Sarah Yore-Van Oosterhout, Lighthouse Immigration Advocates (LIA) founder and managing attorney, posted a blog (dated March 2022) about the racism inherent in US history, immigration law, and practice. We in Race Relations appreciated her insights and are reposting this blog with her permission.
At a speaking event last week, an audience member, after listening to my Immigration 101 presentation, declared, “There’s a lot of this here that just isn’t right with my soul and I just need to say something.”
Yes, girl, yes, there certainly is.
Like her, there’s a lot in the last seven months—don’t even get me started on the last five or six years—that isn’t right with my soul, and I need to say something.
As many of our followers know, Lighthouse Immigration Advocates (LIA) has taken on the mammoth task of meeting the legal needs of all Afghan arrivals to West Michigan, something that really hasn’t been attempted before and certainly not by an office of our humble size and resources. But that’s us; pivoting to meet the needs of the community has defined us and was the reason we opened our doors in the first place in 2015.
For the last many months, we’ve been meeting with our new Afghan neighbors, many of whom dedicated the last 10 to 20 years of their lives and careers to the United States occupation of Afghanistan and advancing the principles of democracy. Their sacrifice is unimaginable and their stories will never leave my memory.
Imagine their feeling of betrayal when they learned on February 29, 2020 that the United States had signed the Doha Agreement to turn their country over to the Taliban. Twenty years of fighting the Taliban and, in one meeting where they weren’t even invited to the table, they were handed over to their enemies.
As asylum seekers in the United States, they face a difficult journey of interrogation, extremely limited resources, years of separation from spouses and children still trapped in Afghanistan, and mixed reception to their presence in our communities.
Imagine how much more their feeling of betrayal ballooned when they learned the very different situation facing Ukrainians fleeing violence in their home country. First, the United States immediately granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Ukrainians, which gives them permission to remain in the country with the ability to legally work and provide for their families. Then, just this week, we learned the government is working to reunite Ukrainian families in the United States, by bringing to this country family members living in refugee camps abroad.
Afghans were in the United States for more than seven months before the government extended TPS to them last week on March 15, 2022. Their requests to be reunited with spouses and children are being denied and stymied by the Department of State. And they’re being forced to undergo intense interrogation in order to obtain asylum in the United States.
But Ukrainians, WELCOME!
And Central American refugees, let’s talk about them. For YEARS, they’ve been seeking asylum in the United States. Not only have we not welcomed them with open arms, but we put them and their children in cages for months, sometimes resulting in permanent separation. We call them rapists, drug dealers, and criminals who threaten the security of our communities. We say they come to take our jobs and resources and not pay taxes.
Those that are allowed to pursue asylum are released under supervision. This requires them to provide their GPS location to authorities at all times—sometimes via ankle monitors—and to check in frequently with ICE and the Immigration Court. They aren’t automatically given a work permit. They aren’t provided housing or SNAP benefits. They don’t have sponsor churches. And they don’t have access to free legal services. Much to my own chagrin, LIA, until very recently, was unable to meet their legal needs.
I’ve met with both Afghans and Central Americans, and I’ve heard their stories. If I just read the stories on paper without identifying information like language, religion and country of origin, I wouldn’t know an Afghan asylum seeker from a Central American asylum seeker. Their stories of persecution, threat of harm, government impotency, state-sanctioned violence, death, loss, extortion, and kidnapping are all the same. The only difference is the bad guys in their stories and the government rhetoric that shapes our perception of their circumstances.
We were in Afghanistan fighting alongside our Afghan allies against the Taliban. Terrorism even came to our shores in 2001. We know these bad guys. But Mexicans and Central Americans have been painted as the bad guys in our American story. They’re the ones, so we’ve been told, who threaten the safety of our communities.
It’s all false rhetoric, this narrative of terrorism. This narrative of drug dealers and rapists. This narrative of freeloaders taking over our communities. It’s all false.
If we look back at our history as an empire, we’ll see this technique of false rhetoric used to exclude on repeat starting with good ol’ Chris C. and the Niña, Pinta and the Santa Maria. [Ed. note: For more background on the colonization of North America, see the CRC Doctrine of Christian Discovery Task Force Report.]
My audience member last Thursday reminded us that first and foremost, the United States belongs to native people groups who inhabited these lands long before Europeans brought weapons and disease and conquered and colonized. White Europeans, despite their lack of rightful ownership, as we know, successfully took the land now known as the United States and claimed it as their own, setting off a chain of migration—chain migration, if you will—of white northern European immigrants. At that time, the false rhetoric described this act as bringing civilization to an uncivilized people and conquering a wild, untamed land rich with resources.
As laws and policies developed in the United States, they favored the addition of more white northern European immigrants, excluding people from China, excluding Asians altogether, excluding Mexicans and others of Hispanic origin, excluding anyone who didn’t look like the dominant white power, always using the same techniques of false rhetoric and playing on the majority’s fear of the other.
And yes, yes, I hear you all when you say the Irish used to be excluded, but at that time, 98 percent of immigrants were admitted to the United States. Even though Irish immigrants were greeted with bigoted rhetoric and limited employment opportunities, they were at least admitted to the United States and not rounded up in massive military-style operations and deported on the very railroads they constructed.
While for many of us it may feel like former-President Trump generated animosity toward Mexican and Central American migrants, he really just tended something that was already thriving and had been present since the inception of this country.
It should come as no surprise to any of us that we’re flinging our doors wide open to Ukrainians. That’s our history. White Europeans, good; everyone else, suspect or bad. It’s all about maintaining the white power structure.
Ukrainians are deserving of immediate U.S. aid as are all displaced peoples, regardless of skin color. We’re the United States; it’s not like we have limited and finite resources. We somehow manage to inflate our defense budget every year by billions of dollars. It’s not too much to ask, I think, that we extend the same helping hand to all asylum seekers rather than our current system of clearly favoring white European populations.
After all, if we scroll back in history and look at the reasons most people are fleeing to the United States, this country played some significant role in the destabilization that led to poverty, food scarcity, government instability and impotency and whatever else is driving people from their homes, whether we directly handed guns and military-style training to cartels or created trade agreements that crippled foreign economies.
The question is, knowing what we know about our history and seeing it all happening again, what are we going to do? We have infinitely more resources and information at our fingertips than people did back in 1942 when we interned thousands of people of Japanese ancestry, or in 1954 during Operation Wetback when we deported the very same people whom we called to our aid during World War II. Social media, news media, television, information in seconds at our fingertips, on our wrists, on our computer screens.
We are not fools; we know what’s happening. We can see the false rhetoric from a mile away. We can see the racism within our law enforcement and carceral state. We can see the way our immigration machine excludes people of color. We can see the way systemic racism and sexism impacts every facet of life in the United States.
We can feel that it is not right with our souls.
Are you going to say something? Are you going to do something?
Instead of liking posts on social media, adding a blue and yellow Ukrainian flag to your profile picture, sharing posts to your stories, what would it look like if you took real action—beyond your screens—to dismantle this broken immigration system that is, in fact, working just as it was intended to do, to exclude those who do not resemble the dominant white power?
If, like me, none of this sits right with your soul, I challenge you to do something.