A Christmas Present for Only One of Millions

Victor at his Wayne State graduation. (Photo: courtesy of victorshope.org)

Sopuruchi “Victor” Chukwueke got a gift which he describes as the “best Christmas present ever.” He is a step closer to fulfilling his dream of attending medical school, thanks to a private-relief bill introduced on his behalf by Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) last year which passed both Houses of Congress earlier this week.

Successful private-relief measures are rare. As Bloomberg.com reports, Chukwueke’s bill is the only one of 83 introduced in the last two years that passed both Houses of Congress. Victor’s story, which won him this privilege, is also special.

Victor has a genetic disorder, neurofibromatosis, which caused a tumor to develop on the top and right sides of his face while he was a young boy in Nigeria. Unfortunately, his condition could not be treated in his native country.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever forget the day,” Victor said, “I went to a large teaching hospital in Nigeria and the doctor touched my face and told me there was nothing they could do. I cried and begged him to do something. I was so tired of the humiliation.”

In 2001, a missionary nun arranged for Victor, then 15 years old, to work with an American plastic surgeon who agreed to operate on him for free. Victor left his family and came to Michigan where he’s since had six major surgeries.

Operations and family separation has not kept Victor back. Last year, he earned a degree in Biochemistry and Chemical Biology from Wayne State University and has been accepted at the University of Toledo’s College of Medicine. The problem is, Victor is undocumented. Unless his immigration status is resolved, he will not be able to attend medical school. Fortunately, Sen. Levin deemed him worthy of the special bill which, once signed by the president, will grant him permanent residency.

“Victor’s amazing courage and determination exemplify much of what is so great about our country,” Levin said in a statement. “Already, his example has enriched Michigan and our nation, but I know that his contributions to our country are only beginning.”

“This confirms my opinion that only in this country can so many miraculous and wonderful things happen to someone like me,” wrote Victor on his blog.

If only hundreds of thousands of other Dreamers like Victor were granted the same miracle of permanent residency. Although the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) gives a two-year reprieve from deportations, it does not resolve the legal status of eligible immigrants.

I do not begrudge Victor’s private bill. I am happy for him, his family, and all his friends and advocates. It cannot be denied however that so many other immigrants share Victor’s courage and determination and could just as well exemplify much of what is great in our nation. There are millions of unauthorized immigrants who have contributed much to the U.S. and could give back much more if only they had the right papers. Until immigration reform which includes a path to citizenship is passed, millions of other dreams remain on hold unless some lawmaker introduces a private bill one person at a time.

Why does it have to be this way?

Originally posted on Feet in 2 Worlds and the Huffington Post.

Legal Violence Against Immigrants and Their Families

Protesting ICE raids. (Photo: Flickr/SEIU)

Legal Violence in the Lives of Immigrants is the title of a report released by the Center for American Progress this week. I found the term “legal violence” unsettling at first, because while our legal system can be unfair at times, I do have faith in it. It’s more than being oxymoronic. Ours is a democracy that does not sanction violence, or ideally should not, on people working for the American Dream and who want nothing more than to be part of our society.

Cecilia Menjívar and Leisy Abrego, authors of the report, argue however that legal violence is indeed inflicted upon immigrants and their families through immigration enforcement. The physical, economic, emotional and psychological well-being of immigrants and their native-born family members are harmed by the cumulative effects of enforcement—detentions, deportations, raids, and traffic stops—along with the crippling fear and stigma that result from the enactment of stringent anti-immigrant policies.

One would think that the Obama administration’s immigration reprieves would allay many immigrants’ fears. The Morton Memo gives Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) personnel leeway, that is, prosecutorial discretion, in deciding who gets detained and deported: mainly hard-core criminals and threats to national security. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program allows eligible immigrants to remain and work in the United States for a couple of years.

The administration’s deportation record combined with state-level immigration initiatives however have seared the dread of separation from loved ones into the immigrant psyche. As the report highlights,

Close to 400,000 people have been detained and deported each year since 2009, and an estimated 34,000 detention beds are available every day. New initiatives such as the Secure Communities program, which checks the status of people booked into county jails in participating jurisdictions, have added another layer to the web of Border Control, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and other immigration agents operating across the country. On top of these federal efforts, some states and localities have passed their own anti-immigrant laws, such as Arizona’s S.B. 1070 … and Alabama’s H.B. 56 … These laws seek to criminalize all aspects of undocumented immigrants’ life and behavior.

Menjívar and Abrego illustrate that it is the “ever-present fear of enforcement actions” which impacts immigrants and their families the most.

“This fear can take many forms, such as a community refusing to leave their houses or take their children to school because of an impending raid, or an unwillingness to speak out against abuse in the workplace,” write Menjívar and Abrego. They add that even “those with temporary legal statuses, such as deferred action or Temporary Protected Status, also fear that they too could be victims of detention or deportation.”

The legal violence wrought by hardline immigration laws meant to encourage self-deportation not only impacts immigrant communities but our nation as a whole. We have created an environment that hampers the integration of immigrants who could otherwise contribute more to our economy, engage more fully civically and politically, and strengthen our society. We have turned our backs on our immigrant history and legacy.

Violence to immigrants might not be written into law, but it is certainly inflicted through enforcement of draconian immigration laws.

Originally posted on Feet in 2 Worlds, December 14, 2012 and the Huffington Post, December 17, 2012.

Gay Groups Rally Behind Undocumented Youth

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September 13, 2012; Source: The Huffington Post

Last month, some undocumented immigrants became eligible for reprieve under the Obama administration’s “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” (DACA) program. Those who qualify are considered on a case-by-case basis and, if approved, can apply to stay and work in this country legally for up to two years. The application costs $465 and requires several background checks along with extensive financial, medical, education, and other records.

The process alone can be daunting and burdensome as it is, but the processing fee is prohibitive for many Dreamers, as undocumented youth are called, who work in the shadows and are paid accordingly.

Nearly 50 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups, under the leadership of the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) and the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center, have banded together and raised $75,000 to help some DACA applicants with the $465 price tag attached to the chance of pursuing the American Dream.

“When President Obama rose above politics to do the right thing for these brave young people we were moved, grateful, and wanted to help. We need these hardworking, talented youth to build a stronger future, and they need and deserve a chance to stop living in fear and on the margins,” Kate Kendell, NCLR’s director, said in a statement. “But the reality is that most of these young people will not have a chance to apply because of the cost. This fund is at the core of what our movement is about – standing together and making a difference in the lives of people who are part of our diverse community.”

Some of the Dreamers who tirelessly fought for recognition and successfully spurred the government to action are LGBT themselves.

“I am extremely grateful for the outpouring of support from so many people in our community, who believe in us and are giving us an opportunity to achieve goals that seemed completely impossible for most of our lives,” said Jorge Gutierrez. “Coming out as gay helped me come out as undocumented, which has been so much more difficult and challenging.”

To date, about 82,000 Dreamers have applied for reprieve, a far smaller number than what had been predicted by both advocates and opponents of DACA.

Originally posted on Nonprofit Quarterly Nonprofit Newswire, September 17, 2012.

Gearing Up for Deferred Action

Starting Wednesday, you will be able to apply for deferred action (Photo Flickr/dreamactivistorg)

Beginning Wednesday, as many as 1.76 million young undocumented immigrants can apply for the reprieve President Obama announced in June, a program the government calls “deferred action for childhood arrivals.” Those who qualify will be considered on a case-by-case basis and, if approved, will be able to apply to stay and work in this country legally for up to two years. The application will cost $465 and require several background checks along with extensive financial, medical, education, and other records.

Requests for deferred action will be processed if the applicant is an unauthorized immigrant under the age of 31; came to the United States before her 16th birthday; has continuously resided in the country for five years; is currently in school, has graduated from high school or received GED equivalency, or is an honorably discharged veteran; has not been convicted of a felony or a significant misdemeanor; and is determined not to be a threat to national security or public safety.

Additional details will be released on Wednesday. In the meantime, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has provided a hotline and answers to frequently asked questions on its website.

Many young immigrants welcome the opportunity to come out of the shadows and work or go to college.

Claudia Jimenez, a 19 year old Venezuelan native who has been in the U.S. since she was eight years old, shared her enthusiasm with the New York Times. Since graduating from high school last year, she has not been able to work or attend college. “Now I have something,” she said. “I can actually do something with my life. Before it was like my life was on pause.”

But others are wary. Time magazine features Karla Zapata who, while ecstatic over the prospect of getting a work permit, expressed her fears.

After years of living in the shadows, Zapata and her friends aren’t convinced it’s a good idea to give their personal information to the government when there are no guarantees that President Obama’s new program for young immigrants will last and no promise they’ll be accepted into it in the first place. Some see that ambiguity as an invitation for possible deportation.

Groups have rallied to support young immigrants like Jimenez and Zapata who hope to begin the process of legalizing their status (the program is not an amnesty and does not provide a path to citizenship).

The New York Daily News reports:

United We Dream, a network of youth-led organizations across the country, launched a national campaign with its partners last week, to offer assistance to as many of the hundreds of thousands of Dreamers eligible to take advantage of the program … The campaign, titled We Own the DREAM/¡Unete Al Sueño!, hopes to guarantee that there is a national and local infrastructure to support Dreamers who are eligible for this opportunity to remain in the United States to complete their education and contribute to the economy.

Key partners in this infrastructure include the National Immigration Law Center (NILC), the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC), Immigration Advocates Network (IAN), and the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG-NIP).

Young people who apply for deferred action will need all the help they can get to navigate what’s likely to be a cumbersome and confusing process. Since the president’s announcement, immigrant advocates have warned about unscrupulous attorneys, notarios(public notaries) and “immigration consultants” who are out to fleece desperate immigrants and their families.

At the end of the day the deferred action program is only a temporary reprieve. Only comprehensive immigration reform through legislation will once and for all address the issue of unauthorized immigration as well as other shortcomings of our immigration system.

As November fast approaches, it is crucial to know where the presidential candidates stand on all of this. We know that President Obama supports DREAMers. What about Governor Romney?

In reaction to the administration’s June announcement, he said “I think the action that the president took today makes it more difficult to reach that long-term solution because an executive order of course is just a short-term matter … It could be reversed by subsequent presidents.” He may have been referring to himself after infamously declaring during the Republican primaries that he thought the DREAM Act is a mistake and he would veto it.

Originally posted on Feet in 2 Worlds, August 14, 2012.