Enforcement issues and education barriers are the biggest problems facing the undocumented community in Long Beach according to community leaders at a forum on immigration reform last week.
These two issues create a myriad of everyday obstacles for undocumented immigrants, who in some cases, have lived in Long Beach for most of their lives.
There are currently an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. How many of those reside in Long Beach is unknown, but as one of the most diverse cities in the nation, many in the city will be affected by immigration reform.
Norma Chinchilla, panelist and director of the Long Beach Immigrant Rights Coalition (LBIRC), says that children of immigrants fear the police because of what they have seen happen to their families.
“The biggest issue is fear,” Chinchilla said. “Fear that the historically unprecedented number of deportations has created.”
Young children have seen their parents taken by agents in the early hours of the morning, according to Chinchilla. And as some children end up in foster care, the parents can be sent out-of-state, separating families and with communication lost in legal limbo.
Car impounds have also had a toll on Long Beach children, according to LBIRC.
“They’ve seen their parents stopped and have their cars impounded while dropping them off to school,” Chinchilla says.
In some of the cases she works with, children have reported crying at the mere sight of a police officer. As VoiceWaves reported in December, nearly one quarter of persons deported from the U.S. last year were parents of citizen children.
Chinchilla recalled one child telling his mother: “Mama, I want be a policeman when I grow up, but I want be a policeman [so] I can keep people from taking other people’s cars.
Seng So, 28 and another panelist and Khmer Girls in Action (KGA) community organizer, has mixed feelings about immigration reform.
“It’s very exciting, but very scary because we don’t know how immigration reform is going to go,” he says. So is worried about further enforcement measures that may be taken against Cambodian immigrants.
“One in 4 Cambodians are pulled over and harassed by cops,” he says, quoting a recent study conducted by KGA. Ideally, if reform measures have “less emphasis in enforcement, it can relieve fear,” he says.
[pullquote]”One in 4 Cambodians are pulled over and harassed by cops,” he says, quoting a recent study conducted by KGA. Ideally, if reform measures have “less emphasis in enforcement, it can relieve fear,” he says.[/pullquote]
Chinchilla, who worked with Salvadoran refugees to attain their citizenship in the 1980s, also argues that legalization would encourage the immigrant community into civic engagement and to call police to report abuses. “It would be much easier (for them) to speak up and speak out,” she says.
Barriers to Success
As budget cuts to school continue and scholarships for undocumented students are scarce, hardship for educational and job success is another major problem for the undocumented community.
“We have quite a few undocumented students at LBUSD who graduate and may not have the opportunity to go to college, even though they have a 4.0 GPA,” said Udak Ntuk, President of the Long Beach Democratic Club, who hosted the event.
But if reform is successful, Ntuk says that they will “have an opportunity to achieve the American dream: home ownership, and a good job to support their own family.”
He also mentions how troublesome it can be to access the city’s resources. “If you don’t have a social security card, then you can’t get a Long Beach library card,” Ntuk said. “Little things like that can have a big impact on people’s lives.”
Other panelists agreed.
“I’ve seen my students hit a wall. They’re ready to succeed, to advance,” said panelist Councilman Patrick O’Donnell, who is also a local high school teacher.
“My hope is that we can make (resources) available through immigration reform.” While O’Donnell says he is unsure of what is an ideal reform package, he argues it must encompass dreamers and a path to citizenship.
Panelists agreed that reform should prioritize the youth, to get them immediately active in the economy, voting, and volunteering in their communities because they are the most in-need.
Framing the Issue
Moving forward, Long Beach advocates for immigration rights said sharing stories and framing the issue in a more compelling light was the first step towards creating compassionate immigration reform.
“Humanize it,” O’Donnell said. “They’re people, you tell their stories, you share them with people who might not hear or interact with immigrants on a daily basis.”
“We think it’s the job of California to push the reform to the compassionate side,” Chinchilla said. “We can help shape it,” she says, considering that California the largest number of immigrants in the country.
Data analyzed by the Pew Hispanic Center in 2011 confirms this statistic.
“A lot of people think of an immigrant as a faceless blob,” said Ntuk, who was born to immigrant parents. “But that’s me, that’s my family, that’s Long Beach.”