The Plight of the “Other”: Immigrants and Refugees in America’s Heartland

Photo by Rick Obst | CC BY 2.0

Amy Rowell is the Director of World Relief for the Quad Cities (Rock Island and Moline in Illinois; Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa).  The agency Rowell runs is headquartered in Moline and receives much of its funding through the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP).  Today World Relief faces an uncertain future.

In 2015 and 2016, as result of the refugee crisis triggered by violence in Syria, President Obama raised the number of immigrants and refugees allowed into the country to 110,000 annually.  In October 2016 the number was cut to 50,000.  World Relief’s funding, which is contingent on that number, has been cut proportionally.  In the past, World Relief assisted 220 newly arrived refugees annually.  This year that number has been slashed to 110.  Five World Relief offices nationally have been shuttered.

Donald Trump’s campaign famously capitalized on fear of the “other”: of those who speak a different language or worship on a different day of the week—those who are not “true” Americans.  Trump’s promises to bar refugees from Muslim countries and round up 13 million undocumented workers were initially considered campaign bluster rather than concrete proposals.  This perception has changed.

President Trump’s Second Executive Order on Immigration (signed March 6, 2017) seeks to ban immigrants from Sudan, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia and Yemen, and would also suspend all USRAP funding for 120 days.  Terrorism is cited as justification for these harsh actions that explicitly target the most vulnerable members of the world community.  This Order is pending, and awaits action by the courts.

The Quad Cities are home to a substantial number of immigrants and refugees.  Census figures show that 8% of the population of Rock Island County in Illinois and 13.2% of Scott County in Iowa are foreign born (some 40,000 people).  Most of these newcomers hail from Mexico and Central America.

The United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland defines a refugee as: “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence.  A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group”.

World Relief is in the specific business of assisting refugees who arrive here by legal means and meet UNHCR criteria.  One large group of refugees is from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where savage internecine fighting has forced tens of thousands to flee their homes.  Refugees from Burma, Ethiopia, Eritria, Iraq, Somalia and Sudan have also relocated here.

World Relief aids newly arrived refugees through programs that offer income assistance and help them receive food stamps.  Other programs assist with employment and housing, and help refugees apply for citizenship.  Staff members speak eight different languages, and the organization coordinates with Black Hawk College to provide English as a second language classes.  World Relief also works closely with a number of area churches.

Rowell tells me her organization “walks alongside” a church group for a year, to familiarize them with the process and to help them negotiate a wilderness of government agencies and bureaucracies.  Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services and numerous other religious entities are part of the mix.

Rowell worries that funding cuts may doom World Relief’s reunification program, which seeks to keep refugee families together.  “If they close down the Moline office,” she tells me, “there won’t be any program in the area to assist these people.”

Today a staggering 65.3 million refugees around the globe seek a permanent home.  Most reside in camps marked by disease, neglect and hopelessness.  George Chiang came to this country from Myanmar (Burma) in 2011 after spending 20 years at a refugee camp in Thailand.  He is the founder and president of the Buddhist Association of the Quad Cities, an organization of primarily Karen Burmese residing on both sides of the Mississippi.

Burma has for decades been under the thumb of a brutal military dictatorship.  Those who participate in political activity there can, if discovered, face prison terms of 20 to 40 years.  Military insurrection is a capital offense.  Relatives of anyone raising arms against the dictatorship are also marked for death.  Most of those in Chiang’s organization face execution in their native land.

Displaced persons fleeing Burma must spend a minimum of five years in a Thai refugee camp before they become eligible for refugee status.  Thereafter they can relocate to host nations such as Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Canada, the United States and elsewhere.

George Chiang and his Burmese compatriots represent an extreme example of the persecution, fear that drive human beings from one part of the world to another in their desperate search for sanctuary.

Rowell’s organization provides initial assistance to newly arrived refugees.  Thereafter a variety of other groups help these newscomers transition to their new lives in America.  Quad Cities Alliance for Immigrants & Refugees (QCAIR) is one such organization.

Founded in 2012, QCAIR is an all-volunteer non-profit based in Rock Island that seeks to “bring immigrants, refugees, and other community members together, and help immigrants and refugees settle in to their new homes”.  QCAIR focuses on issues such as employment, relations with the police, housing and education, and hopes to assist 1,000 immigrants/refugees during the current fiscal year.

Nana Ouro-Agoro of QCAIR lists some of the issues facing newly arrived refugees: “The pace of living here is very stressful.  There is no family, no familiar support system.  They don’t know about bank cards and PIN numbers.  They must learn how to budget.  They don’t know about insurance or how to fill out a tax return.  They need to drive cars.  They must adapt to new foods and they must learn a new language.”

The lives of both refugees and immigrants have been jeopardized by Trump Administration policies.  The two groups are in many ways radically different—immigrants come here of their own volition to start new lives in a new land whereas refugees are forced to cross borders by conditions that are beyond their control.  Both groups have been targeted by Trump’s actions, which also target undocumented immigrants residing here—many of whom have been living and working and paying taxes in this country for decades.

A refugee from Benin in West Africa who is now a naturalized citizen, Ouro-Agoro holds seminars on how to apply for US citizenship under a program called the New Americans Initiative.  She tells me that since Trump’s proposed Executive Order: “There’s real anxiety among the Hispanic people who come to my seminars.  Many have been living here for years and they all want to become citizens.  Right now.”

One Human Family QCA is a group similar to QCAIR based in Davenport, Iowa.  Hosted by Rabbi Henry Karp of Temple Emanuel, One Human Family QCA (a local branch of a national organization based in Key West) has reached out to disparate individuals and institutions throughout the Quad Cities with the aim of making immigrants and refugees feel welcome in their new home.  Operating under One Human Family QCA’s umbrella is their Immigration Task Force.

Loxi Hopkins, an Immigration Task Force member who also works as CCHD Diocesan Director for the Diocese of Davenport, tells me: “The level of fear among undocumented immigrants in the Quad Cities is quite high.”

President Trump’s promise to deport all undocumented workers sent shockwaves through the Latin community.  In response, the Immigration Task Force is circulating a “Blue Packet” for potential victims of Trump’s proposed roundup.

Fourteen pages in length, the opening section of the Blue Packet is titled: “Precautions”.  It  offers kernels of advice such as “provide your complete correct name” when stopped by someone from law enforcement, and stresses that one should carry all relevant documents on one’s person, such as state ID, work permit, etc., and warns that possession of false documents is a serious crime.

The “Blue Packet” counsels a potential deportee not to answer questions from a law enforcement official without the presence of a lawyer and not to sign anything relating to immigration.  It also recommends contacting an immigration attorney, and continues in this vein to cover such things as naming an individual to manage one’s affairs in case of one’s sudden and unexpected absence and includes numerous other common-sense suggestions that would chill the average American.

One Immigration Task Force member tells me: “When I give the Blue Packet to someone it’s like telling them you have a terminal disease.  In other words, time get your ducks in a row because you won’t be around here much longer”.

Araceli Masterson is a volunteer at the Palomares Social Justice Center in the Floracientes neighborhood of Moline, Illinois and a professor at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, where she teaches Latin American Studies and Spanish.  “People here are terrified,” she tells me, describing the majority Hispanic neighborhood.  “Everyone knows someone who is in danger of being deported.”

She reminds me that President Obama accelerated deportations far beyond the numbers generated by any prior occupant of the Oval Office.  “Undocumented workers are ready-made scapegoats.  They’re a reservoir of human beings to be exploited economically in low-paying jobs and when anything goes wrong in society, they’re the first to be blamed.  Trump has been very effective in equating immigrants with criminality.”

Immigration law, she tells me, is “unbelievably complex.  About forty percent of Mexican immigrants have only a primary education, but even for educated people the legal obstacles are stressful.  Families have spent thousands to get a green card, have exhausted their life savings trying to get one.”

Dan Vondra, an immigration attorney based in Iowa City, Iowa agrees: “It’s just about impossible to get a green card if you enter the country without a visa.”

He tells me that typically an applicant will enter the country on a student visa or a work visa and thereafter work toward citizenship.  He says it’s best to have a family member already living in the country and, if working, to be in position to prove that one’s job does not displace a native worker.  Marriage to a legal citizen is yet another way to get one, and there is also the controversial option of paying $500,000—presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner was recently reported attempting to sell such visas in China.

“Green cards,” says Araceli Masterson, “have been taken away for any number of reasons.  The protection they offer is very limited.”

Dan Vondra tells me green cards can be revoked for possession of an illegal substance beyond a certain amount, for burglary or fraud or multiple DOI’s.  “Any sort of felony means revocation,” he tells me.  “Shoplifting is considered a crime of moral turpitude—loss of a green card is automatic.”

If someone possessing a green card leaves the US, he or she cannot remain outside the country for more than a year.  Further, re-entry to the United States can be refused for any number of reasons.  “If a minor marijuana bust shows up on your record,” says Vondra, “an immigration officer can deny you re-entry.”  Jody Mashek, an immigration attorney attached to the American Friends Service Committee in Des Moines, Iowa, tells me she’s heard reports that Customs Officers are “going rogue.”

The threat of deportation haunts the Latin community.  Obama was known as the deporter in chief, but according to Dan Vondra, George W. Bush was in some ways even worse.  “Under Bush,” says Vondra, “ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents would pick suspects up for jaywalking.  For fishing without a license.”

But Obama’s heritage cannot be overstated.  According to Jody Mashek, “Obama deported more people than all the presidents in the twentieth century combined.”

Things have not improved.  Under Trump, Mashek says: “ICE now has a no holds barred attitude.”  In the Quad Cities area there have been no mass arrests similar to those conducted in Los Angeles or New York.  According to Loxie Hopkins, “ICE is arresting individuals, often in small rural towns.”

In a USA Today article dated May 17, 2017, Alan Gomez writes that immigration arrests have risen 38% nationwide.  “Between January 22 and April 29,” he reports, “ICE arrested 10,845 people whose immigration violations were the only marks on their record.  That’s nearly triple the 4,242 people arrested during the same time period in President Barack Obama’s final year in office.”  Some 45% of those presently facing deportation have never committed a crime.

Their heightened vulnerability has prompted Araceli Masterson and her staffers at Palomares to school Latin neighbors at risk not to call attention to themselves by playing loud music or having a car parked in their yard, or by leaving their kids unattended.  When driving they must always use seatbelts and obey the rules of the road.

She tells me: “It used to be that a seventy-five-year-old woman who’s been in this country for decades but never had proper documentation wouldn’t have to worry.  The authorities used to concentrate on those with criminal records, not workers who have been paying taxes for years and never broke the law.  But with Trump, everyone is in the same boat.”

Those at risk must make arrangements for someone to pick up their children from school, should they not return home from their job or from a trip to the grocery store, and to assure that house payments and car payments and insurance payments continue to be made in a timely fashion.  One community organizer counsels the vulnerable to make out a power of attorney for property and a similar power of attorney to provide for childcare.

Araceli Masterson points out that most undocumented immigrants in the US are Chinese.  In Chicago there are uncounted Polish and Irish immigrants who lack proper papers.  “But no one sees them,” she says.  “There is definitely a racial element at work here.  The term ‘illegal’ is reserved exclusively for those of Latin extraction.   To call someone ‘illegal’ is to brand them an outlaw—to declare them beyond the protection of the law.”

Since the election of Trump, those lacking documentation fear signing documents or showing up for community meetings.  Loxie Hopkins of the Diocese of Davenport confirmed to me that attendance at mass as suffered—Hispanic church-goers are staying home.  Thousands who reside in the Quad Cities area now fear being seen in public.

This fear has other consequences.  Araceli Masterson at Palomares is concerned that incidents of domestic violence now go unreported, as does abuse by landlords and countless other legal abrogations that those potentially targeted for deportation don’t dare address lest they be noticed by the authorities.

This fear is not unwarranted.  Aracelia Masterson tells me that those who draw the attention of the police or end up in custody are far more likely to be snared by ICE.  Her assertion is confirmed by statistics released by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University which show that in 2015 (the most recent year for such data) 7 inmates of Mexican origin held in the Rock Island County Jail were transferred to ICE.  These statistics also show that nationally 67% of all such detainees transferred to ICE are of Mexican origin.

ICE has offices at 211 19th Street in Rock Island, Illinois and at 3351 Square D Dr. SW in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  Those facing deportation in Iowa are tried before the Immigration Court in Omaha.  Those arrested in Illinois are tried in Chicago.

Detainees who retain legal counsel have a far greater chance of a successful outcome at Immigration Court than those lacking such representation.  There are no court-appointed attorneys for individuals charged with immigration violations, and lawyers are expensive.  Palomares is organizing a fund to help defray these costs; many of those potentially targeted for deportation would otherwise lack the financial wherewithal to mount an adequate legal defense.

Becoming artful at not being noticed remains the best strategy for undocumented workers, but this tactic may no longer be adequate.  In a May 18, 2017 article published by The Detroit News titled “Feds Use Anti-terror Tool to Hunt the Undocumented” Robert Snell reports that “Federal investigators are using a cellphone snooping device designed for counter-terrorism to hunt undocumented immigrants amid President Donald Trump’s immigration crackdown, according to federal court records obtained by The Detroit News.”

The technology at issue is a cell-site or cell tower simulator.  Snell writes: “Cell-site simulators, in general, are suitcase-sized contraptions that can be installed in cars or planes to track nearby phones.”  One such device was used by ICE to track down and arrest an undocumented worker in the Detroit area.

In this regard, undocumented workers serve as proverbial canaries in the coal mine for the rest of us, for what is being used today to track down the most vulnerable members of the community will ultimately be wielded against everyone else.

Chris Welzenbach is a playwright (“Downsize”) who for many years was a member of Walkabout Theater in Chicago. He can be reached at