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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has sent conflicting messages where immigration is concerned, No sooner did he decide to end the program or have it rescinded, then he gave Congress a deadline to find a compromise that would extend or solidify the program and therefore prevent young people who entered the country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.

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New OLLAS director Cristián Doña-Reveco eager to engage community

September 1, 2017 Leave a 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


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 Leave a 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.

Justice for Our Neighbors: Treating the Immigrant as Neighbor


 

As long as immigrants are viewed as The Other and thus seen as apart from rather than as a part of there will be a need for programs like Justice for Our Neighbors, a faith-based response to the extra challenges immigrants face in a nation that’s not always immigrant-friendly despite being built by immigrants.  This is a story about some of the efforts of the Justice for Our Neighbors-Nebraska office led by Emiliano Lerda.

 

©tulipanagroup.com

 

 

Justice for Our Neighbors: Treating the Immigrant as Neighbor

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published iin El Perico

 

Welcoming the stranger in our midst is the mandate of Justice for Our Neighbors-Nebraska, a small nonprofit that holds monthly clinics for low income immigrants in need of legal counsel. The organization’s largely new staff held a March 25 open house.

The clinics, offered in both Omaha and Columbus Neb., provide a friendly, safe haven for individuals, couples and families stressed by uncertain legal status. For some, it may be their only recourse to try and avoid deportation. Potential complications are many. Cases can drag on for years.

Situations in which there’s abuse, illness, or poverty present, for example, make the need for action more urgent.

JFON staff offer free legal services, education and advocacy to help guide clients through the complex immigration maze. Its in-house attorney and legal assistants provide consultation. Referrals are made to community service providers as needed to address health care or employment or economic issues, for example.

Volunteers facilitate the clinics and extend the welcome mat by variously conducting the intake process, acting as interpreters, supervising children and serving food.

The agency’s part of the national Justice for Our Neighbors network the United Methodist Church on Relief Committee launched in 1999 in response to ever more complicated and stringent immigration laws. JFON clinics operate cooperatively with local churches. The Omaha clinic’s held at Grace United Methodist Church, 2418 E St., next door to the JFON-Nebraska office, 2414 E St.

The Nebraska chapter’s recently undergone a major turnover. Emiliano Lerda came on as JFON-Nebraska executive director in January. Charles “Shane” Ellison joined as lead attorney in February. The other two full-time staffers are also relatively new — office manager/legal assistant Darling Handlos and paralegal Shaun Downey.

Originally from Argentina, Lerda, 30, knows the immigrant experience first-hand. Now a U.S, citizen, he was drawn to America’s Midwest because its agricultural environment reminded him of his native Cordoba province. At the University of Northern Iowa he became the first international student elected student body president. After obtaining his law degree from Drake Law School he worked as government relations manager for the Iowa Corn Growers Association.

“When I got here what really grabbed me is the fact this community here has very similar values to the community I grew up in,” he says. “I love working with farmers and I hope at some point in the future I will have the chance again to work with farmers.”

He says JFON-Nebraska allows him to remain in the Midwest while serving the community of newcomers he feels a deep connection to.

“I’m an immigrant myself. I went through the process. I know how difficult it is. I received a lot in life through people that helped me without any self-interest. For years now I have been passionate about giving back to the community. I could not ignore the needs of people that are here in similar shoes that I wore, that are new to this community, that are far away from their family and friends.

“God gave me the talents and skills and the background, and so I thought it was a great fit for me to continue to make a difference by helping people that want to be a part of this community, that want to contribute to this community but cannot because their illegal status is stopping them.”

 

 

 

Lerda

Emiliano Lerda

 

 

 

At its core the JFON-Nebraska mission is to help undocumented immigrants comply with the law and become legal residents, says Lerda.

“Some people may be living in constant fear because their status is not legal,” he says.

Many are separated from family members.

Not everyone has a case though, Lerda stresses.

“Immigration provides very few doors for people to come through, and if you don’t fit within those doors, I don’t care how hard a worker you are or how much you want to do the right thing, you’re just not going to be able to.”

Limited staffing restricts the number of clients served per clinic to 10. Clients are seen on an appointment-only basis.

Lerda’s frustrated that the demand for immigration legal services far outstrips JFON resources. However, JFON does refer to two sister agencies — Catholic Charities and Lutheran Family Services — that provide similar services at a nominal fee.

He says his agency is currently cleaning out a large backlog of old cases to better focus on new cases. JFON annually handles 300 cases. By year’s end he hopes to pass the bar or receive accreditation as an immigration law attorney.

The polarizing issue of immigration, he says, is best addressed by education, including JFON-Nebraska workshops for service providers and others in the community. To him, educating people about the benefits of being legal is both practical and neighborly.

“If we don’t help people that can be helped to be here legally, so they can go to school and they can make a contribution economically or civically, then I think I’m failing to do my part. That’s why I feel like God gave me this opportunity and I have to do it.”

For a clinic appointment, call 402-898-1349 the first day of the month.

 

Coming to America: The Immigrant-Refugee Mosaic Unfolds in New Ways and in Old Ways In Omaha

July 10, 2011 12 comments

I was born and raised in America, as my parents were before me, yet when I allow myself to think about it, the immigrant experience is well engrained in my DNA. You see, both sets of my grandparents emigrated here from Europe: my father’s family, the Bigas, from Poland; my mother’s family, the Pietramales, from Italy. I always used to kid my folks about their mixed marriage. And so despite my own experience and appearance to the contrary, I am not so very far removed from the newcomer tale, though I was spared all of the struggles of leaving one’s homeland and making it in a new land that my grandparents endured. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is an attempt to chart the immigrant-refugee landscape in a place like my city, Omaha, and what it looks like to be a newcomer here.

 

 

 

 

Coming to America: The Immigrant-Refugee Mosaic Unfolds in New Ways and in Old Ways In Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

A version of the story is published in The Reader

You don’t need to look far to find the tired, poor and huddled masses following America’s seductive promise as THE immigrant-refugee haven. With Omaha hosting ever more ethnic minority populations from around the globe, the metro increasingly mirrors the culturally diverse world.

Actually observing these newcomers is another matter. That’s because many stay close to their own tight-knit communities. If you want to engage them, you best go where they live, shop, eat or worship. Seen or unseen, they are part of a long, multicultural stream that’s fed Omaha since its 1854 founding. Omaha’s story, like that of America’s, is an ever evolving immigrant flow.

“It’s not a static story, it’s a very complex mosaic we have here and it takes a long time to appreciate some of the nuances of it,” says University of Nebraska at Omaha emeritus history professor Bill Pratt.

Complicating that mosaic are ethnic-religious tensions within and between certain national groups. Then there are segments of American society that express hostility, suspicion or discrimination toward The Other.

Pratt’s UNO emeritus history colleague, Harl Dalstrom, says the immigrant dynamic varies among ethnic communities and the circumstances surrounding them.

“Different groups tend to have different patterns of settlement. Each group from each country are going to have different experiences. You really have to get down to whatever the time period is,” he says. “Many folks who come today are from backgrounds even more alien to the American experience then the immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th century. After all, many new arrivials today are from Africa. They’re not only black, they’re not part of the European language group, and so on.”

Nebraska’s foreign-born population increased 31 percent from 2000 to 2008. From 1990 to to 2000 that segment nearly tripled. Latinos, Asians and Africans account for most of the growth. The new groups are mainly concentrated in Omaha and Lincoln. The Omaha Public Schools now serve thousands of refugee students, including more than 1,100 from Burma, Thailand, Sudan and Somalia.

One measure of a place’s diversity, says Pratt, is its signs. Omaha’s Eurocentric, English-only commerce now has its Asian, Arabic, African, Spanish counterparts.

As low-key as many new immigrants may be, it’s fairly common now to hear their mother tongues and to see their native fashions in public. Events like World Refugee Day and Omaha Heritage Festival celebrate this diversity. Signs and symbols all of Omaha’s maturation into a more cosmopolitan, international city.

South Omaha continues its historical role as the city’s primary immigrant gateway and resettlement district. Its affordable housing, blue collar job sector and robust small business climate make it a conducive place to get started. North Omaha and mid-town accommodate growing pockets of immigrants and refugees.

For most of its history South O hosted Poles, Czechs, Lithuanians and Germans. Just south of downtown, Sicilians and Calabrese formed Little Italy. There were Jewish, Greek, Chinese and other well-defined ethnic communities as well, each replete with small businesses, most often grocery stores and restaurants.

Then, as now, anti-immigrant sentiments peaked during hard times and fell silent during good times. Riots prompted by nativist attitudes erupted in the early 1900s.

Omaha’s a welcoming place, says UNO history professor Maria Arbelaez, but here as elsewhere, barriers exist: “There is still segregation, there is still prejudice, there is still racism, sometimes overt, sometimes well hidden, and people do feel it.”

The south side’s now a largely Latino district whose eateries, food carts and shops are emblazoned with Spanish names. Not that Latinos weren’t there before. They were, just in smaller numbers and almost exclusively tracing their roots to Mexico.

“The Mexicans have always been here,” says Arbelaez.

Historically, she says, ethnic minorities go undercounted, as their racial identities fall outside census categories and they tend to be highly mobile populations. Plus, the undocumented among them have extra motivation to remain under the radar.

 

 

Maria Arbelaez
Maria Arbelaez

 

 

Despite the Latino migration that’s transformed the area, remnants of South O’s immigrant past persist in such landmark venues as the Bohemian Cafe, Johnny’s Cafe, Sokol South Omaha and St. Stanislaus Catholic Church. Italian vestiges remain in Orsi’s Bakery, St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church and Sons of Italy hall.

Even though many second, third and fourth generation immigrant groups no longer live in defined ethnic neighborhoods, their heritage festivals continue.

Today, the variety of cuisines found in South O extends well beyond Mexican to encompass Guatemalan, Salvadoran and national foods from Central America, South America, Africa and many other parts of the world, too.

Exotic eats are no longer confined to South O or the Old Market, as greater Omaha is home to an ever expanding landscape of ethnic dining spots. Then there are ethnic retail stores and other expressions of cultural identity. Inner city health clinics, social service agencies and public schools serve large immigrant bases.

It’s much the same way the immigrant story played out a century ago.

The story of Early Omaha is inextricably linked to the large European immigrant waves from 1880 through 1920 that helped grow this and nearly every U.S. city and filled the industrial labor pool. The internal migration of African-Americans from the South to the North and their subsequent resettling in places like Omaha also brought an influx of new ethnic-cultural influences and workers.

In the aftermath of World War I and the Great Depression and in the first two decades of the Cold War, America grew isolationist, instituting more restrictive immigration policies, and so the steady flow slowed to a trickle. Exceptions were the millions of braceros recruited from Mexico to work in the agricultural, railroad and meatpacking industries and the many displaced persons or refugees from Europe. Omaha welcomed its share of both groups.

The heavy tides of new arrivals didn’t begin in earnest again until the mid-1960s, spurred by more open immigration policies. These waves, no longer predominantly European, but Asian, Indian, African and Latin-American, continue today. Somalia, the former Burma and Bhutan account for a large number of recent newcomers to Omaha. Each group of asylees fled homelands marred by war and political or religious persecution. A generation earlier, Sudanese escaped similar trauma. As did Soviet Jews before that. In the ‘70s, Vietmanese and Laotian refugees.

The surge in Latino immigrants and refugees the past two decades followed economic crises in Mexico and civil wars in Central and South America.

Then, as now, Omaha’s home to ethnic enclaves of foreign-born new arrivals and first generation offspring. South Omaha, once a separate municipality, earned the nickname Magic City for a dynamic growth spurt fueled by the railroads, the meatpacking plants, the stockyards, plus all the ancillary services that supported these industries. Large numbers of immigrants lived and worked in South O. The jobs lasted through the 1960s. Many contemporary immigrants and refugees work equivalent jobs in meatpacking and construction as well as in painting, lawn care, cleaning and other service sector fields.

Not all newcomers work menial jobs, reminds Arbelaez. Their ranks include professionals, skilled tradespeople, entrepreneurs. Many start micro businesses.

Just as opportunity and freedom drew the first waves of immigrants here, they remain enticing beacons of hope for those coming today.

“The pull of the (U.S.) economy is so strong,” says Arbelaez. “It’s better to get a menial job (here) than in Mexico because the pay is so much greater in the States that it allows you to support yourself and your family in Mexico.”

Whether propelled by family, economic, political or survival reasons, new arrivals expect and find a higher standard of living and greater liberty here. That doesn’t mean they don’t struggle making it. Most do. Language-cultural hurdles hinder them. Many live near the poverty line. Even basic food staples like rice stretch tight budgets. Then there’s the scarcity of jobs new arrivals traditionally fill.

Many of those originating from Third World nations or refugee camps harbor unrealistic expectations for what Sudanese community leader Malakal Goak terms “the heaven” they envision America to be. Invariably, say Goak and local refugee community leaders, reality falls short of these utopian, riches-laden dreams.

While Omaha remains an attractive destination or secondary migration site for its relatively low cost of living, healthy job market, good schools and family-friendly environment, it’s not devoid of challenges.

Kumar Gurung, a Bhutan community leader, says his people have great difficulty overcoming language-cultural barriers and finding employment. He says these struggles cause a disproportionate percentage of Bhutanese-Americans to suffer mental health problems such as depression.

The language-cultural divide is a serious barrier for newcomers, say local refugee and immigrant leaders. Clashing cultural norms of child-rearing practices and spousal relationships cause conflicts and sometimes leads to arrests.

Finding decent affordable housing is also an issue.

Many go months before starting a job, while studying to become proficient enough in English to be interview and work-ready. Those finding employment often work two or more jobs to try and make it. Omaha’s spotty public transportation system poses problems, leaders say, for individuals working overnight shifts in industrial areas where buses don’t run off-hours.

Leaders say some newcomers cannot feed their children, cover rent and pay bills on the temporary state allotment provided refugees.

“They’re really struggling,” says International Center of the Heartland & Refugee Services director Maggie Kalkowski.

Newcomers still requiring aid after six to eight months are referred to agencies like ICH, an arm of Lutheran Family Services.

 

 DSC_1093 261x183
 International Center of the Heartland in the Center Mall

 

 

 

The situation just got tougher for some due to the state ceasing welfare assistance to legal, noncitizen immigrant adults. Parents depend on the aid to help support their family households. Aid to children is not affected by the cut.

“It’s definitely going to affect some refugees here,” says Goak. “If they cannot quality for any government assistance I don’t know how they’re going to survive if they can’t find jobs.”

Goak says some refugees exhaust public aid limits before achieving self-sufficiency. No one, he says, wants new arrivals to become a chronic community burden, but he feels aid should be extended as needed.

Local pantries, Goodwill, Salvation Army, Heart Ministry Center and like agencies pick up the slack for those who fall through the cracks.

In good times or bad, assimilation is hard. It’s that much harder for illiterate individuals.

“Navigating the systems and paperwork process is still very difficult, especially for those refugees who do not read or write in their native languages,” says Southern Sudan Community Association executive director Anne Marie Kudkacz. “Assimilation can be made easier by means of programs and services available to assist refugees along the way.”

Kudlacz says new arrivals here benefit from solid support provided by two main resettlement agencies: SSC and Lutheran Family Services. Catholic Charities’ Lincoln office does resettlement and its Omaha office offers legal and additional services. Ethnic communities themselves also provide educational and other support. “Omaha has not only helpful organizations but strong ethnic groups that provide cultural support and integration,” she says.

Caseworkers, many of them from the communities they serve, assist clients with housing, banking, budgeting, interpreting and various other needs. Kalkowski says these indigenous caseworkers, all multi-lingual, become vital conduits, advisors, mediators and advocates for newcomers. “Because they are the knowledge ones, they are leaders and they’re willing to share it,” she says, “their job doesn’t end. They’re always on call. It’s a great service they do.”

Whatever the issue someone calls him with, says Goak, “it’s a big problem in their life until you solve it.”

“In my community, when you speak English they depend on you,” says Thein Soe, a local Burmese community leader and LFS caseworker.

Hamid Guled, a medical-legal interpreter and LFS caseworker for her native Somali community, says, “It’s fulfilling to me when I get to speak up for somebody who cannot speak up for themselves. I step up on their behalf — I advocate.”

“I think that advocacy is an important part of the work we do,” says Kalkowski.

In the process, she says, local merchants and landlords are educated about these populations’ special needs and clients are taught “how to navigate the American systems of healthcare, housing, legal issues, education, et cetera.”

Refugee service organizations provide English as a Second Language classes, legal assistance, micro business programs and a myriad of other assistance. Most services are free. Some require a nominal fee.

Three of Omaha’s largest and newest refugee groups — from Burma, Bhutan and Somalia — have their own community associations. The same is true of established refugee groups, such as the Sudanese. Using words like “empower” in their mission statements, the groups offer everything from ESL and driving classes to job and life skills training. They also stage activities to help members maintain their native culture.

Cultural cohesiveness is important as groups transition to being American while holding on to familiar, touchstone traditions and ways.

“Whether you come out of rural Alabama or Poland or Sicily or Mexico, you want to hang on to as much as you can that’s meaningful to you,” says historian Bill Pratt. “Not simply the language but a social structure, a social order, and so there’s often a built in cultural conservatism for new arrivals. If you come here from Mexico this is why you’d want to move into a neighborhood where there’s Mexicans. You have an emotional support system there, and then as people move up economically they move away.”

 

 

An oath of allegiance

 

 

There’s power in numbers. Thus, each organization serves as a communal network, lifeline and link for newcomers. Each provides a voice for it’s community’s needs.

Pratt says, “One of the things I think is sometimes overlooked is that these (associations) are products of these particular communities — they’re not organized by well-meaning folks outside the community, they’re not part of government, they’re part of a civic structure that comes out of that community.”

UNO’s Maria Arbelaez says grassroots community organizations often emerge in response to unmet needs. Their formation is an act of self-determination. She cautions that self-contained ethnic enclaves can isolate immigrants from the mainstream and curtail their progress. She says providers must be vigilant reaching out to immigrants and connecting them to services.

Kudlacz says collaboration among service providers and ethnic communities happens through the Omaha Refugee Task Force and the Refugee Leadership Academy, whose members identify issues and work together on addressing them.

Coming to America as an immigrant is one thing. Arriving as a refugee is another. The assimilation path for both groups is strewn with challenges. But whereas immigrants tend to be more highly educated and with some financial assets, “most refugees arrive with little more than clothing, personal items and legal refugee status documentation,” says Kudlacz. She adds that refugees generally have little education due to the disruption caused by wars or disasters in their homeland or lack of opportunities in camps they get placed from.

Lutheran Family Services’ Maggie Kalkowski admires the resilience of those coming here. She surmises today’s new arrivals face a harder road than their predecessors by virtue of the more complex social-government systems and technologies they navigate. “There’s so much more to learn,” she says. “It’s so much more demanding.” America’s bounty, she adds, is a blessing and a curse for new arrivals, who find  “overwhelming” all the choices and decisions.

One thing that hasn’t changed is new arrivals supporting family members still residing in refugee camps or countries of origin.

Hamdi Guled says, “The families back home expect, ‘OK, you’re in America, you have to send some money to support us — don’t forget about us.’ They don’t want to hear about how hard you have it in America.”

Then there’s the pressure newcomers feel to be Americanized overnight, though the reality of learning English and everything else is a long process.

“That’s a lot easier said than done,” says Pratt. “People ask today, ‘Why don’t they learn English?’ Well, it’s damn hard to learn another language when you’re working and raising kids.”

Arbelaez says immigrants-refugees here generally are “moving along into mainstream society,” but adds that full integration “takes generations.”

The cultural enrichment immigrants bring extends beyond food or language. They have something to teach about communal engagement, too.

“They still have that whole idea of it takes a village to raise a child,” says Kalkowski, “I think the values these new populations bring actually help America move more to the center, back to family, to neighborhood, to community, to working for others, instead of being focused on the greed side or what’s in it for me. It’s really valuable to us from my perspective.”


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