Voices of Youth: How far does Washtenaw County's protection for immigrants fall short?

This article is part of Concentrate's Voices of Youth series, which features content created by Washtenaw County youth in partnership with Concentrate staff mentors, as well as feature stories by adult writers that examine issues of importance to local youth. In this installment, student writer Maria Farah examines immigration issues in Washtenaw County.

Despite this nation’s considerable efforts to protect immigrants, newcomers still face considerable challenges on their journeys to becoming citizens. How do Washtenaw County’s structural and societal safeguards stack up? And what are the problems we need to solve?

I have a strong interest in immigration because I have an older sister waiting on a visa. I know how tough it was for my mother to go through the visa system, and I know how much better it would be if my sister could.

People I interviewed from a wide range of racial and socioeconomic backgrounds all had similar views on the issues the community faces with its immigration laws. Many people disagree with two frequently made claims: that immigrants only come to this country for self-serving purposes, and that they are lesser than non-immigrants.

Even though they make up 7% of Michigan's population, immigrants work for America rather than themselves in a society where they are not treated fairly and where they are faced with xenophobia, therefore being exposed to lots of risks. Among these risks are roadblocks such as deportation, visa expiration, prolonged wait times for a visa, and police brutality. For those who are undocumented or awaiting a visa, according to Team Acko, the challenges are compounded by application timing, insufficient funds, and incomplete forms.

"Much of the language politicians use to describe immigrants results in stigmatization. For example, former President Trump frequently referred to the 'surge' at the border and referenced gang violence and drug trafficking," says William Lopez, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Michigan (U-M). "This often results in those who know very little about immigrants associating them only with gangs and drugs and their use of US resources — not their contributions nor their humanity."

Lopez, who was affiliated with the Washtenaw Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights and Synod Community Services in Michigan, adds:

"There are 11 million undocumented folks in the US. We can have laws in place to provide a path toward citizenship and to provide health care, right? These are the walls that I prefer to be in place to support our immigrant community."

Univeristy of Michigan clinical assistant professor William Lopez.
Lopez is also vocal about the very real threat of deportation, which he compares to incarceration.

"Putting people in cages and removing them from their families is always bad for health, bad for communities, and bad for families," he says. "And it'll always work against those who don't support the laws that result in that."

According to TRAC Immigration, immigration judges issued 158,463 removal and voluntary deportation orders so far in 2023, including 905 in Michigan. According to data provided by the American Immigration Council, there were 45,974 immigrants in Washtenaw County in 2023.

"Immigrants certainly do many types of different professions as well, often including things many people don’t want to do. I often don’t like focusing on that because I think immigrants deserve human rights, rights to resources, and not to be deported regardless of what job they do," Lopez says. "Whether they do jobs people don’t want to do, whether they do advanced jobs like medicine, or if they are out of a job, everyone deserves the same type of humane treatment."

Elodie Henderson, an immigrant who came to the U.S. in 2009 at a very young age, shares Lopez's views. Based on her personal experience, Henderson, who is now an operations sales manager, thinks that education, language barriers, and cultural differences are to blame for the stigmatization of immigrants.

"There are so many different situations based on all the countries out there. You can’t educate on anything and everything but they can understand through different regions of the world or cultures that maybe aren’t taken into consideration when talking about immigration," says Henderson.

This frequently raised claim focuses attention on how immigration regulations impose restrictions and engender prejudice.

Maria Farah.
"Depending on where you come from, it's difficult for people to accept you, especially microaggressions from people, and there's always going to be a language barrier," says Brittany Barron, a youth coordinator for a nonprofit who works in social work and resides in Ann Arbor. Barron was a mentor to Henderson and remains her close friend. 
The language barrier can be overlooked easily, even though it's a struggle for most immigrants.

"It was taken very lightly when you were not able to communicate in a language that's the only language that's spoken around you; it was very difficult," says Henderson.

Not only are they expected to adapt to the situation effortlessly, but immigrants are also expected to ignore subtle harassments that aren't recognizable at first.

People often don’t realize they are making assumptions about people of a certain group, and an immigrant can easily recognize this as a microaggression.

"I would say, given that I'm from the Middle East, sometimes there are judgments and people can portray things the way they shouldn’t, and they kind of group everyone in the same sect," Henderson says.

The prospects of an immigrant surviving in America depend on their circumstances, but regardless of how difficult those conditions are, mainly non-immigrant Americans benefit from newcomers, while the newcomers face risks like homelessness or deportation.

"They can be dismissed from jobs or [dismissed] in general by people if they seem like they don’t understand the language well. And they run the risk of being deported or separated from their family," says Carly Evatz, a student at U-M who is working on getting her master's degree in social work.

Univeristy of Michigan clinical assistant professor William Lopez.
Barron says laws that limit immigration have a negative effect on America's development as a society.

"A lot of people would love to come here legally, but it’s so hard to do, and immigration laws have only gotten stricter over the years. It wasn’t that hard during Ellis Island time," Barron says. "Everyone comes here to better themselves, and in America, they just made it much harder to do, and that should be a reflection on immigration laws."

Barron argues that since immigrants have made significant contributions to our past and present society, we should accept them as members of our community.

"Immigrants bring benefits to our country, and this includes diversifying our country, bringing food, music, other ways of living, religions, and traditions. And, I believe, a multicultural community is a beautiful community," Lopez says.

Even though they bring many different colors to society, immigrants are still seen as less competent for other reasons as well, which later leads to the disadvantages they face.

"The discrimination that they face daily can be for their race, skin color, or even ethnicity; they can face those disadvantages," says Amina Abdullahi, a 15-year-old student at Michigan Islamic Academy in Ann Arbor. She grew up with immigrant parents who came to America for a better life.

Immigrants are essential for America's growth and development, but some still disagree.

"I feel as though the community should know that immigrants are just as human as anyone else, and they shouldn’t be judged as being lower or being disrespected; they are as human as any American," says Abdullahi. 

Maria Farah is a junior at Huron High School. She wrote this article because of how important it is to treat the people she loves, like her immigrant parents, as equals in today's society. 

Concentrate staffer Jaishree Drepaul served as Maria's mentor on this project.

All photos by Doug Coombe.

To learn more about Concentrate's Voices of Youth project and read other installments in the series, click 
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