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EXECUTIVE REFORMS: Families of U.S. Armed Forces Members and Enlistees

23 Nov

MilitaryThe package of reforms introduced by the President includes new policies on the U.S. of parole-in-place or deferred action for the family members of those seeking to enlist in the military.

Parole in place is a function of the Department’s discretionary authority to parole anyone into the U.S.  Parole in place is a mechanism to allow the Secretary of Homeland Security to parole an individual into the U.S., providing that individual with legal status and the ability to seek adjustment of status.  Recently, the government has used parole in place to allow the undocumented spouses, parents and children of  Servicemembers, including Veterans, to adjust status We discussed this process here in August.

The new policy builds on this use of parole in place.  The Secretary of Homeland Security has instructed the CIS to work with the Department of Defense to “address the availability of parole in place and deferred action to the spouse, parent or child of a U.S. citizen or resident who seeks to enlist in the armed forces.

The “seeks to enlist” criteria is a major expansion of this authority and may provide residence to the close family members of those who want to join the military.

Benach Ragland is offering reduced fee consultations for individuals who may be covered by any of these reforms.  To schedule an appointment, please call 202-644-8600 or email msanchez@benachragland.com.  You can learn the latest news on this blog, on our Facebook page and can follow us on Twitter: @BenachRagland.

La Santa Cecilia Celebrates the Beatles, Migrant Workers and Strawberries.

6 Aug

For the last few years, La Santa Cecilia, a Mexican-American band, based in Los Angeles, California, has not only made excellent music, but has also championed the plight on undocumented immigrants in the U.S.  Their 2013 song “Hielo” told the stories of intertwined lives in the immigrant community.  The video for Hielo included many undocumented immigrant activists including Erika Andiola and her nearly-deported mother.  When La Santa Cecilia won a Grammy, they dedicated it to undocumented workers in the U.S.

Now, they have released a beautiful version of the classic Beatles song “Strawberry Fields Forever,” with a video that pays homage to the workers who get the strawberry from farm to table.  Naturally, we would not bother you with a political music video if the music was not superb, so enjoy La Santa Cecilia’s lovely take on this classic.

Welcome Back Rachael and Satsita!

6 May

Last week, Benach Ragland began to feel normal again as attorney Rachael Petterson returned from maternity leave and Satsita Muradova joined the firm.  It is really nice to have old friends close.

Rachael has beeMae 2n on leave since late January when baby Mae Bozelli decided to make her appearance nearly two months early.  Of course, earlier that week, we had just started our discussions about handling Rachael’s cases when she went on leave in April!  Mae gave Rachael and all of us a very real reminder that nature does what it wants regardless of our schedule.  Rachael and her husband, Joe, were delighted to welcome this little girl, who faced a number of challenges due to being born early.  Mae was able to go home just a couple of weeks ago and we can not wait to welcome her to Benach Ragland.  The BR Kid Crew, previously numbered at 7, is also beyond excited for a new playmate.  All of us know how difficult it is for a young mother to leave her baby home as she returns to work.  A week in, however, and Rachael has not missed a beat.

We are also happy to announce that Satsita Muradova has joined the firm as a Senior Paralegal.  This is also another homecoming.  Satsita began her career in U.S. immigration law with Andres BeSatsitanach nearly a decade ago.  A lawyer in her native Chechnya, Satsita brought some of the first human rights cases against Russia in the European Court of Human Rights for atrocities in the Chechen wars.  As too many people have learned, there is a price to pay for standing up to Moscow and Satsita decided that she was no longer safe in the former Soviet Union and obtained protection in the U.S.   Years later, she helped one of Andres’ clients, a young Russian man seek asylum because he refused to join the Russian army because he did not want to participate in human rights violations in Chechnya.  In supporting the claim, we relied upon the cases that Satsita filed in the European Court of Human Rights to document the atrocities.  Satsita continued her career as an immigration paralegal with Dree Collopy and when Andres, Thomas and Dree reunited at Benach Ragland, it was only natural that one day Satsita would rejoin them in practice.

We know that these additions will help us continue to serve our clients better and will reinforce the sense of family and community that we have tried to build in our offices.  We know that a happy workplace is a key ingredient to serving our clients better and we just got a whole lot happier here to have our friends with us again.

Coke’s Beautiful Ad

3 Feb

 

Coca-Cola had a beautiful advertisement during the Super Bowl.  The ad featured America the Beautiful sung in a variety of languages by Americans of all different ethnicities.  It is easy to be jaded and cynical in that this was an attempt to sell one of the more unhealthy products we have created.  However, in the current political climate and the debates raging on immigration, identity, diversity and multiculturalism, the Coke ad showed that one of the most successful companies on the planet has cast its lot with a multicultural and inclusive America.  Of course, it made the decision to produce the ad based upon demographics, market research and a bottom line analysis and not due to adherence to a great moral principle.  But honestly, who cares?  Purity tests are for Stalin.  Coke’s ad represented a vision of America that is not only accurate but also beautiful in its kaleidoscopic inclusivity.

Lots of words have been written about the backlash against Coke for airing the add.  We will not waste our time on these modern-day know-nothings.  They are destined for the dustbin of history and we hope that by failing to give them more attention, we will only accelerate that process.

What the Coke ad did for me was remind me of a talk I have given to second graders at Lafayette Elementary School in DC twice in the past three years and I will certainly do it again when my youngest reaches that grade.  The second graders study immigration and I get to spend a morning with the seven year olds and talk about immigration with them.  It is always fascinating and hilarious.  But what is so amazing is how seven year olds simply get it.  They understand why people immigrate.  Even if they do not understand the complexities, they understand that people have come to America because they dream of a better life.  The concept is entirely natural to them.

Mr. Kings class

I always start my discussion with the second graders by explaining that America is an idea.  Unlike, for example, being French, a person is not an American because her mother, her mother’s mother, her great grandmother and so on were all born here.  A person is American because she and her family believed in the ideals of the American experiment, ideals we have not always held up, fought wars to establish and keep struggling to realize.  I explain to them that their parents or grandparents or great-grandparents came to this country so that one day they could attend Lafayette Elementary, so that they would be raised believing that they can do anything.  So railsplitter_i52428_450px obama-childthat their lot in life would not be pre-determined by the circumstances of their births.  This may seem like high-falutin’ stuff for second graders, but they understand that America is not a land of kings and czars, but a land where an unschooled frontier lawyer could become the greatest president this country has ever seen and that a mixed race son of an immigrant could be the first black President.

After discussing that for a while, we turn the talk to tacos.  The kids always understand that the food they love comes from somewhere else and they are always grateful for the presence of these cuisines that they have come to love.  Growing up, I thought all food was Italian (it was Long Island), but these kids are surrounded by Ethiopian, Chinese, Japanese, Lebanese, Central American and African cuisine.  They are bearers of remarkably diverse culinary passports.

So, the Coke ad reminded me of these kids who understand and value immigration and think that their world is a more interesting and better place for having a broad spectrum of ethnicities at their feet.  They are growing up in an age of incredible richness and texture, a richness that was captured beautifully by the Coke ad.

Witnessing Justice: Transgender Woman Granted Asylum in Baltimore by FOBR Liz Keyes

22 Nov

This is a guest post by FOBR Liz Keyes, who direct the Immigrant Rights Clinic at the University of Baltimore.

Today was a beautiful day in Baltimore immigration court. A young woman from Honduras, born male but always feeling female inside, won asylum after suffering relentless torment from her earliest days until she fled at age 17. Everyone she ever knew in Honduras treated her with cruelty, from the teachers who brutally punished her, to the classmates hurling slurs, to her father who beat her viciously, and her sister who attacked with her with a machete when she saw our client wearing girl’s clothes. The brutality escalated the older she got, and after being attacked with knives and a gun by homophobic gang members, she finally fled, deeply traumatized by her experience. She knew nothing of asylum in the United States, and did not apply within one year, as the law requires. When she came to the attention of immigration authorities in New Jersey, she was placed in detention for months–and the wonderful non-profit Immigration Equality found her there, filed an initial asylum application for her, and got her out of immigration detention.

Since she had friends in Maryland, she moved here and became a client of the University of Baltimore School of Law Immigrant Rights Clinic. We assigned her case to a second year law student, Jose Perez, who threw himself into the case, interviewing our client many times, finding a psychologist through Physicians for Human Rights who could provide an evaluation of our client’s level of trauma, and developing an extraordinarily comprehensive set of evidence corroborating exactly how bad life was for transgendered individuals in Honduras, as well as a compelling legal brief addressing the complications of the case. Jose could have handed off his work to another student this fall, but he wanted to stay on and see it through–even knowing that his firstborn child was due three weeks before the hearing date.

Today, his work and commitment paid off.

As a clinical teacher, it is hard to let a student stand in the well of the court alone, even when you know how prepared they are. The burden feels too great, and I well remember being in the same position twice as a law student. But he had done his preparation, and as he said in a last email to me last night, “LET’S DO THIS THING.”

So he did. And it went so well that I felt bewildered. Grateful and moved, but bewildered. First, the attorney for the government let him know it was a strong case, and he only had a few reservations. Then the judge said that because the written application was so extensive and detailed, we could skip over much of our planned testimony. Jose asked a few questions about our client’s childhood experiences, eliciting some tremendous emotion, after which he simply asked her if her statement in the record was truthful and correct. She said yes, and Jose moved quickly through remaining issues, including what the client’s hopes were for her life here. This question finally elicited a small smile, as she said she hoped she could marry some day and adopt a child. She spoke of how she wanted to study and work, if the court was kind enough to grant her status here.

And when the government assured the Judge that it had no opposition to asylum, the Judge issued her opinion, welcomed our client to America, and said, “America is grateful you are here.”

The words stunned me. And perhaps I misheard. I tend to prepare for the worst, and imagine every way a case could go off track. So I was already disoriented by how well everything had gone. But this is what I heard, and these words moved me deeply. They seemed to create a perfect symmetry: this young woman who had known nothing but suffering and rejection for the first 17 years of her life, was being accorded respect and welcome by our government, by every single individual in that courtroom.

I know that life for transgender people in the United States remains dangerous and difficult. But this morning was a beautiful, inspiring measure of how far our society has moved toward tolerance and acceptance. The child who had been so unloved was finally welcomed, and not one person this morning stood in the way of that just outcome.

For our client, today meant safety, and the promise that she could start building the life she dreamed of, free from fear of returning to a country where she would likely be killed for being herself.

For my student, it was a beautiful reminder of why he had come to law school, and why he wants to be an immigration lawyer.

And for me, it was a much needed reminder of what justice can look like. It was a privilege to be in that court this morning to observe justice in action. May it always be so. La lucha sigue.

Administrative Relief for Military Families via Parole in Place

19 Nov

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Members of the U.S. military make significant sacrifices in order to serve their country.  Yet, many dedicated U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents are either prevented from serving in the military or their service is considerably limited because of who they love and who their family members are.  Active service members are often stripped of their security clearances, unable to advance up the ranks, and threatened with discharge from service if they have undocumented spouses, parents, and children.  Even more shocking, just recently the Pentagon confirmed that it plans to bar American citizens and lawful permanent residents from enlisting in any branch of the U.S. military – the Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, Army, and Coast Guard – if those citizens and permanent residents have undocumented spouses and children.  The Pentagon confirmed that the reason for this rule is that citizens and permanent residents who have undocumented spouses and children living with them are thought by the Pentagon to be committing the crime of “harboring.”  Obviously, there may be security reasons behind these policies; however, there must be a way to both protect the security of the United States while also assisting and honoring U.S. citizens and permanent residents who want to dedicate their lives to serving this country.  U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents should not be faced with the impossible choice between serving their country and being with the ones they love.

For these reasons, there is concern that members of the U.S. Armed Forces or Selected Reserve of the Ready Reserve face stress and anxiety because of the immigration status of their family members In the United States.  Military preparedness can be adversely affected if active military members, who can be quickly called into active duty, are worried or anxious about the immigration status of the spouses, parents, and children.  Veterans, who have served our country and made significant sacrifices for the United States, may also face stress and anxiety because of the immigration status of their family members.  In response to these concerns, the Obama Administration and the President’s previous Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, attempted to address some of these issues by applying existing legal remedies in ways that assist members of the U.S. military, veterans, and their families.  One of these policy initiatives revolves around the legal mechanism of Parole in Place.

Pursuant to INA § 245(a), adjustment of status to that of lawful permanent resident is only available to an individual “who was inspected and admitted or paroled into the United States.”  Thus, an individual who has entered without inspection is ineligible to become a permanent resident while physically present in this country, even if married to a U.S. citizen.  Instead, the individual must depart the U.S. in order to obtain an immigrant visa at a U.S. consulate abroad.  However, such a departure from the U.S. consequently renders the individual inadmissible to reenter this country for ten years after the date of departure.  As a result, the process to obtain permanent resident status for an individual who entered the U.S. without inspection affects not only that individual, but also, his or her U.S. citizen or permanent resident family members.

This situation presents more serious, unique hardships on military families, which is why the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) identified Parole in Place (“PIP”) under INA § 212(d)(5)(A) as an administrative mechanism that could avoid imposing such difficult circumstances on military families.  In a letter to Congress dated August 30, 2010, the Secretary of Homeland Security identified several tools that the Department utilizes “to help military dependents secure permanent immigration status in the United States as soon as possible.”  Among these tools, the Secretary identified PIP as a tool “to minimize periods of family separation, and to facilitate the adjustment of status within the United States by immigrants who are the spouses, parents and children of military members.”  PIP is especially significant in the support it provides to military families during wartime.  It is a purely discretionary remedy that takes into account the negative impact that the separation of family members may have on a military member’s morale, readiness, or ability to complete his or her service.

Despite this clearly articulated policy from the Secretary of Homeland Security, however, some U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”) offices, the agency within DHS responsible for adjudicating applications for immigration benefits, questioned whether PIP should be granted to certain family members of active duty members of the U.S. Armed Forces, individuals in the Selected Reserve of the Ready Reserve, or individuals who previous served in the U.S. military.  Similarly, even when PIP was granted to spouses, parents, and children of U.S. military members and veterans, some USCIS offices questioned the legal authority to actually grant adjustment of status to these individuals based on their PIP.  These questions led to inconsistent adjudications of PIP requests and adjustments of status based on PIP throughout the country.  Ultimately, USCIS decided that it needed to clarify its policy regarding these two questions by issuing a policy memorandum.  In response, many USCIS offices put such PIP requests and PIP-based adjustment of status applications on hold, awaiting the clarified policy from its Office of the Director.  Accordingly, many members of the U.S. military, veterans, and their families have been waiting – some for several years – for their family members’ PIP requests and PIP-based adjustment of status applications to be adjudicated.  This resulted in revoked security clearances and the inability to advance for many military members, as well as negative impact on service members’ morale and readiness to serve.

Thankfully, the waiting is now over.  In a policy memorandum dated November 15, 2013, the Office of the Director for USCIS clarified the agency’s policies regarding PIP.  First, USCIS confirmed that PIP is a discretionary remedy available to spouses, parents, and children of active members of the U.S. Armed Forces, individuals in the Selected Reserve of the Ready Reserve, and individuals who previously serviced in the U.S. Armed Forces or the Selected Reserve of the Ready Reserve.  Second, after a lengthy legal analysis and discussion of the specific language of the Immigration and Nationality Act, USCIS verified that a grant of PIP cures inadmissibility for being present without having been admitted or paroled and for being one who “arrives” at an undesignated time and place.  This means that an individual who entered the U.S. without inspection, but subsequently received PIP, is not inadmissible for these grounds.  Consequently, if he or she is otherwise eligible to adjust status, he or she may do so while present in the U.S., thus avoiding lengthy separations and negative impacts on the U.S. military member’s morale, readiness, and ability to serve.

As stated by Secretary Napolitano in her letter to Congress, the purpose of PIP is “to minimize periods of family separation, and to facilitate the adjustment of status within the United States by immigrants who are the spouses, parents, and children of military members.”  USCIS has now reaffirmed that purpose and will move forward in adjudicating all of the PIP requests and adjustment of status applications that have been placed on hold.  Many members of the U.S. military will no longer have to wait with revoked security clearances and the inability to progress in their military careers.  Their ability to complete their service to our country will no longer be negatively impacted.  They will no longer be faced with the impossible choice between their service to the United States of America and their family members.  We commend USCIS for making these important clarifications and for doing its part to ensure that our military members are ready and able to complete their service and our veterans are cared for and honored for their service to our country.

This post was written by Dree K. Collopy.

Meet Jim Mowrer, Running Against Steve King of Iowa

23 Aug

Mowrer with ACB and JDC

On Tuesday, August 20, approximately fifty people gathered at Benach Ragland’s offices in Washington, DC to meet and support a 27 year old candidate for Congress from the 4th District of IowaJim Mowrer, born on a farm in Boone Iowa, and a veteran of our war in Iraq, is challenging the incumbent Steve King for his seat in Congress.  Readers of this blog need no introduction to Steve King as he is a leader of the extreme anti-immigrant faction of American politics.  With little results to his name, King has emerged as a rallying point for the “deport ‘em all” crowd with his willingness to say things that are not only insulting but patently and verifiably false.

As this post is about Jim Mowrer and the talents that we hope he will take to Congress, we will not belabor King’s venality.  However, King has seemingly been driven mad by the prospect of immigration reform, and like a wounded beast, his attacks have grown more desperate and chaotic.  In the past month alone, King has managed to earn rebukes from the majority of his own party as well as his church.  Briefly, in the past six weeks, King has:

To list all the idiotic things that Steve King has done and said, as well as the many people who are growing tired of King’s obsession with immigration to the exclusion of the best interests of his constituents would be to devote too much space to this clown. Especially, when there is so much to say about Jim Mowrer.

 

For us, it started with the fact that Mowrer simply is “not Steve King.”  That alone is cause for support.  However, on getting to know the man, it is quickly apparent that Mowrer is a special individual who can make a positive impact on Congress and our public debate.  Mowrer radiates Iowa earnestness and optimism despite a challenging life. Born on a farm in Boone, Iowa, Mowrer lost his father at the age of seven to a farming accident.  His mother had to leave the farm for the town and, for a while, the Mowrers relied upon the social safety net.  Mowrer is careful to credit his mother’s hard work, but is not blind to the role that Social Security survivor benefits provided to his family at their moment of tragedy.  Mowrer went to Iraq with the Iowa National Guard.  Mowrer points to his service in Iraq as when the immigration issue hit home for him.  Mowrer describes fighting alongside permanent residents and the profound impression that their patriotism had for him.  To Mowrer, they were Americans as much as anyone else; they were his brothers in arms.  Mowrer movingly describes putting on citizenship ceremonies in Iraq for his fellow soldiers and the pride that they and he felt during those moments.

Mowrer returned from Iraq and went back to Iowa.  He immediately noticed the extreme Steve King fatigue that residents of the 4th District were experiencing.  He also noted their embarrassment with the Congressman’s antics.  Mowrer knew that King did not represent the people that he grew up among in the 4th District and that those people were suffering while King embarked on his diatribe against immigrants instead of focusing on issues that matter to Iowa.  For example, there is still no Farm Bill, an essential part of Iowa’s economy.

At Benach Ragland on Tuesday, Mowrer promised to be a leader on immigration reform.  While it may be enough for him not to be Steve King, Mowrer said he would lead on immigration reform.  He supports comprehensive immigration reform, the path to citizenship and the Senate bill.  But, just as importantly, Mowrer has a deep respect for immigrants.  As he says, all his brothers in Iraq had “U.S.” on their uniforms and it did not matter where they were from, where they were born or whether they were residents or citizens.  When he needed back up, they were there.

Mowrer at BR

And we will be there all the way for Mowrer.  He has a chance to unseat King.  Defeating King would send a message to all those who follow him that the era of demonizing immigrants is over and the era of solutions and inclusion is here.  There is no room in the public debate for the hateful rhetorical bombs that King lobs.  His followers seldom seem to have the same enthusiastic disregard for the facts and the will of their constituents.  His defeat would send them running to the hills.  King was pushed to the limit in 2012 by a candidate who did not come from the district.  He does not have a war chest for this race and he has alienated his allies in the GOP.  But, most importantly, King is out of step with his constituents.  In a recent poll, the 4th District of Iowa overwhelmingly supported the principles in the Senate immigration bill, including the path to citizenship.

King’s deranged obsession seems to be catching up to him.

 

Mowrer’s campaign website is http://www.mowrerforiowa.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/MowrerforIowa

Twitter: @JimMowrer

A Saturday with CASA de Maryland

17 Jun

On Saturday, June 15, BR team members Andres Benach, Sandra Arboleda, and Mariela Sanchez-Odicio spent the morning at CASA de Maryland in a free legal clinic in anticipation of immigration reform.  In these events, we are cast as the experts on immigration law, but I am sure that we learn so much more from greeting the community than we provide in legal advice.

SM MSO

ACB

CASA de Maryland is an outstanding organization and on the front lines of so many essential civil rights battles.  CASA has provided a safe place to hire day laborers where a wage can be negotiated and the impact on the community is minimal.  Moreover, they have educated the workers on their rights and provided them with tools to track their hours and maintain records in case of a wage dispute.  CASA offers English classes, health screenings, citizenship workshops, tax consultation and so much more.  They led the successful fight for the Maryland Dream Act and have mobilized thousands in support of immigration reform.  These efforts have made CASA a target of the anti-immigrant wingnuts who use every mention of CASA in the media as a chance to spread their venom.  Fortunately, these weak efforts have failed to deter, and have even invigorated,  CASA’s commitment to its mission.Assembly

On a beautiful Saturday, members of the immigrant community heard from county and state officials about the services available to them.  They heard from the police department of Prince George’s County that their mission was to protect the community and not to enforce immigration laws.   Children hit the moon bounce while their parents met with tax professionals, lawyers, nurses and financial advisers.  During my morning, I met eight people seeking legal advice.  All of them were from Mexico or Central America and had a similar sad story to tell: they left home as teenagers to escape poverty, violence or to help their families.  They had lived their adult lives in America, occupying the lowest rung of our society, doing hard work for scant pay.  However, all of them recognized that their sacrifices were for their children and that, maybe, this country would recognize that their values are American values and welcome them in to the greater community.  While I spoke to clients, Sandra and Mariela completed requests under the Freedom of Information Act to get copies of client files from the government.Kids

A full morning of work and we were ready for lunch.  While CASA offered pizza, there was also the option of homemade pupusas.  Now, if you have not tried a pupusa, do yourself a favor and find one as soon as you can.  If you can not find a pupuseria, just find a weekend adult soccer game.  There are sure to be women selling pupusas on the sideline.

Hope was in the air on Saturday morning and a great and strong force for good was mobilizing.  It is hard not to be excited and hopeful for the country’s future after spending a beautiful Saturday in a beautiful community.

Feliz cumpleaños abuela

1 May

Today, May Day, would have been my grandmother, Marta Socarras y San Martin’s 94th birthday.  She was born in Havana in 1919 as the world witnessed the violent death of kingly empires and the birth of communism as a state philosophy.  How odd it seems that an ideology that gripped workers and soldiers in Europe would one day take hold on a non-industrial island in the Caribbean.  In many ways, communism was an accompaniment to my grandmother’s life.  Born less than two years after the ten days that shook the world, my grandmother saw the entire arc of communism’s influence from a nascent and vulnerable state to an ideology that gripped much of the world and eventually took over her homeland and to its death whimpers as Russia and China abandoned it.  I smile to think of what my grandmother would have thought of today’s heirs to communism- Chavez, Morales and Maduro. Payasos.

Fidel

My grandmother lived an extraordinary life.  Born to one of the great Latin American families– yes, that San Martin— with roots in the Americas with the first Spanish explorers, my grandmother had many advantages as a young woman in Cuba as many as a woman could have in early Twentieth Century Cuba.  She graduated from the University of Havana with a law degree in 1941, about thirty years before U.S. schools regularly admitted women.  Her diploma hangs on my office wall.  She served as a district attorney in the provinces and carried a revolver on her rounds.  Anyone who thought that they were messing with a defenseless female was in for a rude shock.  Nonetheless, she was always a lady, horrified about the idea of leaving the house without lipstick.  In 1959, she shared the jubilation of all Cubans when Batista was driven from power by these mysterious bearded men from the mountains.  In fact, during the early days of the Revolution, the new regime held a parade.  The column of tanks and soldiers moved down Calle 23, a major thoroughfare.  When the tank carrying Fidel Castro and his leadership passed the home of my grandmother’s uncle, where the whole family had gathered to watch the parade, they lowered the tank’s gun and saluted the home of Manuel Costales, my great grand uncle and a major anti-Batista politician.  Yet, when the nature of the revolution became clear, my family left Cuba one October, never again to stroll the Prado or the Malecon, or the beach at Varadero.

Malecon

Instead, they settled into New Jersey and this was where my grandmother showed what she was made of.  With an elderly mother, two young boys (my father and uncle), an infirm brother and a worthless husband (not my grandfather, her second husband.  After him, she was done with husbands), my grandmother went to work at rebuilding her family and her life in el norte in October 1959.  I always wonder how that first winter must have felt, although most Cuban women of her generation and station had mink coats for their shopping trips to New York.  But living in New Jersey was a whole new life and nothing in her life in Cuba could have prepared her for the new challenges exile would present.  Her education and pedigree meant little in the U.S., and all she had to rely upon was her own ganas, which she had in buckets.  During the early years in the U.S, my grand uncle was often traveling with the U.S. government throughout Latin America discussing the Cuban revolution with intellectuals.  My great grandmother was nearly eighty and my father and uncle were teenagers facing school in a new country and language.  My grandmother was forty, my age, and had to reinvent herself.  At that point, my family history turns from pedigree and privilege to struggle and striving.  Fluent in English, my grandmother found work as a Spanish teacher at Verona High School and also taught Berlitz after school (“they had one chair- for the student”).  White and educated, I can not say that my grandmother’s experience is the typical immigrant experience (as a friend says “Cubans get a green card and a parade in Miami when they come.”)  However, the need to reinvent oneself to support a family, the need to pursue opportunity where it may lie, and to find shelter from persecution are universal themes of the immigrant story.

Like most immigrants, my grandmother worked her hands to the bone while supporting her sons, brother and mother.  At one point, both my grand uncle and my great grandmother were simultaneously hospitalized with heart attacks and neither knew about the other.  Imagine the strain that put on my grandmother.  She put my father into the position to earn his Ph.D. and become an internationally celebrated scientist, which gave me the chance to do the work I do with immigrants.  In an irony on par with my grandmother’s birth on May Day, I was the first family member born in the U.S., and I was born on July 26, the symbolic starting date of the Cuban Revolution.  I don’t know whether that even registered at the time with my grandmother who was too busy flush with joy and excitement over her first grandchild.  Always, family and love were more important than politics to my grandmother.

My grandmother outlived communism and has left a legacy of four grandchildren and three great grandchildren, who were lucky enough to share a little time on earth with her.  I thought about putting a photo of my grandmother up in this blog, but she hated photos of herself.  Like her immigrant life in America, she kept the focus off herself and gave her all to her family, who she carried on her back into this new world without Castros, Maos, Stalins and Ches.

STEM Sells: But the U.S. Economy Depends on the Arts and Humanities Too

22 Mar

Increasing the number of immigrant and non-immigrant visas available to highly-skilled workers – particularly in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) – currently appears to be the least controversial and most bipartisan aspect of the various immigration reform proposals being discussed, debated, and leaked to the public, even if the discussion about how to increase the number of STEM visas remains unclear. If certain U.S. industries – particularly tech industries that could easily pull the plug and set up shop elsewhere – contend that they cannot hire enough qualified workers because of visa limits, who is to argue in response that the U.S. does not need more engineers and rocket scientists? Everyone can get behind increasing STEM jobs. However, when we propose stapling a green card only to those diplomas earned in STEM fields, and when visas available to artists, writers, educators, historians, and musicians are limited to those who demonstrate “extraordinary” ability in their field, we risk losing the contributions of those who can demonstrate only “high skill” in non-STEM fields. We risk the imbalance that comes with planning to “overbuild” in one area only.

The focus on highly-skilled STEM workers, to the exclusion of those highly skilled in the arts and humanities, misses a critical component of a lasting healthy economy: across a range of industries, long-term career success requires both in-depth knowledge and skills that apply to a specific field or position and a broad range of skills and knowledge that apply to a range of fields and positions. A 2009 survey of more than 300 employers (conducted by Hart Research Associates on behalf of the Association of American Colleges and Universities) demonstrates that a high percentage of employers want colleges and universities to place more emphasis on written and oral communication (89%), critical thinking and analytic reasoning (81%), complex problem solving (75%), teamwork skills in diverse groups (71%), creativity and innovation (70%), information literacy (68%), and quantitative reasoning (63%) – the skills that are the hallmarks of a liberal arts education.

There is no doubt that American culture benefits from the contributions of those foreign-born workers educated and skilled in the arts and humanities, but the U.S. economy benefits as well, not only in the arts and entertainment industries, but even in STEM fields. In a September 21, 2011 opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, Norm Augustine, the former CEO of Lockheed Martin, argued that the long-term success of the U.S. economy requires those educated in historical literacy: “In my position as CEO of a firm employing over 80,000 engineers, I can testify that most were excellent engineers — but the factor that most distinguished those who advanced in the organization was the ability to think broadly and read and write clearly.”

In an acceptance speech at the Academy Awards in 1988, the Austrian-born screenwriter, producer, filmmaker, artist, and journalist Billy Wilder thanked the unnamed American consul officer in Mexicali, Mexico who permitted Wilder to enter the United States in 1934 despite a lack of proper documentation – because Wilder told the officer that he wrote movies – stating simply “write some good ones.” Wilder became one of the most successful filmmakers in the entertainment industry, in addition to shaping American film culture. Immigration reform of course must prioritize the needs of certain growing U.S. industries, but those industries in turn must recognize that the long-term success of the U.S. economy depends on a broader spectrum of qualifications than the singular focus on highly-skilled STEM workers permits. Like Billy Wilder’s consul officer, immigration reform must have the foresight to recognize that those who enrich our lives through the arts and humanities contribute to both the culture and to the economy.