ST. JOSEPH — They are called immigrants – legal or illegal, documented or undocumented. They are called asylum seekers, refugees and Dreamers.
Felipe Soares, a so-called “Dreamer” who came to the U.S. from Brazil with his family when he was 11, prefers another term to describe himself.
“I’m an American. I’m just an American without papers,” said Soares, an Andrews University graduate who took part in a panel discussion on immigration issues in St. Joseph on Thursday, sponsored by Interfaith Action. “That’s the term I prefer – American. It’s time to redefine what it means to be an American. Is it papers, or something else? That’s the question we need to ask ourselves.”
Soares was joined by Nevine Khalil, a journalist and native of Egypt now living in Berrien County; Teresa Latino-Adams, from Nicaragua, who advises women seeking asylum in the U.S.; Erin Corcoran, executive director of The Kroch Institute of International Peace Studies at Notre Dame University, who has served as legal counsel to unaccompanied migrant children; and Daniel Inquilla, a Berrien County native and lawyer specializing in family immigration law.
The discussion at the Rose Center was moderated by the Rev. Sid Mohn, who, for 35 years, was president of Heartland Alliance, working with vulnerable populations in 20 countries. The event was the first in a series titled “Immigration – Facts, Faces, Fears and Faith,” continuing until May.
Soares has lived in the United States since October 2001, and is now a pastor in a north Chicago church. But his future is uncertain because of the fluctuating status of the Deferred Actions for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which covers adults who were brought to the U.S. as children.
The changing positions on DACA last year “threw us into a crazy, crazy scenario,” Soares said of about 25 Dreamers at the university at the time. “People were panicking. They were fearing for their own future, and fearing for the future of their families.”
He used the opportunity to start a support group “that diverted our attention from the chaos of politics to the hope of the Gospel,” Soares said. “I have faith that myself and those in my situation will find a way to prevail.”
Uncertainty and limited options seems to be the situation for many people seeking a new life here, panelists said.
Inquilla was hesitant to say that the U.S. immigration system is broken, noting that it depends on your perspective. For those whose goal is to slow the movement of people into the country, it’s working, he said.
For families and those trying to follow the law “it could be better – it could be a lot better,” Inquilla said.
On a humanitarian basis, “we’ve sort of lost the heart of it,” Corcoran said.
One way for immigrants to come and stay here is to be sponsored by a relative who is a citizen or who holds a “green card” allowing them to live and work in the U.S. indefinitely.
That can happen as quickly as six months, or as long as 21 years, as in the case for one of Inquilla’s clients, whose sister first applied for him in 1998. The process is limited to certain relations and the number of people who can be brought here is restricted.
While sometimes denigrated as “chain migration,” Inquilla said “it’s not a very effective chain.”
Corcoran said there is no surge of refugees coming to the U.S.-Mexico border, and that the numbers have been declining for a decade.
What has changed is that more women and children – accompanied and unaccompanied – are arriving from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, fleeing violence in their countries and their homes, Corcoran said.
“There is not a border security crisis,” Corcoran said. “Are the people leaving their countries in crisis? Absolutely.”
Those fleeing violence and persecution have a legal right to apply for asylum, from either inside or outside the U.S., she said. And asylum seekers don’t give up their parental rights, she added.
For a period of time, families were being separated from their children. Corcoran pointed out that the government had no method for reuniting families, and some children might never be returned to their parents who were driven back to their home countries.
For the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. “there are very few lines available” to seek permanent status, Inquilla said.
Nevine Khalil said she underwent a long process to be able to come to America, and enlisted the help of Sen. Debbie Stabenow to obtain her family visa.
Teresa Latino-Adams said there are many obstacles in front of the women she works with who are trying to settle here. She said she has been told to advise her clients to wait to apply for asylum.
None of the panelists believed that a wall at the southern border would deter anyone from seeking entry into the United States.
Latino-Adams said she works with women and mothers who are fleeing domestic violence from their own husbands and partners. “I don’t think a wall will stop them.”
“Will a wall be effective in keeping immigrants away? In my opinion, no,” Soares said. “Will a wall serve as a symbol of hate against immigrants? Yes. And it will be a perfect contrast to the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor.”
Contact: jmatuszak@TheHP.com, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak
The Intefaith Action series “Immigration – Facts, Faces, Fears and Faith,” will continue March 7 with a simulation of the immigration process.
A discussion on "Fears and Faith" will take place April 4, and a Day of Prayer will be held May 2.
All events will take place at 6:30 p.m. at the Rose Center, 301 Wayne St. in St. Joseph. For information visit www.swmichinterfaith.org.