By Toni Waterman | Sunday, April 1, 2012
April 2, 2012
MARSHFIELD, Mass. — Kong Xin Chen walked up to a table in his tiny Marshfield restaurant.
“How are you?” asked a customer.
“Good. Good. So happy,” replied Chen.
He’s happy to be back at work four months after Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, better known as ICE, came knocking on the morning of Dec. 6, 2011.
“They told me, 'You have a deportation order and this is the final. You need to go with me,’” said Chen, 38. “First of all I think about my family, my future.”
How it came to this
The arrest came as a shock to Chen, not because he’s here legally — he’s not — but because he’s spent the past two decades living life as if he were.
“I file taxes every year — never stop. And I never tried to hide my address,” he said.
Chen emigrated, illegally, from his native China 19 years ago. He said he was seeking political asylum in the U.S. but that a miscommunication with his immigration lawyer caused him to miss a citizenship hearing. A deportation notice quickly followed. Except ….
“I didn’t get any notice. And at the time, we didn’t have cell phone. And I believe the agent tried to contact me a couple of times, but there’s no way to contact me,” said Chen.
Oblivious to the deportation mandate, Chen went on with life. He got married, had two kids and opened the Mandarin Tokyo Restaurant in Marshfield, which brings us back to December. The agents allowed Chen to call his wife, he said, "and they took me off in the next 10 minutes."
Chen in detention
First he went to a Plymouth jail. Then he was transferred to an Alabama jail. In total, Chen was detained for 86 days. His wife Ping said the arrest wreaked havoc on the entire family.
“When my son got back from school, he asked 'Where’s my father?' I tell him a little bit,” said Ping. “He cry, because every day, usually, my husband take care of my son. He’s a really good father. And he’s crying, crying.”
A representative from Homeland Security confirmed that Chen was arrested in December and gave this statement when asked about Chen’s case:
“This Administration has implemented a smart and effective approach to immigration enforcement. This approach includes comprehensive reform of the detention system and the establishment of clear enforcement priorities, targeting criminal aliens and those who put public safety at risk, as well as those who threaten border security and the integrity of the immigration system.”
Patrons rise up in support
As news spread of Chen’s arrest and pending deportation, long-time patrons of Mandarin Tokyo rallied to the defense of the popular restaurateur.
“Anyone who walks through the door, he will donate a gift certificate for a raffle or something going on in the community. He’s donated down to the local elementary school. He’s shared his food,” said five-year patron Lynne Ann Habel-Murphy.
She’s spearheading the “Free Kong Now” campaign. Members have written letters, petitioned politicians and raised more than $17,000 to help with Chen’s legal fees.
“He started with less than nothing and has created an incredible life — taking jobs from no one. He’s providing jobs for people in this community,” said Habel-Murphy. "We look at Kong and think, he’s just the American Dream.”
But that American dream is now on hold as Kong tries to get his case reopened. His lawyer Joshua Goldstein said it won’t be easy and even under the best circumstances Kong will have to go back to China and apply for a visa.
"It could take years. His wife is a U.S. citizen. She filed a visa petition form. In order for him to get a green card, he’s going to have to do something extraordinary. He’s going to have to go outside the U.S. and seek a waiver to overcome the obstacles that stand in the way," Goldstein said.
And even then, there’s no guarantee that Kong will be allowed back into the U.S. However, Goldstein said, the Obama administration is trying to change that: "They’ve proposed to change the rules and allow people to apply for discretionary waivers while they’re inside the United States. And there’s lot of open questions about whether that is really going to be a fundamental change or whether it will be business as usual."
Kong said he’s scared to go back to China — not for his own safety, but for the stress it will cause his wife.
"My wife, she’s so worried. Too much pressure for her. She lost a lot of weight," he said.
But until that time comes, Chen said he’ll do what he’s been doing for the past 20 years: working hard to make a better life for his family.
By Cristina Quinn | Thursday, March 29, 2012
March 30, 2012
BOSTON — Three years after Massachusetts’ health care reform was signed, the state pulled back some of its universal coverage. And among the ones who felt it the most were immigrants who were here legally, but were not U.S. citizens or green card holders for more than 5 years.
Up and down on the health insurance wave
Eugenio Hernandez was one of them. He’s lived in Boston since 1993 and experienced the ups and downs of health care in the state.
The first part: He had no health insurance.
The next part: He was covered as a result of Massachusetts health care reform by Commonwealth Care.
The next: The state reduced his coverage to save money.
“It made me feel more like a foreigner. More isolated. I thought I was forgotten. They forgot my rights. The rights I could have here because I was here for a long time, and I was working, paying my taxes,” Hernandez said through a translator.
A bridge … and a gap
Hernandez was among 26,000 immigrants who went from Commonwealth Care to what’s called the Commonwealth Care Bridge program in 2009. It meant higher co-pays and less coverage.
“What bothered me most was the reduction of services. When they changed the coverage to the Bridge, it didn’t cover certain things like eye exams," said Hernandez.
But eye care wasn’t his biggest issue. In 2007, MassHealth care was available but the individual mandate had not been put in effect. Hernandez had no insurance. While being treated at a local hospital for a high fever, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He turned to the advocacy group Health Care for All, which helped him secure medical coverage through Commonwealth Care.
But when that plan’s benefits were reduced by the state, Hernandez worried how he’d pay for care should his cancer return.
“It affected me very much," he said. "This is a very hard illness. I thought, ‘What am I going to do now?’ I could say that Massachusetts let me down. I came here to work, to pay taxes and I felt that Massachusetts was not responding to my efforts and sacrifices.”
Advocating for complete coverage
Health Care for All saw it as a huge problem. They were flooded with frantic calls to their helpline. Health Law Advocates filed suit on behalf of the immigrants against the Health Connector, the state agency that runs Commonwealth Care.
One of the lawyers working on the case was Wendy Parmet. “I believe that universality won’t survive if you pull at the thread of an unpopular group. And this case was an important step to showing that we’re all in this together and our universal health care survives because we offer it to every group, even the most vulnerable,” she said.
This January, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled in favor of these legal immigrants, finding the Bridge program in violation of the Massachusetts Constitution. As a result, Hernandez and thousands of others were reinstated to Commonwealth Care coverage this month.
“Having the insurance, I feel happy. My life has changed. I was always worried before,” Hernandez said.
The financial impact on the state
What started as a way for the state to cut costs now returns to money. Massachusetts needs to find $150 million to implement the court’s ruling.
State Sen. Stephen Brewer is chairman of the Ways and Means Committee and is working on a budget proposal for the next fiscal year right now.
“Service and rate cuts are going to have to be found in other areas of the budget," he said. He pointed to certain possibilities in Gov. Deval Patrick's plan: "The governor had a budget that’s including $250 million in newer and enhanced revenues and $70 million of that was from the expansion of the tobacco taxes, and certain forms of smokeless tobacco were earmarked for Commonwealth Care program.”
Insurance and independence
Which gets us back to this week’s Supreme Court hearings and the debate over universal coverage. What is the government’s responsibility and a person’s rights when it comes to health care?
Parmet thought our cherished cultural obsession with independence belied the true relationship between the individual and health care.
“When it comes to health care and health insurance and how we pay for insurance, people often overlook or don’t recognize the degree to which they are not self-sufficient," she said. "People think, 'Oh, I’m paying for my own health care.' But in fact, their employers are paying for it and the taxpayers are helping to subsidize it because it’s a work benefit that’s not being counted as income."
And, said Parmet, when people get sick, no one can truly stand alone.
"None of us are independent when it comes to health care, and that’s just assuming we’re talking about people who are typically healthy. And anyone of course is one tragic accident or one unfortunate diagnosis away from being far more dependent than they realize,” she said.
While we don’t want to discover the various shades of independence that way, perhaps one thing that Massachusetts can teach us is that health care and independence don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
Internist Danielle Ofri tells the stories of her immigrant patients and what they say about the state of health care. WATCH: WGBH Forum Network's health care reform series.
By Michelle Figueroa | Monday, March 19, 2012
Mar. 19, 2012
BOSTON — Mar. 6, 2007, was a day of panic for the 350 undocumented workers as federal agents raided the Bianco factory. The manufacturing company had hired the workers at minimum wage to do work such as sewing and stitching on leather goods. Shortly after the morning break, agents stormed the factory, handcuffing and leading away hundreds. Many were sent out of the country. It was one of the largest such raids in U.S. history.
At the time, many local organizations stepped forward to help the workers. One man even contributed $100,000 of his own money toward their bail. That man is Bob Hildreth, a Boston banker, and it was the start of a new mission for him. Five years later, he continues to provide money and support to the local immigrant community.
After the raid, he saw people scramble together funds. That triggered an idea, he said: "If you can do that for bail, maybe you can do that for education."
As for his interest in the community, Hildreth credited his experience in Latin America working in banking. "I was treated with tremendous cariño — with tremendous care," he said.
So he created Families United in Educational Leadership or FUEL, an organization that matches a family’s savings set aside for their children’s education.
"We now have about 400 families who have taken up that challenge," he said.
Take, for example, Betty Jimenez and her daughter Thalia Pliego, who work side by side at the same café in downtown Boston. Jimenez heard about FUEL through a friend and decided the support would help her provide her daughter a different life than the one she had in her hometown of Medellín, Colombia.
"I graduated from high school. [But] I didn’t have the opportunity to continue my studies because I didn’t have the resources and now FUEL is a resource for my daughter," Jimenez said in Spanish.
Families such as the Jimenezes often "lack the tools to get their kids into college," Hildreth said, so FUEL brings them together once a month for a "Savings Circle" for support.
Pliego now does have the opportunity to go to college. With the support of her mother and money from FUEL, she attends Bunker Hill Community college on a scholarship. She feels part of her mission is to fight against stereotypes of Latinos.
"We’re not hard-working, supposedly, although I wake up at 5 o’clock in the morning to go to work and all I ever see on the bus is Latinos," she said. "You don’t catch your business people in there. The suit type of people, yeah, you don’t see those guys on the bus."
Jimenez added, "Some might say that if a person is from somewhere else, they aren’t worth anything, but we all have the same value."
Hildreth’s FUEL program has helped finance the education of more than 400 students — to a dollar amount, Hildreth estimated, in the millions.
Jimenez had this message for him:
"I am thankful to you for all the opportunities you give the students, especially those who come from other countries, and especially since my children are in your program. So thank you on behalf of all of us and all those you help in your life," she said.
By Ibby Caputo | Friday, December 23, 2011
Dec. 27, 2011
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — On a rainy weekday afternoon, a tall, slender, dark-haired woman named Maria Schaedler-Luera waited in the lobby of Harvard’s Sackler Art Museum for four new students. They weren’t undergraduates, though. Schaedler-Luera works in the education department at the museum and uses art to teach English. Her work prepares immigrants to take the exam to become U.S. citizens.
When the adult students arrived, they introduced themselves. Wilman was from Honduras; Milagro, Marvin and Oscar from El Salvador. They all worked for Harvard University and were part of an education and training program there. They came to the museum to practice their English.
Schaedler-Luera has designed the session to align with her students' language lessons in the classroom. “Two of the things they’re working on right now are adjectives — identifying parts of speech — and they started working on past tense, so I will find ways to incorporate that,” she said.
More than a fun day at the museum
Her supervisor, Ray Williams, is the director of education at the Harvard Art Museums. He said that part of the citizenship exam is giving oral responses to questions in English.
“We knew that working on language skills was going to be important,” Williams said.
The Engaging New Americans project started as a pilot and grew with a $75,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the hiring of Schaedler-Luera.
Williams said he was motivated to design the program because of “the ugly political rhetoric around immigration and how ungenerous it seems.” It made him think about “what an art museum might do to send an explicitly welcoming message to people who had chosen to relocate.”
Schaedler-Luera, a native of Brazil, said she understood what her students were going through.
“I’ve been here for almost eight years,” she said. “My first year here I also didn’t speak English very well… [and] I know we are not necessarily invited to participate in society or mainstream culture institutions.”
"Red" is an adjective
In the lobby of the Sackler, Schaedler-Luera strove to make her new student guests feel welcome. After introductions, she handed each of them a laminated, construction paper heart. She called it a “token” and brought the students into the modern contemporary art gallery on the first floor.
“I want you to look around and choose one work that is going to be your favorite, and once you choose your favorite work of art, you are going to place the paper heart on the floor in front of the art,” Schaedler-Luera instructed.
One by one, the students dropped the hearts on the floor signifying the artworks they liked the best, and then a discussion started. Schaedler-Luera asked Milagro to explain her choice.
Milagro had placed her heart in front of an abstract painting by the famous American artist Georgia O’Keeffe (see the painting). First in Spanish, and then in English, Milagro explained that she liked the colors red and pink, which fill the canvas. Responding, Schaedler-Luera made the point that colors are adjectives.
Enlightenment in language and experience
After all the students had had their turns, the group headed to the second floor of the art museum, where they stood in front of a large, light-gray sandstone statue of a seated Buddha (see the sculpture) from eighth-century China.
It was time, Schaedler-Luera said, to tell a story. “Maybe you can use your paper to write down some verbs that you recognize as I tell you the story of Buddha’s birth,” she suggested. When she was done, the students read some of the past-tense verbs they heard and slowly repeated parts of the story, moving on to a long conversation about the meaning of the word “enlightenment.”
At the end of the class, Schaedler-Luera urged the students to come back again soon — a request that was met with vocal thanks. But the thank-you Schaedler-Luera has cherished the most came in an email from an English language instructor.
“She said, ‘It was so lovely to bring them somewhere new at Harvard where they don’t have to clean anything or wash any dishes and they were treated with such respect,’” said Schaedler-Luera.
Schaedler-Luera and her colleagues hope that the Engaging New Americans project will be a model for other art museums.