Immigration Issues in Hawaii
Asylum, border security, and comprehensive immigration reform are not just issues for the mainland. In August 2019, three non-profit organizations co-sponsored a forum on issues of immigration and sanctuary here in the Hawaiian Islands. Panelists spoke of the historical roots of anti-immigration sentiment in the United States since the Seventeenth Century. We were reminded that anti-immigrant policies and actions have been implemented under both Republican and Democrat presidencies. Many contemporary detention centers on the mainland are indistinguishable from European concentration camps during the 1930s before they morphed into death camps. Speakers provided context for an immigration crisis looming here in the land of Aloha as well as elsewhere. All made it abundantly clear that the fundamental purpose of the Trump administration’s immigration policy is precisely and principally to exercise cruelty and to instill fear.
It is estimated that there are currently 40,000 undocumented workers in Hawaiʻi. Many work in the agricultural sector, typically flying under the radar of direct public awareness. They grow our crops, tend our fields, care for our children and the sick, and clean up after our tourists. In earlier times Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese, and Korean workers performed many of these tasks but eventually moved up the assimilation ladder to non-farm jobs, businesses, higher education, and public service.
Immigration attorneys are doing what they can to assist with court proceedings, and places like Harris Methodist Church on Oahu have declared themselves to be sanctuaries for immigrants, providing whatever assistance they can through church and volunteer generosity. I have learned that migrants from the southern border of the mainland have been dispersed here to Hawaii too, not just to varied locations in the contiguous states. Determining who should be the last to arrive in any given location has always been a tricky issue, one that dogs our politics as well as our hearts and minds.
The Federal administration under Donald J. Trump’s presidency has brought out the worst in human nature, and Hawaiʻi has not been able to escape virulent anti-immigration rhetoric entirely, even though the situation here is better than in many other locations. One speaker that evening requested not to be recorded for fear of retaliation against him, his family, and his business.
There are many mixed-status families in Hawaiʻi too, in which some are citizens and others are not, who fear that they are all in danger of intimidation and deportation. Round up first, ask questions later. Once again, American citizens are being questioned for no reason other than presumed ethnicity and national origin. Immigration lawyers have more cases than they can possibly handle. Here. In Hawaiʻi.
What we still lack is a positive, integrative vision for immigration, not only as a country, but also as a state. Eventually the hysteria will pass. Eventually good people will speak truth to power. Who and how will we be then, and what can we do now? The panelists at the August event offered a lot of practical advice, to which I have added a few tips of my own:
- Find out what is going on. Do not turn away because the truth is uncomfortable and the images are disturbing.
- Camp out at the offices of our state representatives. Pressure them to support sound immigration bills. Ask them to refuse to support bills that round people up, deny, or circumvent international conventions.
- Ask our representatives to fight any effort to transfer Federal funds from other important programs, including health and education, to support unwarranted and inhumane military action. Humanitarian aid funds should be used for humanitarian aid.
- Refuse to support ICE raids and help neighbors you see being harassed or rounded up if you can do so safely.
- If you can and wish, buy airline tickets for immigrant families who cannot afford to fly back and forth from the outer islands to immigration court on Oahu and then get slapped with deportation orders for failure to appear. Help them get court information and dates right. Here in Hawaii, air travel is the only way to get from island to island.
- Make donations to the ACLU, sanctuary locations like Harris Methodist Church locally, and other organizations that provide aid and comfort to undocumented workers.
- Form an immigration-related hui or community group to stay on top of immigration issues, inform the community, and engage in specific action.
- Pressure the Federal government to end abusive practices of all immigrants seeking asylum on the southern border of the mainland, especially women and children.
- Speak out against those who claim that the physical abuse of women and children should be considered acceptable “cultural practice.”
- When you see someone being harassed by ICE or the police regarding immigration issues, walk up to the individual(s) and ask quietly if they are okay and if they need help.
- Speak up when you see or hear racist remarks or behavior unless to do so would threaten your own safety or that of your family. When you can, team up and work in groups to lessen any individual threats to person, property, or business.
- Write letters of praise when you see people getting “caught” doing good.
- Write letters to the editor of your local newspaper about immigration issues and legislative actions that would negatively impact any and all of us. Write op-ed pieces like this one was intended to be.
- Provide pro bono services as you can afford for individuals and families traumatized as a result of their immigration experience.
- Notice your own behavior: watch and listen to yourself as you interact with people who are different from you. Remember that many undocumented workers are knowingly hired by local employers, are paid less in wages than other residents for the same work, and pay taxes on the money they receive in the form of sales and other taxes, even if they are paid under the table.
- Do not turn your anger against adult immigrants onto their children, who are innocent and traumatized. Permit immigrant children to be healthy in every way.
- Remember your own family history: how long ago were you immigrants here and your family was walking in their shoes?
- March, carry signs, write-draw-paint-photograph, resist, listen deeply, and learn always. Adopt behavior that is consistent with the best in all of us.