By Brenda Venezia
On March 8, International Women’s Day, The Pan Valley Institute of the American Friends Service Committee partnered with several national and local social justice organizations to hold an Immigrant Women’s Rights Forum in the Fresno City Hall Chambers.
As the Immigrant Women Story Circle began, we were told that this group of women had been gathered to share their stories about why they are here, how they contribute to the economy and culture of America, and what it means to them to be immigrants and refugees. And so, for the next forty-five minutes, seven members of our community made their voices heard:
Jameela Khan, a community volunteer and TCOFP Fellow, is fluent or conversational in five languages. In sharing her story, she stated that some people seem unable to realize that diversity is meant to make us stronger, that we all have the same right to live and get respect. She is a mother and a wife and values her children’s education and her own engagement with her community here. “We say the words, ‘with liberty and justice for all,’ in our pledge of allegiance,” Khan told us, continuing that if she and her family had been able to achieve the American Dream, why couldn’t anyone else like her do here same?
Dina Kashak, new student at Kastner Middle School who has been living in Fresno for eleven months, expressed her respect for, and desire to help, her parents, as she is so grateful for the help and strength they have given her and her siblings while they all endeavor to begin their lives in the U.S. “I want them to be proud of me, because they are working hard for me and my siblings,” Kashak said, also expressing thanks to the community members in Fresno who have been kind and helpful to her family. She closed with her desire to be successful as she begins her life here. “I am just beginning my story,” Kashak, a Syrian Refugee, concluded.
Mina Ikeda is an active community member and spoke of her time as a 1940’s teenager living in the Fresno area with her family, before being taken to a Japanese internment camp. Much of Ikeda’s time at the mic focused on her life after her year in the camp, once she had left California to go to school, work, marry, and eventually return home to the Central Valley.
Rosa Hernández is a Madera business owner, social justice advocate, and has worked several low-paying, physical jobs, “from housecleaning to working in the fields,” to provide a decent life for her children. Her words, in Spanish, were translated at the mic. She acknowledged the brevity of the life story she was able to share with us but added that “it reflects the lives of many men and women who come to this country. We are people, hard workers…we feel the constant fear that everything we have strived for, we have worked for all these years, can be lost at any moment.”
Grisanti Valencia Avendaño, an Indigenous Zapotec Migrant, organizes local campaigns and leadership development for youth in the Fresno community. She is a poet and a scholar, studying sociology. She defined being an immigrant, today, as requiring resistance, realism, honesty, and the goal not to add to the fear that already exists, “but instead to bring hope back to the community.”
Kamaljit Kaur is a Fresno native and spoke of her admiration for her father, who took on responsibility for his five siblings when their parents died, moving to the United States for work to support his family. She described his difficult but determined path to fit in and credited his hard work and sacrifice with the privileged life she feels she, her siblings, and her cousins are able to live now in this country. She praised the economic growth and culture immigrants like her father have brought to this country. Kaur is a Fresno State alumna and community organizer for a local nonprofit focusing on local Punjabi youth.
My mother was not part of this forum and would have some strong words for me if I shared her life’s story in a public space, but she is also an immigrant. I am Fresno-raised, a Fresno State alumna, a college teacher, a community organizer, and the proud daughter of an immigrant.
As I type this, CNN is reporting on a just-released ORC poll that shows 60 percent of Americans responding that our top priority on illegal immigration should be developing a plan to allow for legal residency, while 26 percent say the primary goal should be to stop illegal entry, and 13 percent marking deportation as their focus of choice. The same survey yielded the same ratio on the question of whether Americans are “more concerned that deportation efforts will go too far” (60 percent), with 40 percent reporting they are worried the efforts “will not go far enough and that dangerous criminal will remain in the U.S.”
This fear persists and makes the news, despite reputable studies and news articles over the years demonstrating that immigrants are far less likely than U.S.-born citizens to commit crimes. However, this article is far from the first to acknowledge the continued inefficacy of such evidence against the stream of adjective-laden false claims from our current administration, at least for those who continue to hang their hats on the man with the tweet stream.
See Xiong, too, is a Hmong Refugee, TCOFP Fellow, and holds a criminology degree from Fresno State, where she is a current graduate student and is involved in many academic and community programs. “We have wonderful immigrants and refugees doing great things, not just academically, but things that impact our community,” she said, summarizing the words we had heard from her fellow speakers.
As she began to wrap up her speech, the last in the forum, her focus moved from her own story to the situation itself: “As refugees and immigrants, we often have to justify our right to be in this country. Every woman had to get up here and talk about how she has contributed to this country. No straight white man born in this country has to do that.” Xiong is 27 and was brought to the United States with her parents when she was a small child. She grew up in Fresno. Her future, she continued, will likely contain more afternoons like this one, where she would be called to remind the country that she has worked hard and earned the right to exist here. She implored us–parents, community members, and educators alike–to consider the young Syrian refugees entering our classrooms and neighborhoods now, and to consider “how we can contribute to their lives, so that when they are twenty-seven, they don’t have to get up here and tell people why they deserve to live here.”
While today’s poll results are already fueling headlines, describing this as evidence of American citizens “breaking” from Trump on the subject of immigration policy, and a majority of the country–well, a majority of the respondents to this poll, anyway–supporting a path to citizenship seems like a positive sign. If headlines help make the news, although I’m not confident that matters anymore, with our news habits and trust so divided, perhaps numbers like these might inspire those in the 40% to reconsider their beliefs about what is best for this place we all call home.
But the voices and biographical blurbs of the woman at this forum, and in my own life, keep my focus from anything except that 40%. The two of every five people still propelled by the desire to stop entry, to deport members of our communities and families, to let their own misguided fear and hate fuel their polling responses, prejudices, and votes. They have their seats at the table–their ancestors may have made the table–and they are loathe to invite anyone else to sit nearby. They offer up, “I fear for the safety of my children,” or, “Look, fair is fair, and lawbreakers are lawbreakers,” and “What about our jobs?” as justifications for being part of the 40%, often in the same argument where they’ll lament the crumbling of The American Dream, the “dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone… regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.” This 1931 definition is credited to an investment banker-turned-historian born into wealth and status in America.
This country has touted itself as a land of dreams and opportunity, and somewhere along the way, those dreams and opportunities started to feel too, what—scarce? Precious? To be shared with everyone, as originally intended. Depending who you ask, The American Dream is said to be dying, dead, or worth the terrifying heartbreak that comes with leaving your entire life behind to go to a country with the words, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” on its welcoming monument. These words have spent a fair amount of time in the media lately, yet appear to serve as mere decoration on a country that still needs last week’s panel and today’s headlining poll to help us understand how we really feel about immigrants.
Brenda Rankin Venezia teaches at Fresno State and runs the Fresno Women’s Reading Series. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.