With Open Arms?

September 20th, 2006

The first in a four-part series on immigrant and refugee communities in New York State

By Meagan Murray
On May 1st 2006, 400 activists crowded the Commons to participate in a national recognition of immigrant rights. Like the rest of our nation, Ithaca is compromised of immigrants from across the globe. But crossing physical borders is only half the battle. They are facing ever-changing global standards for citizenship and also must struggle to adapt to new communities and a culture sometimes very much at odds with their accustomed way of life.

The distinction between refugee and immigrant has largely been determined by the United Nations. At a 1951 convention, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees released an official definition for a person to qualify for refugee status; any persons in fear of being persecuted because of race, religion, nationality, social status or political opinions qualify for UN refugee aid if they are unable to protect themselves in their original country of residence.

According to the 2006 World Refugee Survey for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, there are 12,019,700 refugees worldwide. This number may be difficult for people in wealthy countries to conceptualize, due partly to the fact that only 4 percent of refugees are located in “host” countries with per capita incomes over $10,000. The United States is home to 176,700 refugees.

The number of immigrants globally – and within the United States – is nearly impossible to accurately document, partly because immigrants frequently fail to obtain proper documentation due to stringent application procedures in their host nations. According to 2005 data from the Census Bureau, nearly eight million immigrants had come to the United States since 2000.

Loosely characterizing both documented immigrants and refugees into the category of “foreign-born persons,” their current population in the U.S. is now around 12.4 percent of the national population, according to the 2005 Census Bureau statistics.

New York State holds over 20 percent of the foreign-born population. In Ithaca alone, foreign-born persons, not including the college population, make up one-sixth of the city’s population.

The presence of immigrants and refugees in Ithaca is well-known. However, this substantial population is struggling for access to needed services. In December 2005, the local Refugee Assistance Program was shut down when federal funding dried up and it could no longer support payments.

David Turkon, a professor of anthropology at Ithaca College, says that it is obvious the loss of a central support center has hurt the local immigrant and refugee population. “You know, a lot of these people come in as undocumented or documented, but they don’t speak the language, they don’t understand the legal system; they’re very easy to exploit in the labor market … [The closing of the Refugee Assistance Program] left a real void in Ithaca in terms of helping out new arrivals.”

Turkon fears that, without a center to welcome refugees and immigrants, educate them about their basic needs and connect them to other local families, there is a disconnect within the immigrant and refugee population. Newcomers feel separated from and unable to relate to the already established foreign-born community.

The key to successful integration, he says, is to urge new migrant members to establish their own sense of responsibility and community with their new residence. He calls this “capacity building” – the ability for people to empower one another. If this were achieved, local refugees and immigrants might feel more established in the Ithaca community.

Cecelia Montaner-Vargas of the local Tompkins/Tioga Catholic Charities, one of the numerous local and national agencies dedicated to helping immigrants and refugees, agrees with Turkon. And, she adds, people encounter immigrants and refugees more often than they would think.

“If you think about it, they are the people who are working in the restaurants, supermarkets, everywhere; we see them but we don’t really see them,” she said. “It will take … a few minutes of your life to walk through the food services at Ithaca College and find that many people who cook your food are from Burma, Thailand, Laos, all over.”

Part of Montaner-Vargas’s job at Catholic Charities involves working with the local refugee families to help them settle into the community by guiding them through the process of obtaining social services and legal help.

More importantly, she introduces the families to vital organizations in the area that can better help them assimilate within the community. By introducing them to the English as a Second Language program and local agencies such as the Tompkins County Workers’ Center and its Living Wages program, Catholic Charities helps new families learn more about their rights as employees and citizens.

Still, both she and Turkon believe a center working in cooperation with the local immigrant and refugee population would be the most beneficial to the local community.

In the past, Turkon has worked with Sudanese refugees in a settlement center in Arizona; he is currently working with a Sudanese community in Syracuse, New York. His specific experiences with the “Lost Boys” of Sudan, who are unaccompanied minor refugees, reinforce the difficult life of migrant communities.

Because of ongoing civil unrest in Sudan, specifically the genocidal armed conflict in the western region of Darfur, these young orphaned refugees were forced to flee their country. In 2000 and 2001, the U.S. welcomed 3,800 Lost Boys into its borders through a lottery system. Today, this number continues to grow. Many Lost Boys have settled into numerous centers established for them in over 30 U.S. states.

The Lost Boys of Syracuse are currently without a center. These boys, along with the several hundred other Lost Boys displaced throughout the U.S., have been relocated to an area that lacks a community center and are often dispersed amongst church-affiliated humanitarian groups.

While Turkon acknowledges the honorable efforts of these organizations, he fears that without a central population which houses both the youngsters and their elders, these boys will continue to remain disconnected from the rest of their community.

Today, a group of organizations in Tompkins County are collaborating to keep this problem from worsening. Joining forces, groups including the Tompkins County Workers’ Center, Tompkins/Tioga Catholic Charities, Interfaith Alliance, the Latino Civic Association, the Ithaca Asian American Association, and private contributors such as David Turkon have prepared and proposed to the local community a new settlement center: the Samaritan Center Resettlement Program.

The proposal states that the combined resources from the contributing partners will aid both immigrants and refugees in legal help, language education, social services related to basic and medical needs, and finding employment.

Right now, estimated funding for the three-year pilot period stemming from September 2006 to September 2009 is $100,000. While all the mechanical needs are in place, one problem remains – funding.

Perhaps due to recent uneasiness over illegal immigration, companies have been slow to fund the Center. While major industries and corporations in the area have strayed away from providing fiscal aid to the Samaritan Center, the members of this project are not giving up. By working from the bottom up and getting the word out through local bake sales and fundraisers sponsored by the anthropology department, dedicated advocates like Turkon and Montaner-Vargas are determined to work toward public support for a new refugee and immigrant center in Ithaca.

Being a naturalized citizen to the U.S. herself, Montaner-Vargas hopes the citizens of Ithaca will commit to accepting immigrants and refugees in the community. “This country was founded by immigrants. If you talk to almost anyone, you find they are not too far removed – we are all in the same boat.” •

Meagan Murray is a junior journalism major who smuggles illegal immigrants across the Canadian border in the back of her 1973 Gremlin. Email her at [email protected]

Whaling Wall Matthew Farrell
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