Mireya Delapena came to the United States from Mexico when she was six. Now, she runs a small business in East Harlem, helping Mexicans in both countries transmit money and packages. But after President Trump signed an executive order last Wednesday to build a wall at the US-Mexico border, she is worried that her business will be severely affected.
Concerned New Yorkers gathered at JFK International Airport’s Terminal 4 to protest President Trump’s executive order that barred entry into the United States refugees from seven majority Muslim countries. Photo by Cora Cervantes
“Let them In! Let them In!” roared thousands of New Yorkers outside of Terminal 4 at John F. Kennedy International airport.
Rez Iriqui, 36, from Long Island, watched nearby and listened intently as he held his young son over his shoulders.
“I am an immigrant,” he said. “I am not a protester. I work on Wall Street, but I am here because I am worried about the future of my children. Within the last five days we have seen things that I thought would never have happened in America.”
Iriqui and his family joined thousands of New Yorkers yesterday who gathered outside of Terminal 4 to express outrage over President Trump’s executive order banning travel into the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries.
Early Saturday morning word spread that due to the new executive order issued by the Trump administration on Friday evening, travelers had been detained inside airports across the country and were not permitted entry into the country. Through posts and calls to action on social media a mass protest began to form at Terminal 4. Among the protesters were many immigrants who said they knew what was at stake for the refugees seeking shelter in America.
“I come from an immigrant background and an immigrant family,” said Farhan Hossain, 25, who came from Manhattan’s Flatiron district to join the demonstration. “I am here to stand in solidarity with refugees that are being detained. I am against a Trump regime that implements fascist measures that detain people indefinitely.”
The order barred entry into the United States to Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia, seven majority Muslim countries that have been categorized as “countries of particular concern.” The order also suspended the United States refugee program for the next four months, outlines increased screenings and will prioritize Christian refugees. The seven countries listed are not responsible for any terrorist attacks in America. Opponents argue that the list can be construed as arbitrary and a conflict of interest since the list does not include Muslim-majority countries where the Trump Organization does business, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.
By late afternoon protesters at JFK held signs that read “Let Them In,” and chanted “Resist, Fight Back, This is Our New York!” People remained outside the terminal late into the evening in spite of the cold temperatures. As the crowds grew the mood was tense but also filled with solidarity. Some protesters arrived with coffee, donuts, and hand warmers to show support for all those that had been protesting under cold weather conditions since noon.
“I am tremendously upset by what President Trump has done,” said Jessica Valentino, 28, who came out from Greenpoint, Brooklyn. “I am an adoptee, I came into the country when I was 3 months old…to think of all the families and other people trying to come here that no longer have that opportunity is absolutely heartbreaking.”
At 6:30 p.m. protesters kneeled and listened to updates concerning the state of those being detained. Across the street near the entrance to Terminal 4, which had been closed and was guarded by police in riot gear, Azi Amari, 37, from Brooklyn, held a sign up toward them.
“I am Iranian, I was going to travel in two weeks to visit my family in Iran.They all live there. Even though I am a green card holder. I cannot come back if I go,” she said “My family is so shocked. We are trying to figure what will happen next. Based on this new ban they are not allowed to come visit me. I think this is unfair. It is totally discrimination.”
At about 7:30 p.m. protesters received word that Judge Ann M. Donnelly had issued an emergency stay that halted deportations of those being detained. This ruling was based on a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of two individuals who had been detained at John F. Kennedy International Airport. The ruling addressed those being barred entry at airports in the United States, but does not address those who are trapped abroad.
As protesters marched around Terminal 4, some were heading to the courthouse to join others who wanted to be briefed following the ruling, including Mazeba Uddin, 50, Jamaica Hills, Queens and an immigrant from Bangladesh.
“We are strong together,” she said. “Our country, Our community is strong – Trump is not strong. Our millions of votes count, he needs to understand that.”
Protests at airports throughout the country are set to continue until those being detained are released.
After grueling one month long journeys that span over 1,000 miles, undocumented immigrants from Central America reach the United States physically and emotionally damaged from their experiences. Close to 70,000 children made the trek north last spring in order to escape violence and poverty, with the hopes of reuniting with their family and starting a new life. Terra Firma, a pediatric clinic headquartered in the Bronx, helps serve their many needs.
U.S forces are officially scheduled to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014, but Afghan nationals who work or worked for Americans, often at great risk, will be left behind and in fear of being targeted by the Taliban.
“We were not thinking that the situation would get worse and worse,” said Mohammad who is one of tens of thousands of Afghans employed by the U.S. military, government and private contractors during the last 12 years. Today like many Afghans, Mohammad, 38, who did not want to give his full name for fear of retribution, is uncertain about his future and worried about his family’s safety. His job with a U.S government agency is expected to end next year.
“I am worried because I don’t know what is going to happen,” he said. “I can be kidnapped or killed.”
Mohammad started to work for the U.S government in January 2007 and worked six days a week for more than seven years in Kabul.
According to U.S. authorities, 651 SIV visas were issued to individual Afghan applicants who work for or on behalf of the U.S government from October 1, 2012 through September 30, 2013. It is less than half of the 1,500 visas allowed by the U.S for the same period.
Ronald Payne, Director of Allied Freedom Projects, a nonprofit organization established in 2007 to assist Afghan and Iraqi SIV applicants, said that about 75% of all the interpreters have had serious difficulties in obtaining these visas.
“It would be nearly impossible to successfully complete any mission without them [local interpreters],” said Payne.
He said that the personnel involved in processing and adjudicating the SIV Visas do not understand the nuances of the culture, leading to serious errors such as name discrepancy.
“Considering that the Chief of Mission and the Consular Officers decisions are ‘discretionary’ and beyond any real form of transparent administrative or judicial review, one must suspect that in many cases an adverse decision was really an erroneous decision and that no process is in place to correct a manifest error or injustice,” said Payne.
Mohammad has waited for his visa for over three years. He applied in December 2011 for a Special Immigration Visa (SIV), created by the U.S Congress, which allows Iraqi or Afghan allies to immigrate to the U.S.
There are a lot of forms to fill out, recommendation letters to be secured and it is a costly process, he said, which deters applicants. But many of those who completed the process are rejected. The reason given in his first rejection letter is that Mohammad’s employment was either funded by a grant or cooperative agreement or he was not actually employed by or in behalf of the U.S. government.
“The reason they are giving to reject my application is not a proper reason,” said Mohammad, “My recommendation letter said that I am paid by the U.S. government and I am working for them. They [U.S authorities] are sending rejection letters by email and then they are not giving us a chance to meet in order to explain the process.”
In May 2012, he applied again for a visa. This time, his U.S supervisor wrote a new recommendation lauding his skills.
“In my years of supervising Mr. Mohammad, I have always found him to be a loyal, dedicated, highly motivated, competent, and outstanding individual,” said the U.S. supervisor, “Our organization considers his efforts on our behalf as exemplary.”
Despite months of support from American colleagues, his application was denied a second time in August 2012. The third application is still waiting for approval.
“Even if I leave the U.S organization, I suspect that I will still be registered with the Taliban as a U.S employee and I will face the same problems and threats,” said Mohammad, “The job market is very low in Afghanistan and I am afraid that if I lose my job, I will not be able to support my family, send my kids to school or provide decent facilities for us.”
The State Department declined to answer questions about the bureaucratic delay of SIV visas.
“I personally know some SIV applicants who have been waiting for over six years and have been continuously employed by the U.S. Government for the past 10 to 11 years,” said Payne, “Something is wrong here if you can’t figure out if somebody is a good or bad guy in ten years, then tell me how long it will take to figure that out.”
Alden Nesbitt no longer looks forward to his birthday. On his birthday two years ago, Nesbitt received a letter from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services telling him he had 90 days to leave the country. He had become undocumented.
The New York City Department of Education recruited international teachers from the Caribbean in 2001 during a teacher shortage. Hundreds of teachers brought their families over to the United States, including Nesbitt’s.
But due to a long and complex immigration process, some of their children turned 21 before these teachers could receive their Green Cards. Since they were over the age of 21, these children were no longer considered dependents of their families, making them ineligible to benefit from their parent’s immigration status, a process known as aging out.
Nesbitt, 23, chose to stay and advocate for families in his situation. Working with The Black Institute, a New York-based non-profit, Nesbitt co-founded The International Youth Association (TIYA) in 2011 alongside Mikhel Crichlow, 27, who became undocumented under the same circumstances.
“Meeting up with The Black Institute and starting The International Youth Association gave me a glimmer of hope that somehow I could still fight for what I feel was promised to me and my family,” said Nesbitt.
With current immigration legislation looming in Congress, Nesbitt and Crichlow continue their push for the rights of the children of recruited professionals and their right to documentation.
Ever since Xihang Liang and his wife immigrated to the United States from China 10 years ago, his biggest dream is to be reunited with his son, who he had to leave behind.
“When we first moved to the U.S., we missed him every day,” said Liang.
According to a recent report from the National Asian American Survey, there are currently 4.3 million people waiting abroad to come to the U.S. through family-based visas sponsored by family members who are U.S. citizens. On that long family immigrant waiting list, there are 1.8 million people from Asian countries.
Traditionally, families qualify for either the immediate relative or family preference immigrant visas. Immediate relative visas allow people who have a “close” family relationship with a United States citizen — spouses, unmarried children under the age of 21 or parents over the age of 21 — to be sponsored. There is no annual cap for immediate relative immigrant visas. However, family preference immigrant visas are for people who have a “distant” relationship with family who are U.S. citizens, including siblings, grandparents and children over the age of 21. People under this category have to wait for a period of time because there is an annual cap of 260,000 for the family preference immigrant visa. Because Liang’s son was married at the time when Liang petitioned for him to immigrant to the U.S., Liang’s son was subject to the family preference immigrant visa category, which meant a longer waiting period due to the high demand.
Erin Oshiro, a senior attorney at Asian American Justice Center, said the unbalanced supply and demand for family preference immigrant visas contributes to the backlog for family immigration visas that millions of people encounter.
“Our current immigration law puts numerical limits on some of the specific family categories,” said Erin Oshiro in an e-mail. “For example, brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens can only get 65,000 visas per year. Currently more than 2.4 million brothers and sisters are waiting for a chance at the 65,000 visas available annually.”
According to the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, Asian American Justice Center and New York Immigration Coalition, a married adult son or daughter from China must wait about 11 years before immigrating to the U.S.
Out of the seven countries with the worst family-based visa backlogs, five are in Asia.
“Family unification is a particular priority for the AAJC, because it impacts Asian Americans so disproportionately,” said Jessica Chia, staff attorney for Asian American Justice Center. “Because of the path exclusive policies, Asian Americans really rely on their families in the U.S.”
Liang waited 12 years to come to the U.S.. Now, he anticipates that one day he can bring his son.
“He sometimes asks me over the phone when he could come to the U.S.,” said Liang. “I told him that I didn’t know.”
Immigrants rights activists and legislators faced a setback last week in the push for the New York DREAM Act, which would give financial aid opportunities to undocumented youth, when the act failed to be included in this year’s $135 billion state budget.
The bill’s failure to be included in the budget stemmed from a discrepancy between the state’s two legislative bodies, the assembly and the senate. The State Assembly, which currently has a Democratic majority, had already included $25 million in its budget for the New York DREAM Act. However, the Senate never included it in its version of the budget.
“In the Senate it’s a much more complex situation right now,” said Katherine Tabares, a youth organizer for the not-for-profit Make the Road New York. “Republicans are not in favor of it and they, together with the independent Democratic caucus, form the majority.” There are currently 22 sponsors of the bill in the 63-member Senate.
Since it was not incorporated into the budget, the bill’s only chance of being enacted this year would be if both houses pass it by the end of the legislative session in June. The bill would make New York the fourth state to pass a DREAM Act granting undocumented students access to state funded financial aid. Approximately 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school, but only 5-10 percent of undocumented high-school graduates go to college, according to the Immigration Policy Center.
Assemblymember Francisco Moya introduced the bill in its current form in mid-January alongside Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Higher Education Committee Chair Deborah J. Glick. The bill would give access to the state’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) to qualifying undocumented youth, also establishing a DREAM Fund Commission to raise private funds for scholarships for children on immigrants. To qualify for the bill, undocumented students must have attended a New York high school for at least two years, graduated or received a GED, enroll in a college or university in the state of New York, and meet the requirements for TAP.
Senate Republicans in opposition to the bill have taken issue with its use of public funds. Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos said legislation establishing a private Dream Fund instead had a possibility to pass this year.
“I think there is support from people that tend to be a little bit more conservative,” said Skelos at the Crain’s Business Breakfast Forum in February. “As long as it’s private money put into the fund.”
But Tabares said there are already private funds for undocumented students, and that they do not go far enough to meet their financial needs.
“Regardless of whether national immigration reform is passed or not, the time that it would take for an undocumented youth to actually receive financial benefits from the federal government will be up to 14 years, so many students will have already graduated,” said Tabares, who is also a second semester student at LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City, Queens. “The NY DREAM Act needs to pass this year because there are so many youth right now who can’t attend college.”
Governor Cuomo, who has come out in support of a federal DREAM Act, has yet to voice his support for the state sponsored legislation. Legislators in support of the bill have recently been more vocal in pushing the governor to take a stance.
“On behalf of all Dreamers, I am urging Governor Cuomo to again bring to bear his great courage, considerable political skills and extraordinary leadership abilities in getting something big, important and meaningful done. And make no mistake: Immigration reform is important and most certainly needs to get done,” said cosponsor Senator Jose Peralta in a statement last week.
“If Cuomo came out in support, many of the Senate Republicans in a neutral position right now could change their minds,” said Taberes. “But he hasn’t been vocal about it, and there continues to be opposition and a lot of doubt over the bill.”
Other undocumented students continued to hope the bill would pass while they were still in school.
“I feel behind compared to my citizen friends who have financial aid,” said Viviana Sanchez, a student at York College in Jamaica, Queens. “There are thousands of Dreamer students in New York State it would mean a lot to them, to parents—to my parents—and to myself.”
Sanchez, 19, added that her financial situation and inability to receive state financial aid have kept her a semester behind and forced her to attend college part-time.
“It’s been very hard for me to get through school, I try to work to supplement it with a bit of my parents help, but it’s still taking longer than it should,” she said.
Sanchez on the financial burden of being an undocumented student
Tabares said the key to having the bill pass was continued activism throughout the state.
“I personally have seen the growth in the last three years about the community being more vocal and supportive about it,” said Tabares. “Undocumented youth have been fighting for the NY DREAM act for years, you just can’t give up until you get what you want.”
Last month nearly 200 students and activists joined the New York State Youth Leadership Council, an organization that represents undocumented youth, in an organized trip to the state capital calling on legislators to enact the NY DREAM Act. The group completed scheduled visits with 59 legislative offices and in addition to those planned visits, also completed drop-in visits with 31 additional legislative offices, according to Gabriel Aldana, a member of the NYSYLC.
As a result, the group had 12 new co-sponsors, said Aldana.
Maria Jaime, 21, co-coordinator of the Westchester chapter of the NYSYLC, led a team of participants to meet with staff of State Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Assemblymember J. Gary Pretlow, and Assembly Member Addie J. Russell.
“Lobbying like this is a crucial part of passing a bill, focusing on activism and getting out in the streets,” said Jaime, a senior at Manhattanville College. “At the end of the day politicians are voting on the bill, but we give them that power as constituents.”
According to a report by the NYSYLC in conjunction with NYU Law School’s Immigrant Rights Clinic, the cost of extending the Tuition Assistance program would be approximately $17 million per year.
“If the New York State DREAM legislation were financed through the state income tax, it would represent 87¢ per year—less than the price of a single donut—for a median tax payer,” said Jaime.
Assemblymember J. Gary Pretlow, a co-sponsor of the bill following the NYSYLC’s trip to Albany, said he looked forward to the bill coming to the floor.
“This is an issue that has been before us for a number of years, I think it’s of the utmost importance that everybody be given the opportunity in this country to advance themselves and move on,” he said.
Pretlow on the importance of passing the NYS Dream Act
Jaime said overall she felt the visit was a success, and that the most rewarding aspect was seeing others in her team share their stories with legislative staff.
“Seeing how each time you tell a story it gets more a little more personal, that’s great for their own growth throughout the day,” she said. “Last year when I came was the first time I shared my story with politicians as well, I didn’t tell anyone but I was really scared, but once you say it out loud it’s so empowering.”
Maria Jaime on putting a face to the issue
Sanchez, a member of Jaime’s team, echoed the sentiment.
“Of course it’s daunting to tell a politician your story, they’re the people who make the laws, the people who decide if I stay here or not, if the New York DREAM act passes or not,” she said. “But it’s such a big accomplishment for me.”
Orla Lin, 35, a pharmacy assistant at Get Well Pharmacy in the Chinatown in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, immigrated to the U.S. 14 years ago from China’s Fujian Province. Lin, whose daily responsibilities include helping her mostly Chinese-American customers get their medications, said she planned to vote for President Obama because he had a more diplomatic approach with regard to U.S-China relations.
“Obama just looked differently from Mitt Romney when talking about issues on China,” said Lin. “I am confident Obama will maintain a good relationship with China as long as he wears the pants.”
Lin is representative of the support President Obama commands over his rival, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, among Chinese-American voters. According to a 2012 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 49 percent of Chinese-Americans identify as Democrats, compared to 26 percent who identify as Republicans. A telephone survey conducted by Lake Research Partners in April showed 59 percent of Asian-Americans planned to vote for Obama compared with 13 percent for Romney. This stark contrast is likely due to key differences between the candidates’ stances on immigration and diplomatic relations with China.
“I think Obama will continue to benefit the relationship with China if he is reelected,” said Sam Gao, 34, a first-generation Chinese-American immigrant working for Health Plus Amerigroup Real Solutions in Brooklyn. “I am not sure about Mitt Romney.”
Unlike Romney’s tough approach to China, Obama tried to maintain positive relations with China since he took office in 2008. At the G-20 Summit in April of 2009, President Obama announced the establishment of the “U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue,” which focused on cooperation with China in a wide range of areas including economy, trade, counterterrorism, science and technology, education and culture.
According to a White House press release, President Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao agreed that “the United States and China have a need to work together, as well as with other countries, to promote the smooth functioning of the international financial system and the steady growth of the world economy.”
In a state visit to China in 2011, President Obama stated that he “welcomed China’s rise,” adding that “China’s peaceful rise is good for the world, and its’ good for America” — a viewpoint strongly disagreed by Mitt Romney.
In stark contrast, Mitt Romney accused China of stealing jobs from the U.S. and consequently, President Obama, for failing to be tough on China in a 30-second campaign ad.
“If you weren’t satisfied with the economic cooperation with China, you shouldn’t have anything with us,” said Fay Liu, 18, a second generation Chinese-American and student at Kingsborough Community College.
Liu expressed her dissatisfaction with Romney regarding what he called China a “currency manipulator” in the final debate on foreign policy and his hardball strategy with China, citing her dissatisfaction as a reason for the voting decision.
“I was not happy about it,” said Liu. “And a lot of Asian friends of mine criticized him for that.”
Junqiang Wu, 25, a Chinese-American living in Brooklyn, NYC, said one of the main reasons he supports Obama is because of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a memorandum issued by the President to allow U.S. immigration law enforcement prosecutors to practice prosecutorial discretion when charging individuals who came to the U.S. illegally as small children. He believed this policy would allow a large number of undocumented Chinese immigrants to stay in the U.S.
“His immigration policy benefited Chinese immigrants who came here without paper documents,” said Wu. “But now, they can stay here, have the chance to find a job, or even become a citizen.”
Working as a legal assistant for the Law Office of Giacchino J. Russo & Associates, Wu is concerned that Romney would repeal it if he took office.
“I will not vote for Mitt Romney,” said Wu. “What if he changed the policy to something that was harmful to Chinese immigrants?”
Zhiluan Yu, 30, a Chinese-American who supported President Obama, said he was satisfied with the past four years under the Obama administration.
Having been in the U.S. for ten years, Yu now owns a 99 cents store with his wife in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, both of whom came from Fujian Province in China for the “American Dream.”
“Now, I just need to enjoy my life with contentment,” said Yu. “I don’t want things to change backwards after the election.”