In U.S., Undocumented People Can Donate But Not Receive Organs

News Report, Viji SundaramNew America Media 

 

SAN PABLO, Calif. – Without treatment to replace her failing kidneys, Olga knows she will die.

The 37-year-old single mother is desperate to get a transplant so she can get well enough to nurture and provide for her three children again – something she hasn’t been able to do for the last couple of years.

But her undocumented status disqualifies her from getting on the organ transplant list, endangering her life.

Olga’s frail health forced her to stop working as a house cleaning woman and attendant at a Bay Area car wash, something she did seven days a week to supplement the $800 monthly checks her children’s father sends her. Those were jobs she could do without revealing her unauthorized status. In 2010, she was abruptly forced to quit her job loading boxes at a UPS facility, when her employer one day asked her for her Social Security number.

Olga, who asked that her last name not be used, stopped working completely two years ago after her legs began to swell and she suffered persistent headaches. Her trips to the emergency room only gave her temporary relief. She tried going on disability with the help of an immigration attorney provided by a charitable organization, but was told she didn’t qualify.

Olga (far left) with her three children. / photo: Viji Sundaram

Olga (far left) with her three children. / photo: Viji Sundaram

The Mexico-born woman was diagnosed with kidney disease in 2001. In 2012, doctors told her she would require dialysis for the rest of her life unless she could get a kidney transplant. But to get on the transplant list, they told her, she would need to have legal status. Until then, she could receive dialysis on an outpatient basis three times a week. California currently has 50,057 dialysis patients.

Though not very health literate, Olga appreciates the irony of her situation. She knows it would be cheaper for her to get a kidney transplant for about $100,000 than it is to receive a lifetime of dialysis, which costs around $80,000 a year in the San Francisco Bay Area.

On average, transplantation doubles the life expectancy of a patient compared to dialysis. But even if she were given a transplant, Olga’s medical treatment would be far from over because she would need anti-rejection drugs costing about $10,000 a year for the rest of her life. Many transplant centers say an undocumented person’s status could compromise his or her ability to continue paying for follow-up care.

“Essentially, all transplant centers require that all transplant candidates have medical insurance, be it public or private, so that the patients will have coverage following transplantation to cover the cost of the immunosuppressive drugs, which are expensive,” said Dr. John Scandling, medical director of the kidney transplant center at Stanford University, where some undocumented patients living in Santa Clara County have received transplants.

But he asserted: “My personal opinion is that undocumented patients should not be kept off the organ waiting list. We don’t turn down organs donated by undocumented people, but we are not willing to provide organs to them.”

An oddity in the U.S. health care system requires that federal Medicare cover all patients with end-stage renal disease, regardless of their age, for dialysis and organ transplantation. The exception is undocumented immigrants. But low-income undocumented patients can receive emergency care for which hospitals are reimbursed by the federal-state funded insurance program for low-income people called Medicaid (Medi-Cal in California). Olga is lucky that California, like New York and North Carolina, defines the outpatient dialysis she receives as “emergency care.”

Last year, following protests by 14 undocumented patients in critical need of organ transplants, two Chicago-area hospitals agreed to put undocumented patients in need of organ transplants on the wait list.

Even if Olga could get on the kidney transplant list, she would likely have to wait six to 10 years to get a transplant in the San Francisco Bay Area because there is a greater demand for kidneys here than there are donors, Scandling said. In the Pacific Northwest and the Midwest, by contrast, the wait time is between one and three years.

Olga’s father, who had lived in the United States illegally since he, his wife and Olga immigrated here from their native Mexico 15 years ago, moved back home in 2012 to seek treatment for his diabetes.

Olga, too, could go back to Mexico, where a kidney transplant costs around $40,000, but she would have to sneak back in through the desert to reunite with her three U.S.-born children. That, she said, would be too dangerous.

Laura Lopez, executive director of Street Level Health Project, an Oakland-based non-profit that helps immigrants get access to health care and other services, believes that California should provide health care for all of its residents. She supports democratic Sen. Ricardo Lara’s Health Care For All bill.

“People shouldn’t have to go back to their homeland to die because they can’t get health care in the U.S.,” Lopez asserted.

Richmond Rolls Out City ID Cards

News Report, Nancy DeVille

Richmond is the latest Bay Area city to offer a municipal identification card with the goal of allowing residents to open bank accounts and gain access to other services.

The Richmond City ID Prepaid MasterCard program provides qualifying residents with an official form of identification that includes an optional prepaid debit card. The card is issued to anyone that can prove Richmond residency, regardless of immigration status. A photo ID is required for the banking services.

The program was approved by the city council in 2011. Among its goals is to ease some of the hardships facing seniors, the homeless and newly released inmates, according to city officials. SF Global, a third party vendor, administers the card.

The card is recognized as a valid from of identification by the Richmond Police Department and all city agencies.

“All of our residents deserve each and every opportunity to access services, including banking services,” Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin said recently.

“We want our residents to feel safe in reporting crimes and getting information to the police. These often marginalized communities are frequently unable to participate fully in society and the economy.”

The program’s financial services include direct deposit, online shopping, the ability to load cash via Western Union and ATM withdrawals. A $3.99 monthly fee is accessed unless customers make over 25 purchases or deposit at least $1,000 in a single month. Other fees include $1 for card-to-card transfers, $0.50 inactivity fee that stops after six months, $1.00 for each additional live customer service calls after one free one is used. There is an initial fee of $10 for seniors 65 and older and $15 for residents to sign up for the card.

“The buzz in Richmond is that every one has waited a long time for this card to come out,” said Paule Cruz Takash, one of the co-founders of SF Global. “The appointments are going like hotcakes. We expect for the first three to five months, there will be hundreds of people showing up. Richmond wants to help people, they don’t want residents carrying so much cash on them that it becomes a public safety issue.”

Although Raquel Terez has a state issued ID card, she says she’s applying for Richmond’s because of its banking benefits.

“It’s a good way to start building my credit,” she said. “But there are people in my family, like my mother, who will benefit from this.”

Living without identification is burdensome for some of the simplest things, Terez said. Her mom, Amada Terez can’t return or exchange items in certain stores without a valid ID card, she said.

Amada, according to Terez, said that having a card will help her feel secure and like she is a part of the city.

Terez is working to tell others about the importance of applying for the new municipal ID.

“I’ve been promoting this on Facebook and to my friends as much as I can,” she said. “This is something that is happening in our community and we should all be aware of what’s going on. If the police stop you and know who you are, that brings more security to everyone.”

But, some agencies that work with newly released inmates question if the new municipal ID will help their clientele.

“If it’s really meant to be beneficial to people when they are just starting out, then the card should have some type of protections, at least in the short term, around child support,” said Tamisha Walker of the Safe Return Project, a program that helps formerly incarcerated Richmond residents readjust to society.

Cruz Takash admits back owed child support could be a problem for the formerly incarcerated, and others who’ve fallen behind, but she said it hasn’t been much of an issue in other cities.

Richmond’s program follows an initiative launched in Oakland in 2013. Over 5,000 cards have been distributed in Oakland since last year’s debut, SF Global officials said.

Oakland’s program sparked criticism over a variety of fees including a $0.75-cent charge per debit card purchase and $1.75 to call customer service. SF Global officials say they since reduced the charges.

Applications are processed at Grace Lutheran Church, 2369 Barrett Ave. in Richmond. For more information, visit www.richmondcityid.com.

Majority of California Voters Support Health Care for the Undocumented

A majority of California voters support the idea of expanding health coverage to include all low-income people in the state, regardless of their immigration status, according to a new poll.

The poll, commissioned by private health foundation The California Endowment, showed that some 54 percent of the state’s voters would support expanding Medi-Cal and Covered California to provide health insurance to all who are low-income, including the state’s undocumented population.

Health care reform under the Affordable Care Act currently excludes undocumented immigrants, and legislation to expand coverage to them in California – the “Health For All” bill authored by state Senator Ricardo Lara (D – Los Angeles) — didn’t make it onto Governor Brown’s desk in 2014. But with numbers showing that public support is growing for providing health care to everyone, elected officials and advocates are preparing for the reintroduction of that bill when the state legislature reconvenes in January.

At a Health For All rally on Wednesday in front of the state building in Oakland, Assemblymember Rob Bonta (D-Oakland) said that he was excited by the poll results, calling them “consistent with the values I have and the state has. It shows we value the health care of our community. I would like to see the numbers grow more, but it’s a starting point.” Bonta co-sponsored the Health For All bill in 2014, and will continue to support it when Sen. Lara reintroduces it for 2015.

The poll surveyed 800 voters in late August in English and Spanish. Support for providing coverage to the undocumented was highest among voters of color, particularly Latinos (69 percent) and African Americans (68 percent), compared to 47 percent of white voters. By age, support was highest among 18 to 29-year-olds (68 percent).

Daniel Zingale, senior vice president of The California Endowment, said that the numbers show “a generational shift under way in California in attitudes” around covering the undocumented.

Approximately 1.4 million people in California lack health insurance due to their immigration status, among them Denise Rojas, who spoke at the rally. Rojas, a young undocumented woman, spoke about her family’s struggle with not having health insurance.

“When I was in college, my mom was diagnosed with uterine fibroids,” Rojas said. “She was denied health coverage so she made the tough decision to immigrate to Canada,” where she was able to access care. Rojas hasn’t been able to see her since then, because her own immigration status prevents her from visiting.

In the poll, when asked about specific aspects of the proposed expansion, voters were most supportive of the idea of improving access to preventative care, and the resulting reduction in overall costs to the state. Some 86 percent of voters were supportive of this.

According to Bonta, providing health care to the undocumented is right now costing the state about $1.5 billion a year, due in large part to the high cost of emergency room visits resulting from a lack of preventative care.

At a press briefing in September, Bonta said that Health For All would cost the state about $360 million in its first year, ultimately saving money.

“Even in a state like California where there appears to be the will to have everyone included, cost is always a factor,” Zingale said on a press call last week. He said there seems to be a growing awareness that “there is a direct connection between prevention and cost savings.”

At the rally, Oakland resident Iris Merriouns agreed. “No one should have to wait until they get acute health problems before they go to see a doctor. It’s a burden on the system. It’s wise to invest now, and pay less later,” she said.

DACA Recipients Grateful for Present, Uncertain About Future

Story and Video • Edgardo Cervano-Soto

 

Manuel Martinez thought his future would follow the life of his father. When he was 17, he thought he’d work in construction after high school. Despite living in Richmond since the age of one, Martinez didn’t think he had many options because of his undocumented status.

Farther north, in Modesto, Yaquelin Valencia, a Kennedy High School graduate, spent a lot of her time driving around the Central Valley. She was 20 years old and passionate about organizing immigrant communities. She was also undocumented, and ineligible for a driver’s license.

On June 15, 2012, President Obama authored a memorandum that would alter the course of the two youngsters’ lives, along with the lives of hundreds of thousands in similar situations. The order granted young immigrants who met specific criteria the chance to apply for what is essentially a temporary reprieve from deportation, or the threat of it.

The administrative policy had an innocuous name, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Those eligible for DACA are granted an opportunity to apply for a work permit and a social security number.

Valencia and Martinez applied for DACA within months of its announcement and both were granted DACA status.

“January 22, 2013, I got a letter in the mail,” Martinez recalled. “My mom cried. She told me how proud she was that I was now an ‘American;’ that I finally belonged in the country.” With a year and a half remaining of high school, Martinez kicked into high gear, re-committing himself to his studies and reconsidering the possibility of what life could be like after graduation.

The last two-plus years since DACA went into effect have impacted the lives of eligible undocumented people, making opportunities such as employment and higher education accessible to many for the first time.

DACA generated national interest when it was announced. It was celebrated as an accomplishment for DREAMers and their supporters, those who advocated for immigration reform for the young undocumented community in the United States.

Obama and Democrats throughout the country, who’d earlier been polling low with Latinos, also enjoyed benefits from the DACA announcement. Obama was re-elected to the presidency a few months later, due in part to a reinvigorated Latino electorate—71 percent of Latinos voted for him that year.

Immigration rights organizations sprung into gear, helping potential applicants throughout the country apply. According to the American Immigration Council, a non-partisan and independent think tank, approximately 670,000 people have applied for DACA, with nearly 550,000 of those applicants approved.

In Richmond, Heather Wolf, an attorney at Catholic Charities of the East Bay, said her office has processed 300 applications and pre-screened over a thousand at workshops. She said the Richmond numbers were substantial.

Despite the boom in applications, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services estimates that of the 1.2 million people eligible for DACA, half a million of them have yet to apply. A fee of $465 for a work permit, and a requirement that all application information be forwarded to USCIS may explain why some are reluctant to apply.

Valencia, who assisted Catholic Charities of the East Bay with the pre-screening process, and is a long time immigration rights advocate, used to be among them.

“My understanding of it was that we were going to get a temporary work permit for two years,” she said. “Well, what’s going to happen after two years? What’s going to happen if it gets revoked?”

Those questions persist, but the effect of DACA on the lives of those who’ve received it is undeniable.

“I haven’t had anyone come through, who didn’t go out and immediately get a job or enroll full time in school, or is saving money to go to a four-year college,” Wolf said. “They have all been very productive and inspiring.”

As for Valencia, DACA allowed her to obtain a driver’s license and enroll full time in school.

“I think my mom had a sense of relief that I would be driving around now safely,” Valencia said.

Today she drives herself to school and gives colleagues rides to community meetings. After being elected to serve on the board of the Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Community Organization, CCISCO, an organization she’d previously volunteered at, Valencia said she drives to Antioch for board meetings with a new sense of security and confidence.

“I feel much safer having a driver’s license,” she said, adding, “When I see an officer I still get a little nervous when they are behind me and I know they are checking my tags, but I know that because I have insurance and a driver’s license….I should be okay if they were to stop me.

After receiving DACA, Martinez completely changed the course of his educational career. With the help of his teachers, he increased his grade point average, ending his senior year with an acceptance letter from San Francisco State University. Martinez is now studying computer science at SFSU. But, a recent interaction at school reminded him of the limits of DACA.

“Even though I have a social security number, I still don’t qualify for many types of financial aid, many scholarships and some types of jobs,” Martinez said.
“I kind of feel like this is not a full measure, this is a half measure,” he said. “I am at a disadvantage for no reason again.”

Immigrant rights activists criticize the DACA program because it does not provide a path to citizenship. Now in its third year, those who received DACA status early on need to renew their applications.

According to USCIS, the participation rates of Asian American and Pacific Islanders have been remarkably low. For instance, of the 27,000 from the Philippines who were eligible, only 3,874 applied. Among Koreans, only 7,741 of the 26,000 eligible applied.

The uncertainty of whether immigration reform will become a reality during the last two years of Obama’s presidency, and the possibility of Republicans gaining control of the house following the November elections, puts many on edge. They worry that a shift in the political makeup of Washington could reverse their lives once again.

“DACA just opened so many doors,” said Wolf, of the people she’s seen come through her office in Richmond. “It would be really tragic to see the program shut down.”

Dr. Chris Zepeda-Millán, a political scientist and professor at the University of California at Berkeley, believes that concern for the program is warranted.

“The limit of DACA is that it’s not permanent,” he said. “If Republicans win this election, there is nothing stopping Congress from passing anti-immigrant bills.”

In fact, recent studies show the likelihood of Republicans picking up more seats is increasing, as Latino support for Obama and Democrats falls.

“With the mass deportations, and President Obama postponing executive action, it is actually suppressing the Latino vote,” Zepeda-Millán said. “If Republicans win the presidential election in two years, all this can disappear.”

Martinez and Valencia have taken advantage of DACA’s short-term benefits, but the future remains clouded, and citizenship still elusive.

“It frustrates me because I remember the first line I read on DACA was ‘this is not a road to citizenship,’ which is my ultimate goal,” Martinez said. “Because I feel as American as I can feel.”

Richmond Woman Leads 350 Mile Trek for Immigration Reform

Story by Jennifer Herrera

10514564_801350399910093_5893804369530396770_n[1]It was July 22, 2014 and Valeska Castañeda was heading out, on foot, with a group of mothers and children for a long journey across California. The plan was to walk over 350 miles from Merced to the U.S. Border near San Diego as a sign of solidarity with people immigrating to the United States.

The first day of the walk temperatures soared into the 90s, and Castañeda hadn’t trained for the 15 mile-a-day trek. “The first day I felt like my feet were going to fall off,” she said with a giggle. “My feet looked like little sausages, they were so swollen.”

As they walked, and word spread through local news coverage and word-of-mouth people came out to support the walkers, who’d dubbed their journey, “Trail for Humanity.” People brought them food, water, umbrellas and hats during the day. At night, organizations held rallies with spoken word, poetry, musical entertainment and more.

“The communities,” Castañeda said, recalling people she met along the way, “gave me strength. They pushed me forward each day.”

A Personal Path

Part of why Castañeda relates to immigrants is her own history. In the mid 1980s,

Castañeda and her family came from Nicaragua to the U.S. where they were granted political asylum. She was one at the time, and spent the next couple of decades growing up in Richmond. Now, the 27-year-old mother is a student at U.C. Berkeley, majoring in American Studies. She’s also an activist, who was moved to organize the cross-state walk after spending a week in Arizona on a service trip.

The talks she had with community activists, teachers and undocumented immigrants during her time in Arizona convinced Castañeda she had to do something to raise massive awareness about the social injustice issues she witnessed.

The name of the massive awareness campaign Castañeda eventually embarked on,Trail for Humanity,” was inspired by a Mayan proverb: In Lak’Ech Ala K’in. It means, we are all a reflection of one another. When organizing the pilgrimage, Valeska said it was mothers who took the initiative.

“It was mostly the mothers that came together and selflessly gave their time,” Castañeda said.

“Women decided that they’re no longer going to be in the shadows. They’re going to be at the head and spearhead the struggle,” she said.

The six mothers, all current students at UC Berkeley as well, and their children led the 26-day journey through 41 cities to pressure President Barack Obama to halt mass deportations that have separated children from family, terminate the use of police officers as immigration agents, eliminate “stop and frisk” racial profiling laws and to pass a humane immigration reform, Castañeda said.

For Castañeda, the turning point in the planning of the walk came in April with the tragic death of young migrant. Noemi Alvarez Quillay, was a 12-year-old Ecuadorean girl, who committed suicide after being detained in Cuidad Juárez, Mexico. She had traveled approximately 6,500 miles in order to be reunited with her family before she was picked up, according to media reports at the time.

“Enough was enough,” Castañeda said, recalling Quillay’s story with tears and a slight squeak in her voice, “We needed to start organizing.”

An Act of Love

While they marched south, other civil rights giantesses joined the women and children. On day 10, Dolores Huerta, a labor leader who cofounded what would later become the United Farm Workers with César E. Chávez, marched alongside the mothers. Together the women shouted a chant Castañeda said she composed with her mother. “Un paso mas!” One more step. They’d also recite Black Panther activist Assata Shakur’s famous words: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love and protect one another. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

But, not everyone was supportive of the Trail for Humanity. It was common for agitators to drive by and scream, “Illegal’s go back home,” Castañeda said.

Recalling one woman driving by who stopped to berate the marchers to go home, get a job and an education, Castañeda said, “She made assumptions about me because I have this face.”

In Bakersfield, a truck followed the marchers for several miles. At one point, the woman inside got out and began chasing them, Castañeda said. Fortunately, they had an emergency van with them for the marchers to use in case of similar events.

Despite the long days, physical pain and emotional toil Castañeda said the walk never turned negative. “It didn’t become an act of torture, instead it was an act of love.”

By the end, Castañeda was the only mother that walked every single day of the trail. And, she finished the march without a single blister on her feet. “I honestly think it was because of all the thoughts, love and prayers that were sent my way,” she said.

The last day was a bittersweet moment for the mothers and children, Castañeda said. Once they finally reached the U.S.-Mexico border, hundreds of people came to celebrate the conclusion of the pilgrimage.

A Trail for Humanity is not over yet, according to Castañeda. “My presence is needed elsewhere,” she said.

Castañeda plans to have a conference soon with all the organizations that participated in the walk to address what will happen next.

 

 

 

 

How Citizenship Changed My Life – From College to the Ballot Box

Guadalupe Guerrero, 25, speaking at a briefing for ethnic media on the benefits of citizenship at the Los Angeles Public Library in March.

Guadalupe Guerrero, 25, speaking at a briefing for ethnic media on the benefits of citizenship at the Los Angeles Public Library in March.

One year after becoming U.S. citizens, many new Americans say citizenship has changed their lives for the better – from giving them a chance to go to college and get a better job, to being able to vote.

“Before I became a U.S. citizen, I felt like I was an outsider, a person without a voice who can’t really choose to live the life that I would like to see,” said Jinzhi Cang, a 73-year-old Chinese American resident of Houston who became a citizen last September.

“After becoming a U.S. citizen, I feel like I am part of the society,” she continued. “I do have a voice. And I do have the opportunity to vote and to elect an individual who can truly make an impact on the country to really, truly protect and help the people.”

Cang, who came the United States 10 years ago, spoke on a national press call organized by New America Media to commemorate Citizenship Day, which falls on Sept. 17. She said she wanted to become a U.S. citizen because the United States was a place where she could see herself getting old.

“I see the U.S. as a place where people have a voice, and no one is above the law,” she said.

Helping immigrants apply for citizenship

More than eight million immigrants across the United States have green cards and are eligible for U.S. citizenship. Yet only 8 percent of them become citizens each year.

A group of organizations that form the New Americans Campaign is working in cities across the country to increase the number of immigrants who apply for citizenship – by providing free and low-cost help and giving them the information they need.

“Unfortunately, there are a lot of myths about the citizenship process and there are a lot of unknowns about the citizenship process,” said Vanessa Sandoval, immigration legal services program director for SIREN (Services, Immigrant Rights, and Education Network) in San Jose, Calif. “What we are doing with the New Americans Campaign,” said Sandoval, “is demystifying citizenship, making it accessible, answering questions and providing information so that people can make informed decisions about applying for naturalization and so that they can receive affordable help.”

For example, some green card holders don’t apply for citizenship because of the $680 fee. But many people don’t know that a fee waiver is available for those who can’t afford it.

Others may be deterred by the English language requirement. But longtime green card holders who are over the age of 50 are eligible to take the citizenship exam in their own language.

Going to college 

Guadalupe Guerrero, a 25-year-old resident of Compton, Calif., says language was the main reason her father never applied for citizenship.

“His biggest fears were that he didn’t speak English and he would fail the exam,” said Guerrero, who is originally from Michoacán, Mexico. But as a longtime green card holder over the age of 50, her father qualified to take the exam in Spanish.

“My sisters [and I] got together and we all sat down with my father and convinced him to apply to become a citizen,” she said, adding that young people like herself have a “big responsibility” in convincing their parents of the importance of citizenship.

Once he became a citizen, he sponsored his daughters to become permanent residents. As a result, Guerrero and her sisters were able to apply for financial aid and go to college. Becoming U.S. citizens, she said, gave her family access to education and the chance to get a better job. Guerrero now works with COFEM in Los Angeles, the organization that helped her apply for citizenship.

Voting for the first time

For Thanh Bui, a 79-year-old Houston resident who came to the United States from Vietnam in 2005, becoming a U.S. citizen means fulfilling one last dream.

Bui recently found out that she was diagnosed with liver cancer, and has been able to get health care through Medicare and Medicaid. She says specialists have been able to shrink her tumor to half its size.

Now almost 80 years old, the Houston resident says there is one more thing she intends to do – register to vote and vote for the first time. She isn’t sure if she going to live long enough to make it, but, she says, it’s something she’s “always wanted to do.”

“It’s been a year now [since I became a U.S. citizen],” said Bui, “and my life has been a lot less stressful, very happy, and I’ve become a relaxed person with less anxiety, because I feel that becoming a U.S. citizen has given me lots of freedom in this country.”

Bui says she is grateful to the United States “for giving someone, an elderly person like me, the opportunity to live a good life.”

For more information about the New Americans Campaign, go to ‭www.newamericanscampaign.org‬.

LA Youth Fast for Central American Youth – ‘We Are Just Like Those Kids’

By VoiceWaves Beat Reporter Michael Lozano

Editor’s Note: This week a group of young people in Los Angeles went on a seven-day fast to call attention to the welfare of children who are crossing into the United States to flee violence in their home countries.

LOS ANGELES – Young people are once again leading the moral charge on a humanitarian issue that they say has been hijacked by politics.

Eight Los Angeles youth between the ages of 14 and 22 are fasting this week to call attention to the welfare of the tens of thousands of Central American children who have entered the United States to flee violence in their home countries.

Eighteen-year old Yamilex Rustrian says she decided to participate in the seven-day fast to remind the country whom the White House and Congress are seeking to deport: “These are children, not animals,” she said. “They still deserve to have human rights.”

The youth are spending their nights inside a giant white tent encampment perched on the grass lawn of historic Olvera Street in Los Angeles, hoping that Washington, D.C. politicians will consider treating the 50,000-plus children coming into the United States as refugees.

Attitudes towards the migrant children have clearly become politicized. Forty-six percent of Democrats support speeding up immigration proceedings even if those eligible for asylum may be deported, as do 60 percent of Republicans, the Pew Research Center reports.

But the fasters say they want to keep politics out of the discussion.

“This a little different from the Dreamers’ movement,” Rustrian said, who is a DACA recipient. “We recognize that this is a humanitarian crisis.”

It isn’t the first time young people have positioned themselves as the moral compass on an issue. From Dreamers (undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children) to the “undocuqueer” (who identify as both queer and undocumented), American youth in recent years have pushed for a critical dialogue on what they see as today’s most pressing civil rights issues, calling attention to the human faces behind the numbers.

The fasters say they see part of themselves in the migrating children. Some of them, too, fled to the United States to escape violence in their native country.

“I was just like these kids 12 years ago,” said Rustrian, who left Guatemala in 2002 after her father was killed as a result of gang violence. “I didn’t run from my country because I wanted to. I had to,” she said. “The violence and poverty was too much.”

Rustrian was six years old when she and her younger sister Yosselin left. Their father, a bus driver, had been assassinated. He was shot nine times while working his shift.

“I was five. I honestly didn’t know what was happening around me,” said the younger Rustrian. “I know some of the kids (migrating now) probably don’t have their parents (either).”

The sisters trekked through the desert for days to reach the United States.

“It was hard,” the younger Rustrian said. “I remember my sister was about to faint. They didn’t even have waters for us. We were the only little girls there.” The coyote hired to guide them was someone they didn’t even know.

Simon Gun, 19, who is also fasting this week, said he, too, can relate to the migrating children on a personal level.

When an economic crisis hit his home country of South Korea in 2001, Gun’s family moved from apartment to apartment. He remembers each one being smaller than the last.

“It couldn’t get any smaller, so we went to the U.S.,” explained Gun, a Dreamer who is now attending UC Irvine.

Alease Wilson, an African-American biology student at East Los Angeles College, said she was shocked to see people protesting the child migrants on TV.

“I’m so close to their age,” said the 18-year-old.

Wilson’s mother, Kawana Anderson, was astounded at her daughter’s initiative to join the fast. “I had no choice but to step in and support her, which she’s doing to support other kids,” said Anderson.

President Obama has called for $3.7 billion to deal with the border crisis. His plan includes speeding up deportations, resources, and assistance to Central American countries.

House Republicans are working on their own plan of about $1.5 billion to send in the National Guard, speed up deportations, and undo protections granted the children under a 2008 law that guarantees immigration hearings to minors from countries not bordering the United States.

“Either they’re going to get killed or they’re just going to die from hunger,” said the older Rustrian, worried about the children’s fate.

The fasters are demanding refugee status or asylum for the migrant children, with some hoping President Obama might take executive action.

“This is the country of opportunities. If we call it that, we should truly show that,” the older Rustrian said. “The statue of liberty says ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,’” she said. “Why don’t we do that?”

For more information, visit www.fastingforchildren.org or check out facebook.com/kidsoverpolitics.

From the Beast to the Fridge – A Salvadoran Youth’s Journey to the US

Commentary, Luis Cubas

RICHMOND, Calif. – From the moment I woke up, I realized there was something unusual about the morning. The sun wasn’t out, the birds weren’t singing, and instead of the school bus my dad would be taking me to school. 

I soon realized why that bus hadn’t come: walking to school my dad and I passed two white sheets lying on the ground, both of them stained with blood.

We later learned the victims were two local kids killed after trying to run away from gang members who were chasing them. It was 2006. A month later I left El Salvador and headed north for the United States. 

It still feels like yesterday, and I realize as I watch the stream of young people flowing into this country from Central America that I was not the first, and I won’t be the last. 

“I left El Salvador because of the violence in my neighborhood,” said Carlos, 17, “and because I know the country is poor, and if I stayed there’d be no opportunities available for me.” (Carlos’ name has been changed to protect his identity.)

He arrived in Richmond in June, after an arduous four-month trek of nearly 1700 miles.

From bad to worse

The situation in El Salvador was already bad when I left. The cost of living was rising, surpassing what ordinary citizens could afford, while homicides were increasing with each day. Things only seem to have  gotten worse. 

El Salvador is one of the poorest countries in Latin America, with the average person earning somewhere around $3,700 per year, according to World Bank data. About 35 percent of the population lives in poverty. The country also has one of the world’s highest homicide rates, at 91 per 100,000 residents. That’s just behind Honduras, which has been labeled by some as the murder capital of the world. 

“I knew that I could lose my life at any moment if I stayed,” said Carlos, who like many others left El Salvador unaccompanied. “I worried that I’d be followed and pursued [by gang members], which happened several times when I was there.”

Carlos says he’s one of the lucky ones, not just because he made it to the United States, but also because he’s still alive. 

“One of my friends was confronted by gang members and killed … the other one was killed because he attended a school some gang members didn’t like. That’s why they killed him.”

Hell on earth

“I left El Salvador and when I got to Guatemala, I crossed all the way to the border with Mexico. That’s the hardest part of the journey. You could say that’s hell on earth … since this is where you have to take the ‘beast,'” he says, referring to a network of freight trains used by migrants to cross Mexico.

When Carlos reached the border with Texas, he was found and detained by border police and later moved to a detention center where other immigrants were held. Carlos spent almost a month there before he was allowed to leave. 

“They call it the ‘fridge,’ since the place is always really cold,” he explained. “People were telling me about it when we were on the way to the border, but I had no idea that I was gonna end up staying there … they never lower the air conditioner and we don’t have blankets to cover ourselves with. You don’t know if it’s day or night.”

Carlos describes the rooms he and the others were housed in as “little white boxes” that were so cramped that some detainees were forced to sleep sitting or standing up. 

Carlos noted that on at least one occasion some detainees protested the conditions. “When they would distribute the food, sometimes they would laugh; one time they threw two granola bars in the air to see who of us would catch it first. For the ones that were there, it was an offense.”

Carlos is now awaiting his court date to find out whether he will be forced to return to El Salvador. “I see the news,” he said, “and things look more dangerous now than before.”

With DACA, I Can See My Future More Clearly

By Manuel Martinez

I’ve called Richmond home since as far back as I can remember, but it was just two years ago that I finally felt like this place accepted me—and it was thanks to a little blue card, my social security number.

From the moment I got my “documents,” my outlook on life changed, and so did my future.

I was born in Mexico, in Irapuato, a city a few hours north of Mexico City in the state of Guanajuato, but it has never been home to me. Before I was two-years-old, my family moved from Irapuato to Richmond.

Throughout my life, I’ve felt disadvantaged because I wasn’t born here. The fear of deportation set in after watching an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid on television — and that fear, I’ve come to realize, kept me from dreaming that life could be whatever I wanted it to be.

I didn’t excel in school, nor did I feel motivated to try. Growing up, I became accustomed to the idea that working construction jobs with my father was my future. I just figured higher education was not in the cards. My mother, the most educated in the family, had finished the equivalent of high school in Mexico. After she graduated, she joined the military. My dad did as his father had done and dropped out of school at 16 to also join the military.

During my own high school days in Richmond, the “career days” and field trips to universities unsettled me. Why should I think about applying to a four-year college, or waste time building a resume or cover letter when no one would hire an “illegal alien?”

That word, “alien,” hurt. It was the ultimate contrast between me and everyone else. A word usually reserved for green, science fiction beings from another planet. The only difference I could see between my friends and me was that my parents had me in Mexico. I was labeled an “alien” because of something over which I had no control.

And so, my disinterest in school continued until my junior year of high school.

The day that changed my life trajectory started like most school days. But then my mom mentioned that I’d be leaving school early to go to the Mexican Consulate in San Francisco to request my Mexican passport. She explained that President Barack Obama had signed an executive order called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) that made people like me eligible for a social security card and a work permit. It took a few months, and a lot of work on my parent’s part—as well as an immigration lawyer in Berkeley—but before long I had a greenish-blue piece of paper with nine digits on it in my hand, and I felt like I finally belonged.

Instantly, I was motivated to turn my grades around. I was eager to finally have a proud answer to the question, “What are your plans after high school?”

By my senior year, I was blown away by the amount of support that was available. I borrowed hundreds of dollars worth of study guides for college related tests. Twice I took the SAT test—for free. Four California State Universities waived my application fees. Life was a lot brighter.

Along the way, many teachers and services helped me, but one of the best support systems was the College and Career Center at Richmond High School. Staff members at the Richmond High career center are genuinely concerned for students’ future. They were always there to answer any questions I had.

Another huge pillar of support for me was my English teacher Ms. Navarro. She watched me grow from a lazy, immature sophomore to a motivated, responsible young person. She was able to answer many of the questions I had and she understood what it was like to feel suffocated by the pressure of being the first in the family to pursue a higher education.

When I finally received my letters of acceptance to college, I cried. My mother cried also, telling me as she wiped away her tears that this was proof her sacrifices were worth it; that the days she and my father had taken off of work to march and rally for immigration reform had culminated with this moment.

I stood there holding my acceptance letter, relieved that after so many years of indifference I was able to salvage my academic career.

Next month, I’ll start classes at San Francisco State University with plans to major in Computer Science. But, my story and struggle is far from finished. While I’m grateful for DACA, the access I’m granted under it doesn’t make me eligible for many types of financial aid. So getting a degree will mean taking on more debt than I like to think about. My hope is that in four years, at my graduation, I’ll say it was all worth it.

At the end of the day, all I want to be able to make my family and all of those who helped me proud. And with the support I’ve received to this point, I doubt there is anything that’s going to stop me now.

Locals Reach for Health Care, While Advocates Try to Catch the Uninsured

News Report + Photos, Marco Villalobos

Beneath a mural depicting salvation outside St. Mark’s Church, Ruben Pedroza stood trying to figure out his family’s health insurance. Inside the church hall, a meeting was underway to educate residents as to what health coverage they might qualify for due to the Affordable Care Act.

Ruben Pedroza speaks with a representative of Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Community Organization (CCISCO), one of the organizations partnering to host the town hall.

Ruben Pedroza speaks with a representative of Contra Costa ACCE (Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment), one of the organizations partnering to host the town hall.

Although nearly 3.5 million California residents have enrolled in either Covered California (the state’s marketplace) or Medi-Cal since last fall, over 5.8 million Californians remain without coverage. Mr. Pedroza counts his five sons among the uninsured.

In fact, Pedroza says, he’s been the only member of his family with health coverage for years, a situation he is now trying to remedy.

At the heart of the meeting at the church, hosted by Healthy Richmond’s Access to Quality Healthcare Action Team, was a push to inform locals of what health coverage options are available to them and how to access health care, with or without insurance.

“Moving forward, we must acknowledge that there are thousands of individuals in Contra Costa County that will remain uninsured. This event is the first in a series of community-driven efforts that we will organize to elevate the importance of ensuring that everyone has access to comprehensive health care and a quality medical home,” said Alvaro Fuentes, the executive director of the Community Clinic Consortium of Contra Costa and Solano Counties.

In the church hall, panelists discussed details around coverage options and care, specifically for Latinos, who comprise one of the state’s largest workforces. One of the keys to improved and wider coverage, said Dr. Xavier Morales, the executive director of the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California, is the Health for All Act. Also known as State Sen. Ricardo Lara’s SB 1005, the bill proposes to expand health coverage to all Californians, regardless of immigration status.

Ruben Pedroza, pictured here with his son, seeks to secure health care for his family of seven.

Ruben Pedroza, pictured here with his son, seeks to secure health care for his family of seven.

“I feel like whether you are documented or undocumented it should work for everybody,” said Pedroza.

But the act, as pivotal as it could be in ensuring that all residents have access to quality and affordable care, would do little to address the current statewide backlog of 900,000 coverage applicants.

“We’re here tonight because we’ve been having problems with the Covered California plan,” said Pedroza, as his four-year-old son wriggles loose from his arms. “We registered with them a couple of months back and they accepted me and my wife with Kaiser. We tried to enroll our kids with Kaiser and they sent us a letter saying that the kids weren’t qualified, that they would have to qualify through Medi-Cal.”

That letter was the beginning of a struggle that still leaves the Pedrozas between plans in search of a resolution that will provide coverage for their sons.

“We went ahead and applied for Medi-Cal, and Medi-Cal sent us a letter saying that we didn’t qualify for Medi-Cal, that we should enroll in the Covered California plan,” said Pedroza. “So they’re just throwing us back and forth and that’s the reason why we’re here. We’re trying to get answers and find out which way to go with this.”

Richmond locals sign in at a welcoming desk before a Healthy Richmond town hall meeting at St. Marks Church.

Richmond locals sign in at a welcoming desk before a Healthy Richmond town hall meeting at St. Marks Church.

As he sat down with a group of attendees, he motioned for a headset. His wife, recently granted residency in the state, wanted to listen in on panelists via the live translation taking place.

Regardless of the status of one’s application, assured Dr. William Walker, director and health officer of Contra Costa Health Services, “If you signed up and need care, you can be covered retroactively.”

Given his difficulty in securing coverage, Pedroza doubts the reliability of more universal access to coverage. “They’re trying to get everybody into the health plan but it’s not working, you know? [My] kids are stuck in the middle,” he says. He headed off in search of some reassurance that this time he was getting closer to health care for his sons.