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Undocumented immigrants face an ominous future

By Noah Harper

Section: Opinions

March 3, 2017

I spent my February break visiting relatives in Westchester County, an area a little north of New York City. My aunt is heavily involved with political activist groups in the area and told me about a volunteer opportunity: A church in nearby Sleepy Hollow was holding an information session for undocumented immigrants, and they needed volunteers to help out at the meeting. Having nothing else to do, I tagged along. I wound up experiencing something that radically changed my perspective on myself, specifically the privileged position I hold. I was painfully reminded of the wide gulf that separates me from those who are actively being oppressed, marginalized and exploited by our country. It was eye opening.

I was put in charge of handing out sandwiches for attendees. I stood in the back of the room, distributing food to people as they filed into the church basement. The meeting was packed, and we all the food we had was soon gone.

I was able to use my Spanish during the info session. I listened and translated for my aunt and other volunteers as city leaders, community activists and lawyers explained, to the very people they would affect most, the new rules and procedures that were being rolled out by the federal government.

As I heard about new policies from the current presidential administration, I couldn’t help feeling that I was in another country, listening to farcical, delusional rules and restrictions decreed by some cartoon autocrat. A couple months ago, it would have made more sense if our country’s current events were happening in North Korea or Myanmar. We all assumed it could never happen here.

I watched as these egregious new policies were explained to the people whose lives they were aimed to destroy. A local lawyer explained policies such as Expedited Removal which are currently being implemented across the country. It means that if you’ve been in America for less than two years, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) can deport you without having to appear in court.

The lawyer detailed how being an undocumented immigrant is becoming criminalized—committing a crime, no matter how petty, makes you a prime target for ICE. Not having a Social Security Number, or a Tax ID, (or making one up, or incorrectly filling out a form), now constitutes a federal crime. Paying someone to help your child cross the border as an unaccompanied minor is also a federal crime. If you have been convicted of a crime, been accused of committing a crime or are thought to have committed a crime by an ICE agent, you can be arrested by ICE—essentially ensuring that anyone who looks like an undocumented immigrant can be apprehended and deported quickly and easily.

It was hard just to hear this information while simultaneously watching, helplessly, as the people it was affecting tried to understand it. The legal aide explained the situation to parents as their oblivious children played off in the corner. It was tragic, and it made me ashamed to be an American.

It was reiterated, again and again, that the safest place for an undocumented immigrant to be is inside their home. You are not to answer the door, and if you do, you are never to let them in. You are not supposed to sign or say anything without a lawyer present.

There was even talk about people masquerading as ICE officers, looking for bribes that would turn out to be useless to prevent the deportation process, or phony lawyers that would take your money but do nothing to keep you from getting deported.

It was hard to keep straight the flood of information. Although the mayors from the two surrounding villages and their police chiefs were present, stating that they had no interest or inclination in enforcing immigration laws or helping ICE, there was still plenty of confusion about what parts of the government could or could not be trusted to give out information to ICE. A woman during the Q&A session asked if ICE would be able to track her down through her Medicaid.

Even though English is my native language and I have a relative grasp on how our government is supposed to work, I was still confused about what these people were supposed to do. I cannot begin to imagine what kind of Kafkaesque nightmare this country has become for those who cannot even speak the language of their oppressors, much less understand how to follow the rules.

The realest part for me was when, near the end of the Q&A, a woman asked me to help translate a question for her. She explained that she had lost her lawful permanent resident card. She was fearful about applying for a new one, or having to go to a government office to get a replacement. I didn’t have a good answer for her, and neither did the lawyer.

“We don’t know if it’s going to be OK,” she said in Spanish. It was an honest, depressing admission of how insane the current situation is. Families are being ripped apart—parents were encouraged to make plans with their children to prepare for the worst—and all this needless pain and suffering and confusion is not going to achieve anything.

I stood in the back, witnessing all of this senseless confusion and anxiety, feeling helpless despair. If I, a white man with nothing threatening my life, felt like this, one can only imagine how these people are feeling.

But there was a glimmer of hope—not political or legal, but after the meeting ended, a group of community members stood up and played live music for the crowd. It was a beautiful, triumphant and exuberant performance. It amazed me that even after all this fear and confusion, this community could still find things to be joyful about.

Donald Trump is exhausting. If the mind-numbing typhoon of misinformation and hate that has been his first month in office is any indication, we have a long road ahead. But if the people who are directly threatened by him can find reasons to have hope and spread joy, then surely we the people can—it’s the only way we’re going to make it through.

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