By Linda Nwoke
Immigration has always been a contentious subject of discussion in the US. Many people seek sanctuary in the country worldwide due to the rise in political turmoil and economic prospects.
Just recently, on May 11th, Title 42 was ended, a policy that prevented asylum seekers from entering the United States, specifically from the southern border, based on health-related humanitarian reasons, precisely due to COVID. The restrictions came initially under the authority of a 1944 health law under Title 42 that allows curbs on migration to protect public health.
Instead, new restrictions are in place to try and control migrants from illegally crossing into the country and encourage them to apply online for asylum via a new process.
Yet, the argument over whether to open or limit borders has continued to rage among Americans. Thus, the concepts of ‘Open Arms, Closed Borders and the Future of the Immigration Myth in America’ formed the basis for a meeting organized through the Center for Brooklyn History.
Panelists deliberated on the authenticity of America’s enduring image as a country that protects and advances immigrant human rights, primarily because of the recent developments in immigration and how they affect other immigrants in the city—specifically, the fallout of arriving people and how communities and advocates will be stepping up in support.
NYC’s Mayor Eric Adams Plan for Housing Asylum Seekers
Earlier in May, the Mayor of New York City announced that asylum seekers would be housed in two proposed hotels upstate in Rockland County, an announcement that was vehemently opposed by the county’s officials, who threatened to sue New York City and cripple any participating hotels within their county.
According to Murad Awawdeh, the Executive Director of NYIC, despite such an adverse reaction, New York will continue to welcome immigrants, regardless of varying opinions. “And we will continue to fight to remain true to who we are as a state,” he states.
In his view, the city comprises great people, specifically ordinary New Yorkers who are constantly rising to the occasion with open arms towards immigrants, treating them with dignity and respect, and being committed to their success.
One of the panelists explained that, presently, there are over 30,000 asylum-seeking migrants under the city’s care. They are accommodated in various shelter houses operating at capacity, in addition to over 130 hotels. Yet, despite the mayor’s proposal for alternative solutions to the housing challenge, the end seems to need to be in sight.
Some of the panelists feel that the mayor should partner with other cities in the state with a history of successfully supporting immigrants and fixing the shelter problem.
“Instead of expanding shelter, they should have been working on creating pathways for people to get out of the emergency shelter and into permanent housing, which is what we’ve been asking for. We have to get people into permanent housing and ensure that we’re helping people set up their lives for success,” said Murad Awawdeh.
Another panelist, Paola Mendoza, co-founder of Women’s March, strongly feels the problem is how ‘immigrants’ are perceived. She believes that if the stories of immigrants are framed in an inspiring and decisive manner, they will influence how they are treated.
“I remember the story of a 16-year-old boy who navigated his family from Columbia to Costa Rica through Mexico to the United States through the jungle. That is one of the scariest, most dangerous jungles in the world,” she said.
She believes, “We can take that ingenuity, bravery, fortitude, and strength and celebrate rather than discriminate.”
There is a consensus that immigrants decide to undergo hardship and confront all the hatred because most are literally running for their lives. “When you are escaping war or persecution, what people are saying and the tenor of a government conversation on the policy don’t matter because you’re just trying to protect yourself and survive with your family,” said Paola.
She explains that, from experience, most immigrants don’t want to leave their homes and start all over again but are forced to do so to survive.
Addressing Hostility Towards New Asylum Seekers
Arun Venugopal, a senior reporter at WNYC and Gothamist, shared a recent observation among immigrants who expressed irritation towards other asylum seekers whom they consider to have experienced a better deal and are having it more effortlessly.
“The consensus among these men was that new arrivals had a pretty sweet deal- they sit around and collect benefits,” revealed Arun Venugopal.
Paola criticized the perception and claimed it is a wrong narrative promoted by unethical and unverified sources among Latinx via social media. “There is a problem in this country with false information going viral and constantly thrusting down people’s brains within the Latinx community, specifically using WhatsApp.”
Such fabricated lies, she says, are causing significant harm to members of the Latinx community and pose a challenge that can be managed with compassion rather than hatred. “I think we need to fight against that at all costs, and the way we do that is to get back into our humanity and our compassion,” says Paola.
Murad Awawdeh explained that more than 50,000 people have arrived in New York to seek asylum over the past year. However, only 30,000 are under the care of the city’s administration. The remaining people may live with friends, relatives, or someone who can accommodate them.
Therefore, only the immigrants who have support or a connection to the city will most likely seek shelter within the system, and they truly deserve the support. Thus, the hostility is driven by the quest to hold someone accountable, which is not other immigrants. Instead, the actual entity to blame is the broken system.
Role of Popular Culture in Immigration Response
People often use popular culture to learn about other cultures, confirm their identities, and reinforce their beliefs. Thus, it often helps individuals understand themselves and others.
According to Paola, artists well used the approach in responding to Trump’s administration, “The cultural response of protection, love, and positive, uplifting stories, through social media to galvanize people around horrible policies was impressive,” she said.
She explained that it prevented several federal policies and laws from being implemented. In reaction to the response of the present administration towards immigration, they expressed a lot of disappointment. “When he came into office, there was fire, impulse, and the desire to help and protect immigrant communities, but it has tapered down, “said Paola.
A reaction that is judged to be reflected in the popular culture, discourse, and narrative around immigration. Some reasons include waning interest and investment by now-committed individuals in immigration.
Regardless, it is agreed that there is a need to increase the pressure on the present administration through collective stories by various community artists and storytellers.
There is always strength in numbers. “If our movements were less siloed, and we aim to have our stories become more intersectional, we will be able to achieve a lot. If we try to organize ourselves better across the board, we would be more assertive and have more impact, “says Paola.