Monday, July 27, 2009

Getting to Know the Neighbors: The Faces of Immigration

Shortly after I moved to Ripon in 1998, a trickle of Hispanic immigrants started to arrive in town. As one of the relatively few bilingual Riponites around, I started getting phone calls from Hispanic acquaintances requesting help interpreting at medical appointments, at work, and in many other settings. I came to know a number of Hispanic families and those who worked with them when I volunteered for a collaborative ESL/tutoring project run by several local agencies. I met more working with the Ripon Public Library on a project to create a series of bilingual cultural exchange events at the library.

One day I would find myself interpreting during a medical emergency at the Ripon Medical Center, another day I would be smashing piƱatas with 40 American and Mexican kids at the library. One day I’d be helping a family register their son for the new four year old kindergarten, another day I’d be teaching the American national anthem and learning the Mexican national anthem while we celebrated both Independence Days at the library. One day I interpreted for an arrest, another day I attended a Hispanic child’s birthday party. I found myself inside factories, inside the labyrinthine bureaucracy of our immigration system, and inside the intimate lives of people who would otherwise have been strangers to me.

It’s fair to say that I obtained a richer, more multi-layered view of this community than I could probably have obtained in any other way. Our experience of the place we live in has a great deal to do with our race, our class, our ethnicity, our education level, and the nature of our work. Until I started interpreting for immigrants, I had not experienced Ripon as a person with brown skin, or a 6th grade education -- or a college degree and specialized skills that employers paid no attention to. I had not experienced Ripon from the inside of an ambulance, or as a third shift factory worker, or as an individual living in dire poverty.

What I have seen over the last nine years has provided me with many of my most cherished Proud American moments. I have witnessed deep compassion and respect for our newcomers. I have seen individuals who exemplify the vision of hospitality offered in both the Christian and Hebrew Bibles -- and Islam, for that matter. I have seen everything from cheerful acceptance of cultural differences to enthusiastic celebration and exploration of them. I have witnessed professionalism, neighborliness, and just about every public virtue you can name.

I’ve also seen racism and hatred: a white woman spitting profanities at a group of Hispanics, kids calling immigrants “dirty”, a protester handing out “litter box liners” with an image of the Mexican flag on them. I’ve seen exploitation: workers treated with casual contempt, threatened and intimidated into accepting wages and working conditions no one should have to endure. I’ve also seen native-born Americans experiencing these same things. Working with immigrants has provided me with many of my most painful Ashamed American moments, too, and has been a humbling reminder of just how partial and limited my understanding of my own society has been.

I’ve seen first-hand just how complicated the whole issue of immigration is. I’ve met some legal immigrants who I wish our immigration procedures had weeded out, and illegal immigrants whose courage, work ethic and family values would put most of us to shame – and who face no prospect of legalization despite the obvious gifts they bring. I’ve seen places where our immigration laws have functioned, and others where the system is clearly broken -- punishing the behaviors we say we want, rewarding the behaviors we say we don’t want, failing to protect legitimate national interests, causing widespread, unnecessary suffering -- and costing immense resources to achieve these unfortunate results.

The goal of this series, “Getting to Know the Neighbors: The Faces of Immigration” is to explore Ripon’s immigrant community and its relationship to the broader community. It is to tell the stories of these new neighbors – from Asia, Central America, Eastern Europe, Africa, Canada – in their own words: why they came, how they got here, and what they have found. They will include professors, migrant workers, entrepreneurs, factory workers and students. We will explore how our national immigration policies have shaped their choices, and ours. I will interview legal and undocumented immigrants, those who have achieved citizenship, those who have sought it, and those who have no chance for it under our current laws.

In-depth profiles of a number of local immigrant households will alternate with articles addressing broader issues: the economics of immigration, current immigration policy, immigrants in Ripon’s schools, and how local institutions are responding to the reality of immigration. Ripon’s experience will be put in a national context, but the focus will be on the immigrants themselves, and on the perspectives of those who work with, hire, serve, teach, and otherwise deal in various ways with our new neighbors.

In the end, I have come to believe that the experience of immigrants in Ripon offers an extraordinarily rich lens through which to view our community in all its beauty, strengths, and failings. How we welcome immigrants – or don’t – says a lot about who we are. This series – “Getting to Know the Neighbors” – is thus also about Getting to Know Us. Sometimes it is through the eyes of strangers that we see ourselves most clearly. It is my hope that this series will spark a rich dialogue in Ripon about not only the “strangers” among us, but also about who we are and who we aspire to be.

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