Columnist Sara Weinberger: Protecting immigrants must be a community fight 

  • Eduardo Samaniego speaks at a July 11 rally to free Niberd Abdalla, who faces deportation to his native Iraq after living in the United States for the past 40 years. 

Sunday, July 16, 2017

On July 4, I joined the crowd on the lawn of the Hampshire County Courthouse who turned out to see 49 Western Massachusetts residents from 32 countries become citizens of the United States. As I witnessed the beaming faces of those called up to receive their certificates, I reflected on the journeys that brought each of these men and women to this incredible moment.

Some came in search of opportunities not accessible in their home countries; others fled unimaginable suffering in war-torn homelands. I wondered what it must be like to board an airplane, perhaps for the first time, and arrive in a place where everything is alien. How to make the foreign terrain of a new land into a place called home is a mystery to me. As I watched the rows of new Americans, many waving American flags, I thought about how my own parents, carrying the scars of the Holocaust, mustered the fortitude to cross an ocean and begin a new life in a land where few were privy to the nightmares they had left behind.

Like my parents, many of these 49 New Americans had to learn a new language, figure out how to get around, find work, create community, while still honoring their past lives. Some are elated to be here, while others are frightened by the shadow of xenophobia contaminating our nation.

Citizenship for me was an unearned privilege. Most of us are ignorant of what it takes to become a citizen. The process can be a bureaucratic nightmare of applications, background checks and interviews.

Those 49 people had reason to be proud. They all managed to pass both an English and a civics test that requires them to provide correct answers to six out of ten questions garnered from a pool of 100 questions. According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, 91 percent of immigrants who take the test pass. The same doesn’t hold true for Americans who are born here, particularly American students, who have received little to no civics education. A Xavier University study found that one out of three native-born Americans failed the citizenship exam.

The celebration ended with flags waving, and hips swaying, as the loudspeaker sang out, “We Are Family.” In these troubling times, it’s hard not to fall into a black hole of fear and cynicism. The challenge of trying to interrupt the draconian actions of the Trump administration feels insurmountable, as we watch the erosion of our democratic principles.

The July 4 ceremony is a reminder of how much good is happening in the Valley and beyond. Yet the joy of welcoming new citizens was eclipsed by other events in our community. The Supreme Court’s decision to uphold a partial travel ban hit close to home for those of us who have busied ourselves preparing for the arrival of 51 refugees slated to resettle in Northampton this year. I was heartsick to learn that the Somali brother and sister, Nurta and Kunow, assigned to my group of caregivers, are banned from arriving this summer, remaining in limbo. But we refuse to give in to pessimism. Instead, we continue to prepare for their arrival.

While we honored our new citizens on July 4, another local immigrant languished in jail. Longtime Hampshire County resident Niberd Abdalla fled persecution in Iraq more than 40 years ago, immigrating to the U.S. when he was 15. He is a caregiver and provider for his elderly parents. His son, a U.S. citizen, serves in the Navy. Mr. Abdalla was arrested when he came for his six-month check-in with officials at the regional office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He is slated to be deported to Iraq.

I can’t even begin to imagine being ripped away from my community, my loved ones, to say goodbye to everything. Yet, Niberd Abdalla has his community’s support. The Immigrant Protection Project provides legal services to Niberd and anyone in our community who fears deportation. Last Tuesday, I joined a crowd in front of City Hall demanding that ICE cease tearing law-abiding immigrants like Niberd from their homes.

Niberd and thousands of others in detention want to live their lives in the country they have adopted. Nurta and Kunow and the other 39 refugees waiting to resettle here are looking to America for refuge, just like those 49 new citizens whom the crowd applauded on the Fourth of July.

These are dark times. Our leaders are incapable of empathizing with anyone who doesn’t share their birthright. ICE workers have become bounty hunters, for a president who fabricates the myth that deportations and walls will make us safer. Still, I resist the temptation to despair, remembering Bill Newman’s message at last week’s rally for Niberd: “This is not just a legal fight. This is a community fight.”

Sara Weinberger of Northampton is a professor emerita of social work and writes a monthly column.