Remembering 9/11

This week, on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, the United States is awash with reminders to “never forget.” I do remember. I remember it all…including the parts that we Americans would prefer to ignore.

I remember that we were attacked and 3000 civilians were tragically killed. I remember the first responders, who still bear scars on their bodies and their souls. I remember being in my office in Washington DC, a few blocks from the US Capital Building, which was a target, trying to figure out how to evacuate. Our solution was to carpool like mad to get colleagues away from the city center without using the subway, which was believed to be a target. I remember that was the first of a series of personal security incidents that left me with cumulative trauma. Yes, I’m OK now, thanks. But I also remember…

I also remember being in the National Cathedral a few days after 9/11 for the official government memorial service. I remember how viscerally I felt the collective mood shift from mourning to revenge while the crowd was singing a violent, twisted song called “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” I remember how from that moment onward, American culture began to morph in ugly ways. I moved shortly after that to Kosovo and then Southeast Asia…and I did not want to return to a USA that I no longer recognized.

I remember that the USA invaded Afghanistan, and then Iraq, contributing to the devastation that Afghans and Iraqis are experiencing today. I remember seeing soldiers sacrifice to slow down Al-Qaeda, even as dozens of new militant groups arose to take their place. We became experts in drone warfare…yet we kept accidentally hitting civilians. I remember that 900,000 people around the world have been killed in the name of the “War on Terror” (as estimated by the Brown University Costs of War project).

I remember that hundreds of thousands of American Muslims have had their characters maligned, their places of worship surveilled and their civil rights violated in the name of “security.” I remember that my friends are still racially profiled nearly every time they try to board an airplane. I remember seeing relationships between people groups become increasingly suspicious, polarized and broken. I realize that much of my work over the past 20 years has been an attempt to help clean up the mess. 

I remember that we were attacked, and it was unspeakably horrible. I remember that we made poor choices afterwards, and it became even worse. I am glad that we will have fresh, new choices to make tomorrow.

A Better Kind of Miracle

“Hi Michelle, blessings. I wanted to tell you that – thank God – I received my social security card and I have an appointment (provisional job offer) at Amazon tomorrow.” This good news came suddenly, and it pulled my friend back from the brink of a potential financial crisis. 

The spiritual implications were hard to miss, since I read her message during an online service of Quest Church, while singing about God’s power to perform miracles. I do believe that God can intervene when God chooses to – and so do my teammates in the church’s resettlement support team. But I don’t think it should require a miracle to rescue a newly arrived asylee from a broken immigration system. 

This story shines a spotlight on one particular form of hardship under Covid-19. Hardship these days comes in endless varieties, both around the world and here in the USA. The virus disproportionately attacks people of color and people in conditions of poverty. The necessary ‘lockdown’ has devastating side-effects in any community where people need to work outside the home in order to eat. Most of us are already aware of that, and seeking to help. But the burden borne by recent immigrants, whose wellbeing is hugely impacted by government systems, is often overlooked.  

There are various US immigration pathways, each with its own unique bureaucratic challenges. Asylum is the pathway of my friend – and the three other newly-arrived Latin American friends who share her apartment.  Under US and international asylum law, any person “with a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group” may request protection in another country by showing in person up at the border or on the soil. In the US their case must be proven in Immigration Court, where the asylum denial rate in recent years has ranged from 50 to 65%. 

The fact that my friends’ asylum cases were eventually approved indicates that the security threats in their home countries were serious, and their journeys were tough.  I say ‘eventually’ because, like all US asylum seekers, they were held at length in a detention center while awaiting their day in court. One of them was detained for 9 months. And let’s be clear, a detention center is a jail. The vast majority of detainees have no criminal charges and pose almost no flight risk, yet they cannot afford to pay expensive bail for a temporary release. The 30,000 people still detained are in crowded conditions with a massive risk of Covid-19.

Upon receiving asylum, my friends were fortunate to enter a federally-supported small stipend program that subsidizes cheap rent, utilities, living expenses and caseworker assistance for four or six months. If participants find a job by the end of the fourth month, they receive two additional months of partial support. If not, they are dropped. Under normal conditions, it is challenging yet feasible for a newcomer who is learning the language and culture of the US to find a job within 4 months. But here’s the thing: the conditions are almost never normal. 

The first obstacle faced by my friends is the process of obtaining the three key documents that local employers look for.  All asylees have the right to work in the US, but it takes time to secure three documents from three government agencies: first an I-94 travel document, and then a Social Security card and state identification card. The latter two are contingent upon the first – so there is no progress without an I-94. Each document typically requires an application, supporting documents, phone calls, a face-to-face appointment, and patience. On average, the process can take one or two months, and it can easily reduce the four-month job-hunting window by half. 

More obstacles came with Covid-19. My friends confined themselves at home, which was especially difficult for those who had enjoyed just three weeks of freedom since leaving detention.  The economy crashed, and the available jobs were reduced to Amazon, grocery stores, and cleaning in medical facilities. The only roommate who had received her documents and begun work was quickly laid off when hotel guests stopped traveling. It didn’t slow her down for long; she subsequently received two other job offers! However the other three roommates were still awaiting work documents, and they were seriously impacted when all of the responsible government agencies closed their doors for lockdown.

My friends have faced this situation with courage, faith and optimism, buoying each other up like sisters. But it is not easy. When the closures were announced, one of my friends had not yet received even her first document, the I-94, despite having applied a month earlier. The US Customs and Immigration Service does have some emergency appointments available. However, every time our resettlement support team calls to inquire about this, we get a different answer. So far, the agency has declined to provide an emergency appointment for this asylee, despite the fact that she can’t work without documents, and is now just a few weeks from losing her subsidy due to lack of a job. 

The lockdown was necessary to save lives, and I am glad that Washington State temporarily closed up. But a lockdown must go hand-in-hand with support for people in vulnerable situations. Under the circumstances, it would seem logical for the US Department of State, which administers my friends’ stipend program, to make an exception on the job requirement and extend a few more months of subsidy to affected asylees. But…no. The Department of State, despite advocacy by several non-profits, continues to say ‘no’ to extension. At the same time, my friends are not eligible for Covid-19 stimulus checks, and not currently permitted to apply for any other sources of assistance.  

My energetic friends are very eager to work, including jobs for which they are overqualified. Several federal agencies are withholding their employment documents, while another federal agency cuts them off for being unemployed.  I’ve politely called this system ‘broken,’ because I want to emphasize the strength and resilience of my asylee friends, not my own anger. My friends have expressed gratitude to the USA for its protection. They are not the ones complaining – I am. Instead of broken, I might just as easily call our system ‘neglectful’ or ‘unjust.’ 

Returning to the miracle, my friend was within five days of cut-off when she received her final document and her provisional job offer from Amazon. Everyone involved gave genuine thanks to God for this dramatic rescue. But two of her roommates are still facing the financial brink, along with countless others. Wouldn’t it be better if we repaired the holes within and between our government agencies, so that we don’t abandon the people that we’ve offered to protect? Wouldn’t it be better if we reformed our immigration system to treat people with consistent dignity, respect and compassion? That, too, would require the help and power of God – and it would be a much better kind of miracle.