Welcome and thank you Mr. Flynn

January 21, 2008

It’s obviously nice to not worry about my husband’s immigration status anymore, but frankly I was never very worried about it even when he sans green card. I met a lot of undocumented immigrants as a restaurant manager and have never heard of someone being deported from Milwaukee. On a number of occasions I’ve witnessed that the Milwaukee Police Department appears to have a “don’t ask” policy toward inquiring on an individual’s immigration status, and I’ve personally encouraged my in-laws and undocumented friends to go forward when they have information on criminal matters, or worse, have been victim to a crime. All the officer teams on the south side seem to consist of at least one bilingual officer, and I have never witnessed even an iota of threat regarding one’s immigration status.

Last year my brother-in-law and a friend were on their way into work at the Mexican grocer in the heart of Milwaukee’s immigrant community when two white, presumably American males accosted them and demanded their wallets, with a gun. Thankfully nothing tragic happened, but that evening, back at home, as they told me the story I wanted to know what the police had said. Surprised at the question, my brother-in-law responded that they hadn’t called the police. He stated that the owner of the store did not want “escandalo” (scandal) and had discouraged him from calling, which made me really angry, and I told my brother-in-law that the store owner had no right to prevent an individual from reporting a crime. Beyond that concern, however, my brother-in-law had wondered if the police would “charge” him something for the report and investigation. This assumption was more than a mild shock to my cultural norms, but as I thought about how commonplace it is for Mexican police to demand bribes for any small matter, I realized his train of thought.

After a lot of pushing and me calling the police department to explain the situation, my brother-in-law did talk to the police. Apparently, petty crimes were happening nearly every day outside the store, and when I spoke to the police department they were also surprised that nothing was being reported. I was no longer surprised at that point, and realized that immigrant neighborhoods are indeed an easy target for criminals, as they know the immigrants are too scared to talk to the police. In my mind,the best way to fight this was to get the word out that it was okay to talk to the police. We got the business card of one of the bilingual officers and posted the police non-emergency number on our fridge.

I had a long talk with my relatives about the roles of the police and of immigration, explaining that indeed there was not cooperation unless a felon was found to be undocumented, etc. These days, I wouldn’t say that so quickly, but apparently new Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn plans to keep the MPD police of not inquiring on immigration status the same. I’m sure some people find this problematic, but as reported by UWM’s Frontpage Milwaukee:

“The newly selected chief was asked if he would repeal or continue on with a policy through which Milwaukee officers are ‘prohibited from informing federal immigration officials of the whereabouts or behavior of any suspected illegal immigrants or foreign visitors in some cases.’

‘Seems reasonable to me,’ said Flynn, after being read the details of the policy. ‘What I know is there are 33,000 [ICE] beds, 12 million [undocumented people here]. I want those beds reserved for violent felons.’” 

A few weeks later, speaking in front of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial board, Flynn stated:

“This (immigration) is a demagogue issue. . . . There is a sense out there that there is some simple solution. I think all of you know the following rule of thumb: For every complicated problem, there is a simple solution that’s wrong.”

Thank you Mr. Flynn. I like your style. In my mind, this approach takes the whole picture into account, realizing that it’s impossible to build ties in a neighborhood if you alienate and threaten say, half its residents.

Like I said above, I haven’t witnessed anything, even in the last few months (besides the federally mandated driver’s license changes) that has suggested to me that Milwaukee is becoming a more difficult place for undocumented immigrants to live, but it had crossed my mind several times that Flynn could be ushering in a new, more Orwellian era. I’m so glad to know he’s strongly in favor of the same approach.

I want to know I can call the police to our house without worrying and keep encouraging anyone who is a victim or a witness to be a good resident, by reporting crimes and speaking out against injustice. I want to be confident that I live in a city that is concerned about fighting crime and not preoccupied with reacting to an angry minority who believes it is a heinous crime to seek a better life for one’s family. Yes, I realize there is some level of illegality in entering the U.S. without inspection and working without documentation, but by and large we are talking about expelling millions of hard-working, law-abiding people from our country who just want to work and raise their families and in many cases, contribute to our already diverse and vibrant culture. The Milwaukee police department has plenty of things to worry about without contacting immigration. Driving out the community who has revitalized a once dwindling south side is not the answer.


hope in the winter

January 20, 2008

Despite being the month of my birthday, January is not my favorite. After a snowy early winter, things melted in the last few weeks, to the point that I went to work with no coat one day, and saw damp, green grass peeking out from under the disappearing foot of snow in my yard. I received my seed catalogs – it’s hard not to get excited looking at exotic varieties of peppers and potatoes, dreaming of the days of fresh tomatoes again. My mom gave me some gorgeous flowers for my birthday, which I keep staring at, wishing for spring outside as well. But today the high temperature is in the very low single digits — a good day to stay inside all day long, maybe even turn on that insanely hyped Packer game. Good Wisconsinites know winter drags on through April most years anyway. With the holidays over, the busiest time at my job long gone, and many months until real spring, it’s hard not to become seasonally affected.

Which is why the last few years, I have planned a trip, to keep hope alive, so to speak. Last year I returned from Mexico on Christmas Eve after 10 days with Fermin only to immediately want to leave the country again, to get back to somewhere warm, to escape the long, cold, northern winter. After a few weeks figuring out how I could possibly afford it – financially and vacation-time-wise, I booked us a trip to hot, glorious Acapulco at the end of February. We stayed on the Mexican side of town and enjoyed the sun, the swimming, the flowers, the seafood, walking across the hilly town to see the legendary divers of La Quebrada.

With the new freedoms of a lawful permanent resident, Fermin went to Mexico in November, but it didn’t make sense for me to go along for a short trip when he would be occupied navigating Mexican bureaucracy and looking at pieces of land. Then I was jealous from the day he left all the way until he returned, and knew that by January and into agonizing February I was going to be aching for some time away.

I started up with my thorn tree trolling and kayak-ing, searching for flight prices and considering all the wonderful places neither of us have yet to visit – Guanajuato, Oaxaca, Merida, etc. After finding round-trip tickets from Chicago for $300 (oh, how I love living an hour from O’Hare) I knew we were going somewhere. A week or so later I was working an event with my friend Britta, who owns her own personal chef business and is a world traveler in her own right. She had been talking about Thailand, and I said I couldn’t go because I was planning a trip to Mexico in February. You should go with us, I said. And a few weeks later, that was the plan. I used to dream about bringing my family and some of my closest friends to Mexico. But times change. Most of my closest friends are engaged or married and aren’t able to prioritize international travel. I don’t blame them, it’s just that I’ve prioritized travel over other things for a long time, and it’s great to know someone like Britta, who in some ways feels the same.

After we bought the tickets, the quasi-planning began. Not exactly planning, because in my travel style nothing is worse than set itineraries and schedules, but I love to do trip research. I like to read stories of people’s adventures in discovering different culture, and find it immensely satisfying to arrive in a new place with at least a decent outsider’s understanding, yet still know that every day there will be some sort of discovery. We decided to spend most of our time in Oaxaca — Fermin and I have always wanted to go there, and it’s the indisputable food capital of Mexico. With Britta along, this trip will more than ever be a culinary adventure. We’ll spend a few days with my mother-in-law, visiting and hopefully making tortillas and perhaps mole poblano, then on to Oaxaca where we’ll visit the markets, sample as many new things as possible and hopefully score some impromptu lessons on Oaxacan cuisine.

I have been lucky to make use of my online contacts to get a lot of help with this trip. Through immigrate2us.net I met a woman who is living in Oaxaca while waiting through her I-601 waiver process, and she happens to have a sister we can stay with and another sister who works for an eco-tourism start-up in Oaxaca state. In the meantime I had been sharing information with an acquaintance from Thorn Tree on the immigrant visa process in Ciudad Juarez when he mentioned something I had posted about visiting the Oaxacan coast at the end of our trip. It turns out he actually met his fiancee (now wife actually – as they got their visa successfully) on the Oaxacan coast and has traveled in the area where we plan to spend the last few days of our trip extensively. These two contacts have helped me immensely, but with lodging and transportation. Staying with my friend’s family in Oaxaca is going to help us save money, for sure, but it also allows us the chance to spend time with a Mexican family, to sample their food and learn from their knowledge about the city and hopefully make some new international friends.

In two weeks we’ll be in Libres. I can’t wait.

hating 2007’s most important Texan

January 7, 2008

I’m a little late on this, but last week the Dallas Morning News named ‘the illegal immigrant’ 2007’s Texan of the Year.

“He is at the heart of a great culture war in Texas – and the nation, credited with bringing us prosperity and blamed for abusing our resources. How should we deal with this stranger among us?” – Texan of the Year: The Illegal Immigrant, Dec. 30, 2007

The accompanying editorial, in my humble opinion, is unbiased and rather fair. But keep in mind that small but loud and angry group of Americans whose concept of ‘fair’ regarding undocumented immigration is very severely limited to ‘illegal aliens are treacherous criminals and every last one should be eradicated from good ‘ole America before any further damage is done…’ but, I think for the average person – liberal or moderately conservative on the issue, the editorial would be considered fair. Nevertheless, it resulted in 100s of mostly nasty comments on the News’ Opinion blog and put the blogger in the position to kindly ask his readers to READ THE ARTICLE, not just assume it’s a glorification of undocumented immigration.

In no way does the editorial board defend entering the U.S. without inspection (immigration-law talk for crossing the border) or any other sort of law-breaking. It in fact discusses the wide array of social, political and economic issues which both contribute to undocumented immigration and are also affected by this immigration. The column includes commentary from a wide array of interesting sources – take the liberal Harvard professor who claims the “immigration wave stands as ‘the single most immediate and most serious challenge to America’s traditional identity,'” or the Texas mayor who describes the way he had been demonized for running a so-called “sanctuary city” but was later attacked for participating in a federal deportation program, how crime has decreased since “cracking down” but so has the health of the area’s economy.

An “Ask the Editor” column by editorial writer Rodger Jones defended the choice for the so-called TOY and explained the process toward choosing the so-called TOY:

“The idea to name the Illegal Immigrant had strong support – but nowhere near unanimous support – from the beginning. The arguments were obvious to some of us. Impact. Lasting impact. Nation-changing impact. Political and economic impact. Texas-centric. Omnipresent in daily life. On the lips of teachers, politicians, doctors and nurses, employers, cops, consumers.

This issue is not the invention of a roomful of journalists. It’s right before us, everywhere.”

It’s a lot like Time Magazine naming Vladimir Putin Person of the Year – the designation of Texan of the Year is not meant to be a mark of glory, only of significance. And in that frame of mind, you would think the anti-immigrant crowd would actually welcome this designation. Isn’t it an excuse to discuss their feelings on the issue with the broader public? Isn’t it a chance for discussion of our immigration policies? Isn’t it a chance to talk about what’s wrong with the system? Instead, sadly, there was outcry against the newspaper, including subscribers threatening to cancel their subscriptions and a plethora of childish, poorly spelled comments.

One would hope that the average American, not that informed about the whys and hows of the immigration issue, might learn something, or at least start thinking about immigration in a different way because of this article. Wouldn’t it be nice if it could spark discussion, not hatred and venom? It’s time for a change people…


January 3, 2008

About a week ago I was listening to NPR’s All Things Considered when commentator and economist Russell Roberts made a few remarks about his New Years’ wish that Americans would refrain from believing every piece of alarmist rhetoric spewed by the media, presidential candidates, friends, family, etc.

Amid his cautions against believing the economic sky is falling, he mentioned that immigrants are indeed, not ruining America. We don’t hear that very often, even from a “liberal” media outlet like NPR, and it sure was refreshing. Our country, Roberts went on, is comprised of immigrants — the constant influx of melding cultures, hard-working people and change is what has made us a great nation.

These comments have stuck in my head the last week as I’ve read year-end wrap-ups, struggled to write anything about immigration and listened to campaign coverage from Iowa. But a spark of reason can’t slow the waves of anti-immigrant sentiment. I haven’t written much lately because I’m pretty depressed and cynical about the whole issue.

A LOT of people show up on I2US asking – ‘should I file a petition for my undocumented spouse, or should I wait for the laws to change?’ A year ago, there was tenuous hope, on our forum and others that support the rights of immigrant workers. But these days, just about everyone replies – ‘a change in the laws that will help your spouse??? Keep dreaming – it’s not going to happen this decade.’ Sad? Yes. Cynical? Yes. True? I think so.

Listening to the presidential coverage does not help my outlook. During NPR’s Morning Edition this week, (I should wear a nerdy badge that labels me an NPR junkie, yes, definitely), hosts Renee Montagne and Steve Inskeep have been “traveling” across the southern United States via I-10, interviewing people to find out what issues matter to them, how they feel the nation’s prospects are for 2008 and what they think of the presidential candidates. Yesterday morning I heard this gem of an interview with Cindy Sanders from Sonora, Texas:

When asked what issues mattered to her, Sanders said: “the immigration issue.”
Montagne pressed her to develop that comment.
Sanders: “They make it so hard for us born and raised Americans who are in struggling to get welfare.”
Montagne: “So, you feel you are competing with illegal immigrants…. (for services)?”
Sanders: “Oh, yeah, you are.”
Montaine: “Although that is your experience, there are studies out there that show that illegal immigrants don’t actually use those services.”
Sanders: “Oh, I’m sure there’s some of them that do. You’ve got all these families driving nice cars, but yet they’ve always got food and money in their house. I make too much money for my two kids to get them on Medicaid, so my kids don’t have health insurance right now.”

Of course Ms. Sanders’ opinion is just one person’s opinion, but the purpose of these interviews is to get the pulse of the nation. I realized as I listened that Ms. Sanders hit the new American attitude on the head: immigrants are the ultimate scapegoat — responsible for just about everything wrong with America.

So now, if you don’t qualify for welfare, it must be because undocumented immigrant workers are filling all the welfare rolls! (Okay people without valid social security numbers CANNOT qualify for welfare). If an immigrant has a nice car, it must be because they get welfare to feed their kids and then went and spent all their money on wheels! And how do they get all that money? They got it because Mexican ‘alien’ Juan Garcia walked into a factory that once employed 20 high-paid Americans and as soon as the boss saw Juan, he fired all the Americans and hired Juan and five of his amigos for half the money and no benefits! Juan probably smuggled some drugs while driving drunk across the border as well! Andale! And OMG, terrorists are streaming across the southern border, right? Mexicans are terrorists, right? They must be!

It couldn’t be that immigrants tend to be extraordinarily hard-working and choose to spend their disposable income on a nice car rather than clothes or dinners out. It couldn’t be that undocumented people actually commit LESS crimes on average than U.S. citizens. It couldn’t be that people of different cultures have different priorities, right? It couldn’t be that most people’s problems have to do with themselves, right? And not anyone else? Ultimately, you are responsible for you, and I’m responsible for myself.
I’m just disgusted, and the cynicism and disgust just perpetuates. Lately I feel that even if we get a solid forward-thinking liberal president in a year, we’re still going to have the same loud xenophobes and narrow-minded hawks blaming our problems on others and restricting the freedoms once so important to our country.

It would probably help if I listened to less news and tried to distract myself with spirits and frivolity like good Americans do on New Year!

Ahh… maybe tomorrow.