The Coastal Post - September, 1996

An Introduction To Your Immigrant Neighbors

BY KAREN NAKAMURA

Many Americans have no idea what's in the minds of the majority of immigrants. This article seeks to correct that.

One Viet Nam refugee and immigrant to San Francisco is Nam Phuong Thai. In an article in Political Ecology Group News (Summer, 1996) she states:

"I thought about how many tons of bombs they dropped on Viet Nam, of an uncle whom I never met because he died in the war, of the five times our family tried to leave Viet Nam, of a relative who died of hunger while floating on a boat, of a friend who was raped by Thai pirates, of the endless lonely hours I spent in the refugee camps missing my family, of the times my growing body ached for food.

"Did we suffer and die so that some people halfway around the world could afford their American dream? No, mine is not a random accident of fate. It is a common story of the people whose countries are perceived as a "threat to U.S. national security."

Talking to her recently, she added: "The majority of the people who came to this country, especially from Asia and Latin America, didn't come because they wanted to.

"They didn't have a choice to stay or leave. They came because of political persecution. Because U.S. foreign policy often aids dictatorships to maintain control with their corporations through NAFTA and other such measures."

Mere is from Suva, Fiji. She's lived in San Rafael for one and a half years and came to the U.S. in 1991. She has a sister living in Terra Linda. Both work as live-in aids to the elderly.

The sisters' main strength is the weekend gatherings with members of their church, the United Methodist Church of Palo Alto. Many are related and the majority are Fijian.

Mere is a devote Christians, as is her family. They live exemplary Christian lives. One must wonder about those claiming to be Christian but who don't accept Mere and her family into the fold. It goes against Christian doctrine.

When asked why she came to the United States, Mere answered sheepishly, "to make money."

I asked why she couldn't make it in Fiji. Her reply was "Fiji's a newly-independent nation and few jobs are available. Even in the few foreign businesses, the pay's not good enough to support your family."

"Does that mean you can't buy basic necessities?"

"Most of the things we buy are imported. There's few factories and much of that is exported, leaving the people with little."

The present elections mean nothing to her. She's working on getting her citizenship. "Now that my dad is dead...my brother is here plus three sisters. My mom, two brothers and two sisters are still in Fiji. They don't plan to move here, but would like to visit." Every paycheck Mere sends a little something to her mom.

So it goes in the low-wage, high-profit countries. Mere's people have been self-sufficient for thousands of years. Only modern progress has brought them destitution.

Freddy Tejada is a refugee from El Salvador and now a community organizer for the Northern California Coalition for Immigrant Rights. He explains he and his family didn't come here to take away jobs.

They fled for their lives, risking everything, because jobs, security and safety had been taken from them. The U.S. government was backing a repressive regime that turned their country into a war zone.

If the United States couldn't guarantee the security they took away in El Salvador, where could he go next?

What's wrong is that the voices of immigrants are not heard by those in authority: Senators, Congressmen and the voting public who decide their fate from afar.

Immigrants Get Organized

BY KAREN NAKAMURA

This November, Californians will vote on dismantling Affirmative Action. Serious steps are being taken to curtail the rights of immigrants. The safety net for the poor is rapidly being dismantled. The list goes on and on.

And it's being done in a fashion that would make you think immigrants, ecologists, the poor and the underpaid aren't paying attention.

Or that they deserve to be shamed and insulted in this manner. Isn't that the concept? That they're all sluff-offs or criminals? The bully element thinks the disenfranchised are too dumb and broken in spirit to react to the attack.

They forget they're in America.

The disenfranchised, a group growing as fast as the rich get richer, are demanding their proper place at the table. Just as the Irish, the Catholics, and the Jews did before them. This is the American way.

And the political clout of those left out in the down-sizing power grab is growing by leaps and bounds, energized by fresh young faces from every part of the world. In that spirit, I introduce you to one of those groups of young lovers of democracy.

The August Coastal Post had a letter from Nam Phuong Thai, a Viet Nam immigrant from the San Francisco-based Political Ecology Group that made me cheer. It was her final sentence that got me: "I am sick and tired of being blamed for every single thing that could go wrong with anyone who claims to be a native of this land."

Curious as to what a political ecology group was, I called Ms. Thai. The group is located in the Mission District of San Francisco. Composed mainly of immigrants from Asia, it has close alliances with the Latino community. It's Advisory Board reads like a dictionary of active liberal causes. It's only now receiving grants though it's been a volunteer organization for five years.

Like all of us, it's struggling, but active. This group was on Senator Diane Feinstein's front doorstep last January demanding an airing of their views. You saw them flash by on the news. What we didn't get to hear was those views. In this politically-charged year, it's only right to hear all sides.

The group is focusing on a campaign of building alliances between environmental and immigration rights groups. To quote their outreach packet: "Why immigration and environment? The nation's economic woes are being blamed on immigration and environmental regulation. Attacks against immigrants are on the increase...environmentalists and immigrants are being pitted against one another while the laws that protect both the environment and human rights are on the chopping block.

"Using alarmist arguments about U.S. population growth, anti-immigrant organizations are actively courting environmentalists and urging them to oppose immigration. This scapegoating not only draws attention away from the real causes of environmental and economic problems, but also divides the immigrant and environmental communities when there is a great opportunity to work together."

Couldn't have said it better myself. The old "divide and conquer" principle is alive and well. What the right doesn't understand is that the ecologists are hip to their game. So how do ecologists and human/immigration rights activists fight off the assault, especially during this election season?

Here are some factual answers to many of the lies and myths floating around from PEG: "Studies show that rather than reducing the employment or wage rates of U.S.-born, low-skill workers, immigrants boost the employment and income of all Americans. Immigrants use less public assistance. Only 1.5% received social security, compared to approximately 13% of U.S.-born residents of California.

"While global demographics issues (over-population) should be addressed in a serious manner, immigration is not a chief cause of environmental degradation in the U.S. The U.S. military and corporations produce much more toxic wastes than households. Immigrant communities suffer disproportionately from environmental degradation and poisoning, whether from exposure to pesticides in fields, toxic dumps in neighborhoods or solvents in factories.

"A violation of an immigrant's rights threatens the rights of all, and raises the level of conflict and hate in our social environment. No society that tolerates such disrespect is capable of building a healthy co-existence with the natural world."

For more information or a chance to network, call (415) 777-3488, fax (415) 777-3443; e-mail: [email protected]