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The Immigration Reform Needed by Refugees

Most of the national discussion of immigration reform is from the perspective of South Americans who have the physical ability to cross our Southern border between legal checkpoints, in addition to the very limited ability to come legally. This discussion is with Somalian leaders, about the problems of Somalian refugees whose only way in is through their status as refugees from the ongoing Somalian civil war.

The facts alleged in this interview have not yet been double checked by interviewing immigration officials, or lawyers, or agencies. This article represents the understanding of Somalian problems as it exists among Somalian leaders. It is a summary of the video embedded here. The numbers at the beginning of each section indicate how many minutes and seconds into the video that section is found.

I, Dave Leach, interviewed the President, Vice President, and a member of the Somali Community of Des Moines, which has an office at 1016 University, Suite C, Des Moines IA 50314, on March 28, 2014. The president is Manana Osman; the Vice President is Siat Bulle. The member is Abdullah Hussein.

The 5-year deadline to learn English.
0:33 It is impossible for Somalians to become English fluent before the 5 year deadline. There are no schools to help. Within 5 years of coming here, if they can't pass the citizenship test, they must renew their green cards by an expensive difficult process requiring lawyers which they can't afford. People who have never heard of America, or of English, and who can’t even read and write in a Somalian language, must learn to speak, read and write English, and learn the history of America since when it declared independence until now.

Not only must they renew their green cards, but if they have been receiving Social Security or SSI benefits, that is cut off. Their jobs are minimum wage, and their families number 9 or 10, which is the average for Somalis. In some of these families there is no father, and Mom is not literate. Mostly cleaning is the job available to them. A lawyer costs at least $200 an hour.

It would be wonderful if immigration forms were simple enough to be filled out without a lawyer.

Is it really illegal to translate immigration forms?
5:20 Another wonderful thing would be if the U.S. Government would allow immigration forms to be translated into the Somali language. But the government won't provide translations, and won't allow it to be done. Everything must be conducted in English, without a translator; not only the citizenship tests, but all the other forms before that point.

90 days and you’re on your own.
8:20 The agencies bringing over refugees are supplied by federal grants. They meet minimum requirements, showing them their new residence and how to process their federal benefits. They start them off with basic food, and then leave them, leaving them still ignorant of many basic things like how to travel, where to go, how to communicate with a landlord, what to do if they are evicted, etc.

Somalis who are U.S. citizens would be able to give greater care of new refugees if they had some of those grants so they could afford the time; otherwise, they have their own families to take care of and there are too few who are citizens to help, for the number of refugees. (Later Siat Bulle says even non-citizens could take care of their own families coming from Somalia, if they were allowed to sponsor them, without any government assistance.)

Later he says Lutheran Social Services won't let citizens help refugees, even if they wanted to volunteer. Or maybe he means they won't pay them.

12:25 The limit to how many refugees can come is the expense of flying over to Somalia to bring people back, and the SS benefits. Siat does not know if there is a numerical limit, but the number who come is influenced by decisions of U.N. bureaucrats.

14:25 Manana Osman, President of the Somalian Community in Des Moines, said when she came to the U.S. 17 years ago, Lutheran Social Services helped her family for 90 days, but after that there was no one to help them.

Manana said it is especially hard for refugees who are over 65 years old. They have 6-7 years to master English, and if they cannot then pass the citizenship test they lose all their benefits. Back in Somalia, there are no bills to pay. Those who are disabled are receiving Social Security SSI, and can't work. The doctor tells them they can't work.

There is a waiver of the English-speaking requirement, available if a psychiatrist will say you have had too much trauma from the violence of the past to now learn English, but who has the $500 to pay the fee for that waiver, besides paying the psychiatrist? And the lawyer who tells you about it?

What can Somalians do to raise their voice?
17:00 Where can people explain these problems to the people who are drawing up immigration reform?

18:40 Somalians don't even know the other people in Iowa promoting immigration reform; much less where there is any opportunity to explain their own particular problems to activists who are designing its details.

19:00 A Somalian community member says “we don't even know immigration law. They don't even understand. You talking about passing the law. This law, what can we say about it? Because we don't know. You are saying there is a group trying to pass immigration reform. We don't know what the reform is. We don't even know the immigration laws. When the refugees came here, they are just sent to the ESL [English as a Second Language] school to learn just basic English. And then they go try to work. But no one makes them to understand the immigration law. Even the basic immigration law, they don't understand. They are even afraid, when they come to the document by themselves, they don't even trust themselves [to understand it].”

Do you believe more refugees would take jobs from citizens?
20:00 One reason citizens don't want more immigrants is the belief that they will take jobs away from citizens.

Siat Bulle said he doesn’t think that's true, because refugees come here with a limited education. They aim for the minimum paying jobs. “I doubt if there is any refugee who is in a position of taking jobs from the citizen. I don't deny that after some 10-20 years, the children of refugees, who are already citizens, because they were born in the USA or came when they were young and acquired education, could be able to compete with a citizen. But there is no refugee who comes to the USA and who will be able to get a job from the citizens. I doubt.”

Will allowing more refugees give the U.S. an unsustainable population?
21:15 Another reason citizens want to limit immigration is that they think we will have too many people. “I don't believe that because the land is too much; there are enough resources in the USA for everybody who comes to the USA. And Homeland Security will not allow people to come here without knowing there is a place for them.

Should immigration law allow anyone to come who has a sponsor?
22:30 If the government would allow anyone to come who could find a sponsor, would that be a good idea? Suppose you knew someone who is coming from Somalia, and you are willing, not to pay their bills, but show them how to find a job, a home, to explain how light switches work?

“Yes. I am ready to do that. That's why this office opened.... [also] in case someone is evicted from their house, we can help them with the process of where they should go.”

We need to keep the interviews that weed out the violent.
So what would you think if the government allowed everyone to come from Somalia who could find a sponsor?

Bulle said, “That would not be good because there is a civil war in Somalia, fueled by political groups which we have never had before. To open the door to everyone would be to welcome the violent ones. The U.N. should continue interviewing them the way they are doing, to weed out the security risks.

“I would appreciate it if the USA would resettle even just the Somalians who are in refugee camps outside Somalia. In the camps they have no rights even to leave and return, or to work.”

Could Somalian Americans help with background checks?
25:35 If the government wanted to expand its background checks to confirm which applicants are nonviolent, are there better ways or easier ways they could be done? Or is there a way that volunteers could help the government do them?

Yes. If the government would allow the Somalis [who are U.S. Citizens] who understand their country, their languages, the politics of the war, Somalis could make the government's job easier and more accurate. That would be good.

What do I, Dave Leach, want to accomplish?
26:40 “What reforms are you trying to pass now?” Hussein asked. My [the interviewer's] goal is to get people who care about immigration to meet together to discuss what they want, in detail.

“We have, today, groups, lawyers, individuals who say they want immigration reform. They will write one page explaining what they want immigration law to do. Then they elect senators to write this one page into a law. The senators write 1,200 pages of laws to give details to flesh out this one page. It should not surprise us when some of those details, [crafted without the knowledge, much less without the input, of national discussion among those affected] are scary. So I see the need for those who care about immigration reform to talk [publicly, and together, in forums where all have a voice] about the details of what they want to happen. And how it could be done so that it is not bad for citizens, and not bad for refugees.”

Bulle answered, “We could have a forum, and invite all the refugees, and they could talk about their problems. And about what would be good for refugees, and should be allowed. Yes.”

How can non-citizens have a voice?
28:25 “Since [refugees] are not citizens, do they have a voice in this matter?”
They don't have a voice to vote. But they do have a voice to explain the problems. And because the people who do vote don't really want laws that are going to hurt refugees [then refugees' voice matters.] If voters can be made to understand that our laws hurt refugees, [unnecessarily]....”

Bulle answered, “That would be very nice. If we could get the government to listen to the refugees and see what is going on, and the need refugees have for knowledge beyond their first 90 days here.... We have elders. We have single mothers. Who came from a civil war. They have no means of transportation. They don't know where to go. They can't even communicate with their landlords. The law should make a way for refugees to have basic information beyond 90 days. We would very much appreciate our voice being heard by the government, or by our representatives, or by the White House. But how?”

31:00 I answered the question later, but at this point I started an answer by a circuitous route and got side tracked with a correction of one of my details: “200 years ago when America [as an independent nation] was founded, it took 2-5 years of waiting before you could be a citizen. Now it's 5 years for a refugee, if you can learn English, and for others it's between 12 and 40 years.”

31:30 Manana corrected me: “There is a K-visa. When you are a citizen, your husband can become a citizen after 3 years. But he can't get any benefits from the state.” That was enough for me to forget the rest of my answer, as I thought of another question.

Can the U.S. afford more welfare for more refugees?
32:00 “Another objection citizens have to allowing more immigrants is that if they receive welfare, it will take more money than the U.S. has. I am hopeful that there is a way to allow many more immigrants to come without further cost to the U.S. If there are enough immigrants working, who can help those who are in need.”

Bulle said it would be very hard to do away with welfare because the people don't know the language or the way of life.

Is there any difficulty getting work?
33:50 Are there laws that could be changed that would make it easier for people to work?
Bulle said, “We are very appreciative of the U.S. government that we have never had a problem getting a job, even though refugees speak very little English. The minute we arrive at the airport we are given a work permit. That has no need of an extension, and it does not expire.”

Hussein said, 34:50 “You asked if there were any way Somalians who are U.S. citizens can help refugees. Yes, we can help them, if the government makes possible the law that allows refugees to sponsor other refugees, instead of limiting sponsorship to citizens. And by sponsoring, we mean also help take care of them.”

36:00 The three agreed: We have relatives and friends who can’t come, but if we, not yet being citizens, were allowed to sponsor them, we could take care of them without government assistance, get them on their feet, and help pay their bills until they can. Siat’s own parents are in refugee camps right now. Siat would love to have them allowed to come here and he would take care of them. But the law doesn’t allow it.

Hussein has a brother in a refugee camp, whom he is not allowed by law to bring here.

37:15 By the time you get to be a citizen, so that you can sponsor relatives, all your relatives have died of old age, or of the violence.

How can we raise our voice?
38:20 “How will you present our voices so they are heard?” Hussein asked.

I answered, “If we could find people that would meet together with Mexicans, and other nationals, and if we could discuss how we want the law changed, and agree, then we can invite a Senate candidate to come to our meeting and turn the camera on, and we can ask him questions. We can tell him what we know, what we have experienced, and what we believe would work. And he would have to think about what we say because he wants to get elected and because we know people who can vote.

39:20. Bulle said “That would be good. We will try to contact other refugee communities.”

39:40 I said “It’s difficult to get human beings to agree on anything. But if we, who care about immigration, can’t agree, or can’t even meet, to talk about what we want, how do we expect lawmakers to give us what we want? If we can’t decide what we want, how are they going to figure it out?”

Bulle agreed. “If we are the ones who are in need, and we are unable to come together – you’re very right. It is not easy for them to know our problems.”

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