Welcoming Immigrants in Missouri

Missouri, ranked 41st out of 50 states, is not a prime destination for immigrants. Its foreign-born population makes up only 3.9% of the total state population, a small amount compared to Illinois’s 13.9%, and yet they have an overwhelmingly positive effect on the state’s economy. If Missouri removed its unauthorized immigrant population, we would lose $2.3 billion in economic activity. Recognizing their huge economic impact, the city of St Louis has started a welcoming campaign to increase the area’s immigrant population, thus bolstering economic growth.

While the city and federal government are viewing immigration from an economic perspective, it is crucial to remember that each statistic represents a personal story. Stories of heartache and separation from friends and family, stories of struggle and adaptation to new cultures and environments. Stories of human beings trying to create a better future for themselves and their children. We could choose to reject immigrants, and push them away through legislation that punishes their legal status, or we could welcome them by creating policies that are inclusive, not exclusive of immigrant families, and correct the anti-immigrant rhetoric used in the legislature.

IFCLA, in partnership with the Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates (MIRA), is working to promote the later with state legislators in Jefferson City, MO. On March 6th people from across Missouri will be meeting with their representatives to speak about four specific legislation affecting immigrants. We will be asking our representatives to support the SB 203, a bill enacted by Sen. Chappelle-Nadal to repeal Missouri’s anti-immigrant statute originally passed in 2008. This statute has been used to deny bail to ‘suspected’ undocumented immigrants, foster fear and mistrust between immigrant communities and police authorities, and prohibit undocumented students from attending local colleges and universities. In relation to education, we will also be urging support for SB 209, introduced by Sen. Justus that would grant in-state tuition to immigrants who graduated from a Missouri high school! Just like their peers, these students and their families reside and pay taxes in Missouri, and they deserve equal treatment and access to higher education.

We will ask legislators to oppose HB 275, a legislation requiring every employer in Missouri to register and use E-verify, an expensive and inaccurate program used to determine the legal status of a potential employee. The Social Security Administration estimates that 3.6 million Americans are misclassified by the e-verify database, particularly women whose last names have changed due to marriage or divorce, and documented, work-authorized foreign-born individuals. We’ll also ask legislators to oppose SB 267, a legislation that bans judicial consideration of any body of law outside of the United States. This has the potential to disrupt contracts based on foreign and religious laws, meaning contracts such as marriage, divorce, child custody agreements, and others, could be voided in a Missouri court. This legislation is unnecessary and harmful to all immigrants living in Missouri.

To make Missouri welcoming to immigrants, we need to do more than stop harmful acts, we need to create laws that are beneficial and fair to all persons living within the state, and create communities that welcomes the stranger. If you are interested in speaking with your representative on these important issues, please join IFCLA and MIRA on March 6th in Jefferson City.  You can register here and find more information at http://www.mira-mo.org/wordpress/.    

A View of the Immigration Reform Debate from the Nation’s Capital

In his first campaign for Presidency in 2008, current re-elected President Barack Obama promised a plan for immigration reform in his first year of office. This promise, like many made by past and present elected officials, was not fulfilled during his first term. The President was re-elected this past November and immigration reform was again part of his platform. While some might be discouraged by the lack of action on this key policy issue by the President and Congress during the past four years, I am cautiously optimistic. Living and working in Washington, DC allows me a unique perspective into this ongoing policy debate, and this only reinforces my optimism.

The foundation for true and comprehensive immigration reform was laid in November of 2012. Barack Obama defeated the challenger, Mitt Romney, on the back of a diverse coalition of supporters. The topic of “jobs and the economy” dominated the airwaves during press conferences, rallies, and debates at local, state, and federal levels throughout the election season. While immigration is often thought of as its own area of policy, the simple truth is that it fits into many different policy discussions. In my opinion and from what I have observed around Washington, DC, the immigration debate is a key part of the larger discussion of economic policy. A common refrain among politicians of varying ideologies, in the media and around town, is that the American economy is still in a slow growth pattern and needs to be kick started. Truly comprehensive immigration reform could provide some of that energy, and both of the United States’ main political parties are aiming to harness this potential.

The presidential election was decided by narrow margins of victories in swing states and Obama’s overwhelming support among certain demographics, including a significant margin of votes amongst Hispanic voters. Exit polls estimated Hispanics voted 71% to 27% in favor of Obama. Clearly, a key part of Obama’s coalition was Hispanic communities across the country, and they made a significant difference in some of the swing states like Colorado and Virginia. While the priorities of the Hispanic community often mirror those of all Americans – jobs and the economy, education, and healthcare – polling consistently shows that the Hispanic communities consider immigration reform a personal issue. By giving a second chance and reelecting a president who did not deliver on a past promise to enact immigration reform, this demographic now expects to have one of its main policy issues addressed and will most definitely hold him and other elected officials accountable.

Furthermore, past US Presidents have often waited until their second term, if they were so lucky, to tackle immigration reform. That time is now upon President Obama and us. In their second term, Presidents often look to cement their legacies. Supporting and signing a bill that truly reforms the United States’ immigration system would be quite the feather in President Obama’s cap.

The election results in November also taught the man Obama defeated—Mitt Romney, his party, and his supporters—a valuable lesson: they need to reexamine their current approach or listen to those in their own contingent who have been advocating for immigration reform over the past few years. The GOP, its elected officials and its strategists are not naive enough to believe that supporting immigration reform will be a cure-all for their declining support among the Hispanic communities and other minority communities in the recent years. They also recognize that the rhetoric and tone with which they approach key issues can greatly be improved.

Some notable conservatives, like rising GOP star Senator Marco Rubio, are leading the charge to make the Republican Party the “pro-legal immigration party” instead of the “anti-illegal immigration party.” This re-branding is a small part of a concerted effort to frame the immigration discussion within the ongoing debate over economic policy. Conservatives are taking aim at the bureaucratic mess that is the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, looking to improve border security, and boost economic growth. The results of the presidential and senate races are strong motivation for those who have finally realized that if current electoral trends persist they will continue to lose influence at the national level. This has led to increased bipartisan efforts on many policy issues, including a total package proposal for immigration reform, and thus should produce a very healthy debate.

Eight Senators, including Democrats and Republicans, put forth a plan from which they will construct a package of legislation. Members of the US House of Representatives are also working together on their own proposal. President Obama has laid out his vision for reforming our immigration system, but the White House will not introduce its own legislation at this time. The President is hoping that the US Congress can agree upon legislation. This is a promising sign in the long process of legislative reform, but there are still other reasons to remain optimistic. For the first time we are seeing past adversaries come together to bridge the gaps that have stopped past legislation like the DREAM Act from passing. For example, business leaders are working together – the US Chamber of Commerce and labor unions are starting to collaborate to bridge certain gaps. Religious leaders, including the Christian Right, are also entering the debate. The DREAMers have made their voice heard and will be part of the ongoing debate. Educators, community leaders, and employers are also offering their two cents. There is space for all of those who want their voices heard at the table and all are optimistic that they can complete this heavy lift.

We will see many different plans emerge over the coming months, and I believe this to be a positive thing. It shows that immigration reform is being taken seriously. The Hispanic voting community, called a “sleeping giant” for the past couple of election cycles, has woken up and so have other immigrant communities. These communities and other activists have realized they must do more than just cast a ballot. They must hold elected officials accountable. Over the past few years we have seen the impact that grassroots movements can have on legislation proposed by both sides of the aisle.

Immigration reform is an overarching economic policy issue that also has some very important social and human rights implications. This is bringing Americans of all sorts to the bargaining table. Friends, the debate is occurring across the country and has finally arrived in the legislative center, the nation’s capital. Elected officials are taking this opportunity to show leadership, but they need our help. We have a chance to correct past errors, reform stove-piped bureaucracy, bring the undocumented out of the shadows, welcome the world’s best and brightest with open arms to create a brighter future for this country, our children, and those who wish to come live in and contribute to a more prosperous United States. The time is now, and the legislators in Washington, DC are very much aware of this unique opportunity.

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Contributed by Max Ivan Rava, an affiliate of the Inter-Faith Committee on Latin America, Latin Americanist, and policy analyst.

Life in Zone 3: A Reflection on Guatemala

I am coming up on almost one month at Safe Passage. It doesn’t feel like it’s been that long; there is so much I’m still learning. But I have at least developed a general sense of my environment.

I work in Guatemala City, but I live in Antigua, about a 40-minute drive from the capitol. Antigua is smaller, safer, and more foreigner-friendly than the City. Its cobblestone streets are lined with colorfully painted one- to two-story buildings, along with ruins galore; the vacant remains of 17th-ish century churches speckle the map. The tiny, one-block park is the center of town, the hub of its charm. The Cerro de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross) marks the north, and Volcano Agua dominates the skyline to the south. Every afternoon, the market on the west side booms with cheap produce. Avocados grow rampant here, and native Antiguans are known as “Panzaverdes” or “Green-bellies” for their avocado-heavy diets.

Antigua attracts heaps of international ex-pats, as well as wealthy Guatemala City residents, who saturate the streets on weekends. There are spas, language schools, and gourmet restaurants. I’ve seen menu items here I never dreamed would have reached Central America – gnocchi, crepes, bagels and lox, a bottomless mimosa brunch?? Even in St. Louis those are hard to come by. Thank you, tourism industry.

By contrast, I spend most of my days in Guatemala City’s Zone 3, a place adamantly avoided by tourists and Guatemalans alike. The primary features of Zone 3 are the City Cemetery and the Basurero (Garbage Dump). Before I get off the bus, I can usually smell it – the putrid scent of rotting… everything. Vultures swoop overhead. Above dirt-caked asphalt, dusty tennis shoes hang from electric lines by the dozens. Makeshift tin and/or grey concrete homes fill every square foot available.

The communities surrounding the dump arose during Guatemala’s Civil War. Their story echoes many around the world: Circa the 1970’s and 80’s, state military and guerrilla forces pursued each other in a battle for control of territory/resources. Rural communities got swept up in the violence. People witnessed violent atrocities. They saw their innocent neighbors, friends, family members murdered. Tortured. Massacred. People ran. They ran to the capitol, and they survived, settling in the least desirable sections of the city.

In Guatemala City’s garbage dump, the children and grandchildren of the war’s internal refugees continue to fight for survival. Many make a living digging, waste-deep, through the trash, salvaging and re-selling anything of value that they can find. Many more operate as middle men, buying salvaged materials from the dump and refurbishing them for sale to manufacturers.

I often reflect on the terrible synchronicity of it all. The people whom those in power considered trash now live in trash. In the land society has designated to bury its dead, reside those who are dead to society. And in the ravines of this land, day after day, these people bury themselves in waste and decay, in order to live on that which has been left for dead, forgotten. As they seem to be.

Our mission at Safe Passage is to break the cycle of working in the dump, to empower our students to move UP. If a young person achieves a high enough level of education, s/he may get hired in a formal capacity. If the mothers of our students can learn a new trade through our social entrepreneurship programs, they can make more money and save for their families in ways that were never before possible. If the fathers can advance their own education in adult literacy classes, perhaps they can use what they’ve learned to take on a new level of employment. The smallest increments of progress make an indefinable difference, a truth I discovered early on.

On my first day in Zone 3, I acted as classroom assistant in our preschool, where the five-year-olds were practicing writing their names. Each child was given a paper with his or her name at the top and told to write it fifteen times. One little boy, concentrating so hard that he poked several holes in the paper, got to fifteen and asked to write more. He practiced writing his name until well after all his peers had moved on to other distractions (as five-year-olds do), and each time he finished the name, he held the paper up to show me. I would say, yes, perfect, that’s very good, and he would return to the page to repeat it. A kid that diligent, even so young, already has the mindset to go way beyond the conditions in which he’s living. We are here to give him the tools he needs to do so.

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Contributed by Andrea Bachmann, an affiliate of the Inter-Faith Committee on Latin America.  For more information on Safe Passage, please visit http://www.safepassage.org