Welcoming Village

You all know I’m an immigrant, but you may not know that I was a permanent resident for decades. I came to the U.S. when I was two, and became a permanent resident soon thereafter, but it was only after 9/11, when the Patriot Act was added, with its provision that if I were convicted of any crime that I would be immediately deported to Sri Lanka, that I realized just how precarious my status really was. Once I had babies, that was too great a risk to take, and I quickly became a citizen — but I was so lucky that I had the option to simply apply for citizenship, and that my path to it was incredibly smooth.

At my interview, even though I’d studied a goodly amount of U.S. civics and was prepared to answer questions, the interviewer heard I was an English teacher and then basically spent half an hour chatting with me about science fiction, and then that was it — I was a citizen. Through no credit of my own — just because my dad was a doctor, and the U.S. had decided it was going to let Asian doctors in, back in the early 70s (but not most other Asians).

Tonight I went to the Oak Park Village hearing on the proposal to add an ordinance making Oak Park a Welcoming Village, which would protect our community from deportation and ethnic registries. I was braced for it to be a difficult meeting, that we would have to make our case to a hostile board, or that we might face challenges from other villagers.

I was thrilled to find that instead, everyone was basically on the same page. Oh, there was one serious area of concern — the Village staff had modelled their draft ordinance (written very quickly, given the incoming Trump administration) on Evanston and Chicago’s ordinances — those include troubling provisions that would lead to collaboration with ICE (immigration officers). People could be turned over to ICE when simply charged with a crime, before they ever have their day in court, for one. They could also be put into a ‘gang database’ based on essentially nothing, which in California, has happened with children as young as one year old.

The board invited citizen comment, and noted that while normally they allowed three speakers for and three against, tonight, they were willing to allow all the people who had signed up to speak (twelve, as it turned out), to speak. I had actually planned to speak if needed, but it seemed like the side in favor of the ordinance was ably represented — no one had signed up to speak in opposition! — so I was very happy to simply listen to a host of moving argument and testimony.

Mony Ruiz-Velasco, executive director of P.A.S.O. (http://www.pasoaction.org/), was first to speak, and did an excellent job of laying out the arguments for an even stronger ordinance than the one that had been drafted. She pointed out that we didn’t want a watered down policy; we wanted zero collaboration with ICE. The current policy proposed had loopholes, and she pointed to Cook County as an example of a much stronger ordinance without those troubling provisions.

Then speaker after speaker came up in support. I was particularly moved by the second speaker, an older woman — I didn’t catch her name, but she had worked on Israeli-Palestinian issues for many years, and spoke eloquently about the need to fight any attempt to list people on any kind of ethnic registry. She made me tear up.

And then there were the faith-based leaders who spoke, from the Unity Temple and elsewhere, and those who spoke to the fear of small children after the election, who thought that their parents might be deported — my own first grader came home after Trump was elected, asking if his friends’ parents would be sent away. There were the young people who had been born and raised in America, who spoke for their families, and the gay Brazilian man who had eventually been able to marry a man from Ohio and adopt a son, but who spent many years living in fear, unable to legalize their relationship.

After the community had spoken, the trustees responded, and the very first one asked the staff why those troubling loopholes were there. And the staffer responded that they’d written the ordinance quickly, based on Chicago’s and Evanston’s, and they would like to work on it further, now that they’d heard these concerns, but they did have to look into whether Oak Park had some legal requirement to cooperate with ICE. And then trustee after trustee spoke passionately and eloquently in favor of the strongest possible protections in whatever ordinance we passed.

It turned out that one of them (I believe Adam Salzman) had looked up the Cook County statute while we were there, and he pointed out that in fact, there was no legal requirement to cooperate with ICE — that all ICE could do was request. A judge in Indiana had established that local municipalities (and I would assume colleges and universities!) are free to say a firm NO.

Finally Trustee Robert Tucker spoke, and finished this part of the meeting by saying that while he was happy to stand in solidarity with Chicago and Evanston, he was even happier to do BETTER than they were. And the crowd, which had not been silent up until then, pretty much erupted in cheers at that point.

I am so, so glad I went. Oak Park isn’t perfect — any community is going to be a constant work in progress. But I don’t think I’ve ever lived anywhere that was more committed to diversity, inclusivity, and support for ALL its community members. I felt tremendously proud to be an Oak Parker tonight, and have great hope that in a few weeks when the trustees meet again, they’ll vote and sign off on an ordinance that will make Oak Park a community leader in protecting our people.

*****

(Apologies if I made any minor errors in reporting this — I was taking notes on my phone, so may have gotten some details wrong. But you get the gist!)

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