Our Neighborhood in Revere, MA

Our Neighborhood in Revere, MA

By Bunkong Tuon


Editor’s Note: This is the first of a series of poems about the immigrant experience in America. Our late Managing Editor, Okla Elliott, featured Bunkong Tuon’s work on As It Ought To Be back in January of 2017. Okla was particularly concerned about the anti-immigration rhetoric heating up in America and he hoped to showcase the voices of immigrants on our site. In honor of Okla’s memory, Tuon has allowed us to feature more of his poetry about his experience as an immigrant from Cambodia to the United States.


Our Neighborhood in Revere, MA
(circa 1984 and 2008)

Listen, you have seen it before
in countless movies and TV shows.
No matter which city it is,
the markers are the same:

The sneakers on telephone wires,
the cracked sidewalks, the potholes
you try so hard to avoid
you almost hit the double-parked cars,
the graffiti on street signs and public buildings,
the apartment complex and family houses slumped
so close together that you can smell
your neighbor’s fried pork with rice,
where you can taste the lemongrass, fish sauce,
red chilies, and brown golden garlic,
as if your grandmother is cooking next door.
Houses where English is not spoken,
and the first image greeting you might not be Christ,
where you need to lift up the reservoir’s lid and pull
the string to flush the toilet,
where young men hang out on the front porch
with broken windows and no future.
An air conditioner sits on the brown grass.
A mother walks down the sidewalk,
with some of her children running ahead of her,
a baby in only a diaper, cradled to her chest.

You have seen it on the local news.
A young reporter staring wide-eyed
speaking with anxiety and concern
about a shooting that claimed the lives
of young bystanders, about a drug bust
where police found some untold
amount of coke, and you’re shaking
your head, wondering what the world
has come to, now that these foreigners
are ruining our America.

I was in the old neighborhood the other day
with my fiancée. Fresh from graduate school
studying postcolonial literature and theory
we went there to pick up some curry.
I scanned, trying to get a sense of the scene,
making sure the car doors are locked.
The streets, the smells, the sights reminded
me of the old days, the markers were all there,
but the people that I knew were gone.
Now there were Middle Easterners.
I guess the United States was no longer at war
with Southeast Asia.


About the Author: Bunkong Tuon is the author of Gruel (2015) and And So I Was Blessed (2017), both poetry collections published by NYQ Books, and a regular contributor to Cultural Weekly  He is also an associate professor of English and Asian Studies at Union College, in Schenectady, NY.


NLValdez head shot

By Norma Liliana Valdez:


Everything is happening now. Everything is present tense. The horses. The running.

The losing. This operation is a well-oiled machine. All is slow motion until dusk. After

dusk come the icy furrows. Overnight temperatures the kind of cold that enters marrow.

There is so much winter in the eyes. From here the only lights: the moon and Chula

Vista. After the ice, the running. Ravine. Huizache. Thorns. The hiding. A Cadillac.

There is a gun in the glove compartment. There are two boys in the trunk. Two other

boys contort their bodies on the back seat floor, legs entwined. Face down. Face down.

He is the one balled on the front passenger floor because he is the smallest. He is bones

and destiny.


every breath you exhaled

a blanket of hosannas

each hand like prayer, like

unfettered music

you were night, naked

shoulders in moonlight

I lost my breath

beneath your gravity

your touch slid along the arc

of every whisper

I inhaled greedily

filled every room

filled every empty space

inside of me

you must have known my anthem

when you left

urgent as an animal

“Unaccompanied” was the poetry winner of the 2015 San Miguel Writers’ Conference Writing Contest, and “Hummingbird” is an original feature on the Saturday Poetry Series on As It Ought To Be. Both poems appear here today with permission from the poet.

Norma Liliana Valdez is an alumna of the VONA/Voices Writing Workshop, the Writing Program at UC Berkeley Extension, and a 2014 Hedgebrook writer-in-residence. Her poems have appeared in Calyx Journal, The Acentos Review, As It Ought To Be, La Bloga, and Dismantle: An Anthology of Writing from the VONA/Voices Writing Workshop. She is the poetry winner of the 2015 San Miguel Writers’ Conference Writing Contest. Additional work is forthcoming in Poetry of Resistance: A Multicultural Anthology by University of Arizona Press. She lives and works in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Editor’s Note: Over the years Norma Liliana Valdez’s writing has grown much in the way bougainvillea grows. Along earth-toned buildings in warm places. A steady, fertile spread erupting in vibrant blossoms. Like the sight of bright and blooming bougainvillea, today’s poems take my breath away.

“Unaccompanied,” winner of the 2015 San Miguel Writers’ Conference Writing Contest in poetry, is a work of art. The title is evocative, deftly making its mark. The narrative envelopes us in a gripping and heart-wrenching tale that speaks as much to the experience of the few as to the dreams and suffering of the masses. This work is vocal, political, and brave. Brimming with stunning lyric, we feel “the kind of cold that enters marrow,” see how “there is so much winter in the eyes,” and are left with what reads like a told fortune: “He is bones / and destiny.”

While “Unaccompanied” is yin-like—covert and treacherous—”Hummingbird” is like the yang—in relief, open, belonging to this world. The energy is sensual and intense, with “each hand like prayer.” And while both poems end spectacularly, “Hummingbird” is volta-like in its finale, confessing that “you must have known my anthem / when you left / urgent as an animal.”

This is the poet’s third Saturday Poetry Series feature. Three is a sacred number. The Holy Trinity. Maiden, Mother, Crone. The Triple Bodhi. The Trimurti. Which is fitting, as the poet divines poems that are alchemical. Spiritual. Faithfully wrought and nearly religious in their lyricism. Evocative of a humanity made palpable through poetry.

Want to read more by Norma Liliana Valdez?
Saturday Poetry Series feature, As It Ought To Be, 2011
Saturday Poetry Series feature, As It Ought To Be, 2010
Winners of the 2015 San Miguel Writers’ Conference Writing Contest
Spiral Orb
The Acentos Review

“The Arizona Way or the American Way?” by Mark Budman

Since I am a legal immigrant myself, I might understandably react to Arizona’s new law on immigration even more strongly than a native might. Though I am not a Latino, this issue of potential tough enforcement affects every immigrant group in America. After all, while the Latinos are the biggest slice of the immigrant community, other foreign nationals have settled in this country as well.

Quoting Arizona SENATE BILL 1070:


As you can clearly see, this bill is not directed just against Latinos. And the last provision is the clincher. If they catch you on Friday night, you might spend the entire weekend in the slammer until the appropriate federal office is opened.

I wouldn’t like it if a cop stopped me in the mall and even took me to the police station after overhearing me speaking in my native language to my wife. However, I have to balance my desire for privacy with the need for security of my adopted country. I wouldn’t mind carrying my passport in my pocket to show it to law enforcement at a moment’s notice, although it’s both inconvenient and demeaning—if that would, for example, help to catch a member of a Russian or any Eastern European mafia. That would be, of course, if the Arizona law’s clincher were removed.

But I am not advocating a witch-hunt against immigrants, even if they are illegal. We can’t forget that America is both a humane and pragmatic country. We can’t corner people even if they have done something wrong, and yet we can’t condone criminal behavior. There should be a path to legality for all illegal immigrants, but it has to be a pragmatic and just one.

Some cost studies claim that illegal immigration costs U.S. taxpayers about $113 billion a year at the federal, state and local level. The bulk of the costs — some $84.2 billion — are absorbed by state and local governments.

So let’s make the illegals legal, then. Call it amnesty if you want. Call it what you want. Just give them a chance. But it should not be an entitlement. The following should be required of illegal immigrants to address the concerns of the Federal Government and local communities to make them legal:

1. Pay a fine for breaking the law—entering this country illegally. The fine should be sufficient to punish for breaking the law, but not so draconian as to cripple their finances.
2. Buy health insurance for themselves and their families.
3. Pay a special school tax, if they have school-age children, to cover the cost of second language teachers.
4. Submit to fingerprinting and other procedures for security purposes.
5. Learn English for quicker integration into the American society.
6. Be ready for immediate deportation if breaking other US laws.
7. And yes, carry Federal IDs.

Once they become legal, all restrictions should go away and the now lawful citizens should be embraced fully by society. A smart balance between the desires of the individual and the needs of the society is the path to truth and justice — and it’s not just the Arizonian, but the American way.


Mark Budman’s fiction and non-fiction have appeared or are about to appear in such magazines as Mississippi Review, Virginia Quarterly, The London Magazine, McSweeney’s, Turnrow, Southeast Review, Mid-American Review, the W.W. Norton anthology Flash Fiction Forward, and elsewhere. He is the publisher of a flash fiction magazine Vestal Review. His novel My Life at First Try was published by Counterpoint Press to wide critical acclaim.

Undocumented and Unafraid

My Name is Mohammad and I am Undocumented

“Get in line,” they like to say, without realizing that many of us were at some point in this infamous line. My family immigrated to the United States from Iran when I was three years old. At the time my dad was accepted to a university on a student visa to get his doctoral degree. After three years, he completed his studies and applied for something called Optional Practical Training, essentially allowing him to extend his stay for twelve months. During that time, he would be able to continue to work and study in the same field he received his PhD in.

While still under the OPT program, he secured sponsorship from a job and applied for a change of status from OPT to an H1b visa. Rather than do this themselves, my parents thought it would be better to put something this serious into the hands of an attorney. However, due to not knowing exactly where to go, they contacted the university and were referred to the international student center where there were immigration attorneys on hand. The school’s immigration attorney handled all of the paperwork, my parents paid the required fee, and they were told everything was set to go, or so they thought. Now mind you, up until this point, we all still had legal status; we were still “in line”.

Eventually a letter came from INS stating that the application was rejected because the fee enclosed was not the right amount. Apparently, INS had raised its fee the previous year, and it was now $20 more than we were instructed by the attorney to provide. Doing what any normal person would do, my parents immediately hired an attorney who was independent of the university. The new attorney, however, turned out to be no better than the free one provided by the school. Rather than file an appeal with INS and provide a check for the correct amount, the attorney chose to bicker back and forth with the school attorney as to why they were even advising students on such matters. The attorney failed to inform my parents that they had only 60 days to appeal the decision; the attorney failed to take any measures to protect our status or to inform us of what could be done to protect our status. And so we lost legal status.

If the immigration system doesn’t work for someone who tries to do everything the right way, then how does it treat those who were never even given the option of doing things the right way?

I now find myself in a constant state of limbo. I am currently enrolled in the social work program at school; I have always volunteered within the local community and have been offered several jobs I have had to unfortunately decline.

I can’t see myself living anywhere else other than America. All of my childhood memories are from America, and it is the only home I have known. Apart from that, I also happen to be gay, and if one is at all up to date on their current events, then I am sure you know how unfriendly a place Iran is for anyone who happens to be LGBTQ. Iran is one of the countries that not only punishes people for being gay but also kills them. Mahmoud Asgari, 16 and Ayaz Marhoni, 18 are two teenagers who were recently killed for no reason other than being gay.

“To execute people simply because they are gay or have had gay sex just isn’t acceptable in the 21st century,” he exclaimed. Their comments follow the public hangings of Mahmoud Asgari, 16, and Ayaz Marhoni, 18, on 19 July in Mashad, provincial capital of Iran’s northeastern Khorasan province, on charges of homosexuality.

In addition to the outright intolerance towards homosexuality, it is the view of the Iranian clerics that the cure to homosexuality is a sex-change operation.

“Approval of gender changes doesn’t mean approval of homosexuality. We’re against homosexuality,” says Mohammed Mahdi Kariminia, a cleric in the holy city of Qom and one of Iran’s foremost proponents of using hormones and surgery to change sex. “But we have said that if homosexuals want to change their gender, this way is open to them.”

Going back to Iran is not even an option for me, and honestly, the only difference I see between myself and the next American is $20, two strong cases of legal malpractice and a piece of paper.

~Mohammad, DREAMer from Michigan

We were so inspired by the DREAMers’ courage in coming out last week that we will continue to feature their stories through the end of March.  Please show your support by signing the petition to pass the DREAM Act.  Thank you.

Undocumented and Unafraid

My Name is Gabriel and I am Undocumented

When I was I kid I used to practice holding my breath as a game. I would try to see how long I could last and then try to go even longer. One time I lasted a minute and a half; it felt as though a hammer was beating my lungs. I never imagined that I would be holding my breath for twenty years.

I was always aware of my status; even as a young boy my parents had told me about it. They explained their reasoning for coming here and what our goals and aspirations as a family were. So I grew up always knowing, however it was only until junior year in high school that I really understood the gravity of our situation. And with that understanding came a downward spiral during which I practically gave up all efforts in school; my reasoning was, why bother with all this work if it’s not going to amount to anything.

I managed to better my grades and keep my hopes up somewhat during my last year in school, and even flirted with the idea of applying to some universities; but without status and with no money, it was a difficult journey ahead. So, rather than begin my college studies with the rest of my peers, I proceeded to join the underground economy and with my share of odd jobs, save some money.

During that time I joined my father in community gatherings and forums to promote a bill allowing undocumented students to pay instate tuition. At these gatherings I spoke to families about the potential of our youth and the benefits of this bill; I talked about the difficult choices that an undocumented teen had to make when there was no means to gain access to higher education.

It wasn’t until a year after graduation that hope finally came in the form of AB 540, allowing me to enroll in a local community college.

While working fulltime and going to classes at night, I managed to transfer to a state university in 2005. One of my dreams having come true, I continued to work fulltime and go to school at night, focusing on school rather than any form of social life. On weekends it was either overtime or being in the library. What drove me was the somewhat naïve idea that once I graduated everything would somehow magically work itself out.
So the time passed, and in the winter of 2007 I graduated Cum Laude, with a degree in Industrial Engineering. Graduation was a bittersweet day. Having finished school and still being undocumented, I have no prospects other than to stay in the underground economy and let my degree lose value as the time passes.

Sure, I had met my goal and, facing difficult barriers, obtained a degree. But now what?

Being in my mid twenties I see all the time that has passed me by, and how a lot of it has been wasted by this constant worry that not having nine digits entails. I look at all the opportunities missed, the demeaning jobs, anger and despair, and realize that I don’t want undocumented kids just graduating from high school to go through that. I also look towards my future, or lack of, and feel the tugging of time as each year passes. To be a 30-year-old fast food worker is not something that I aspire to. I want to be able to finally breathe.

These are my reasons for fighting for the DREAM Act.

~Gabe, DREAMer from California
Check out my blog here: http://documenting-me.blogspot.com
We were so inspired by the DREAMers’ courage in coming out last week that we will continue to feature their stories through the end of March.  Please show your support by signing the petition to pass the DREAM Act.  Thank you.

Undocumented and Unafraid

My Name is Ashley and I am Undocumented

The funny thing about my story is that my grandmother and mother were both green-card holders. Yet, here I am in a state of limbo status because the lawyer messed up. In the time it took for my mother to futilely navigate the immigration system, I had already overstayed my tourist visa and forgotten my native tongue. I thought of myself only as an American and was thoroughly disappointed and in a state of shock when I found that I couldn’t get a driver’s license. As I grew older, the barriers grew more formidable. I moved into a studio-size apartment with my family, checked vending machines for forgotten change, and somehow managed to finish my college education.

I graduated from a prestigious university without any form of institutional financial aid. I did, however, qualify for in-state tuition, without which I would not be the person I am today. To save money, I finished two majors in three years and received the highest honors given at my school. Throughout my college days, I was and still am an active member of the community. I led efforts to provide health service for the uninsured, tutored and mentored underserved youth, and volunteered at the free clinic. My status had provided me with unique insight into the struggles of the low income and underserved and with undying strength to help those in greater need.

Finally, I realized that my greatest desire in life was to pursue a career in medicine so that I could dedicate each day to directly helping those in need. I applied and was accepted into MD-PhD programs across the nation, placing me in the top ten percent of the student population. Yet, in a matter of days, my dreams would be destroyed. I am still out of status and unable to pursue dual degrees in medicine and research. Currently, I am still unsure whether or not I will be able to enroll in medical school. My elite pile of acceptances seems to dangle before me as dreams that are so close to reality and yet so far from my reach.

But I don’t deserve this. I had made no excuses on my application and told no lies. I was, instead, reviewed and accepted on my own academic and personal merits. These schools don’t even have a clue of what I’ve had to go through to get this far in my life. They offered me admission because I was well qualified for a spot in their entering class, because I had shown the potential to make great differences in the world of healthcare and scientific innovation. It is entirely their loss that they revoked the acceptances I had gained fair and square.

I hope this nation will not make the same mistake as these schools. We, the Dreamers, represent some of America’s most persevering and brightest youth. We have been tested by the most difficult challenges. Most of us have experienced days when we couldn’t afford to buy food for our family or painful incidents when we couldn’t afford medical help for our loved ones. Yet, with each challenge, we continue to overcome. We face these adversities head on and grow stronger in the process. And each day, we explore the limits of our potential as tested by the restrictions imposed on us because we hold faith that this country we love so dearly will one day recognize us and our efforts. We want nothing more than to contribute to the growth of this nation and, without a doubt, we have the potential to do so. All we need is the chance to grow.

Please pass the DREAM Act. All I ever wanted was to go to medical school, to spend the rest of my life giving back to the community, and to finally be an American.

~Ashley, DREAMer from California
We were so inspired by the DREAMers’ courage in coming out last week that we will continue to feature their stories through the end of March.  Please show your support by signing the petition to pass the DREAM Act.  Thank you.

National Coming Out Week for Undocumented Youth


My Name is Liz and I am Undocumented

I am afraid to tell my story; the consequences are immense, but silence is no longer an option.
My family immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico sixteen years ago on a visa. Throughout those years, my parents paid countless visits to lawyers and applied for residency three times. For various reasons, such as the 9/11 attack, all those residency applications were denied. We lost thousands of dollars and, worse, we lost hope.
Attending college was difficult; the application process for a non-resident was troublesome, but the financial difficulties were even greater. I could not apply for financial aid due to a lack of social security number. At the same time, I could not work to help my family out. Despite these obstacles, I am immensely proud that I was able to graduate college with a psychology degree.
After graduating, I still hoped to find a job that could sponsor me for a work visa, and I applied to dozens of jobs. All I wanted to do was help people. I had certified in nonprofit management in conjunction with my degree, and wanted to work in a nonprofit organization and help those in need. I received several job offers, but was quickly disillusioned when I found out they wouldn’t sponsor me. That is how I, a recent college graduate, ended up working as a receptionist making minimum wage for the next two years.
I later found out that a local school district sponsored teachers for work visas due to the great need in that profession. I started gaining hope again and joined an alternative certification program. I worked hard, used up all my hard earned savings, and applied for a teaching position. I accepted a job and worked there free of charge while I started my process for a work permit. By this time I was over 21, I had overstayed my previous visa, and my work permit was denied: in other words, undocumented. I was devastated and felt defeated. I did not get paid for the time I worked there and I was, once again, left without a job and without hope.
All the immigration lawyers I have encountered have given me the same advice; they say that my only option is to get married to a U.S. citizen. I do have a wonderful boyfriend, but do not want to rush into marriage for the wrong reasons. My situation becomes even more frustrating as I have an expired driver’s license that cannot be renewed, I am unemployed, and I am undocumented and living in fear. I avoid people so that I don’t have to answer their questions about what I am doing with my life. I am tired of lying and making up excuses so that I don’t have to see the judgment in their eyes. I am tired of hiding and living in fear. And I don’t want to be pressured into marriage and ruin a perfectly good relationship by rushing things just to get my papers. The DREAM Act would be the answer to my prayers. I don’t want to have my life on hold anymore; instead I want to live life and be free.
 ~Liz, DREAMer from Houston, TX
This is National Coming Out of the Shadows Week for undocumented youth, modeled on the LGBT strategy to raise awareness through disclosure of status.  If you are inspired by the DREAMers’ courage in coming out, you can help by supporting the DREAM Act.  Visit DreamActivist.org to learn more.

National Coming Out Week for Undocumented Youth

National Coming Out Week for Undocumented Youth

By Dave Bennion

While most eyes are focused on the HCR debate right now, there is another high-stakes legislative issue waiting in the wings. For those whose families and communities are impacted by the problematic immigration system, immigration reform is as crucial as anything else on the Democratic agenda.

But right now, immigrants and advocates are wondering whether immigration reform is even on the agenda of Democrats in Congress and the White House, notwithstanding Candidate Obama’s promise to make immigration reform a top priority during his first year in office.

That’s why I was happy to see the Philadelphia Inquirer’s editorial about the DREAM Act last weekend.

Under the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, a path to citizenship would be provided to these children after they graduate from high school and enroll in college or the military for two years, steps that would help them become productive members of society.
Critics argue such action condones or encourages illegal immigration, but that’s a narrow-minded view of a much bigger problem. There are at least 12 million illegal immigrants who live and work in the United States. Since most are not returning to their homelands, this country must find a good way to move them to permanent-residency status.
Short of a comprehensive national policy on immigration, the DREAM Act bill provides lawmakers with an opportunity to pass one segment of the sweeping reform that’s needed.

President Obama had promised to take up immigration his first year in office. But with other issues on the table, in particular health-care reform and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he has been forced to delay tackling another divisive issue.. . .

Although many illegal immigrants work and pay taxes, giving their children a chance to attend college or serve in the military would help those families contribute more to the economy with better jobs and higher wages.

That’s no substitute for a new immigration policy that addresses the larger issues. But the DREAM Act can be a first step to put the children of illegal immigrants on the right path.

More and more people are coming around to the idea that passing the Dream Act would reinvigorate the immigrant rights movement and empower the best advocates of immigration reform, immigrants themselves. I believe the undocumented youth movement will be the core of any successful immigration reform effort.

Last Wednesday was National Coming Out Day for undocumented youth, modeled on the LGBT strategy to raise awareness through disclosure of status. From Mo at DreamActivist.org:

Your courage will open the way to having even more conversations about your immigration status. Sharing your stories will allow us, as a movement of undocumented youth, to grow, as we continue to learn to accept ourselves. By being more open we will begin replacing fear with courage and, ultimately, be united in our demands for change. You will be surprised how little other people know about the realities of being undocumented. People who know someone who is gay or lesbian are more likely to support equal rights for all gay and lesbian people- the same follows for people who know someone who is undocumented.

Gabe speaks from experience about the benefits of coming out:

Tania in Chicago came out to a Tribune reporter, which must have been nervewracking.

If seeing the courage of these undocumented activists inspires you like it does me, join Dream Act students and supporters in a march in support of comprehensive immigration reform and the Dream Act in D.C. on March 21st. There are buses traveling to D.C. from around the country–sign up for a seat here.

~Dave Bennion

[Cross-posted at Citizen Orange]

National Coming Out of the Shadows Week

This is National Coming Out of the Shadows Week for undocumented youth, modeled on the LGBT strategy to raise awareness through disclosure of status.  If you are inspired by the DREAMers’ courage in coming out, you can help by supporting the DREAM Act.  Visit DreamActivist.org to learn more.
My Name is Rohit and I am American
What does it take to be an American? It doesn’t seem to be how long someone’s been in the country, or what they relate to, the way they talk or act, or even the values they hold most dear. These days, it seems being American is all about holding a piece of paper.

I’m Rohit and I am American. Even though I’m Indian by decent, and born in Germany, I’m American. I’ve lived in New Jersey since I was 5 (I’m 23 now). I have a Bachelors of Science in Biomedical Engineering from Rutgers University. I like writing stories and poems, and do semi-professional photography. I run a web design firm. I am proud of this country, my country, and what it represents. And while I entered the country legally, I’ve been in the country illegally for 13 years.

I went through the public school system, with regular aspirations to be an astronaut and president. I grew up a science nerd, being picked on through elementary and middle school. I can still remember how mad my parents were the first time I got a bad grade, and the first time I cursed.

In eighth grade, I got a unique opportunity to attend a magnet high school focusing on the sciences and engineering. My class was the first of the school, and got the rare chance to establish the school. I helped found the school paper, serving as the de-facto editor for two years. I was part of the first National Honors Society, and was the soccer team’s statistician for a year. It was also in high school that I got into photography after being volunteered to be the school photographer. In high school, I took a particular interest in programming and web design. I even went as far as to make my first girlfriend a website for Valentine’s Day (in addition to the usual flowers and a teddy bear).

After graduating high school, I applied to a variety of engineering universities. I got waitlisted at Carnegie Mellon, but got accepted into the Rutgers School of Engineering. College was a drastic change. I went from a high school of 120 people to a University where some of my lectures had 120 people in it on an off day. Fortunately, the honors program was small enough to give me a personal feel in a giant university.

Right from the start, my University experience was different. In high school, I was the closed-off, quiet geek. I was a worker, relatively intelligent, but I was never very social. My first day of college was orientation. At Rutgers, New Student Orientation used to be a three day series of events with both information and fun. Being the geek, I went to the informational stuff, but the energy and helpfulness of the orientation volunteers got me enthused and pushed me to volunteer work all though college.

Even until then, I didn’t know I was in the country illegally. Through high school, my parents shooed off my getting a drivers license by saying the insurance rates were too high. I knew we were tight on money, so I went with it. In college, I didn’t have a car, so it didn’t matter. My parents had managed to avoid the topic, with my never having gotten a job and really never having needed ID. So college was pretty normal.

I entered Rutgers intending on going into electrical engineering, but my early experience at college changed my mind, driving me to biomedical engineering. Through BME, I could use electrical and computer engineering and apply it to medicine, to help people. I also joined a number of clubs, and for better or worse, they became my focus in college. I joined a cultural organization, the Association of Indians at Rutgers, to help get in touch with my cultural heritage as well as to get into volunteer work. I also joined the engineering student government, the Engineering Governing Council, to help make a difference at Rutgers. I wound up on the board for AIR, helping revive a cultural aspect of the club, along with pushing more volunteer activities. Through student government, I became an expert on student legislation at Rutgers, and even helped shape the new student government when Rutgers underwent a merger of its campuses. Through the years, these two clubs became my main clubs, though I also started a religious organization, the Anekantavada Jain Association. While I was attentive to my studies, my college life seemed to revolve around my clubs.

Still, I was pretty into the programming aspects of my degree. I did a project on bone fracture recognition and did my senior design project on a therapy device for people who have suffered a stroke. These classes finalized my intentions of wanting to help people by developing devices to make their lives easier. Unfortunately, senior year is when my life took a turn for the worst. In my final semester, as I started to look around for a job, I inquired with my parents about our immigration status. It was the hardest news I’ve ever received, when my dad informed me that our visas expired in the mid nineties. Instantly my hopes of a job vanished, my dreams of a future went up in smoke. In seconds, I went from just another person to being a pariah. Fortunately, I had been seeing a therapist for other depression issues, and managed to make sense of the situation without going insane.

I have now had a degree for nearly two years, with no use for it. I’ve had ambitions and desires placed on the back burner because of a sheet of paper. I can’t contribute to the society I grew up in, or donate back to the clubs and college that gave me so much. I’m also now in removal proceedings. While I wait to see if I get to stay or leave, I’m stuck at home, not having a car or other effective mode of travel, any semblance of a social life limited to when friends are available and can give me a ride. I feel like through this process, I’ve become a mooch on my friends, who’ve given me nothing but support. Along with my mother, father, and younger brother in his third year of college, we face our final hearing in a few months, and will be forced to leave the US by mid summer without some sort of immigration reform. I’ll be sent off to a country I don’t know, to a culture I’m not a part of, to a language I barely speak. It will be, for all intents and purposes, an exile. If I’m sent off, I have no intention of moving back… Why be a part of a country that doesn’t want me because of the mistakes my parents made? I learned that who you are has nothing to do with being American…in the end, it’s what other people think you are.

~Rohit, DREAMer from New Jersey





by Okla Elliott

During Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, he once discussed immigration by saying that we ought to be less worried about immigrants learning English and more worried about whether our children are learning Spanish. He must have known he’d wandered into unsafe territory, because he immediately began enumerating the business advantages your children would have if they were bilingual. (It is always safe in American discourse to return to how something might make money.) Obama was attacked by Democrats and Republicans alike for daring to utter the unthinkable—that Americans need to be learning foreign languages.

As I write this, I am in Montréal, a city that has achieved nearly seamless bilingualism. Depending on the neighborhood, most signs, menus, etc are written in both French and English, and you can order at most places of business in either language. I don’t mean to suggest there aren’t tensions between those who consider their mother tongue French and those who consider it English. There are. Famously so. And one of my instructors, Jessy, at the language institute where I’m studying admitted to being reluctant to read Canadian literature in English (though she also happens to be nearly fluent in English, which indicates her resistance to the language isn’t total, and she seemed embarrassed to admit to reading only francophone literature).  And Jessy isn’t alone in her ambivalence. There’s a referendum every few years for Québec to secede from the rest of Canada, but it is always defeated, and largely because of the huge population in Montréal which always votes en masse to remain part of the larger country.

But there’s the brighter, almost ideal side. You walk up Rue St Laurent, lined with hipster bars and nice restaurants, and you’ll hear the people at one table speaking in French while those at the adjacent table speak English. My favorite scene, which I’ve seen play out several times in my few weeks here, is when a group of people is speaking one language, then someone shows up who is less proficient in that language (usually an English speaker, sadly), and the group simply shifts to the new person’s language of comfort.  It’s a seamless transition, and no one is put out by it.  For lack of a better word, I always think how civilized this is.

Those people in the US who are worried that English will disappear are either willfully ignorant or just insane.  English enjoys not only the 4th largest native speaker population on the planet but is also by far the most common 2nd language learned.  I’m sorry, but every time I hear someone bemoan the rise of Spanish as a second language in the US, I hear laziness or mindless nationalism.  There is absolutely no downside to learning another language, while there are numerous upsides.

But the paranoiac fear isn’t abating. Nowhere is this made more visible than on the US-Mexico border with the fervor for fence-building and of volunteers toting shotguns, excessive in their eagerness to “defend our borders” (from what, I always wonder, hard workers with a drive for self-improvement?).  William T Vollmann’s new book, Imperial, which will be released next month, is a 1,300-page nonfiction exploration of Imperial County, California, where many immigrants who have died in the journey across the border are buried.  There’s an excellent New York Times article about Vollmann and his new book here.

But instead of seeing the ugliness nationalism can cause and instead of embracing the positive aspects of bi- and multilingualism, many Americans are doing just the opposite.  Arizona, Idaho, and Iowa have all recently passed English-only laws, and Oklahoma is poised to vote on an English-only referendum on the 2010 ballot, one which is expected to pass by a large margin.

But what are the advantages of multilingualism?, one might ask.  Aside from Obama’s aforementioned job opportunities, which certainly exist, there are the joys other languages bring.  There is nothing like being in a foreign country and speaking the language.  The experience is so much richer, I have basically foregone visiting countries whose languages in which I don’t at least have some proficiency.  Language is so often the vehicle for culture, and there is simply no way to appreciate another culture without understanding its language.

But there are more immediate ones as well. The CIA has recently been running ads in an attempt to recruit Americans with foreign language skills.  Apparently less than 20% of the CIA staff has proficiency in a foreign language.  Pause for a moment and take that in.  Less than 20% of our international intelligence gathering organ speaks a foreign language.  Mama Elliott didn’t raise no geniuses, but I see how this might be a problem.  Now, I tend to think that most of what the CIA does adds to the misery in the world, so its being hindered in any way might be good in the long run, but there is an old Polish saying: “Know the languages of your friends well, but know the languages of your enemies better.”  Here, even the security-crazed people of this country have to admit that learning Arabic, Farsi, Korean, etc might prove useful.

But I’m less interested in talk of enemies, and I would like to rephrase that Polish saying to: “Learn the languages of your enemies in order to make them your friends.”  I remember when I was an undergrad and preparing for my first academic study abroad to Germany, I was required to attend several information sessions.  At one of them, the goals of the program were laid out, and one of them was world peace.  I thought, “Huh?  How can my improving my understanding of the dative case in German alter international relations?”  The counselor explained that people are less likely to support a war against a country if they’ve lived there or speak the language, and that the kinds of cultural misunderstandings that can lead to less than diplomatic solutions can be obviated if we have enough people here who know firsthand how to navigate those cultural waters.

The advantages, both large and small, are legion.

There are many jobs in legal, technological, governmental, and medical fields that require knowledge of foreign languages.  Studies show that studying a foreign language can reduce the chances of dementia in old age, can improve children’s comprehension of their native language, and even increase a person’s IQ.  There are the interpersonal benefits.  I can’t help but notice the tens of millions of Spanish speakers in world and can’t help but be happy that I have the means to communicate with them. Likewise with French; when I look at a linguistic map of Africa, my heart fairly flutters with possibility.  There are advantages for the activist-minded, such as Habitat for Humanity, Peace Corps, Doctors without Borders, etc.

And on, and on . . .

If being in Montréal has taught me anything, it’s that bi- and multilingualism can work and can have a hugely positive effect on a culture and business community.  It’s not a perfect model, but those tend not to exist in the real world.  It is, however, a hopeful example of what certain US cities could become or already are becoming, if only we embrace it fully and encourage it with the proper institutions and attitude.

Further Reading:

The Undividing Line Between Literary and Political by Okla Elliott, 7/15/09