What We Learned About Immigration


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Art by Gabriel Acosta. The MMU student displayed many of his works that center on immigration.

Well, that was a quite a day.

Today, Oct. 15, Mount Mercy University held an event called “Our Immigration Stories: Coming to Cedar Rapids & Mount Mercy.” It was a series of presentations that began at 10 a.m. and went until about 4 p.m.

So I’m struggling a little on how to contain my reactions to one blog post. I have something like 6 pages of notes. A lot happened and was said today—my only regret is that I wasn’t quick enough to get everything nailed downs so that the event could be publicized more. We had about 25 people in the audience at the start of the day, and that dwindled to about a dozen by day’s end (it’s wasn’t all the same people, audience members could come and go, so the total number of people who attended any part of the event was more than 25, possibly 50 or so).

Well, live and learn. I’ll have to process what I think are lessons from the day from the point of view of how the series is organized. But logistical issues aside—what a day! Those who were there learned and experienced a lot. I was hoping to have interesting, multiple perspectives from many sources—and that’s what we got.

The day began with a keynote speech by Gabriel Acosta, a senior graphic design major from Monticello, Iowa, who sneaked across the U.S.-Mexico border with his mother when he was 6.

He noted that his father had to try to cross into the U.S. nine times before he made it—luckily, Gabriel and his mother only had to try once. His story of that crossing, and his adjustment to life in Iowa, was full of interesting details: How he was separated from his mother for 30 minutes during the border crossing, and it was the longest half hour of his life. How he planned to just get a job after high school, but a guidance counselor recommended college, and Gabriel contacted several, and first heard from Mount Mercy, which said it didn’t care about his status.

“Whoever called back from MMU said, ‘we’re not the border patrol and we’re not ICE,’” Gabriel said.

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Gabriel Acosta speaks at MMU.

He made a point that was echoed throughout the day by others: it’s OK to call someone “undocumented,” but the term “illegal alien” is demeaning. “There is no such thing as an illegal human being,” he said.

From a legal standpoint, a later speaker, attorney Yer Vang, pointed out that crossing the border without a visa is considered a civil infraction under federal law—it’s not a criminal act, so the term “illegal alien” lacks legal correctness as well as political correctness.

Gabriel at one point ruminated on how there are two very conflicting stereotypes of undocumented immigrants: That they steal American’s jobs, and that they are lazy. “What am I going to do, steal your job and then just sit there?” he quipped. As for Gabriel, he noted: “I will be working hard.”

Under DACA, Gabriel is now here legally and has a green card. Bravo, I say—his presence certainly enriches MMU.

Anyway, after Gabriel gave his excellent keynote speak, students from a Latino-Latina literature course taught by Dr. Carol Tyx recited poems, accompanied by pictures. Carol herself also read a poem.

That somehow set the stage for what came next, which I consider the two highlights of the day. First, we heard from four students, who told of their personal immigrant experiences. Gabriel was one, and there was another student who was also from Mexico, plus a Liberian and a Salvadorian.

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Student immigrant panel, Mauricio Diaz from Mexico; Philemina Towah from Liberia; Gabriel Acosta from Mexico; and Marlon Flores from El Salvador.

Gabriel gave yet another memorable line during this panel presentation, describing how when he first started school in Iowa: “I was the only burnt piece of rice in the bowl.”

After the student panel spoke, a group of faculty and staff (or spouse of faculty) shared their experiences. I was moderating both talks and asking questions, so I don’t have detailed notes, which is too bad because, as I said, I think these two panels were very important. It’s hard to denigrate immigrants as a faceless, scary “other” when you have eight of them sharing their compelling, personal stories.

Dr. Ayman Amer, for example, talked about how the Cedar Rapids community rallied around its Muslim neighbors to protect them from any backlash in the wake of 9/11.

Amir Hadzic described how, in his first nights in America, he wanted to go for a walk—but the cousin he was staying with lived in a sketchy neighborhood of Queens in New York City, and told him that a walk at 10 p.m. was not a good idea. He ended up the soccer coach at MMU almost by accident—he was in Iowa and saw an ad in the Gazette. He didn’t have a resume or any materials, but had been a professional soccer player in Croatia. The MMU athletic director liked what he saw and hired Amer.

Father Tony Adawu told of a priest in Baltimore, Maryland, who sight unseen invited him to be part of his parish. He didn’t have a work visa and couldn’t earn a salary, but could accept a place to live. Father Tony spoke of how there was tension in the parish when he arrived—but not “go away” tension, more like “who are you?” tension. “Together, we worked it out,” he said.

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Faculty-staff panel: Ayman Amer from Egypt; Suresh Basnet from Nepal; Father Tony Adawu from Ghana; and Amir Hadzic of Croatia.

Father Tony spoke of some lower class white parish members, and how they had no choice but to live life “the hard way.” He says he thinks of those people when he hears others talk of “white privilege,” and said it’s dangerous to generalize too much about others. Some white people “struggle big time,” he noted. He echoed Gabriel, and noted he agreed with Gabriel’s point was that it’s always important to try to understand another’s point of view.

Interestingly, all of the faculty-staff panel members had their very initial experiences of the U.S. in New York City, while three of the student panel crossed the U.S.-Mexico border.

In the afternoon, Yer Vang, an immigration attorney, clued us in on the complexity of the U.S. immigration system. She described a system that is complicated, slow and not always logical. She also said that the U.S. already does extensive screening of anybody attempting to claim refugee status—“the screening process is very burdensome and involved multiple agencies,” she noted. To me, it sounded like we already have “extreme vetting.”

In Iowa, she noted, about 5 percent of the state’s population is foreign born. Close to 100,000 are not citizens. In a state that struggles with stagnant population and whose economic growth is limited by that factor, I would think we would be all about welcoming immigrants. We need them, even if we don’t always remember that.

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Yer Vang, based in Decorah, is an attorney with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Dubuque.

After Yer, we heard from Paula Land of the Catherine McAuley Center; Monica Vallejo of the Young Parenthood Network; and Kassia Scott of Kirkwood Community College. All noted that many local agencies want volunteers who can work with immigrants—Land in particular talked about tutoring English at the Catherine McAuley Center. That’s something that’s been on my “to do” list for some time. Maybe if I can get someone else to coordinate next year’s fall series it will be time to try that out.

image-of-logo-colorThe day was capped off by Mark Stoffer Hunter of The History Center in Cedar Rapids. He described the patterns of immigrants coming to Cedar Rapids over time, especially the wave of Bohemians after the Civil War, and the early arrival of a Muslim population. Cedar Rapids, he said, was different from many other Iowa cities. While the Czech population did settle in an area that is still called “New Bo,” the city overall was less divided into distinct ethnic or religious neighborhoods. Partly, that’s attributable to the rather open minded attitudes of the Bohemian population that settled in Cedar Rapids—they often opened their social halls to any other group that wanted to use them.

So Russian Jews, Muslims and others became part of the fabric of this city.

Well, that’s just scratching the surface. There was a lot more said and learned today. I am grateful for all the fine speakers who contributed so much to the event today at MMU. More of my photos.

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