Before a License, an Immigration Check?

By Sarah Birnbaum   |   Thursday, May 24, 2012
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May 24, 2012

BOSTON — The Massachusetts Senate is expected to debate a controversial amendment to the state budget that would require the Registry of Motor Vehicles to check for proof of lawful immigration status before issuing driver's licenses.
The amendment is sponsored by Senate Republican leader Bruce Tarr. He said its a response to the case of President Barack Obama’s uncle, Onyango Obama, who was arrested in Framingham last year on a drunk-driving charge. He was able to get his license back after a period of probation, even though he had been in the U.S. illegally since the 1990s.
Onyango Obama's immigration status came to light after his arrest. Federal officials then launched new efforts to deport the president's uncle, who plans to fight the deportation.
The RMV is not required under state law to check immigration status and officials have said that the president's uncle presented the necessary documentation to obtain a license.
Eva Milona of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition opposes the measure, saying the RMV doesn’t have the resources or expertise to enforce federal immigration law.
“This amendment, in our view, it’s not an improvement on current policy, but would instead create more confusion and creates wrongful denials of licenses to documented applicants," she said. "Our concern is that it might refuse a driver's license or learner’s permit to anyone that it would have reasonable cause to suspect has presented invalid proof of immigration status.”
Milona also blasted Republicans for loading up the state budget with what she called anti-immigrant amendments.

Planet Takeout: Dinner, and a Cultural Crossroads

By Val Wang   |   Wednesday, May 23, 2012
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May 24, 2012

planet takeout logo


BOSTON — Sometimes the best way to find the flavor of where we live is … through a restaurant.
Not the fancy places people cross the region to see. The humble spots where people stop and get something to go — and in the process, have conversations across the counter that make life a little bit more human.

WGBH News' Val Wang is spending the next 6 months documenting these for her project "Planet Takeout": a look at Chinese food, our neighborhoods and ourselves.
Wherever you go, there they are
Every neighborhood in Boston has at least one. In the heart of Roxbury there’s Peking House in an old Church’s Chicken building. In Dorchester, Yum Yum stands shoulder-to-shoulder with nail salons and Irish bars. Jamaica Plain has Food Wall and Charlie Chan’s. They are among the almost 10,000 Chinese takeouts that dot the country, preparing more than 2 million meals every day.
Ever since I’ve lived in big American cities, first New York and now Boston, no place has fascinated me as much as the local Chinese takeout. Each is deeply a part of their neighborhood but also somewhat separate. The people who work there come from halfway around the world to serve Americanized Chinese food to people of every color. Those on both sides of the counter have to meet each other halfway, often at a bulletproof window.
This cultural crossroad teems with stories. I think of the humble takeout as a lens through which we can see both the tightly knit local neighborhoods of Boston and global immigration patterns to the city. And most importantly, we can see how the two fit together.
One restaurateur's journey
Tom Chen was born in Hong Kong. After a decade of working in Chinese restaurants he bought his own takeout in Chelsea, Mass., called Dragon Kitchen. He ran it for a decade.
Most of his customers were Latino. He said they tended to order three dishes: lobster sauce, shrimp fried rice and chicken wings. Every week, he sold 400 pounds of chicken wings. And because he had to adapt to his customers, he learned basic Spanish. Shrimp fried rice became arroz con camarones. Chicken wings, alas de pollo. And lobster sauce was salsa langosta.
Chen said he didn't know much Spanish beyond what he needed for the job, “but I try to make a living. So everybody will adjust yourself.”
It wasn’t easy running a takeout: mastering simple Spanish, learning the names of his regular customers and, on two life-threatening occasions, getting held up at gunpoint. But it was a big step up from bartending, his previous job. 
While most restaurant profits hover around 40 percent, Chen said Dragon Kitchen cleared 60 percent.
“The takeout restaurant basically is work hard, long hours. You can make a better income. Buy materials by myself, then we cook it, we prepare. Just four people, work close together. I see co-workers more than my wife. The kids, I never saw my kids. The kids go to school at 7 o’clock, get back at 9, we’re still working,” said Chen.

He sold his takeout 10 years ago and bought a more upscale sit-down restaurant in Needham called Mandarin Cuisine.
A tight-knit world
Talking to Chen may seem easy, but in my experience, it’s difficult to walk in the front door of a takeout asking to interview workers and customers. He only opened up because I met him through Helen Chin Schlichte — or "Auntie Helen," as everyone in the Chinese immigrant community calls her. A native of Charlestown, she is very active both in Chinatown and in the city at large. Auntie Helen immediately understood my predicament.
“Even though you’re very Chinese and you can speak fluent Mandarin, they’re not quite sure if you’re from the IRS, or from Homeland Security," she said. "There are all kinds of reasons that they might be a little wary until somebody comes along to say, ‘Okay, this is a great project. This is one that would be terrific for you to participate in and for you to be a part of this larger community of takeout restaurants, and it’s okay to talk to her."
I asked Chen what he would have said if I’d come in the door of his old Chelsea takeout asking to interview him. “No,” he responded simply. “I say, ‘Nope, you kidding me?’ Eighty percent, or 90 percent, close the door for you. I already know that. First thing, they don’t know you" — and if they don't know you, they don't know why they'd do you a favor.
Furthermore, Chen said, "Most Chinese people don’t like [to] talk in public. They need to close everything in their mind. They’re not open. Even your father, your mother, won’t open anything for you, right?"
When asked for his explanation of that dynamic, Chen responded, "That’s the way we brought up. Like, why we eat rice?”
I started to wonder about the underlying social structures that hold the community together — and keep outsiders at a distance. So I called Baruch College professor Ken Guest, an anthropologist who studies Chinese immigrant communities living in New York.
“The Chinese restaurants are deeply embedded in an ethnic economy. And there is a sense of ethnic solidarity that people draw on to make a go of it. There’s a way in which that economic framework also shapes some of their notions of how they are in American culture, where they fit. It frames a lot of their business and social networks,” he said.
Getting connected
Networks were the key word here.
“Get somebody know somebody," Chen summarized. "From the back, not from the front. You walk in the front, you don’t get any answer. They will tell you they’re busy. No. Thank you. That’s it. Get somebody behind the owner. If you not Helen Chin introduce you, you won’t be sitting here. I tell the truth.”
It’s good advice. I found I had to work through existing networks — social service agencies, civic groups, food suppliers, menu printers, academics, filmmakers, hoping someone could introduce me to someone else who could get me in that proverbial back door.

Ways to share your Planet Takeout story
- Call 617 477-8688
- Listen or upload audio on Soundcloud
- Connect on Facebook or Twitter
- Upload photos to Flickr

But the project also needs the other half of the story: your half.
I found Philip Lodge, 17, at Yum Yum in Dorchester after school, waiting for his takeout order.
“Well, I got hungry after I left school, so I just had to eat a little meal before I go home," he explained. "A $2 plate of rice and ribs and I added crab Rangoon, fried shrimp and chicken teriyaki."
And it's not a rare visit. "I come like three times a week. My mom told me that their food was good so I started ordering my own plates, and I liked it," he said.
I bet you’ve probably been to a Chinese takeout before — you might even be a regular at one. Or maybe you went to one with your family growing up. If so, I want to hear your story.
If you have a story about a Chinese takeout, give Val and Planet Takeout a call at 617 477-8688. It's a free call in the Boston area, and the recording will explain what to do. You can also leave a story, upload photos or listen to others' stories at

Val Wang Talks About Planet Takeout

By Val Wang & Bob Seay   |   Wednesday, May 23, 2012
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May 23, 2012

BOSTON — Thursday is the first installment of Planet Takeout, Val Wang's exploration into Boston Chinese takeout joints as a nexus of community. She talks to Bob Seay about how she got the idea for the project. To share your experiences with Chinese takeout, visit

Planet Takeout is produced by Val Wang and brought to you by WGBH 89.7 and Localore, a national initiative of the Association for Independents in Radio.

val wang

Val Wang interviews John Chan at Yum Yum on Dot Ave. (Kelly Creedon)

Seething over 'Secure Communities'

By Adam Reilly   |   Tuesday, May 15, 2012
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May 16, 2012

BOSTON — On May 15 in downtown Boston, protesters gathered outside the entrance to the building that houses the Massachusetts Democratic Party. They chanted things like “Today we march, tomorrow we vote!” and “Obama! Escucha! Estamos en la lucha!” — Spanish for “Obama! Listen! We are in the fight!”

The object of their wrath: the federal Secure Communities program, which launched in Massachusetts on Tuesday. Now, any time someone is arrested, their fingerprints will automatically be shared with federal immigration officials — and if that person is in the U.S. illegally and has a criminal record, they'll be deported.
The president overrules the governor
That's the idea, at least. But critics say that Secure Communities puts plenty of immigrants whose only crime is violating federal immigration law at risk of deportation, too.
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick has been a vocal critic of Secure Communities. Last year, he told the federal government that Massachusetts wouldn’t participate.
But President Barack Obama and his administration say the program is an efficient, effective tool. They officially launched the program in Massachusetts over the governor’s opposition.
For people like Ada Fuentes of East Boston, that decision is a betrayal by the president.
“The Latino community is angry [at Obama],” said Fuentes. “Because he’s asking for them with one hand to vote for him, and with the other pushing them back to the border, back to the south. 
Not just the worst of the worst?
Secure Communities is supposed to target illegal immigrants with criminal records, while leaving other illegal immigrants alone. But Fuentes says the system also punishes innocents — for example, domestic abuse victims who turn to law enforcement for help.
“The statistics are out there [pdf] saying that cases that are being reported to police officials about domestic abuse or any type of domestic problem — those people are also being detained and deported,” Fuentes said. “And I feel like that’s going to happen more and more."
Federal data suggests that there is, in fact, some imprecision. Of the 179,000 people deported under Secure Communities since the program began, just 135,000 were criminal illegal aliens.
For Fuentes, those numbers are deeply personal. Her mother fled Honduras with her when Fuentes was an infant and sought asylum in the U.S. When that request was denied, Fuentes joined the ranks of America’s undocumented immigrants.
“I’m afraid that there’s going to be further criminalization of my community,” she says. “I feel like this is not just or in any way going to protect anyone. 
On the one hand …
Tuesday's protests attracted plenty of attention from passers-by downtown. But among the people we spoke with, reaction to the demonstrators' cause was mixed.
“I’m fine with it,” George Tecci of North Reading said of Secure Communities. “If you’ve done something, you’re guilty. If you’re not guilty, you don’t care."
He added, “The only thing that concerns me is something domestic. If someone is afraid, it should be excluded — domestic violence, or something like that."
Madelina Fernandes of Roxbury disagreed with the initiative. “I think everybody has the right to come to this country to work and support their kids,” she said. “Immigrants [are] the one that built this country.”
The demonstrators who protested Secure Communities agree. And this fall, they plan to bring their frustration to the ballot box.

Boston and the Great Potato Famine

By Jordan Weinstein   |   Tuesday, May 8, 2012
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March 9, 2012

boston irish potato famine memorial

The Boston Irish Famine Memorial commemorates the period that irretrievably shaped the character of Eastern Massachusetts. (Scott Carpenter/Flickr)
michael higgins and tom menino
The Irish president meets with Boston mayor Thomas Menino on May 4. (Isabel Leon, Mayor's Office)

BOSTON — Each year Ireland chooses one American city to help commemorate the Great Potato Famine. This year, Boston received that honor … and President Michael Higgins of Ireland visited the weekend of May 4 to observe the event. WGBH's Jordan Weinstein talked with Higgins during his Boston trip.
The famine led to the emigration of millions of Irish — many of whom came to the Bay State. In 1850, the Irish made up a quarter of the city's population. "Boston is particularly important, of course, because such a very large wave of Irish came in different periods," Higgins said.

He noted that those different waves of emigration represented "different Irishnesses." The arrivals of 1848 were "poor Catholics that have nothing. They are in fact poor, ragged, they're carrying disease," Higgins said — and that caused some tensions.

Town Rallies for Restaurateur Facing Deportation

By Toni Waterman   |   Sunday, April 1, 2012
0 Comments   0 comments.

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.”
And now?

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.

About the Authors
Sarah Birnbaum
Sarah Birnbaum is WGBH News' State House reporter. Send her a news tip.
Adam Reilly Adam Reilly
Adam Reilly is a political reporter and associate producer for WGBH's Greater Boston.
Jordan Weinstein Jordan Weinstein
Jordan Weinstein is a news anchor for NPR's All Things Considered on WGBH, 89.7 FM in Boston.


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