Rick Rozet’s High Street Salon took on one of the most contentious political issues of the day on Friday night — immigration — offering presentations from a local immigration attorney, three local activists and an undocumented immigrant who shared her experiences of crossing the border and her life in Sonoma County.
The panel sought to clarify immigration issues, expose immigration myths, provide eyewitness accounts of the humanitarian crisis at the border and propose local citizen actions.
“The world is on the move,” warned local activist Margaret Howe, who cited the massive increase of displaced people worldwide (currently 70.8 million), who are refugees, asylum seekers or immigrants.
“We are living in a new era of rethinking borders. It’s time to open the conversation: What do borders mean today?” she said.
An immigration attorney’s view of immigration law
Immigration attorney and Sebastopol resident Christopher Kerosky acknowledged the standing-room-only crowd and said the turnout was proof of the public’s interest in the immigration conversation.
“This is democracy!” he affirmed.
Kerosky has practiced immigration law for over 30 years and is a member of the Sonoma County Human Rights Commission. His presentation focused on the biases in immigration law and the mythology that has developed around the current refugee situation. He wanted to debunk the following myths:
Myth: Our borders are porous, and immigrants enter the U.S. at will.
According to Kerosky, “Today, almost everyone who tries to get into the U.S. illegally is caught. There has been a net decrease in illegal immigration from Mexico over the last 10 years.”
He said the current “mania” about an invasion from Central America and Mexico falls short of the truth, and the numbers trying to cross illegally are about half what they were 10 years ago.
“The apprehensions at the border have dropped from 1.6 million in 2000 to 300,000 in 2017. They’ve gone up a little bit recently because of the crisis in Central America, but it’s still about half of what it was in 2000.”
Kerosky said there was a time in recent memory where the border with Mexico was relatively porous, and the border patrol mostly looked the other way.
Citing a Republican presidential-candidate debate between Ronald Reagan and Georg H.W. Bush in 1980, Kerosky said there was a time when our government publicly recognized the value of the immigrant workforce to our economy, and welcomed it.
In that debate Bush said, “These are good people, strong people.” Reagan said, “Rather than putting up a fence, why don’t we … make it possible for them to come here legally …”
Now, Kerosky said, the government is pointing to these same people who have been living and working in the U.S. for 15 to 35 years, who arrived in a more lenient era, saying they are law breakers who should return to where they came from.
Myth: Undocumented immigrants could come a legal way, but choose to come here illegally.
According to Kerosky, the main method of obtaining a green card is through family — via marriage or sponsorship from parents or siblings. The wait for a green card via family sponsorship is 23 years for Mexicans, Kerosky said, which is twice as long as the wait is for Europeans. Kerosky called this an example of “institutional racism,” though he said it came from a government policy of “treating all countries the same” — the catch being that countries with more people seeking to enter the United States have longer wait times.
In addition, he said, it is “totally impossible” to get employment-based work permits for Mexicans or Central Americans, even though there are plenty of employers in Sonoma County who’d like to sponsor their undocumented employees.
“I hear from them all the time,” he said. “All those people you see working in the fields — even if a winery wanted to get green cards for them, they couldn’t.”
Kerosky also pointed to the Permanent Bar law of 1997, which he called “the most heinous law in my opinion because it applies 90 to 99% to Mexicans.”
The Permanent Bar rule says that if you’ve lived in the U.S. undocumented for more than one year, and then leave and come back, you are barred forever from receiving a green card.
“I see families in this situation every day in my office,” he said, “while other groups, like the Irish, are allowed to come and go as they please.”
“Discrimination against those crossing our southern border is built into the immigration system,” Kerosky said.
Myth: Undocumented immigrants are more responsible for crimes than those born here.
The statistics show the opposite is true, Kerosky said. He considers this myth to be a slander of the Mexican people by the current administration.
Numerous studies over the years have shown that immigrants, including the illegal ones, are less likely to commit crimes than native-born citizens in the United States. He didn’t mention that those same studies find that undocumented immigrants commit crimes at roughly twice the rate of legal immigrants, but that’s not surprising given the extensive screening legal immigrants go through.
Even studies from the Cato Institute have found there were 50% fewer criminal convictions of illegal immigrants than of native-born Americans.
Myth: Undocumented immigrants receive a lot of public benefits but don’t pay taxes.
“Actually, the truth is just the opposite,” Kerosky said. Although California recently granted the undocumented some limited access to health care, “Until recently and for the rest of the country, no Obamacare, no welfare, no food stamps, nothing. Undocumented immigrants are not eligible for that kind of public aid.”
Their children can attend public school, but with that exception, undocumented immigrants actually pay into a public system (including Social Security) they will never have access to.
Witnesses to a humanitarian crisis
Howe and her husband Gary Pace, who live in Sebastopol, traveled to El Paso, Texas, in June to help run a migrant shelter for Annunciation House. They volunteered for one week, at a time when the organization was struggling to add enough new shelters to keep up with the flood of migrants.
“It was a massive flow of people,” Howe recalled. “Thousands of people, fleeing economic situations and crime, crossed the border legally to claim asylum.”
She said that those who were “dumped” on the shelter doorstep by border control had already received clearance to connect with their family sponsors. The families were released from detention with only the clothes on their backs; children were sick and everyone was stressed from the ordeal, she said.
Pace, a doctor who speaks Spanish, processed intakes for people who had been crowded into holding cells for one to two weeks. Howe greeted the new arrivals with a hug and offered a few things that had been denied at border detention: regular meals, soap, a shower and a fresh change of clothes.
They placed phone calls to alert family sponsors of arrivals, instructed the sponsors to arrange transportation from the shelter, delivered the travelers to their mode of transportation and provided them with some travel food.
Pace cautioned potential volunteers that border areas and refugee shelters have strict rules. Those wanting to help should not just show up expecting to take part. Procedures and locations can change rapidly. According to Pace, because of a recent change in government policy, migrants and asylum seekers are now being held on the Mexican-side of the border, in Juarez and further south in Matamoros. Until that changes, most of the shelters they volunteered at in El Paso are empty and have been closed.
An undocumented life in Sonoma County
Irma is the undocumented mother of two children who are American citizens. She has lived and worked in California for 20 years, but continues to struggle with labels like “alien” and “illegal,” as well as a language barrier that often requires her children to translate for her.
She pointed out that most in the audience were probably born in the U.S., but asked with a smile, “Who was behind you? All of us are immigrants. And if you are not an alien, I am not an alien.”
Her life story is not an uncommon one. She had hoped to become a teacher, but was never able to complete her studies. As the youngest of 10 children, she had the cultural responsibility of supporting her parents and that required finding work across the U.S. border. Her immigration journey intersected with strangers who were kind and helpful, and others who were not.
Irma is affiliated with the Immigrant Defense Task Force of the North Bay Organizing Project and is a leader with the North Bay Rapid Response Network.
At the time of the 2017 fires, she learned that her children could receive emergency and health services during the evacuation period but she could not. The firestorm did not distinguish between citizens and non-citizens, yet fire relief was available to some and not to others, she said. The Immigrant Defense Task Force is working to change that.
A practiced political fighter
Linda Evans, of the Immigrant Defense Project and the North Bay Organizing Project, said she was shocked by the inequities of the Sonoma County Emergency Response System in the aftermath of the 2017 fires, noting (among other things) a complete lack of translated signs and forms at the emergency shelters and an absence of medical interpreters for Spanish speakers with medical emergencies. She described the situation as “abominable” for non-English speakers. She has since provided leadership for the development of a multi-lingual Sonoma County Community Action Plan for Disaster Response.
Evans suggested these actions for those who want to support social justice for the undocumented, but don’t know where to begin:
- Learn Spanish.
- Teach English with the Sonoma County Library Adult Literacy Program.
- Treat Spanish speakers with respect.
- Support rent control and affordable housing measures.
- Support divesting county funds from companies that run immigration detention centers.
Songs in the night
The salon was as heartfelt as it was informational, and in the end, singer Kym Trippsmith was moved to offer a song for the Mexican women who had shared their stories and beautiful languages with the group. She sang the Oaxacan folk song “Canción Mixteca,” which begins with the lament “How far I am from the land where I was born.”
“The help we give is such a drop in the bucket,” said Howe, “but it is so helpful to witness a situation firsthand, to get a better sense of things. We went to El Paso for everyone who could not go. We brought love and (fundraised) money to support people who needed it, and we returned to tell the story. Our volunteerism is linked to acquiring a better understanding.”