In Michigan, especially in metro Detroit, the issue of immigration has been a sensitive topic for years. Immigrants, and the children of immigrants, have long been a major force shaping the character and priorities of Southeastern Michigan. And as a community that is home to one of the largest Muslim populations in the entire country, it is no surprise that anxious attention is being paid to this issue here in recent months, because it is an issue that impacts us more directly and immediately than many other areas.
You might say it’s personal.
After President Donald Trump signed an executive order on immigration that banned entrance into the U.S. from people from specific Muslim countries, people living in the U.S. and abroad have developed growing concerns about the ban and how it will affect us all. Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence of Michigan’s 14th Congressional District recently hosted a “Know Your Rights” immigration rally to discuss growing concerns surrounding the travel ban. To address these concerns and to offer guidance about immigration rights, a panel of experts from the ACLU of Michigan, Wayne State University Law School, Michigan Immigration Rights Center, United Hispanic Workers of Detroit and Mayor Duggan’s Office of International Affairs were on hand to answer questions.
Lawrence made it clear where she stands.
“The United States of America is a country of immigrants. Our diversity is one of our country’s greatest strengths. We have a tradition of being a safe haven for those fleeing countries that do not have the same liberties and freedoms that we enjoy in the U.S.A. Mr. Trump’s executive order to halt visas from Muslim-majority countries and ban entrance of refugees does not represent the land of the free and home of the brave.”
This history of immigration is a significant part of the framework of this country and is a part of most of our own lineages. The ban does not reflect this legacy as it seeks to classify entire groups as terrorists and criminals. The criminalization of innocent people, Lawrence said, is simply not the answer. But for those who do commit violent crimes, they must be prosecuted and potentially deported. Lawrence warned that the ban is dangerous to U.S. relations and does not truly address the issues that exist within the decades old U.S. immigration system.
“We must prioritize the safety and security of our nation, and I support a strong vetting system. We need to continue to ensure that refugees who enter our country will be contributing members of society,” she said to the more than 200 rally attendees. “I do not, and we cannot support stereotyping and discrimination based on religion. The current process for entrance of refugees and asylum seekers in not a wide-open door. The vetting process is extensive and we cannot allow fear or falsehoods to get in the way of facts. Terrorists are extremists, and not a religion. America is great because we are inclusive and not exclusive. We must come together and oppose these kinds of acts to divide, wherever they come from.”
At last week’s State of the City address, Mayor Mike Duggan failed to call Detroit a “sanctuary city,” but promised not to participate in overly aggressive deportation efforts. This promise, however, can be trumped at the federal level said Lawrence. While the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency said it would not conduct immigration activities at schools, churches and hospitals, Ruby Robinson, supervising attorney with the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, said it is not 100% guaranteed.
“People are even more vulnerable than they have been in the past,” Robinson said. “When it comes to other areas, there has been some expansion.”
Robinson made it clear that these areas can include your home. He said immigration officials do have the authority to enter your home only if they have a warrant. Understanding your rights, ensuring the warrant is signed, do not sign documents unless you fully understand them and having a plan in place, he believes are essential.
At Detroit’s Freedom House, there has probably been more anxiety about the recently developing immigration emergency than anywhere else in Michigan. In danger of losing nearly half of all their funding due to a December announcement from HUD that their grant was being terminated at the end of this month, Freedom House provides the sort of vital support services to immigrants that they cannot access anywhere else in the State, at least not altogether. Known literally throughout the world in troubled nations where fleeing is literally the only option in order to survive, the impact of such a haven being forced to close its doors would be devastating, says Freedom House Program manager Thomas “TJ” Rogers. Freedom’s annual budget is $750,000, of which $391,000 comes from HUD. The remainder comes from Community Development Block Grant funds, Health and Human Services Emergency Shelter grant, money from the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture, the HOPE fund, and other smaller foundations and some individual donations.
“We’re the only organization in the country that provides shelter, legal aid, and the full scope of comprehensive services free of charge to asylum seekers,” he said. “There are other service providers around the country – not here in Detroit or even in the tri-County area – that provide housing, free legal aid. In some states you can go to access some social services. But we’re the only one-stop-shop in the country where you get all the services you need free of charge.
“When you’re working with a survivor of torture, the survivor skills, the displacement, the history of trauma, the PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), the cultural differences, the language differences, and how to navigate all of that, is very difficult. Frankly, we’re experts at what we do. And if we were to close, there’s no other organization that could absorb our residents and meet their needs without potentially putting them at risk.”
Not to mention the fact that Freedom House residents don’t qualify for any mainstream benefits because their immigration status is still pending. This means they don’t qualify for any state or federal assistance, no food assistance.
“Not Medicaid. Nothing.”
Add to that the fact that there are federal laws preventing residents of Freedom House from earning an income until at least 14 or 15 months into their stay because that’s how long it takes “best case scenario” for an immigrant of their status to be granted a restricted Social Security number for work authorization only.
And yet, despite all these challenges, “Our success record is 93 % in the last five years exiting into permanent stable housing without subsidies. Which is remarkable, quite frankly,” said Rogers.
But now, 35 years later, everything at Freedom House could come to a screeching halt after March 31 when they would be forced to scale back to a virtual bare bones operation incapable of providing the scope of services their clients need. They are appealing HUD’s decision and awaiting a final decision, but given the current climate the likelihood of a successful appeal doesn’t appear hopeful.
As of two weeks ago when this interview was conducted, Freedom House was home to 42 residents. Over the past fiscal year, Freedom House has helped 136 people from 26 different countries, 85 percent of whom were from Africa. The average length of stay was 217 days. Additionally, there were 7 percent from the Middle East, 3 percent from Asia, and 1 percent from Central America.
Without the assistance of Freedom House, each and every one of them is vulnerable to profiling, which could result in being transported to a detention facility, “and in the detention center you’re five times less likely to win your claim for asylum.” And an application for asylum in the U.S. can take six months at best.
To learn more about your rights, contact the ACLU of Michigan at aclumich.org and the Michigan Immigration Resource Center at michiganimmigrant.org.