12 July 2013

Lancaster University Geography student Charly Harrison meets the New York immigrants who helped rebuild their neighbourhood, during a recent field trip led by Dr Siobhan McGrath and Prof Gordon Walker.

The story of Hurricane Sandy includes that of some largely unknown, and perhaps unlikely, heroes. On the 29 of October 2012, Hurricane Sandy struck the south coast of Staten Island. Receiving the full brunt of the storm, the Island was the worst affected borough in New York City.

In spite of an evacuation alert several days before, there were unfortunately still 23 confirmed deaths in Staten Island, accounting for over half the city’s death toll. Many homes were severely damaged. Cut off from the rest of the city, Staten Island’s status as the ‘forgotten borough’ appeared to be confirmed, with aid slow in coming, and eligibility for assistance often unclear.

A group of immigrant workers stepped into this gap and formed a voluntary day labour brigade, using their knowledge of construction to help their community. I learned the story of these heroes, 90% of them lacking official residency documents, nearly six months later when (along with 23 other Lancaster University geography students) I was able to witness the damage first hand as part of a field trip.

The mobilisation of the “undocumented”

Many residents felt increasingly isolated and “forgotten” by their fellow Americans. “We need food, we need water, and we need it now” are pleas we associate with moments of crisis in developing nations, but these were calls I heard from the residents I met. In response to this sense of abandonment, the previously ‘invisible’ immigrant population of Staten Island mobilised, gathering at ”El Centro Del“. Immigrante where they organised themselves to help those affected by the hurricane. Gonzalo Mercado, the Executive Director of El Centro Del Immigrante, told us about the role they played.

“Our workers could not believe the images on TV and, realizing that was happening in our back yard, they quickly organized and packed bags with food, batteries, cleaning supplies and headed to the beach area where they walked door to door offering supplies and their own hands to help clean up. These brigades happened every week until January and are still happening now.”

Out of the shadows

Visibly demonstrating the value of their skills, goodwill and usefulness to the nation is especially important now for undocumented immigrants in the USA, as the country debates controversial immigration reform. On 17 April, the ‘Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act’ was proposed in the Senate. With the last ‘amnesty’ in 1986, there is now an estimated population of 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country.

Against arguments that they undercut wages and take jobs which could be going to American citizens, the act is crucial for immigrants and undocumented workers. If the proposed reform goes through, they could achieve the new status of ‘Registered Provisional Immigrant.’ Although costly and time consuming, this would allow working immigrant families throughout the US to regularise their status and come out of the shadows.

The bill specifically emphasises the situation of a group who have become known as the ‘DREAMers,’ This proposed DREAM act (‘Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors’) would allow a pathway to citizenship for those who were brought to the country illegally as children (or became undocumented as children) but call America their home, as long as they go on to university or military service.

The new American DREAMers

One DREAMer originally from Pakistan – Hina Naveed, an intern at the El Centro del Immigrante – described, in an American accent, her family’s decision to stay in the US to get her sister the best medical care – even if it meant becoming undocumented. In Pakistan, her sister had only been given months to live but, in the US, is ‘still here, 13 years later’.

Obama’s ‘deferred action’ has already provided a temporary (two year) exemption for this group of young people, and many of the goals of the DREAM Act have been incorporated into the Senate bill.

However further questions have been raised about the proposed immigration reform since the bombings at the Boston Marathon earlier this year. The youngest of the accused Tsarnaev brothers would have qualified for residency under the DREAM act. The worry is that the hopes of millions of hard working immigrants could be jeopardised by the actions of two alleged terrorists.

Despite the potential setbacks, the DREAMers go from strength the strength through mobilisation both online and on the ground, and there is hope that their efforts will gain them and other undocumented workers the recognition they deserve.


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