In 2009, Mata Gentil's home had been burned down and so had most of his neighbors' – casualties of the continuing conflict in Gentil's home country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But when he and his neighbors started to starve, Gentil knew it was time to make a change.
"The government refused to give us any support – no support, no food, no nothing," says Gentil, speaking in Swahili through a translator. "And they started to watch us very closely. So those people that were very pushy about needing to get food and other support, they were actually killed. Seeing all that happening, there was no other choice but to try and run away."
Gentil fled to Kenya, where he met his wife and had two children while living in refugee camps for almost 10 years. But this July the Gentil family jumped at the chance to emigrate to Michigan, where the refugee resettlement agency Samaritas placed them in Ypsilanti. Mata Gentil is now taking English classes through Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County and preparing to seek work in Ypsi.
Gentil says he's been "overwhelmed" by the support he's received since he moved here, but his experience is just one story among those of the many immigrants and international visitors who currently inhabit Washtenaw County. Since President Trump's inauguration, numerous local institutions have undertaken a variety of efforts to make those individuals feel welcome in the county. We asked a variety of immigrants and international visitors for their takes on how our community has treated them and what it could do better.
The immigrant experience
The national dialogue around immigration has reached a divisive fever pitch in recent years, but Luz Meza says understanding of the immigrant experience has actually improved significantly since she moved to Ann Arbor seven years ago to attend the University of Michigan (U-M). The Mexican-born Meza had the unique opportunity to become a U.S. citizen at a young age, thanks to her father's efforts before she was born. But when she arrived here, she says attitudes on campus towards herself and other immigrants were less than open-minded.
"I think people really didn't understand the issue, and back then I was met with a lot of anger from people who just didn't approve of migration, or from ... migrants or international students themselves [who] thought that people should take the same opportunity that they did, the legal way," she says. "I think people are more aware now of what it looks like to be undocumented and why we come here."
Meza says U-M's 2014 decision to offer in-state tuition to undocumented students helped to advance discussions about immigration and improve the general perception of immigrants on campus. Broadly, she says, the Washtenaw County community is now "quite sympathetic" – but encounters with prejudice and hate are a regular occurrence nonetheless.
In 2009, Abraham Navarrete Morales illegally crossed the Mexican border to seek better quality of life in California, and moved to Ann Arbor soon after to pursue a job opportunity. Morales' immigration status has been in flux since then. He obtained a two-year work visa and is currently stuck in legal limbo, as he's now waited seven months to hear back about getting his visa renewed. Morales works as a salesperson at an Ypsi cell phone store, where he says his fluency in Spanish is often useful in assisting Hispanic customers. But he's all too familiar with unpleasant interactions like the one he had with a recent customer who accused him of coming to America to "take our jobs."
"I told her, 'Well, I'm not taking your job. If you can speak Spanish fluently and take care of all the Hispanic customers that come in here, by all means, take my job,'" Morales says. "But the reality is that she doesn't speak any Spanish. So it's not my fault. I try to do my job. I pay my taxes. I stay out of trouble. ... I guess that's all I want people to see – to realize that we're not all bad Mexicans, we're not all here taking other people's jobs. Some of us are just here trying to make a living, trying to survive like anybody else."
Even then, the difficulties of navigating local bureaucratic systems may pose a far greater challenge than anti-foreigner sentiment. Although Washtenaw County was the first municipality in Michigan to create a county ID card program, Ypsi resident Maria Ibarra-Frayre says obtaining that ID can still be a major challenge for underage immigrants or those who are unable to visit county offices during business hours. Ibarra-Frayre, who is the community liaison for the ID program, says local services as basic as public transit may also prove challenging for immigrants to navigate.
The weight of uncertain federal policy weighs heavily on many local immigrants as well. Ibarra-Frayre, an undocumented immigrant who moved here at age 9 and is currently protected under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), is currently awaiting a federal decision on DACA's future.
"It's overwhelming," she says. "It's frustrating to know that a month has gone by and they're not any closer to creating a permanent solution. It takes a real toll on my mental health and emotional health."
What does a welcome mat mean?
Washtenaw County has recently seen a slew of public efforts to welcome immigrants and foreign visitors, from Ann Arbor and Ypsi city councils' resolutions protecting undocumented immigrants to the Welcome In My Backyard pledge to the #YouAreWelcomeHere campaign. Alyssa Sook Way Choo, a Malaysian citizen and student at Eastern Michigan University (EMU), says EMU's #YouAreWelcomeHere campaign was "something big" for many international students.
"We tend to not want to say anything because no one wants to listen," Choo says. "Now that we have a chance to put ourselves out there, this is really good."
Morales' views are more mixed on the community's public declarations of support for immigrants and foreign visitors.
"It makes you feel good," he says. "But really I don't know if it makes much of a difference. There's really not much that the Michigan government or the federal government is doing about it."
Ibarra-Frayre says it's been "beautiful" to see such vocal gestures of public support, but also describes them as a "first step" in a longer battle. Meza echoes that sentiment.
"It means a lot to us immigrants about how the county feels and how it's going to react to a lot of what we're seeing with this new administration," she says. "But it's also obvious that the federal government and the immigration agencies are going to target this community because of the reaction that the community is having to their enforcement priorities. So I think it's a two-sided situation. We're feeling the love, but we're also heavily affected by the retaliation."
Immigrants, international visitors, and their advocates have a broad range of thoughts on what concerned locals could do next to be more welcoming during politically challenging times. For starters, says EMU student and Syrian citizen Kareem Aljundi, "we literally just want to be treated the same way as anybody else."
Special treatment is "appreciated, don't get me wrong," Aljundi says. "But when I came here, people didn't treat me any different. They were like, 'You have an accent. Where are you from?' I said, 'Syria.' And they were like, 'Oh, that's cool.' And that's that. Just treating me like any other person."
Ibarra-Frayre says there are many possibilities to create concrete change at the local level. She suggests that all county residents get a county ID and use it anytime they're carded, so that the ID becomes more normalized and less questioned. She also posits the idea of creating a bail fund for immigrants who are detained and unable to post bail.
"I think we got caught up in wanting to do things at the federal level, which we should, but some of those things are so out of reach ... and they're still ongoing," Ibarra-Frayre says. "So our real opportunity is to do things at the local level."
Ann Arbor immigration attorney Brad Thomson says Washtenaw County "leads the state" in welcoming immigrants, but recent incidents of racist vandalism around town still reflect a troubling climate. He suggests that conversations about immigration and cultural diversity should start much earlier, when kids are still in school.
"For as liberal a town and as open to immigrants as Ann Arbor seems to be, there's still a lot of work we need to do," he says. "It's really sad that people feel empowered now to be open to the point where they're graffitiing the landmarks in the city."
Morales says perhaps the most important thing the community can do is to encourage intercultural empathy and understanding in any way possible. He holds up Bike Ypsi's annual bicycle tour of local taco spots as one simple but important example of an event that helps connect community members to what other cultures have to offer.
"There's a lot that we can do for the community," he says. "All we need is for the government to give us an opportunity. There's a lot of smart people, a lot of intelligent people, who would be willing to go to school, get a degree, and do something for the community. But unfortunately, because of the legal status, you can't even live in your house. You live in fear."
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and the managing editor of Concentrate.
All photos by Doug Coombe.