[Editor’s note: The following guest editorial is in response to our Nov. 3 story “City allocates $50,000 to assist residents facing deportation” and also to a letter to the editor we received stating that the funds would be better suited to fix city roads and parks in Tacoma.]
My life’s work since 1994 has been teaching the English language to immigrants and refugees. I have seen firsthand the conditions many of them left, which, along with our creed of equality and opportunity, explains why the USA will continue to be a destination for immigrants as it has since the founding of our nation. And I have also had the joy of seeing former students graduate college, enter and progress in their careers, become American citizens, and support their families here in their new home. Some of these students receive some government assistance during their initial transition; and initially, without English, most are only able to access the lowest wage jobs. And the lowest of the low jobs, as we all know, often go to our undocumented neighbors. The people cleaning the bank or school at one in the morning, the people picking the food we eat… Managers and farmers I have talked to don’t even see native-born applicants, and haven’t had good experiences when they hired them. But I can say with confidence, as local tech giants Google and Microsoft have asserted, that immigrants are a great asset and investment.
By and large, the immigrants I have worked with are the kind of people I want as neighbors, and the kind any employer would love to hire. Their work ethic is unsurpassed, and their desire to be part of this country sincere. This is why it has been so trying in recent years to see the flames of paranoia and a narrowly construed, Christocentric, white nationalism fanned, along with restrictive executive actions built on the fearful, xenophobic fiction that danger comes from overseas, when the evidence on U.S. terrorist attacks shows most are homegrown or radicalized on U.S. soil, and gangs like MS-13 were born in places like Los Angeles.
A recent Tacoma Weekly letter to the editor (Lovingood, Nov. 16) lamented that our fair city of Tacoma has chosen to provide a legal defense fund for people in immigration proceedings. Unlike the criminal justice system, in immigration court no lawyer is guaranteed; even children often face judges and prosecutors alone. This is an inequity that threatens families. Immigrants who are fleeing a lack of opportunity and crime-ridden, unsafe communities in Latin America may not be conferred refugee status, but their reasons for leaving are real. Some of my students were threatened at gunpoint in their hometowns. Some couldn’t afford food, or lacked running water. Life in even the poorest neighborhoods of Tacoma, doing even the lowest paid of jobs, provides more safety and opportunity than some of my students had. They did not move here for handouts or hamburgers.
The writer of that letter appears to have little compassion, but also lacks accurate information about issues like immigration and the city budget. To say that $50,000 could be better spent repairing our city streets appears based on the misconception that immigrants are “takers” in our economy; or perhaps devotion to “the rule of law.” The latter is a moot point, given the long history of illegal land grabs, treaty violations and property dispossession on the part of European Americans – the “Tacoma Method,” which prompted the construction of our Reconcilation Park along Ruston Way and the use of the State Fairgrounds in nearby Puyallup to house Japanese Americans, being only two local examples of our own historical disregard for the rule of law, when upholding those laws would have benefitted people of color. It is time that all people, globally, have rights. We can do our part to model this moral imperative right here in Tacoma.
We know that undocumented people work, pay rent, and spend almost all of their income in local businesses. Sales tax made up 21 percent, or $95 million, of the City’s revenues in the most recent budget. Assuming that Tacoma’s percentage of undocumented residents is roughly even with that of the United States at around 3.5 percent of the total population, it would mean that sales taxes collected from our undocumented neighbors contributed over $3 million to the city budget – quite a bit more than $50,000. Additionally, adding that money to the street repair budget would result in an increase of .002 percent, or two hundredths of a single percent, of the $18.8 million already committed.
If you are a Tacoma resident who is critical of immigrants, my challenge to you is to learn about their stories. Books like “Enrique’s Journey” or “What is the What?” are good starts. Any number of films also document the many reasons that lead people to undertake the often dangerous and uncertain journey to this country. And if you are a human being, I beg you in this season of sacred holidays to consider the best of whatever spirituality you possess, and know that each of the immigrants you see around you in our community is a fellow human being, with a family and a story, with their own strengths and struggles. Whatever their English ability, whatever documents they do or do not possess, they are like you – making their way in this world. How you treat them is beyond their control, but fully within yours, and ultimately reflects on you. What kind of person you choose to be affects what kind of community we all live in – and I, for one, prefer a community that values and supports all of its members. The people held in the for-profit immigration prison in our city deserve at least the opportunity to make their case – why are they here, and should they be able to stay here? If we do not even make time to listen and consider them, we disregard their very humanity.
As ICE increasingly targets families, not criminals, legal defense will be in greater demand than ever. People who wish to contribute to the legal defense of immigrants can make a year-end, tax deductible donation to the Northwest Immigrant Justice Project, nwirp.org; or to support unaccompanied minors in our area, direct donations to Seattle-based KIND (Kids In Need Of Defense), at supportkind.org.
$50,000 will not be enough to keep many families intact; but every family and child counts. Our potholes will be filled in due time.
Lee Sledd, M. Ed. is Professor, English for Speakers of other Languages (ESL & EAP).