and then detained in jail, all while awaiting deportation, and in the meantime finding themselves separated from family, including children.  We’re not talking about identity theives.  We’re talking about people holding down jobs and raising families and abiding by laws except for that murky no-man’s land called a border they breeched.  For years the nation looked the other way at what was essentially an open border but now it’s intent on closing that border and throwing back over it anyone who’s managed to cross it illegally, even those who’ve made productive lives for themselves and their families in America.  It’s cruel and unusual punishment that only adds to social disruption and incurs extra costs without really solving anything.  It’s purely a power play by the haves against the have-nots.  This is a story about a small program through the Office of Latino and Latin American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha that offers Spanish-speaking detainees some educational support services during their incarceration and that tries to provide a platform for parents to connect with their children.

 

Project Improve aims to make best of bad situation with illegal immigrant detainees

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

With immigration enforcement a national priority, jails are filled with individuals whose only crime is being in the U.S. illegally.

Out of sight, out of mind behind bars these civil offenders risk being lumped in with the habitually criminalized. Advocates say it’s all too easy to forget many detainees have been law-abiding, gainfully-employed residents. Many are parents. Once arrested and jailed they face separation from loved ones and home.

Being severed from family while the legal process drags on poses challenges the criminal justice and penal system are not necessarily well prepared to address without expert intervention.

With no programs serving its growing population of Spanish-speaking detainees, Douglas County Department of Correction officials asked the Office of Latino and Latin American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha for help in early 2009. OLLAS met with staff and detainees as a first step in creating a detainee-centered program.

Claudia Garcia, a UNO assistant professor of foreign languages, says she and university colleagues attended jail orientation and conducted two focus-groups with detainees in spring 2009 in order to assess concerns and needs.

“The situation of women, many terribly depressed because of being separated from their young children, was especially pressing for some jail authorities, who were sympathetic to these detainees’ situation,” says Garcia.

Beginning in the summer of 2009 OLLAS faculty launched Project Improve as a community service initiative at the Douglas County Correctional Center, 710 South 17th Street. The effort is focused on helping detainees discuss their predicament, connect with family and become empowered through education. The intent is to provide clients a non-punitive advocacy and support outlet.

Faculty engage detainees in writing, reading and discussion activities designed to promote introspection and self-expression. Garcia says on average 16 men and 11 women participate per session.

“Personally, what strikes me the most about the Latino detainees, especially the women, is their strength and good attitude, and also their ability to give each other support,” Garcia says. “I think we provide a space that allows them to reflect, process and articulate their personal journeys.”

OLLAS director Lourdes Gouevia says, “The inmates express their stories through various media and record messages and stories for their children.” UNO assistant professor of education Evangelina “Gigi” Brignoni  says participants appreciate the opportunity to respectfully own their own experience: “This is a time for them to have an avenue to be themselves. They’ve told us we treat them with dignity, we treat them like human beings, we don’t look at them like they’re incarcerated.”

The experience has made an impression on the academics.

“It’s been a very intense and enriching learning process,” says Garcia, adding that it’s “one thing is to have an intellectual knowledge” of these issues “but it’s very different to talk, interact and become emotionally affected by the individuals going through these hard times. For me, the big eye-opener is the definition of criminal. Many detainees we work with have violated immigration law, but they are certainly not dangerous criminals. Most are just mothers and fathers who have tried their best to give their families a better life, and have been working without proper documentation.

“Most who come to our sessions are really engaged in a process of self-growth, using this time in jail to re-visit their own lives. They appreciate the opportunity to learn and be better people when they get out. It’s really a very moving experience.”

Brignoni says “it saddens us” that most of the detainees are presumably awaiting deportation. “We get a new group all the time because they don’t stay there.”

After a prolonged break, the project is presuming monthly sessions in December,

Garcia is impressed by DCDC’s embrace of Project Improve.

“It’s been a very welcoming institution. DCDC understands the importance of educational and support programs for their detainee population, and are very proud to have a diversity of volunteers go there and share time and knowledge with the detainees. The officers in charge of educational programs are very helpful and very clear.”

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