By Tami Jackson
In John F. Kennedy’s 1958 book “A Nation of Immigrants,” our past president wrote: “Every ethnic minority, in seeking in its own freedom, helped strengthen the fabric of liberty in American life. Similarly, every aspect of the American economy has profited from the contributions of immigrants.”
Amy Diehr, education services manager at Tacoma Community House, could not agree more with Kennedy’s sentiments. She said there are many unfortunate misconceptions circling about immigrants these days and especially in regard to what few government benefits immigrants are eligible to receive.
“They work and pay taxes and at no point can they get welfare or food stamps,” Diehr said. “They cannot get any access to any of that. All they have is work authorization so they can go to school, get a job and pay taxes and that is it.”
Yet on Sept. 5, when the Department of Homeland Security initiated the orderly phase out of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), quite a stir was generated at Tacoma Community House (TCH), especially for the hard studying and working immigrants.
“Students are scared,” Diehr said.
While Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has never shown up at TCH’s door, they really look like bad hombres to our local immigrants, especially since the last presidential election, Diehr said. Students worry that a shake down could be readily upon them. “We assured them that without a warrant, ICE couldn’t come in,” Diehr said.
Why Immigrants Are Afraid
Audra Hudson, US2 community organizer at TCH, said a lot of personal information is gathered from the immigrant before he or she can enroll in any of the training programs. The application process requires immigrants to share details about where they were born, who are their dependents, who are their extended family members and more.
According to both Diehr and Hudson, while the immigrants have an agreement with the Department of Homeland Security that their personal information will not be shared with ICE, some worry that the executive order protecting them, the one that Obama signed, can too easily be rescinded at any moment by another executive exerting power in a unilateral fashion. “What can be given can be taken away,” Hudson said.
In fact, when Trump was elected, TCH acted on legal advice and stopped accepting new DACA applications altogether because of concerns with how students must register into the system. Diehr said the response up north in Bellingham was very similar to Tacoma where a lot of immigrant students withdrew from school and left the area completely after realizing they were on record at the school. They did not want to stick around and risk repatriation.
Beyond fearing deportation, and the whole economic impact that such a life change can have on a family, sometimes the immigrant children who were born on American soil end up in foster homes if their parents are detained or deported; especially when there are no other family members here to take care of them.
It’s not easy being a liberty-loving, risk-taking immigrant
While it might seem frustrating for a Washingtonian to move to California, where southern laws dictate that your concealed weapons are suddenly illegal and motorcycle riders drive down the center line, sneaking up behind other motorists where their exhaust sounds “burrooomboomboomboom” and “blamamamamaaaaaaaaaaaah” can scare the bejesus out of unsuspecting drivers, imagine immigrating 5,500 miles or more to a land where it’s difficult to navigate the streets when you cannot read any of the signage, let alone operate under the new laws that keep changing.
Foreign immigrants who come to America face a much more difficult transition beyond just the unfamiliar culture here. That’s why TCH offers English classes, immigration advocacy, citizenship coaching and many other skills to support them. TCH is where I met Anatolii, who said that before he left his country Ukrainian immigration workers had changed the legal spelling of his first name (without his say so) , which used to be spelled “Anatoly.” A fellow immigrant and classmate then confirmed that the Ukrainian immigration officials also did the same thing to him. Now called Oleh, his name had been Oleg at birth.
“I could change it back legally now that I am here,” Anotolii said, “but it would cost way too much money.”
After swapping many stories with a handful of Ukrainian immigrants about the differences in Tacoma’s culture and the one from their birthplace, and having discussed the much more extreme temperatures in Ukraine verses here, Anotolii described how much more expensive it is to buy food in his birth country compared to America.
“In Ukraine, I would work two days to buy this much meat,” he said, demonstrating what would measure to about a pound of hamburger with his hands. “In America, I work an hour and can buy that much.” Anotolii went on to explain that most Ukrainians grow their own food and butcher their own livestock for meat, which is how they survive. That too creates a bit of culture shock, when immigrants come here and must live in an apartment for the first time in their lives, with all the unfamiliar noises that close neighbors can make and without being able to keep any farm animals or pets.
What Tacoma Community House Is About
In addition to teaching job hunting skills and facilitating job training for refugees and other immigrants, Tacoma Community House hosts workshops and explains all kinds of immigration rules and policies. The legal jargon around DACA (as published by the Department of Homeland Security’s website, uscis.gov/daca2017) can be quite cumbersome and difficult to understand even for a native English speaker. So TCH translates the law and counsels immigrants about their rights under the evolving immigration laws.
Beyond dreading how laws keep changing, which makes navigating life more difficult, immigrants have also shared with Diehr disturbing experiences that they have endured just from shopping at Tacoma stores when other patrons have made hateful remarks such as “go back to your country.”
Diehr said that when DACA, under the Obama administration, was first announced, TCH had huge numbers of students who came in and applied for it. Many completed their General Education Development (GED) training at that time but according to Diehr, TCH has seen dramatic decreases in the number of folks now taking advantage of those opportunities.