How to help with the immigration crisis


Immigration is in the news: Huge numbers at the border, asylum seekers waiting in inhumane conditions in Mexico, not enough courts to hear asylum claims, migrant deaths, family separations, deportations, the Wall, exploitation of migrant children in the U.S., pressure on towns and states to provide adequate services.

Sometimes it seems that important considerations are lost in the headlines.

Immigrants are people. Most of us believe that every human deserves dignity, safety, and at least a minimum of well-being.

This country needs workers. Immigrants are a gift.

The decision to migrate — to leave the comfort of one’s home, language, community, culture, and extended family — is painful. The journey is often dangerous and expensive, the situation at the border uncertain. And will the new country be welcoming?

Immigrating legally is impossible for many people. There are restrictions and long waits. Persons fleeing violence, persecution, and/or poverty. or trying to join family members, often don’t qualify, or can’t wait.

For some, there is a fear that ethnic diversity threatens conservative values rooted in European culture and Christianity. No! The diversity of immigrants — their languages, food, music, courage, resilience — does not diminish nonimmigrants. It enriches us, enables us to understand different ways of seeing the world, solving problems, and treating each other.

Being here as an immigrant can be challenging and confusing. Jonathan Escoffery, the son of immigrants from Jamaica, sums up his experience, “In between homes and cultures … at the mercy of capitalism and whiteness.”

There is a long history of immigration to this Island. In the 1600s, settlers came from England. In the 1800s, people from the Portuguese islands, crewmembers on island whaling ships, settled here. In 1905, 25 percent of Oak Bluffs residents were foreign-born, mainly Portuguese. By 1920, almost one-third of the Island population was first- or second-generation immigrants. And more recently, beginning in the l980s, many people have come here from Brazil.

For us nonimmigrants on Martha’s Vineyard, the realities of immigration are often as close as our neighbor, our co-worker, or school buddy. Currently 5,000 people — or 29 percent of our year-round population — are Brazilian. Immigrants from Jamaica, Eastern Europe, and other countries are here as well. Thirty percent of the children in island schools speak English as a second language.

Immigration law and policy are complicated, and frequently change. Here is some information:

Legal immigration is very restricted, with long waits.

A refugee is someone who claims violence or persecution, is thoroughly vetted outside the U.S. before arriving, and receives resettlement assistance and a path to citizenship.

Asylum: Persons crossing the border may apply for asylum. They must prove that someone harmed, or may harm, them based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or particular social group. There are not enough asylum courts to process applicants. fifty percent are rejected and deported. Others are sent back to Mexico to await hearings. Once asylum is granted, people are legally allowed to remain in the U.S. and pursue citizenship after five years. There is a backlog of 700,000 people waiting for resolution of their asylum claims.

Undocumented immigrants are those who cross the border without interacting with border patrol, or overstay a visa previously granted as a tourist, worker, or student. Undocumented immigrants fear deportation, cannot go home for emergencies and then return legally, can be exploited as workers, and do not receive most benefits. Undocumented immigrants have lived an average of 12 years in the U.S., and are rooted in our communities, working and raising children. But even with legal help, obtaining a green card for permanent residency and the opportunity for eventual citizenship is rarely available to them.

Usually after many years, a green card, granting lawful permanent residency, is available to refugees, persons granted asylum, and some undocumented immigrants meeting very strict requirements. Permanent residents can work, get a Social Security card, travel, get visas for some family members, and apply for citizenship.

Temporary protected status can be given, with restrictions, to persons fleeing unsafe conditions in certain countries. This enables them to live here legally for a particular period of time. 

Parole allows certain immigrants who apply for asylum, but do not have a legal basis for admission, to enter and stay in the U.S. temporarily. It is granted primarily for humanitarian reasons. The mostly Venezuelan immigrants who came to the island last fall had parole.

Detention: Currently about 24,000 persons are held in 200 jails and detention centers, awaiting deportation or resolution of their asylum claims.

We in the U.S. are often responsible for the forces driving immigration. Our government has intervened in other countries, to the detriment of their political stability and economic well-being. Authoritarian governments that we have supported do not provide economic and political stability, and make it dangerous for people to oppose them. Our trade agreements often hurt ordinary citizens, for example Mexican farmers impoverished by our exports of cheap corn. 

The drug trade, fueled by demand in the U.S., creates fear and violence. Our outsize use of fossil fuels causes climate change, heat and drought, making it impossible for people to grow crops and remain in their villages.

What needs to be done? 

Make it easier for people to come here legally.

Provide a path to citizenship for undocumented persons who have settled here.

Enable Dreamers, persons who arrived in the U.S. as children with parents entering illegally, to become citizens.

Vastly expand the number of lawyers, judges, courts to process asylum claims.

Consider our responsibility for immigration. How can we feel entitled to cause human hardship around the world, and then do so much to judge immigrants and blame them for coming here seeking safety, work, and opportunity?

Support government and candidates seeking a more humane, flexible immigration policy.

Reduce demand for illegal drugs.

Cut our fossil-fuel use.

Support our immigrant neighbors.

Cynthia Aguilar has been an island resident since 1975. Her mother- and father-in-law were immigrants from Mexico.