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Vol. LXIV, No. 24
Wednesday, June 16, 2010
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“Voices of Immigrants” Resound at Dialogue on Immigration

Dilshanie Perera

The breadth of the immigrant experience was highlighted at Sunday’s community-wide dialogue on immigration held at the Suzanne Patterson Center and sponsored by the Princeton Community Democratic Organization (PCDO) and the Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund (LALDEF).

Moderated by LALDEF Board Chair and faculty member in Princeton University’s Department of Sociology Patricia Fernandez-Kelly, the event featured four panelists who spoke about their unique experiences as documented and undocumented individuals.

“We are here to celebrate the voices of immigrants and to look at the issues that emerge — some troubling and some constructive — regarding immigration,” Ms. Fernandez-Kelly said.

Hailing from regions as far flung as East Africa, South Asia, and Central America, the panelists have each endured hardship.

John Nasir grew up in Kashmir, a disputed area between India, Pakistan, and China, and was raised as a Muslim. In 2000, when he was 25 years old, he converted to Christianity, and six years later he faced religious persecution. “Two men came to kill me,” he said, noting that they had murdered his godfather and another friend.

By 2008, contacts with American missionaries opened the possibility of seeking asylum in Denver, Colorado. But when Mr. Nasir arrived at the Newark Airport his entry was denied and his visa was cancelled. Jailed for nine months at the Elizabeth Detention Center, he came into contact with Bill Wakefield of LALDEF and the Nassau Presbyterian Church and was subsequently freed with Mr. Wakefield acting as his legal sponsor.

Mr. Nasir and his wife, who is in India, have a baby due in September. His Indian passport expired while he was detained, and whether or not he would be able to leave and return is pending. In the meantime, he is active in spurring interfaith dialogues and working with peace-building initiatives.

Originally from Honduras, Jose Alcantara emigrated to the United States in 1957 on a student visa. “It’s a big advantage when you have a visa right off the bat,” he acknowledged. Having served in the Air Force, and worked as an “illustrator, graphic artist, and cartographer,” he has been a resident of Princeton since 1975.

Mr. Alcantara’s view is that the current immigration system should be reformed to reduce instances of the abuse of immigrants. “A job should be open to whoever wants it,” he said. Simultaneously, he advocated for those considering entering the United States to obtain visas before doing so, and for those here in an unauthorized fashion to obtain the appropriate documentation.

Marisol Conde-Hernandez arrived in Princeton with her parents when she was 18 months old. Despite the fact that she has lived in the area for 22 years, she remains undocumented, and has endured hardship and uncertainty because of her status. She attends Rutgers University and will graduate summa cum laude with an honors thesis, but is forced to pay out-of-state tuition because of lack of documents. In addition to being a student, she works 70 hours a week in two jobs in order to support herself and pay for school.

“I refuse to buy the claim that we are not contributors to this country,” Ms. Conde-Hernandez said. “My job is to give back to the community.”

The passage of the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act (or DREAM act) would allow her to do just that. Introduced by Congress last year, the act stipulates that individuals who arrived in the U.S. prior to age 16 and who have lived stateside for at least five consecutive years would be eligible for conditional permanent residency status. Graduating from high school and pursuing higher education is another prerequisite.

After spending three years in a refugee camp and being jailed for two years by military forces, Anania Oqubagabreal left Eritrea. Previously separated from his family and made to join the armed forces of Eritrea, Mr. Oqubagabreal later escaped by hiding for two days outdoors while injured. With the assistance of the farmers who found him and cared for him, he managed to make it to the Ethopian border and into a Red Cross camp.

Having arrived in the U.S. as a refugee, Mr. Oqubagabreal hastened to locate his family. At the time his wife and son arrived in March 2009, he had not seen them for eight years.

“These are extraordinary stories,” Ms. Fernandez-Kelly said, noting that they all are about people “looking for opportunities in this country.” She suggested that one problem affecting contemporary discourse on immigration is that “media outlets have framed the discussion in terms of people who abide by the law and those who don’t,” resulting in the automatic criminalization of the undocumented.

According to Ms. Fernandez-Kelly, the current immigration law is “outdated, and completely out of consonance with our history.” She added that “the demand for immigrant labor is much larger than the supply of visas that would allow them to enter the country legally.”

“This country has a history of correcting bad laws,” Ms. Fernandez-Kelly said, emphasizing that “the question of justice must always be above bad laws.” She pointed out that there are many bureaucratic hurdles to jump and “many reasons why people fall out of status.”

Members of the public voiced their views on the subject as well as their personal experiences, with Alyce Bush bringing up the relationship between the immigrant community and the African American community.

Calling immigration a “complicated subject,” Anne Neumann mused about Booker T. Washington’s 1895 essay that urges “looking for labor in the place where you are rather than importing labor.”

Ms. Conde-Hernandez summed up the evening’s event with a call for solidarity. “It is up to you to convince your legislators,” she said. “I cannot vote, but you can.”

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