Lee Urges Immigrants to Work for Policy Reforms By LYDIA GANS

Special to the Planet
Tuesday April 05, 2005

“Reuniting families, protecting refugees, encouraging diversity and cultural exchange—that’s what our country is supposed to be about.” 

This was Congresswoman Barbara Lee talking about immigration policies. About 60 people gathered at St. Joseph the Worker Church last Saturday to hear from immigration experts and to get one-on-one help with their immigration problems from a panel of lawyers who volunteered for the event. 

Motivated by Rep. Lee (D-Oakland), the meeting was organized by BOCA, Berkeley Organizing Congregations For Action, an organization of 12 congregations of different faiths to develop grass roots action on issues of, in their words, “justice, equity, dignity and democracy for every member of our community.” 

Of the many requests for help Congresswoman Lee gets from constituents, an overwhelming number of them, she said, come from people asking for assistance with immigration problems. The meeting brought together the people who needed help with teams of lawyers specializing in immigration and dedicated to this kind of community service. 

Lawyer Julia Markus explained, “I’m fascinated by people from different cultures and I wanted to make a difference,” she said. “Here you deal with one person at a time.”  

Another lawyer, Fariba Faiz, said, “I came here because I love community meetings, that is the time that as an attorney I get to help people who otherwise wouldn’t go to an attorney because they find the cost prohibitive. But at a community meeting you get to see actual people. Sometimes it’s a small problem easy to help.” 

Mark Silverman, with the Immigrant Legal Resources Center, frequently organizes and participates in meetings like this one. 

“We do meetings with two goals in mind,” he said, “to provide people with information about their immigration options so that if they have options they pursue them under current law and to warn people away from scams where they end up spending thousands of dollars and exposing themselves to getting deported. And the other reason ... is to draw people to the meetings so the people can get involved in actively changing immigration laws. I think we’re in a critical point in U.S. history where immigrants for the first time can play a key role in changing the laws that affect and often separate their families.”  

Separation from their families is a big issue for many immigrants. Marta Higuera has been trying to get a green card (permanent residence) for seven years. The mother of a 8-year-old son in school here, she works, pays taxes, has a Social Security number. She said she would like to take her boy to visit family in Mexico but without a green card she would not be able to come back into the U.S. once she left. She said she has gotten no response to her appeals to the immigration service. 

Mac Jatto came to Berkeley from Nigeria 9 years ago on a student visa. He too, has family abroad. He has been studying for the ministry and will graduate with his doctorate this May. He had been able to travel back and forth to see his family in London but, he said, “Since 9/11 it has become a problem.” 

Jatto said he would like to regularize his immigration status and his pastor at the McGee Avenue Baptist Church applied on his behalf almost three years ago but he said he has gotten no response. He said he knows of several other ministerial students from Africa who are in the same situation. 

“People who came to study and after study they want to be a part of America,” Jatto said. 

In spite of streamlining, with the United States immigration service, formerly INS, now USCIS (Citizenship and Immigration Services), promising easier access, people are finding themselves in limbo for long periods of time. From observations made by lawyers and clients at Saturday’s forum, it was apparent that the fear of terrorism since 9-11 has made things much more difficult. 

Too often, immigrants are being dealt with almost as though they are suspected terrorists, many said. There is legislation before Congress, legislation that would extend principles of fairness and justice to immigrants, Barbara Lee pointed out, but there are also several bills being proposed that she called mean spirited and contrary to what our nation stands for. 

Lee said she hoped that the conference, and others like it, not only help those with individual immigration problems, but also encouraged immigrants to participate in community actions to reform immigration policies.(