BY JEFF GERRITT
FREE PRESS EDITORIAL WRITER
The bronze plaque still hangs at the Statue of Liberty, engraved with the words: “Give me your tired, your poor.” But these days, the nation is rolling up the welcome mat for immigrants.
That’s a mistake. Immigrants, with their skills, work ethic and traditions, feed the nation’s lifeblood — always have. It’s no accident that southwest Detroit, with its growing immigrant population, fares better than the rest of the city. People like the parents of 18-year-old Andrea Samano, profiled in today’s “D” Diaries, have journeyed here, seeking a better life for their families.
It’s a truly American story. But Samano’s parents, after living and working in southwest Detroit for nearly 12 years, now face deportation.
The nation needs a more practical and humane immigration policy — one that will protect our borders while keeping families together, offering more opportunities for legal entry and a path to citizenship for those already here.
Immigration and Detroit’s future
The rhymes of Mexican-American rapper Jae-P flow from Andrea Samano’s cell phone. They tell the story of a Mexican father who leaves his country to make a better life for his family.
It’s the story of Andrea’s family, too, and thousands of others in southwest Detroit.
But Andrea, 18, who started classes at the University of Michigan-Dearborn this week, doesn’t know how her story will end. It’s in God’s hands now — or the government’s.
Andrea’s 42-year-old father and mother face deportation, after living and working for nearly 12 years in southwest Detroit, where they own a three-bedroom house.
It’s a familiar story in southwest Detroit, where blocks with tended lawns and toys on wooden porches lace diverse neighborhoods. Immigrants have helped this part of Detroit hold its population far better than the rest of the city. With a growing Latino community, southwest Detroit’s population over the last decade dropped only half as fast as the rest of the city’s. Latinos, with an estimated population of more than 45,000, now make up nearly half of southwest Detroit.
But many of the immigrants responsible for southwest Detroit’s relative health live in fear. Andrea grew up knowing government agents could snatch her parents any time. She worried she would slip and say something that would lead federal immigration officers to her door. Nationwide, an estimated 3.1 million U.S.-citizen children have at least one undocumented parent.
With one foot in two cultures, Andrea has lived a double life. A natural-born U.S. citizen, she graduated with honors this year from Cesar Chavez Academy. She plans to major in biochemistry and become a physician. Despite excelling academically, Andrea suffered from depression that required medication and counseling.
“When we were growing up, our parents told us that if anyone asked if our parents were legal, we shouldn’t respond,” Andrea told me. “We always watched what we said. I was always afraid that I’d slip and say the wrong thing.”
A farm worker in central Mexico, Andrea’s father entered the U.S. illegally 20 years ago, paying a “coyote” to smuggle him across the border. He lived in the Los Angeles area, where Andrea was born, before coming to Detroit in the late 1990s, after hearing the city had plenty of good-paying jobs. He soon found work as a landscaper; Andrea’s mother took a job as a hospital housekeeper.
They stressed the importance of education to their three children. In Mexico, Andrea’s father had dropped out of school in the ninth grade to help support his family; he wanted more for his children. Andrea’s oldest sister, Maria, 22, lives in Flint with her husband. Her youngest sister, Jamie, 10, will enter the fifth grade at Cesar Chavez.
Andrea’s parents spoke no English before coming to the U.S. Andrea had to learn English quickly after entering elementary school. She worked on her English for hours every day to perfect her pronunciation. By the second grade, she was fluent in English and a straight-A student. “They used to call me a bookworm,” she said. “I was OK with that.”
Sometimes Andrea would fight with students who called her a “wetback” or accused her family of stealing U.S. jobs. By middle school, fights went down almost daily. Even then, Andrea took her beefs off school grounds to avoid getting suspended.
“I’m a good fighter, but I don’t like violence,” she said. “My mom told me that as long as people didn’t put their hands on me, I should ignore them. But if they put their hands on me, I had to fight back.”
The fear realized
In July 2009, the family faced their worst fear: Immigration authorities arrested Andrea’s father on his way to work, just outside the house. The family doesn’t know how the government found out. Maybe immigration officials, processing an application by Andrea’s parents for legal residency, found the outstanding warrant against Andrea’s father, issued 20 years ago after he was caught entering the country illegally and then missed a hearing. Or maybe someone just ratted the family out.
After his arrest, Andrea’s father was jailed for two months. Authorities started deportation proceedings against both parents. Stress and worry gripped the family. Last November, Andrea tried to commit suicide by swallowing 29 sleeping pills, and then spent a week in a psychiatric ward.
“I felt like I was giving my parents more problems instead of helping to solve them.”
At a deportation hearing in July, the government granted Andrea’s parents a six-month extension. They continue to work while seeking a permanent resident, or green, card. They struggle to pay legal fees of about $600 a month. (On their attorney’s advice, Andrea’s parents declined to be interviewed.)
“We try not to talk about it,” Andrea told me. “Every time we do, we start to argue and my mother starts to cry. My dad can’t sleep.”
Adding to the stress, crime in Andrea’s neighborhood has spiked recently, with numerous break-ins and auto thefts. Andrea’s cousin was robbed at knife point. Another relative was shot while sitting on his porch; a bullet from a shootout grazed his arm.
In college this fall, Andrea will continue to work 22 hours a week as a peer support specialist for Southwest Counseling Solutions, working with troubled teens. “She’s remarkable,” said Steve Palackdharry of Southwest Solutions. “Despite the constant anxiety about her family’s future, she continues to help others.”
If her parents are deported, she likely will have to work full-time to support herself and her younger sister.
Unlike most of her friends, Andrea, who is bilingual, plans to live in Mexico, where she hopes to open a medical clinic after finishing college in the U.S. Since her father’s arrest, Andrea feels more Mexican, less American, even though she’s grateful for the opportunities she’s had here. Her parents worked hard, she said, and had no other problems with the law.
Like the father Jae-P raps about, Andrea’s dad gave her the chance he never had. Now he may have to leave her. “I don’t want to stay in a country where they destroy families over a sheet of paper,” Andrea said. “It’s just not right.”