POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. – Undocumented immigration has become one of the most prevalent societal issues in recent years. In the Hudson Valley specifically, there is a growing movement both to have open discussion about the issue and to take action to address it.
On Wednesday, Nov. 8, Marist College held a forum on refugees and immigrants in the Hudson Valley. The event was run by the Marist Center for Civic Engagement and Leadership. The panel of speakers consisted of activists as well as members of various organizations meant to help undocumented immigrants in the Hudson Valley. Most panel members were immigrants themselves and shared some very enlightening information on their own experiences with the process. The panel was clearly very passionate and showed that there is a clear will within the Hudson Valley to address the issue of undocumented immigration.
Renee Oni-Eseleh, an independent activist, shared her personal stories with being undocumented. She said she came to America with her family at a young age for better opportunity, but it has been a struggle for much of her life. She has tried relentlessly to obtain a green card, but after 30 years she is still without one. She said she has been unable t finish school, lost jobs, and lost opportunities because she didn’t “have a piece of paper”.
For Oni-Eseleh , one of the biggest misconceptions about the issue that bothers her is that people believe it is an easy process.
“I wish that people knew that it was not as easy as filling out a piece of paper, “Oni-Eseleh said. She also emphasized that the current immigration process is not the same thing as coming from Ellis Island and that there is no clear path to obtaining legal status.
Sharing a similar sentiment to Oni-Eseleh was Ignacio Avecedo, who said that the process is far more complicated than filling out a job application and that “if you just say the wrong thing, you are automatically disqualified.”
Avecedo was forced to migrate from Mexico due to lack of labor opportunity. He hoped to eventually attend college in the United States, but was denied because he did not have a social security number. He described this as “one of the worst moments of my life.”
Eventually, Avecedo was able to become a legal citizen, but says he mostly attributes this to luck. Even after he became a legal citizen, he said he still had various incidents of racial profiling and discrimination by law enforcement and fellow citizens.
Avecedo also pointed to finances as a big reason why so many people struggle to reach legal status. He says that the average rate for an immigration lawyer is about $12,000 per person. So for an undocumented immigrant who is making $200 per week and being exploited because of his or her legal status, it is virtually impossible to afford a lawyer for themselves or an entire family in some cases.
While situations for most undocumented immigrants remain very difficult, there are a number of programs and organizations within the Hudson Valley that are fighting to help people who share similar stories to Oni-Eseleh and Avecedo.
One of those organizations is the Office for New Americans program at Catholic Charities Community Services, which looks to help immigrants become legal citizens and adapt to life in the United States through consultation, seminars and English classes.
Dan Buzi, who graduated from Marist, is the program and volunteer coordinator for the Office for New Americans. He said that one form of consultation that the program conducts is “general consultation”. This is a scenario where someone asks for help in getting their papers right but do not know how or what they might be eligible for. In such a situation, Buzi said the program will ask their client three questions: 1) Do you have any immediate family members who are of legal status or are green card holders? 2) Have you ever been the victim of a violent crime? 3) Do you have a reason to fear for your life in returning to your country? If he or she answers yes to any of these questions, Buzi said “there is an off chance that they might possibly have a legal path in this country.” Those who answer no to each question are brought in for further consultation to figure out a possible different path, but Buzi said in “95-99%” of those cases “there is literally nothing that can be done.”
Buzi said the job of the program is to make people aware of the lack of realistic options so they do not waste money on expensive immigration lawyers. While they have been successful, Buzi admits that the program is only one small group that is trying its best to serve three counties. He said sometimes they will have a waitlist of over 300 people.
Fortunately, there are a number of other organizations to help shoulder the load. One of which is the Mid-Hudson Refugee Solidarity Alliance, which is an consortium of local faith-based organizations, institutions of higher learning, social services agencies and local interfaith councils. The alliance is committed to making the Hudson Valley a welcoming and safe place for undocumented immigrants and those who have been forced from their homes. Their work is done through various projects and fundraisers. Among the groups that comprise the alliance are the Marist Center for Civic Engagement and Leadership, the Vassar Refugee Solidarity Initiative, the Dutchess County Interfaith Initiative, and a number of religious congregations.
Partnered with the alliance is another group called Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson, a community organization that brings together people who have been impacted by the injustices of the immigration system and to fight for change and reform for the system. Avecedo works with the organization as a lead organizer, directing grassroots organizing, recruiting members, and developing leaders. He says Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson has been successful, but is lacking in adequate resources, such as transportation for people to events and meetings.
Oni-Eseleh said that one of the problems with living in a capitalist society is that immigrants are often treated as “disposable commodities” when in reality “we are people.” She also said, “It hurts to constantly be dehumanized.” For people in Oni-Eseleh’s situation, America has not been the land of opportunity, but the land of perpetual adversity. She is still without a green card after years of trying to obtain one, she missed age eligibility for protection by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Act (DACA) by two months, and she is forced to hold low paying jobs without any benefits from government programs. However, the people and organizations within the Hudson Valley are working relentlessly to help people in Oni-Eseleh’s position to live without fear ad integrate into them into society.