Monday, November 18, 2019

Harmful myths trail those seeking a better life here

As published in the Buffalo News

Immigration is a hot topic now. Not only is it important to understand the various policies, knowing someone’s story is a window into the myths being perpetrated. Through teaching a class to prepare green card holders to pass their U.S. citizenship test, I understand the struggles of immigrants.

Immigration is not solely about illegal immigrants crossing our southern border. The first thing to understand is that many are crossing our borders legally. For example, some are asylum-seekers. They can claim asylum status at a border checkpoint or even when they are in the country undocumented. This is in accordance with United States law and U.N. policies.

Once here, asylum-seekers have due process and equal protection rights under our Constitution. They are entitled to an asylum hearing. Generally, political refugees – those facing persecution in their home countries – are allowed to stay. Economic refugees – those in this country simply to earn more money – are generally deported.

One problem is how long the hearing process takes. Alternatives to detention, such as ankle bracelets, were common during the Obama administration. This ensured that asylum-seekers showed up for their hearing dates and were more than 90% effective. By prosecuting them for the offense of entering illegally and immediately detaining them, the Trump administration has caused the crisis at the border. Families are separated because children cannot be detained as long as adults and facilities are overcrowded.

The immigrants I teach have been pre-cleared in their home country before coming here. They are considered refugees, not asylum-seekers, and can obtain a green card. Still, there is more to their immigration stories. Often coming from war-torn nations in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, they may be in refugee camps for years before being allowed to come here. The camps themselves can come under fire.

It is a myth that Muslim immigrants are terrorists. Most come as a family unit. Another myth is they overuse social services. While they can receive money to come here, their ability to receive government resources is restricted over time.

Imagine coming here from an African nation speaking only Swahili. Imagine having to learn a new alphabet after knowing only Arabic, which has different characters from English and is read right to left. Imagine seeing a supermarket for the first time and having to learn how to shop.

I am fortunate to teach an immigrant community here in Buffalo. I’ve also created a website,, where you can learn more about stigma against refugees, religious groups and the disabled.

Helaine Sanders teaches refugees to pass their U.S. citizenship test. She co-chairs the Town of Amherst Committee in Disabilities.

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