By Becky Chan
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
My father came to this country in 1969, thus initiating my family’s “chain migration” to the United States. “Chain migration,” a term from the 1960s describing the family-based immigration process, has recently resurfaced in our national debate, but with a negative connotation. Unfortunately, this debate has added stress and fear to hundreds of thousands of immigrants, undocumented or otherwise.
As a sanctuary city, Seattle is in the forefront of protecting its people. On Feb. 3, the city once again showed its support.
The Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs (OIRA), partnered with community leaders, held its second Seattle United for Immigrants and Refugees Mega-Workshop at the Seattle Center. The workshop assisted attendees in understanding and navigating a rather daunting process. Over 800 volunteers assisted 1,026 people on immigration matters. The free workshop provided two services — citizenship assistance to eligible individuals and consultations to anyone of any status searching viable routes to remain in the United States legally.
“This is our vision of what government, community, and businesses can do, and ought to do, to create vibrant economies and trusting communities for children and family to thrive,” OIRA Director Cuc Vu said, with a sense of urgency at the beginning of the workshop.
“Every individual should have the opportunity to achieve their full potential, regardless of their immigration status and country of origin.”
Vu continued to assert that although no physical wall has been built, a virtual wall exists to keep people out. Since the current administration took office, there is a 77 percent increase in the backlog of pending citizenship applications.
Becoming a U.S. citizen is the best protection against the threat of deportation. Each year in Seattle, 15,000 become eligible to be naturalized. According to OIRA, in 2014, 18 percent of foreign-born residents in Seattle had a spending power of $4.4 billion. Foreign-born residents paid billions in state and local taxes.
Deputy Mayor Shefali Ranganathan, both a foreign-born and college graduate, shared her own story of becoming a U.S. citizen, which began 17 years ago in Washington, D.C. Her life, along with thousands of others, changed dramatically due to 9/11. Anxiety, fear, and doubt tested her faith and resolve. The tragedy’s aftermath reminded her of the goodness and decency of this country. She witnessed people coming together to protect communities of color and immigrants. She remarked now is “once again upon that time.”
A newly naturalized U.S. citizen from Bangladesh, Rumana Rahman participated as a volunteer lead. She attended OIRA’s smaller scale Citizenship Workshop in 2016 to get her application in order. In October 2017, Rahman was sworn in as a U.S. citizen at a ceremony in Tukwila. With a new status, she can “fully participate in democracy without fear.”
And she wanted to empower others just as the process has empowered her. Rahman works in human resources and recently finished her masters degree in Cultural Anthropology.
OIRA data showed that 43 percent of the foreign-born residents in Seattle have a college or graduate degree. For Yennhi Le, education is of utmost importance.
“No education, no job,” she explained. Le and her husband spent eight years in a refugee camp in Malaysia after after escaping Vietnam. The English she learned at camp proved invaluable when they were eventually accepted into the United States. Le has two associate degrees from South Seattle Community College, one in Business Information Technology, the other in Accounting. She works as a naturalization case manager at Refugee Women’s Alliance. Fluent in Vietnamese, Le volunteered to help others complete immigration forms.
A language barrier didn’t matter for volunteer-attorney Faith Li Pettis. Fresh from screening two Spanish speaking clients with the aid of volunteer-interpreter, she “felt invigorated.” Born in Seattle, Pettis considers herself one of the lucky ones. She is indebted to the immigration process since her parents emigrated from China and Hong Kong. She wanted to spread her good fortune to others by giving back. A founding member of Pacifica Law Group, with an undergraduate degree in Russian studies from the University of Washington and a law degree from Harvard, Pettis epitomizes immigrants’ dreams for their children. There were 300 attorneys volunteering at the workshop, but not all are immigration lawyers. The workshop provided training to those who weren’t. Pettis learned just how complicated the process is. She sees it as a challenging process, especially for someone who speaks little or no English.
Danwei Tang, an engineer from Shanghai, China, has been in the United States for 13 years and doesn’t speak English. Tang arrived at the Seattle Center 90 minutes before the 10 a.m. workshop to ensure entry. He sought assistance in filling out a stack of citizenship forms.
Besides the Mega-Workshop, which took four to six months of planning, OIRA holds periodic language-focus seminars to help non-English speakers. The much smaller seminars generally serve 25 to 50 in various languages.
In Shanghainese-accented Mandarin, Tang said he enjoys the lifestyle, freedom, and democracy in the United States. He acknowledged wanting to be close to his only child, a daughter, who lives in Bellevue. Tang was grateful for the sincerity and thoroughness of the volunteers. When asked if he would vote if he was successful in obtaining his citizenship, Tang emphatically said, “Of course.”
Like my father, Tang has embarked on a chain migration journey, one made easier with the Mega-Workshop. However, if the virtual wall continues to grow, it may be awhile until he can vote. Ranganathan said Mayor Jenny Durkan “is prepared for a legal fight with the current administration.” Through these workshops, perhaps the chain will strengthen.
Perhaps the wall will crumble, and perhaps Tang will get to vote.
Becky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.