19 April 2017

Lost In America: Camilla And Her Search For Refuge

Lost In America

I have to say I never once in my life imagined that I would be driving our friend, an undocumented immigrant from another country, to an immigration lawyer an hour away from the farm. The country is now bitterly divided on the question of immigration, and the humanitarian catastrophe that threatens millions of working people in our country if they are arrested, pulled from their jobs, jailed and sent away. Deported.

On some issues, it's impossible to hide from the raging stream, you just have to take a stand, so I have taken mine. Maria too.

The descendant of immigrants myself, I will stand with the good and hard-working people caught in a raging storm between many forces they cannot control, seeking mostly to work hard and make enough money to care for their families and children and grandchildren back home.

I must work here, she says, there is no work back home, my family would go hungry.

Camilla (not her real name) is living like some Jew or gypsy or gay man or woman in Eastern Europe on the eve of World War II. She is frantic, living partly in hiding, working hard seven  days a week, sending her money home for her daughter and 10 grandchildren to live on in their impoverished village, driving on back roads to avoid the police, shopping in small grocery stories and convenience stores to avoid the big chains like Wal-Mart, where  everyone believes agents from the dreaded ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) hide in wait for people like her and spring on them and then, they simply disappear, their things left behind and are not seen again by their friends and family or the people they work for.

They are disappeared, she says. She worries about her boyfriend, they have never been apart. What if he is taken?

I heard these same stories from my grandmother, I am struggling to absorb it. Now I am hearing them again, and in my own country. Will this disheartening chapter be in someone else's novel down the road?

In a few days, it is learned that the disappeared have been deported. What will they do for work?

The rumors are everywhere about everything. The ICE is hiding at the courthouse, at the police station, even in hospitals and nursing homes, anywhere people who work hard for low wages doing the jobs Americans don't want might be. They are raiding the farms, staking out the Western Union portals where money is sent back home. Everybody has a story about someone who is gone. Everyone is afraid.

Camilla's friend was beaten by her boyfriend, but she will no longer go to the police, they might surrender her to the ICE.  Another agricultural worker was robbed in her trailer, her money and cell phone stolen, but no one will report robberies any longer.

Everyone is afraid to drive, no one knows what the local police chief will do. Camilla's care has a broken muffler, it makes an awful racket and she is terrified to drive it for fear of being stopped. Her boyfriend is trying to patch it up with duct tape.

Some farmers and I will take up a collection and figure out how to pay for it.  We all know Camilla and love her. She is gentle and honest and no one works harder.

I hear these stories as we drive to meet a new lawyer, an immigration lawyer I will call Susan,  and I wonder if we could possibly be talking about America when I hear these stories. It just doesn't sound like my country.  But I suppose that's what they say about all countries when they change. I hope the lawyer can help.

Susan  speaks Spanish, so she and Camilla can talk freely and openly. We are prepared to pay this lawyer a retainer, so that Camilla will have a lawyer to call if she is arrested – it can happen anytime, anywhere.

Camilla, who doesn't speak much English, is mostly quiet on the way, thoughtful. She looks worried, no surprise.

She wants to buy lunch for Maria and me to help pay for our time, we decline, we say we are not hungry. We find a spot, park and go into the lawyer's office, it's a swanky new building.

We all like the new lawyer instantly, I will call her Susan, she welcomes Camilla, shakes hands, takes us to a conference room. She asks me to go over Camilla's history and I do, with Maria's help. I ask her a dozen questions about current immigration policy. She is patient, she explains the law carefully to me.

She turns to Camilla and they speak in Spanish for a half an hour, Susan taking note.

She goes through each of the shrinking options now open to agricultural workers and undocumented immigrants. They want the government to leave their workers alone.

She says some of the rumors are true – the ICE raided a Wal-Mart store in nearby Hudson where immigrant workers go to find day jobs and shop. Some of the big  dairy farms have been raided. Some of the South American workers have already fled for other farms or other countries. Some are slipping over the border into Canada.

Some of the farmers are already struggling to get help for spring planting. Susan shakes her head about how aggressive the ICE agents have become. She asks Camilla if there was a deportation order against her. Camilla says no. She asks Camilla if she was persecuted in her country, if it was dangerous for her to go back, she pursues this perhaps to claim asylum.

Camilla, who is honest, shakes her head no, no persecution. She asks Camilla if there was a husband or parents or children who would suffer hardship if she was deported. No, says Camella, no one like that. Just a boyfriend, they are not married.  Susan says some people are desperately getting married to seek grounds for admission, but that is fraud, she says, she cannot support it. Camilla laughs, no, she says, she is not going to get married or tell any lie.

Has she been the victim of any crime, sometimes that can  help, Susan asks?  No, says, Camilla, no one has ever bothered her or harmed her. Has she committed any crime in the United States, she asks? No, says Camilla, I have never committed a crime anywhere.  I am reminded of how honest and direct Camilla is. It would be devastating for her and her family if she were deported, but she will not lie to stay here.

She has worked every day of the more than 10 years she has been here, she pays taxes every year, she obeys every law.  She came her after she turned over factory job to her daughter, so her daughter could work. She then left her country to send moneh back. When she came into America, she was intercepted by border patrol agents who took her fingerprints but let her enter, she said.

Other than that, she has committed no crime or broken any laws. She describes the jobs she holds every day, and Susan shakes her head, how hard you must work,  how difficult she says. Camilla smiles.

But there are no good options  immediately open to her, Susan says, she is not eligible for any kind of visa or temporary work permit, and ICE agents are on a rampage all over the country, they are unleashed now and show up anywhere they want, and at any time. They are increasingly aggressive and confident.

It's my turn and Susan and I talk for nearly another hour. I pepper her with questions about how the ICE works, what legal options Camilla might have now, or four or five years from now. What would happen in four years if a different president was elected, what are the best options for Camilla to stay out of trouble and away from federal agents and aggressive local police officers?

But I see hope for Camilla, more than before. If she can hang on for a few years, things might change.

I ask Susan if we can retain her to be available of Camilla is arrested, or if ICE agents try to question her or approach her home. Susan says she will represent Camilla, she will be there if needed and there may be new court orders or rulings or policy changes that might help her. I prefer for her to be on retainer, I said. She will get back to me. She understood, I think.

So far, she says, the government is not generally pursuing the young Dreamers, who were born here in the United States or who came when they were very young. Some have been arrested, but there is no serious  or sustained effort aimed at them. That is good news, she says, they would suffer terribly if they were forced out of their lives here, most have never been to Mexico or any other country.

She says there are no reports of ICE agents working in our immediate area, but that, of course could change at any time, she says.

Susan instructs Camilla on what to do if agents come to her home or stop her on the road. You don't have to speak to them,  she says. You don't have to tell ICE agents anything unless they have a warrant. Undocumented workers are often terrified when agents come to their doors, they are afraid to not co-operate. You don't have to let them in without a warrant. You don't have to answer their questions.  You can tell them you have a lawyer and won't speak until the lawyer appears.

Do not open the door to them without a warrant, do not try to appease them  by speaking and offering information. If they do not have a warrant, they cannot hold you or arrest you or come into your home and search it. Do not show them any documents of any kind. Do not run from them or try to hide. Do not challenge or threaten them in any way.

Susan said her best advice was to lay low and live quietly.

In three or four years, the government might change, the terror might be over, she said They might run out of money, or clog the system so badly it can't function. With luck, you will still be here and by then, there may be some sanity in the immigration system, Congress and the country might realize how desperately urgent it is for there to be some immigration reform.

I told Susan I was now working with RISSE, the refugee and immigrant center  in Albany, and with refugees and some other agricultural workers.  She was intereted in that, I felt we connected with one another. It was very sincere and real, but I hoped that might help Camilla as well. She wanted to get the URL for my block. I hope she is reading this.

We agreed to talk later about other ways I could help, and other ways she might eventually help Camilla.

When we left, all of our heads were spinning. It was a good meeting, Camilla left clutching Susan's phone number – call anytime, day or night, she said – and a red card from the ACLU in Spanish listing her rights and things to say to the police of she was questioned or if they came to her home.

So now, I said, I know what to tell people about their rights, about what to do when and if the ICE comes.  I can advise others. I am surprised to know about that.

I felt relieved that Camilla had someone to call, a number to carry with her.

As a reporter, I often saw the miracles much-maligned lawyers could work. The best ones often do the impossible, they know every loophole there is. And laws are always changing, judges are always issuing new rules, Congress is often meddling in things.  Susan would know all about that, and she seemed to really care. Camilla might get the break she needs.

But still, said Susan, who is as honest as Camilla. It's never been like this, it's never been so grim. I hear you, I said.

Sometimes it matters to have a lawyer she says, sometimes it's too late by the time the lawyer arrives. They are supposed to always wait for the lawyer, she says, they very often do not. They are getting more arrogant by the day.

It was still disorienting for me to be doing this  and hearing about this in my country, I felt like I had slipped into an old movie, that London was about to be bombed, or Poland invaded by the Germans. There was fear and confusion everywhere, there wasn't much anyone could to help anyone. Could this be our lives in 2017? It was hard not to shake off the idea it was just a bad dream.

I shook off that creepiness and gloom.  She would make it, I told her, I feel good about it.

Camilla offered to buy us lunch as we passed a Dunkin Donuts, but we said no, remembering the last time when three older women were glaring at Camilla suspiciously and reaching for their cell phones. They were listening to our conversation, we were not used to being cautious in fast food franchises, and so we left early. I stopped and bought a tuna sandwich for lunch for me, Maria wasn't hungry.

I bought a batch of daisies for Camilla and said she was the heroine of the hour, the star of the show.

Camilla was quite shocked by this. Was it a birthday present, she asked? Her birthday is Sunday.  She can't take the whole day off, she will be gathering eggs and shoveling manure until noon. She will be 64.

She will not go out for dinner this year, they are eating at home, in the trailer they share with some others behind the old farmhouse in the woods.

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