Old Longings, New Hope

Mustafa Rasidkadic hasn't seen his son in five years. Rasidkadic and his wife were separated from him after being thrown in a prisoner of war camp during the war in Bosnia. After two and a half years in the camp, where they saw some of their fellow prisoners executed, they were released and came to Chicago as refugees in 1999. Their youngest son was allowed to come with them, but since their oldest son, now 35, is an adult, he didn't automatically get refugee status with his parents. "They didn't say yes or no, they just left his case undecided," said Edisa Duranspahic, a close friend of Rasidkadic's who translates for him as part of her work with the Interfaith Refugee and Immigration Ministries in Chicago.

Meanwhile Mohammad Asif, 21, lives daily in fear for the safety of his mother, who stayed behind in Pakistan with his younger sister when Asif, who was born in the U.S. but grew up in Pakistan, immigrated here in 1996. As leaders of the minority Shi'ite community in Quetta, Pakistan, his father had received many death threats before passing away several years ago and his uncle was also the subject of attacks and threats.

"Now my mother has no one to take care of her, and in that society she can't really work," said Asif, who now lives in Chicago. "She can't even get a visa to visit. It's really hard not being able to see her. I worry about her all the time."

Under current immigration policy, it will be years more before either man sees his loved ones. Recently, Rasidkadic learned that going through the normal immigration process, it will be nine to 12 years before his son can legally join him in the U.S.

"He [Mustafa] can't even talk about it because it hurts so much," said Duranspahic.

"Since we are getting old, we want as soon as possible to see both our kids with us," said Rasidkadic, 62, in a prepared statement. "It is so hard to wait, as you don't know how long your life will be. Twelve years from now is just too long for a person my age to wait."

As the parent of a U.S. citizen, Asif's mother would probably be able to move to the U.S. in two or three years. But as a sibling of a citizen, in a lower priority category as far as immigration law goes, his sister wouldn't be able to come for as many as 11 years. So his mother must stay with her.

However, if federal legislation proposed in the House and Senate on May 4 were to pass, Rasidkadic and Asif would soon be reunited with their family members. The legislation, known as the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Bill, is a sweeping package of progressive immigration reforms which harken back to the days before the Sept. 11 attacks when amnesty for undocumented immigrants and a more humane immigration policy were on the national radar screen. While simultaneously being introduced in the House and Senate, the reform bill was announced at about 25 press conferences around the country on May 4, including the one in Chicago where Rasidkadic and Asif shared their stories.

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks set back immigration reform by decades, according to most immigration lawyers and immigrants' rights advocates. And with the war on terror and the drive for Homeland Security still in high gear, legal and undocumented immigrants still face intense prejudice, repression, surveillance and general insecurity. But immigrant workers and immigrants' rights advocates, including a strong presence from organized labor, are demanding that their human rights and workers rights be protected in a country that clearly needs their labor. The legislation, introduced by Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Congressmen Luis Gutierrez (D-IL)and Bob Menendez (D-NJ), is a "big step," in the words of Polish immigrant and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1 organizer Eva Garza.

"We have waited long enough, and we've come to the point where it's time to introduce legislation again," said Martin Manteca, immigration coordinator for the central region for SEIU International. "Immigration reform reinforces the safety of the country, because people are here under their real identities, and it is a way to stop the dangerous flow of immigrants across the border, where you have people dying every day."

The bill is essentially three-pronged. One set of provisions, known as family reunification, would greatly increase the ability of family members to be reunited in the U.S. and would reduce the backlog in pending legal residency applications.

Another part, known as earned legalization, would allow any worker in the U.S. on the day the bill passes to apply for legal residency after having worked for 24 months in the U.S. It would also remove most of the three to 10 year bars which are now placed on immigrants for incursions including illegal re-entry and using fake documents.

The third part of the bill would include a temporary worker program, allowing 250,000 workers a year to obtain work visas for two years, extendable to six years, and for 100,000 workers to obtain nine month visas, extendable to 40 months. All labor laws including the right to organize and wage-hour protections would be guaranteed for these workers. And unlike under the guest-worker bill which President Bush talked about in January, workers would have the right to change employers after three months, making them less vulnerable to their employer. The bill also includes a "fix" for the "Hoffman Plastics" Supreme Court decision, another blow to immigrants which happened shortly after Sept. 11, denying them back pay if they are illegally fired for organizing.

Unlike Bush's proposal, the act would also give these temporary workers, who would have to apply for the program from outside the U.S., a path to future citizenship.

“We would not be in favor of any temporary worker program unless the four million undocumented workers here are also given a path to citizenship,” noted Manteca. “[The temporary worker program in the proposed bill] is regulated migration. The 250,000 and 100,000 numbers are what economists and immigration experts believe are based on actual needs [for labor here]. It’s linking supply and demand.”

While neither political party wanted to touch amnesty or immigrants' rights in the wake of the terrorist attacks, the introduction of the legislation is a sign that the Democratic party, at least, has realized the level of support that exists for immigration reform, especially among Latino voters.

But while the bill is a hopeful sign, immigrants involved in organizing and activism note that these are still frightening times where people in general, and immigrants in particular, need to watch their backs and their tongues. Jose Oliva, director of the workers center for the Chicago Interfaith Committee on Worker Justice and Worker Issues, noted that the group has had to change their approach since Sept. 11.

"You can't say anything that could be taken as anti-American," said Oliva, who immigrated to Chicago from Guatemala as a child. "I never would have dreamed I'd be standing in front of an American flag at a press conference, but I've had to do that."

And he's noticed that politicians and others who supported them before the attacks became wary of being associated with them him. "Political officials are cautious about being considered our allies now," he said.

Alexis Lanza, an immigrant from Honduras who does international solidarity work and media and art activism in Chicago, agreed that the whole landscape has changed, and things are just as tense now as they were right after the attacks.

"Before one of the slogans at protests was, “the real terrorists in the world today are right here in the USA,'" he said, noting that since he is a legal resident, but not a citizen, there are various ways his residency could be revoked. "Now you could never say that in public. If you say anything against the U.S. you're a terrorist. It's much harder to talk about things that the U.S. is doing and has done in Central America, in Colombia, for example, because people don't want to hear it. You have to find different ways of saying the same things. You have to be much more careful."

Sitting in a café with a photo of Chiapas rebel Subcomandante Marcos on the wall, he noted that "We don't have any civil liberties anymore. There could be surveillance going on right now at this café, agents trying to find out who the local activists are."

While the charged political climate during the "war on terror" has caused immigrant organizers from major non-profit organizations and labor unions down to radical grassroots activists to change their tactics significantly, most say it hasn't distracted them from their goals and demands or caused them to back off. If anything, it is the opposite.
"You may have to slow down a little, or change your strategy, but you never give up," said Lanza. "There are all different ways to resist -- with a painting, with a poem."

While Polish immigrant Garza echoed most proponents in saying she doesn't expect the bill to pass any time soon, she thinks immigration reform is inevitable at some point.

So does Joshua Hoyt, executive director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. He said, "Some kind of reform is inevitable. Just look at the demographics of the workforce."

Community group leaders added that the cooperation of major labor unions in the effort is also crucial. "We are going to work on this night and day," added Manteca. "Until we get both sides to sit down and fix the broken nose that is this country's immigration policy."

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