In the last year, issues such as the refugee crisis and President Trump’s executive orders regarding travel bans have brought rhetoric on immigration into daily public consumption.
In this spirit, the foreign language department hosted a speaker event this past Monday, Feb. 27 on the topic of refugees and immigrants to educate students on both issues and introduce them to immigrant and refugee services in the St. Louis area. The two speakers were Marie-Aimee Abizera, the Executive Director of Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates, MIRA, and Fr. Tom Greene of the Jesuit Refugee Service.
Abizera captured the attention of her audience as she told her own story of immigrating to the United States as a refugee. Ms. Abizera was 12 years old when violence broke out in her home country of Rwanda, which the world would later term the Rwandan Genocide. She and her immediate family survived, she said, “by the grace of God” and by hiding, again and again. In just 100 days between 800,000 and 1,000,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the genocide. She reflected that the most striking thing was seeing “the people you know,” the people she saw everyday from her church, school or community participating in the violence.
Abizera emphasized that her family’s experiences were not uncommon. Families frequently have 7-12 year waits when going through the vetting system and the government has all blood types and fingerprints of those who come into the country this way. Her question to the audience was if this was her experience, then what is the “extreme” vetting system being discussed in policy today.
Fr. Tom Greene offered examples of challenges faced by immigrants from his own experiences as an immigration lawyer. He opened by recommending an article to students from the New Yorker entitled “Why Don’t Facts Change Our Minds?” This launched a myth busting and fact checking session on popular immigration issues, which Fr. Greene and Ms. Abizera equally participated in.
First, the difference between refugees and immigrants was addressed. Refugees as being those individuals who have been forced to flee their country in order to escape some type of persecution and/or violence, whether it be that of race, gender or ethnicity. Immigrants, rather, are those who have chosen to leave their country willingly. The audience was cautioned, however, regarding this definition, as it lacks economic explanations which might put immigrants in similar situations to refugees. According to legislation enacted in 1980, immigrants may not be considered refugees unless their country is at war.
Fr. Greene and Ms. Abizera agreed that refugees and immigrants are most frequently misrepresented economically. Refugees arrive to the United States on a loan, which must be paid back. On average refugees are employed within 3-4 months of arriving in the United States. He explained that many refugees are in fact very educated people who are unable to practice in their new countries due to certification and language barriers.
It was at detention centers that Fr. Greene spent most of his time as an advocate. He explained that upon arrival the most frequent requests from his clients were to find and return wedding rings, photos, medications and wallets. Detentions may happen at any time, meaning undocumented immigrants may not have time to arrange for children to be picked up from school, medications retrieved from home or family members notified. The detention centers are also not required to provide language or translating services for detainees, meaning if an undocumented immigrant does not speak English he or she may not have a chance to communicate with authorities until an advocate like Fr. Greene is able to provide language services for them.
As the event came to a close, both speakers appealed that no matter where students aligned themselves, they should stay aware of events both global and local and educate themselves on policies surrounding the issues. Look up the ongoing violence in Syria, Southern Sudan or the Democratic Republic of Congo; do a search on policies such as 287(g) which authorizes the federal government to enter into agreements with state and local law enforcement agencies, allowing them to act as immigration enforcement officers. Fr. Greene stressed to students that it is “critically important to know the facts about immigrants and immigration and to separate these facts from the myths and stereotypes which persist.”
Both speakers had suggestions for students on how to stay informed. Ms. Abizera suggested both keeping up with a variety of news sources to balance information sources, as well as looking up policies when they are referenced to get the facts on what is actually regulated or permitted. Fr. Greene’s recommendation was to in some way get to know an immigrant person or family, following closely to SLU’s mission of being men and women for — and with — others.
If you are interested in the work MIRA is doing here in St. Louis or in the Missouri area, please visit their website at http://www.mira-mo.org. Currently Ms. Abizera says the organization is working on tracking state-level policies in Jefferson City, tracking anti-immigration bills and providing education sessions for refugees and immigrants to know their rights.Internship opportunities have also been made available through MIRA.