Monday, April 29, 2013

A Lesson in the US Immigration Experience

I am a novice on US immigration reform, the last family in my line to immigrate was in the 1890’s, from Germany.  My recent experience in the Philippines as a applicant for a visa has raised my desire to become better informed about the immigrant experience in the US.

This past Saturday I attended Multnomah University ~New Wine New Wineskin’s Immigration Reformation Conference. It was an immersion experience.

Well done to the students, faculty and volunteers who planned the various events which allowed me to connect to the issue intellectually and experientially along with some time to process.  The event planners made the right call when they started with an immersion experience.  

After checking in and receiving my standard issue conference packet I found myself in the next building standing in line.  I hadn't really paid attention to the instructions at check in and I asked the college women in front of me, "what are we in line for?"  “Immigration,” they replied.  I realized I better read my folder.  

There I learned that my new name was Saraphina, a native Haitian woman who illegally entered the US after the big earthquake so that my unborn child might have a chance at a better life.  For the next 45 minutes I experienced mild humiliation, confusion and the royal run-around.  As an experienced international traveler, I played my part for a while, but as time ticked on and I was headed back to the original immigration "office" for the third time, I stepped out of character.  I just could not stop my well educated, travel experienced, white, self from pulling the privilege card.  I wasn't just an Haitian “illegal immigrant”; I was an educated and experienced nurse midwife, multilingual in French, Creole and English.  “That may be” the Employment Agent said, “but your papers are not correct and you need to return to the immigration office.”  Now I was mad, I just wanted to get to the conference that was starting, enough of the "experience."  So, I left and joined the others who were listening to the opening comments.  

Well done planning team, point well made!

After a moving first hand story of an immigrant from El Salvador she asked that we honor her treasured story of how her family found amnesty in the US. They suffered terror and risked loss of life as the rebel and government forces fought for control in her home country.  “Wow,” I thought to myself.  “I don’t know any of my immigrant ancestors immigration stories, why is that?"

What followed was another of the well planned events of the day, a facilitated table discussion that allowed me to explore with others, my personal experience on the topic of immigration.  The questions we discussed primed my mind to engage both emotionally and critically with the presenters for the rest of the day.  

Two things I would have enjoyed even more, shorter workshops or time at each to have one or two more facilitated questions to discuss.  And second, more diversity of views on the panel discussion. But those are just suggestions to take it to the next level of engagement.

Here were the “take-aways” for me:
  • Ask to hear the stories of immigrants I meet, I’m going to have to meet them first.
  • Undocumented or Unauthorized immigrants are preferred terms. There are no illegal people…
  • Get the real facts and figures regarding economic contributions, tax paying, non-criminal activity of immigrants, go to for more information.
I can do something now:

PRAY using the “I was a stranger…” scripture card found at
BE PRESENT as a US citizen, in court at immigration hearings.  Find out what really goes on and how detainees are treated.
VISIT DETAINEES IN PRISON, for my area that would be the detention center in Tacoma.
LISTEN to and treasure the stories of immigrants you meet.

Thanks New Wine, New Wineskins for taking a risk and featuring immigration.  You are making Multnomah University and my affiliation with it relevant to my community development work in Rockwood.