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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.

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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 Leave a 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

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.

New OLLAS director Cristián Doña-Reveco eager to engage community

September 1, 2017 1 comment

Chile native Cristián Doña-Reveco, the new director of OLLAS (Office of Latino and Latin American Studies) at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, is looking to broaden the center’s engagement across borders. Read my profile of him for El Perico newspaper.

OLLAS Director Dr. Doña-Reveco
Aug. 09, 2017

New OLLAS director Cristián Doña-Reveco eager to engage community
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico

Cristián Doña-Reveco knows the challenge of succeeding Lourdes Gouveia as director of OLLAS at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He’s long been an admirer of the Office of Latino and Latin American Studies she founded and is director emerita of today.

“Lourdes Gouveia is a hard act to follow,” he said. “OLLAS is what it is today because of her work and the collaboration of her colleagues. I am not here to redo what Lourdes did, but to expand from her work. I am very lucky to have her support and guidance as well as that of Jonathan (Benjamin-Alvarado) and Juan Casas, interim directors the last two years. I also know OLLAS has a wonderful and engaged faculty very interested in participating in this second stage.”

Doña-Reveco attended a 2007 OLLAS conference and then followed the center’s work from afar. The native of Chile didn’t hesitate applying for the directorship.

“I really liked what they were doing, so it was an easy decision for me to apply,” he said. “This is a great place to be. I wanted to be here.”

His scholarly focus on migration is a good fit.

“His work is centered on issues so dear to OLLAS’ heart, such as international migration, social inequality and the differential access by the poor to public goods,” said Gouveia. “He is passionate about the things we study and about social justice.”

Doña-Reveco, also an associate professor in the Sociology-Anthropology Department, finds attractive that OLLAS “comprises in one place Latino studies, Latin American studies as academic research centers, while also teaching at the graduate and undergraduate level and doing advocacy and outreach.”

“In other places, including Michigan State, where I did my Ph.D. work,” he said, “those things are in different centers. They usually don’t even talk to each other. Here, we do it all together and that is very important and very interesting. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to come here.

“I see my own work and academic life through an interdisciplinary lens. I need to work, for example, with people in public administration, the social sciences, the humanities.”

His work resonates in Nebraska, where immigrants, refugees and migrants abound.

“We cannot understand today’s world without dealing with the issue of migration. This has been the topic of discussion in elections in the U.S., France, the U.K., Argentina, Brazil, and in my own country of Chile. The discussion about the effects, possibilities and fears of migration are in the public debate and a center like this has a huge role in creating knowledge about migration.

“Migration flows, experiences, patterns come to the forefront when there is a political discussion about it and there is a political discussion about it today.”

He conducts interviews to capture migrant stories: why and when they move and how they’re received by host countries and countries of origin.

He said OLLAS can provide facts to counter stereotypes and myths about migrants.

“A center like this has as a public role to fight against that ignorance, to show people what migrants create in the community,. So, it’s not only about migration of people but the mobility of ideas throughout the Americas and how Latino populations are key to understanding that connection between Latin America, particularly Mexico, and the U.S., and also to show that Latin America is more than Mexico and Central America. We have 30-plus countries in the Americas that share a Latino-Latin American culture. It’s important to recognize and incorporate that into the views of the U.S.”

Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, UNO assistant vice chancellor for Student Affairs, said, “Dr. Dona-Reveco brings a new perspective on OLLAS’ central role as a community-engaged research and service arm of UNO’s overall mission. His vision and experience makes him an ideal leader to continue the OLLAS legacy. It is an exciting time for OLLAS and UNO.”

Doña-Reveco. wants OLLAS to share its work with other Latino-Latin American study centers and the community-at-large.

“One of the things I want to contribute to here is to encourage faculty to make all the research they produce have at least a component of public engagement.”

Similarly, he wants OLLAS to be a vital source of expertise in framing issues for policymakers, stakeholders and reporters.

“One of the goals I’ve set for myself is to make the center more visible internationally, but I cannot do that without first making the center for visible nationally.”

He also wants to parlay his worldwide connections and networks to help “internationalize OLLAS.”

“I would like to set up a study abroad in Chile. I’m still connected to the school I was working at before in Santiago that participates in a consortium of four large research universities in Chile on topics of social conflict and social cohesion. My goal is to connect OLLAS to that center in a meaningful way either through exchange of faculty or research. There is also work I want to do with networks I have in Europe

“There’s a lot to do.”

He and his wife, a native of Colombia working on her master’s in veterinary science, have three children.

Follow the center’s work at https://www.unomaha.edu/college-of-arts-and-sciences/ollas/index.php.

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

June 29, 2017 1 comment

SAFE HARBOR: Activists working to create Omaha Area Sanctuary Network as refuge for undocumented persons in danger of arrest-deportation
©by Leo Adam Biga
El Perico

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 1 comment

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.

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