Last month, I, like many, watched the inauguration and then marched the next day in the Women’s Rights (really human rights) march in New York City. What I saw was a test from each event for our democracy. I also saw this as a resident of Somers and an immigrant that became a naturalized citizen.
I say this because, having lived in Somers for over 30 years, I have seen the town change, but have one consistent theme—the execution of our Constitution in what I call fundamental democracy. I believe that Somers operates to the closest model of democracy that our founding fathers envisioned. All of our elected officials live and work among us. Our interaction with our officials is only limited by the amount of involvement each citizen feels is appropriate for them. I feel that they are the most accessible government officials in our democracy. The Town Hall meetings are a demonstration of the will of the people—a Norman Rockwell painting of Americana.
Elections are there to provide a choice for the citizenry. The difference between our federal and state governments is that once elected, our elected officials leave their ideological baggage outside of the Elephant Hotel. Remember, unlike other forms of governance, our officials are a daily part of our community. Having been involved as a volunteer for the Somers Energy Environment Committee, I have often presented initiatives to the supervisor and the board. Not once did I see any official use their majority standing to force others to make a decision. Wish we could say that for our Congress (Democrat- or Republican-controlled). They operate and govern with only one thing in mind—what is the best for the town of Somers and all of its inhabitants. They are as much concerned for our children as they are for the seniors that live in Somers. The town officials and volunteers spend an nordinate amount of time to make sure that everyone is heard and that everyone’s opinion counts.
Now about immigration and my personal journey: I came to the United States at the age of 8 with my parents. We arrived into New York Harbor after spending two weeks on a converted passenger ship. Yes, I saw the Statue of Liberty from a portal and, yes, I saw the poem from Emma Lazarus about welcoming my parents and me, and the many refugees and immigrants on our ship, to America.
A month after we arrived, we were told to go to the local post office and fill out forms for what was then called Alien Registration. We were to bring proof of residence and work, identify all new members born into our family (my sister was born during our first year). If we did not comply with the registration or did not fill out the forms correctly, we were threatened with deportation. We had to do this for many years until the regulation was eliminated because it was a form of discrimination. Every January, I would look at my father and his anxiety and fear of deportation was palpable.
So, I understand the current feeling of both documented and undocumented immigrants. Especially those that began a life in the United States, gave birth to children and followed the laws, have paid taxes, registered for the draft and followed through with defending our country in wars, while still not naturalized. I know that I am repeating what every child knows, that we are a country of immigrants; frankly, we are a democracy that was built by immigrants whose reasons for coming ranged from escaping, wars, famine, poverty, religion and gender discrimination to knowing that if you come and work hard, obey the laws and contribute to this democracy that you can be unimaginably successful and that you could provide a safe and secure life for your children.
I am asking our elected officials for our town and the towns around us, wherein we have a number of immigrants profiled by our president, to declare a sanctuary zone. After all, the city known as the melting pot of America has declared itself a sanctuary. Who better to declare this than our elected officials who live and work among these immigrants? These are also neighbors/constituents who pay town taxes, have children in our schools and try to comport themselves as Americans. This is even more important now when our president has signed executive orders that have a list of criteria for deportation of undocumented immigrants. It ranges from those who have been convicted of a crime (cannot argue with that) to the targeting of anyone who “in the judgment of an immigration officer” poses a risk to either public safety or national security.
Living with the fear of deportation, as my family did, makes you frankly think very hard before you commit any act that can risk your life and family’s life in America. It is therefore not surprising that the number of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants is among the lowest in our country. Out of 11 million undocumented immigrants, approximately 820,000 have some sort of criminal record. This criminal record, until recently, did not include minor offenses. Thus, the total number of deportations of unauthorized immigrants with criminal convictions worthy of deportation was approximately 100,000 year. These figures are from the Migration Policy Institute. Google it. Get the facts. I believe that we need to pass these tests of our democracy by holding true to our values as Americans and as immigrants. We are much better than our president gives us credit for—all of us.
Lastly, I keep hearing that we should have done more in Syria. As someone who actually fought the Assad (the father) regime in the Yom Kippur War, I totally agree. Interestingly, the Russians were assisting the Syrians in my war as well. The army I fought was as ruthless as the army you are seeing today in Aleppo. The fact that they did not honor the Geneva Convention and committed acts of pure cruelty on the battlefield is well-documented. But since we did not really participate in this civil war, should we be denying refugees, women, children and families the right to seek safety in our country? They undergo a two-year vetting process (“extreme vetting”), during which they live in refugee camps. Since when did this country stop allowing refugees from war-torn countries that have lost everything in their lives? Again, I would refer you to Emma Lazarus, a first-generation American of German Jewish refugees, and our American traditions.