By Tram Nguyen
Maria, a single mother, had supported her family by cleaning office buildings in San Jose ever since she arrived in the U.S. 11 years ago from Mexico. But after 9/11, she was fired for being undocumented. “This did not matter to them before,” she explained. “They hired me and paid me $12 an hour for a decade. But I lost my job and couldn’t find another one for nine months.”
During that time, the family relied on help from their neighbors, and eventually had to ask for food from churches.
“Soon everyone around me was out of work. Everyone tried to help one another, but with so many people in trouble, it was impossible,” Maria recalled. “I was so depressed and I still am, because I feel my dignity was taken away. My family’s safety was taken away.”
Maria (who asked not to reveal her last name) was one of nine immigrant speakers who shared their experiences during a community forum Sept. 25, held at a local mosque in Santa Clara, CA. The forum brought out local public officials, including state Assemblyman Manny Diaz (D-San Jose) and the district director for Rep. Mike Honda (D-San Jose), along with more than 150 community members to witness personal testimonies of racial profiling, economic hardship, and harassment post-9/11.
“These are not isolated incidents, but a glimpse into what’s happened to thousands of people. Let’s make their stories our stories-a part of the public record,” said Gina Acebo, a program director at the Applied Research Center, which organized the event as part of half a dozen “Public’s Truth” forums being held around the country.
Jaime Escober, 69, worked for four years as a baggage screener while his wife Lilia worked as a pre-boarding screener at San Jose’s airport. After the Federal Aviation Authority made citizenship a requirement for all airport security workers in November 2001, both Escober and his wife lost their jobs. They have been unable to find work and have lost their homes and cars.
“We have not been able to send money anymore to our children (in the Philippines),” Escober said. “This is an injustice. We were doing our job well.”
Kavneet Singh Alag, a Bay Area activist, described the shootings of Sikh cab drivers and store owners whose turbans have made them one of the most targeted groups for racial backlash. After two murders in Arizona, and three cab drivers shot in Northern California in the last 11 weeks, Singh said, the Sikh community is wondering “not what’s going to happen next, but really, when is it going to happen?
Another speaker related the story of Mr. “B,” an Iranian who was in the process of updating his immigration status when he showed up for “special registration.” The policy, begun toward the end of 2002, required non-citizens from 25 countries to submit to photographing and fingerprinting at federal immigration facilities.
As a result of coming forward, Mr. “B” was interrogated, shackled, and moved around jail cells in San Francisco, Arizona, Colorado, Bakersfield, and San Diego before he was released on bond to await a deportation hearing. Thousands of other non-citizens during the special registration process have been deported.
Kathy Takeda, a member of the Japanese American Citizen’s League, spoke for her father, Ed Takeda, who recalled watching his father being taken from their San Jose home by FBI agents at the start of World War II. The rest of the family soon afterward was interned at Gila River in Arizona, with no word of their father’s whereabouts for five months.
Takeda said that the comparisons of September 11 to Pearl Harbor brought back traumatic memories to his father. “It really got to Dad. He said, ‘Here we go again. They’ll be hauled off to jail.’ It’s so eerie that he knew exactly what would happen-because it had happened to him and his family.”
An Indian American, Ms. “A,” shared an experience of racial profiling and brutality at the hands of police in nearby Mountain View. Stopped for a broken taillight, Ms. “A” was asked “Are you a Muslim? Do you celebrate Ramadan?” When she replied that she was a Hindu, the officers grabbed her arm and pushed her against the car, leaving large bruises. She was later accused of resisting arrest and detained in a San Jose jail.
“I’ve lost my job, now I can’t find another job,” she said. “I don’t drive 10 miles outside my house because I’m frightened of the police.”
Rev. Juan Saavedra, a pastor at La Trinidad United Methodist Church, is Native American but has “spent my whole life being treated as an immigrant” because of his Spanish-speaking background. Saavedra read from Jewish Scriptures as he led the closing reflection to the event.
“Do not take advantage of an alien, a foreigner. Pay him his wages each day for he is worthy,” Saavedra read. “Give a man or woman his or her dignity. Don’t steal it from them.”
Tram Nguyen is Editor of ColorLines Magazine, www.colorlines.com