Tag Archive | "immigrants"

Unofficial American: A Mexican Immigrant in the Bronx

“How can I help you?” asked Israel Sanchez, 20, at Ritchie Torres’ City Council office in the Bronx. He had a calm presence and professional tone, wore a button-down checkered shirt, and spoke with no accent. He was caught at the reception desk with no reference files in front of him but was still able to explain in detail the status of Latino immigrants in the neighborhood. He gave all reference contacts, including email addresses, accurately from memory.

It’s a topic Sanchez knows well. His family is not only part of the immigrant community in Fordham but among the most vulnerable.

“My parents and I live off the book. We pay taxes but the country doesn’t recognize us as legal residents,” he said. “On one hand, you love this country, but on the other, your life is really difficult.”

Meanwhile, a Latino family of ten crowded into the city council office, taking over the reception area that only tightly fits five chairs. Three adults and a flock of children, whose ages varied from toddler to early teen, all spoke Spanish to each other. The woman with the youngest on her lap shook her head with an awkward smile when she was asked if she spoke English. They needed Sanchez to help them communicate.

“People think things in elections won’t affect your lives. But it’s because of what Obama did, I was able to be here and do what I do,” he said, referring to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – a presidential executive action that President Trump would rescind and President Clinton would defend. The Sanchez family, who cannot vote in the elections, hope the voters will make the right choice for them.

Protection against Deportation

Sanchez was brought to the United States from Mexico when he was two years old. His parents took him to climb over thorny fences at the Mexico-California border, and flew to New York. He qualifies for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the executive action initiated by President Obama in June 2012. The action has temporarily protected more than 700,000 immigrants from deportation, 66.6 percent of whom are Mexicans. These immigrants, who are eligible for the executive action and are called the Dreamers, were brought to the United States as children and have made the country their home. Although the executive action does not offer a legal path to citizenship, the Dreamers approved are given temporary work permits.

Immediately after the policy announcement by President Obama, Sanchez applied for the executive action, eager to be able to work legally. He researched the application process, gathered all the legal documents, and submitted the application himself.

Sanchez is temporarily relieved that there is finally a policy that protects immigrants without legal permission like him. “I guess I would be more concerned to meet you if I’m not protected by DACA,” Sanchez said. “The concern is always at the back of our heads.”

His concern does not come from nowhere. The Obama administration has deported more immigrants than any previous president, and the number has been steadily increasing year by year. Although New York City is not among the cities with the top number of deportations, Sanchez and his family are still at risk every day. He deliberately avoids any unlawful activity – things that would be destructive but less devastating for American citizens to be caught doing, such as possession marijuana or working at an illegal business. His uncle’s experience taught the family a lesson.

Hoping to work and earn his living, Sanchez’s uncle landed a job at a company that manufactured counterfeit Nike shoes, where many of the workers were undocumented. Later, the company was reported to the police and had to shut down. Sanchez’s uncle was arrested, and his status was exposed, along with the other immigrant workers who did not have work permit. As a result, he was deported and sent back to Mexico in 2012, after living 20 years in the United States.

 

The Identity

Although Sanchez’s parents have always told him to be extra careful, he was on TV once with Julissa Arce, an author and advocate for Mexican immigrants. In facing the topic, Sanchez never backs down, and his spine is always straight. After Sanchez received protection against deportation, he has become more active in speaking for immigrants like him. Margaret Calmer, Sanchez’s girlfriend since high school, recalled that their high school friends who used to joke about him being Mexican respected him more after knowing the hardships he has faced.

Without a second of hesitation, Sanchez identifies himself as an American. He enjoys Mexican food and music, but since his first memory, he has never stepped out of the country. He’s had an American education and upholds American values like independence and protection for human rights. He wants a career in government to make better policies for immigrants like him.

In order to achieve his goal, Sanchez interned at the city council office while he was a full-time college student and working at Staples for tuitions and expense. “He always works extra hard to prove that he deserves to be here,” Calmer said.

But he becomes frustrated when his identity clashes with how other people see him. “I think I’m an American, but it’s difficult to claim, since I’m not a citizen,” said Sanchez. He finds many people address him first in Spanish. He was once stopped on his way to Boston because his truck had a headlight out, but the police officers asked if he spoke English and searched his truck for drugs for half an hour. After private middle school, he was accepted to a private boarding high school in Virginia, but this dream school revoked the admission decision after the family visited the campus. The school told him that the revocation was a result of his legal status, but he speculated the real reason being that other students’ parents did not like his Mexican origin.

“I was the only Mexican kid. It was very difficult for people like me to go to a school with bunch of rich kids. You kinda feel you are out of the place” Sanchez said. “You kinda expected things like this to happen, but you didn’t think it would actually happen.”

The school admission office, on the other hand, stated that the school would verify the legal status of any applicant. The director of admission did not recall any incident of revocation of admission offer since 2006.

Sanchez’s road to the American Dream demands more efforts than his American peers. He says his Mexican parents hardly know how American society works, and, along with his two younger brothers, rely heavily on him to navigate their lives. Sanchez in many ways has become the third parent of the family. From credit cards to car insurance to college applications and internships, Sanchez has learned it all by himself.

“I have to explain little things like internships to my parents. Sometimes it’s frustrating,” he said.

 

Unseen Future

Because Sanchez’s temporary status comes from a presidential executive action, the next president, either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, could revoke the policy. People like Sanchez would no longer be able to work legally and would not be protected from deportations. It’s his worst nightmare.

He is afraid that the new president will drop the policy, and the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service will report him to law enforcement units for deportations. “They know me now. They know I’m here,” he said.

Sanchez is graduating from Baruch College in two years. He has two scholarships that cover all his tuition, putting no financial burden on his family. But his political commitment to make immigrants’ lives better would be more promising if he were born in the country and had a U.S. passport.

“He’s just normal, like the rest of us. He jokes around and he enjoys his life. But until something changes, there’s always going to be legal status hanging over his mind preventing him from living an entirely normal life,” Calmer said. “All he wants is a normal life.”

“I can never be the President. That’s one thing,” half-joked Sanchez. But whoever does become president can determine whether he can become officially American.

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Obama the Favorite in this Bronx Barbershop

Ghanaian immigrants watching Tuesday’s presidential debate in a Bronx barbershop concluded that Obama deserves another term. (SELASE KOVE-SEYRAM/ The Bronx Ink)

Seated between two Hispanic women on the Number 4 train heading to the Bronx, a middle-aged looking African woman talked on her cellphone in a language that was a world away from her immediate surroundings.

The woman was speaking Twi, a language that is common in the West African countries of Ghana and Ivory Coast. “As for today, Obama needs to pull up,” she said. After a pause, she continued, “If the other man wins, he’s going to put a tag reading ‘For Sale’ on all of us.” Her reference to the second 2012 presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney was clear. The debate would be live in less than 15 minutes.

An estimated 14,769 Ghanaians live in the Bronx, the single largest group from an African country in the borough. A recent report from the American Community survey shows that Africans are the second largest immigrant group in the Bronx out of six continents. And even though they are more than 5,000 miles away from their homeland and many can’t vote here, they are deeply engaged in the current election.

Inside a large barbershop on Walton Avenue in the Bronx Tuesday night, over a dozen men watched the live Presidential debate amidst cheers and catcalls. Aged  29 to 48 years old, they all identify themselves as Ghanaian immigrants. They said they were united in the view that health care, immigration and foreign policy are the issues they are most concerned about and they prefer Obama to Romney.

Awudu Issu, 36, was one of the men. Looking calm in his green sweatshirt, he seemed removed from the discussion until the debate ended. When he finally spoke, it was with careful deliberation. His views of the two candidates are influenced by his own experiences. “I don’t support Obama because he is black,” he said.  “He is the U.S. President and I’m supporting him objectively.”

Issu arrived in this country in June, 2011, on a Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, which gives permanent residence visas to persons who meet eligibility requirements set by the State Department. He now holds a green card and can access free medical care. A graduate of a technical university in Ghana, Issu works as a shop attendant in a Goodwill store in the Bronx. “I came to America because there are opportunities here for immigrants,” he said. “Obama is consistent with his message for people like us, but Romney is not.” He cited Mitt Romney’s response to Arizona gun control laws raised in the debate as an example.

Issu worried that a Republican victory might disturb his plans of enrolling in an American university after making enough money from his current job because he said, “Republicans have more foreign policies which do not favor immigrants.”

The owner of the barbershop, Kwame Agbo, 38, agreed. “We need somebody who can do the job and Romney does not favor immigrants in his statements,” Agbo said. Though a Ghanaian, he currently holds American citizenship after living here for the past 16 years. A registered Democrat, he said he is familiar with what many new immigrants go through. “It is not good to see people getting deported while trying to work on their immigration documents,” he said. He thinks Romney might do that.

“I currently get a single check, and I have five kids,” says Gibrin Mohammed, 42. “Obamacare is something that would also help me, but Romney does not like it. I will go for Obama.” Like Agbo, Mohammed is also a Ghanaian immigrant who has been living in the United States for 16 years. He currently works as an undercover security officer in a Polo Ralph Lauren store.

The barbershop punditry is a world away from what is happening in Ghana, where elections will be held in early December. The Ghanaians see a stark contrast with the electoral process in their homeland. In Ghana, a plan by a think tank to engage the presidential candidates in a debate has been postponed many times. The current series of debates is a chance to see American democracy in action. Kofi Addison, 29-year old assistant to Agbo said, “We are here, so this is home. When we go back to Ghana, we would be interested in that too.” Addison has been living in the Bronx for nine years and is now a registered Democrat.

As the second debate ends, the mood in the barbershop was one of excitement. Addison turned to the other viewers and communicated in Hausa, a major West African dialect. He later translated: “I like Obama, because he cares for the middle class. In America, that’s how people survive.”

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Yemenis in South Bronx can’t forget the turmoil they left behind

“Papa, take me with you,” Abu Hamad recalled his five-year-old son pleading with him on the phone from Sana’a last Oct. 10. The Hunts Point shopkeeper’s half smile could not hide the worry in his dark round eyes. His three young children and wife are still living in the capital of Yemen, he said. And not even his American citizenship could help them out of the mountain city that is reeling from an increasingly violent civil uprising.

On Sept. 24, Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s president for the past 33 years, returned to his homeland after a brief medical exile in neighboring Saudi Arabia. He was forced out of the country after an assassination attempt. The departure raised hopes for reform in the Arabian Peninsula nation of 24 million people. But his abrupt return has sparked fresh violence, which has already claimed close to 2,500 causalities since February. On Oct. 16, 18 more people were killed and 30 others were wounded in clashes between Saleh’s troops and his rivals, according to news reports from the region.

It was mid-afternoon Monday in South Bronx. Save for the periodic chugging overhead of the No. 2 train and the occasional ringing of the cash register, it was quiet inside the 37-year-old cellphone dealer’s shop. But Abu Hamad’s restrained outrage was bubbling up time and time again. Two hours earlier, he was on the phone with his family and he learned that the neighborhood where they live is only getting an hour of electricity every day. It was especially upsetting because they live less than five minutes away from Saleh’s presidential palace, Abu Hamad said.

“What kind of life is that?” said Abu Hamad. “It’s a shame. We need to change the President.”

For now, Abu Hamad remains helpless. It has been four years since his last visit to Sana’a. Months ago, he had to meet secretly with his family in Egypt. But with their immigration documents pending and the U.S. embassy in Yemen shuttered, he could not fly them back to America.

Abdul Karim, former president of the Yemeni Immigrant Association in New York, warned that the situation in Yemen could get worse. The 52-year-old South Bronx businessman said Saleh cannot be trusted despite his pledge to resign before the next presidential election in 2013.

“President Saleh has been known to be a big liar,” said Karim, a Columbia University graduate and member of a lobby group asking for the U.S. government to pressure Saleh to resign. “That’s his tactics for the past 33 years. He’s been governing on such a premise. That’s basically his foundation for ruling the country.”

Karim, who has an international affairs degree from Columbia, said Saleh’s cooperation in hunting down top Al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki and other suspected terrorists within Yemen, has complicated the U.S. government’s effort to force him out of office. The U.S.-born Awlaki and another American, Samir Khan, were killed on Sept. 30, just six days after Saleh’s return to Yemen. Awlaki’s son Abdulrahman was also killed Oct. 14.

“The U.S. has been kind of looking the other way as long as it serves the American interest in eliminating radical elements,” said Karim, noting that many innocent civilians have also been killed. The former legislative candidate in Yemen’s highland city of Ta’izz said the U.S. has “no leverage” in its diplomatic run-in with Saleh.

Still, Karim said even if Saleh stays in power, his government is already “totally crippled.” “He can’t rule. It might turn to be ugly,” he said.

At this Yemeni-owned Hunts Point deli shop, talk of President Saleh's ouster is framed on the condition that it is done in an election. (TED REGENCIA/The Bronx Ink)

Aqel Allahabi, 22, manager and part owner of the Hunts Point Deli,  said he shares the sentiments of Karim and Abu Hamad. But he is not in favor of an armed rebellion against Saleh.

“If the people don’t like him, why did they vote for him?” Allahabi said, referring to the 2006 presidential election, when Saleh received more than three quarters of the vote. He said any change of leadership should be done in a “democratic way.”

Standing outside the door of Clinton Deli along East Tremont Avenue one weekday afternoon, Antar Al-Suhaidi said he could not be bothered by the political and armed conflict in his country of birth, which he left when he was only 14.

“It’s a deadlock,” said Al-Suhaidi. “We know nothing will change, so we stick to the main reason for our immigration, doing business here.”

The 20-year-old deli cashier said he works 12 to 13 hours a day, mostly seven days a week. “I work hard now, to enjoy a better life later in my home town,” said Al-Suhaidi, a native of Ibb in southwest Yemen. At the end of the day, he was too overworked to even think about politics, he said.

Abdul Karim said it is not that New York City’s Yemeni community, many of them in the grocery and deli business, are apathetic to their home country’s situation. But many are just caught up trying to survive and deal with their lives as new American immigrants.

“Life is very consuming here in America,” Karim said. “But are they aware of what’s going on in Yemen? Yes, they are aware of what’s going on.”

Back at the cell phone shop, Abu Hamad said his primary concern is the safety of his family. Abu Hamad, who came to the United States at 17, said he wants his children to enjoy what he went through when he first arrived in New York.

“I love it here,” Abu Hamad said. “When I am here, I’m in heaven. So if there’s a way, I would like them to have a good life, have a good education and to eat healthy.”

As he talked about reuniting with his family, Abu Hamad cocked a worried smile showing his perfectly aligned teeth, his tall and lanky frame sagging as if he was carrying the weight of the world. “God knows when that’s going to happen.”

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Advocates to Obama: Keep your promise

Around 400 concerned Bronx residents, politicians, and clergy marched down 159th Street and the Grand Concourse on Sunday imploring President Barack Obama to finally sign an executive order reforming America’s immigration laws.

It was an election promise the president failed to keep, the activists said. “Before he became President he promised us he will fix the problem with our immigration system in one year,” said Joel Bauza, pastor at Calvary Church in the Bronx and one of the organizers. “Three years later, we’re still waiting for him.”

Protesters said they became alarmed last week when the federal court in Alabama upheld a strict law requiring police and public school officials to verify the immigration status of detainees and students.

“The idea that just because you are brown skinned, you will be asked to show immigration papers is ridiculous and wrong,” said Bauza, from his perch in the back of an old pickup truck, where he was leading the marchers in chants. “They’re punishing all immigrants for the wrongdoing of a few.”

New York has approximately 625,000 undocumented immigrants, the fourth largest population in the nation, according to the Pew Hispanic center, a nonpartisan research organization. Half of the city’s undocumented residents live in the Bronx.

New York State Sen. Ruben Diaz, Sr., who called the March for Dignity of Immigrants, walked in front of the demonstrators arms linked with elected officials and ministers from the Hispanic clergy organization. The protesters chanted, “Yes we can, no more deportation, Obama, keep your promise, and no more separating families.”

The rally showed a growing disillusionment from the president’s key supporters in the last election. In 2008, an overwhelming 89 percent of Bronx voters cast their ballot for Obama. Sen. Diaz, Sr. warned that could change in 2012.

Others were more blunt. If the president doesn’t sign an immigration reform bill, he’s going to have to leave in 2012 said Dr. Hector Chiesa, a senior pastor at the Church of God on Third Avenue.

A contentious debate over immigration rages on the campaign trail among Republican contenders. Activists in the Bronx said their concern is bigger than who wins the next election.

“The government that is for the people will remain, it doesn’t matter the party line,” said Bauza. “Everybody is trying to make immigration into a Republican, Democratic, liberal or conservative movement, what happened to the people?”

Since Obama took office in January 2009, more than one million immigrants have been deported from the United States. That has raised many eyebrows around the country. During a roundtable discussion with Latino media last month, Obama sought to explain the staggering number of deportation saying the statistics is deceptive.

“With the stronger border enforcement, we’ve been apprehending folks at the borders and sending them back,” said Obama. “That is counted as a deportation even though they may have only been held for a day, or 48 hours.”

Activists insist separating loved ones is not a way to promote family values. “Deportation had left broken homes, children without fathers and mothers, families without hope,” said Diaz, Sr.. “The President can’t simply blame the Republicans or members of Congress for inaction. He can put this issue to rest if he wants to.”

The protesters welcomed the recent weeklong nationwide sweep that resulted in the arrest of 2901 convicted illegal immigrants, but cautioned that each case should be considered separately.

“Did they get arrested for criminal activities or simply because they were jaywalking?” asked Bauza.

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