Episode 68: Bill Holston on Immigration Part 2

Are you sure you're clear on how someone might immigrate to our country through a legal process? It's not as easy as you might think.

Bill Holston from the Human Rights Initiative is back on Good God with some amazing stories about people he has represented in immigration court. Tune in to hear these stories and learn more about the real world of immigration.

Listen here, read the transcript below, or click here for the full video version.

George Mason: 00:00 When we talk about people who are trying to come to the United States from other countries, who are they? What are their stories? What kind of people are they that are seeking to be among us? We'll be talking with Bill Holston of the Human Rights Initiative about just that on Good God. Stay tuned.

George Mason: 00:27 Welcome to Good God, conversations that matter about faith and public life. I'm your host, George Mason and I'm pleased to welcome back to the program for another conversation, Bill Holston, who is the executive director of the Human Rights Initiative here in Dallas, dealing with asylum seekers, asylees and refugees. And Bill, thank you so much for being with us again.

Bill Holston: 00:48 Thanks for having me.

George Mason: 00:49 Well, in our first episode of this conversation, we had a wide ranging discussion, but it really was much more about ideas, principles, legal principles, and the like. And I'd like to humanize that a little bit as we move forward and talk a little more about the human drama of this. So, not too long ago, a friend of mine, locally, reached out to me, who'd been working at a pizza joint. He was from Kosovo, and he was a political asylum seeker.

George Mason: 01:27 He was living in this country for four years washing dishes after owning his own business, a coffee business. But he took the wrong side politically, and he was attacked multiple times with a gun to his head, and was shot at by political opposition, but he could not get a hearing. Within four years of being here, he had a wife and two kids at home. No one would approve his kids and wife to come here because they feared they would never leave. And then we'd have another of the, roughly 12 million people who are here, who are waiting for their processing. And finally, notwithstanding all of the challenges about going home and the dangers of it, he had to go. He went home and took his family to another country, where they accepted him. And this is part of the struggle here. I mean, this poor man was in deep agony over missing his family for four years. And the system was just overwhelmed. And then we have policies that wouldn't even allow us to consider his case, because it was too difficult to prove perhaps. So these are the kinds of stories, most of the time we think of the southern border, but it's all over the world. People are coming to us, right?

Bill Holston: 02:52 Actually the most common countries for our clients, asylum seekers, is the Congo. We've had a lot of clients in the Democratic Republic of Congo. We've had a lot of Ethiopian clients, historically. We've had a lot of Eritrean clients. Cameroonians, the biggest increase in the last, I'd say three years has been Venezuela. We've had a lot of Venezuelan clients. Rwanda, we've had a lot of clients from Rwanda over the years. And then women from countries that practice female genital mutilation, Egypt, the Gambia and homosexuals from many countries in Africa and transgender individuals from Central America. So people are coming from all over the world. And one of the things I'd say about asylum seekers in my experience is that they actually have a lot of respect for the United States. And it's kind of a brutal awakening for them when they realize how difficult the process of obtaining asylum here is and how adversarial it is. Because they really hold the United States in very high esteem because of our welcoming nature.

George Mason: 04:25 We really are a country that likes to talk about being exceptional. That exceptionalism is hard to define and it's defined differently. But one of the ways we've talked about American exceptionalism is that we actually, our country that is founded on ideals of humanity, freedom, opportunity, equality, those sorts of things, things that are described nicely in a Emma Lazarus poem at the Statue of Liberty, things of that nature. But that's beginning to change. When we talk about how we're full, the country is full. We have no room. How does that change the nature of our self understanding as a country?

Bill Holston: 05:27 Well, what I'd say is that it's challenging our understanding. It's not living up to the ideals that I think most Americans still ascribe to. I think most of us like to think of this country as the kind of place that, you know, we look back on our history, the things we're ashamed of as a country are things like turning away the SS St Louis that was full of Jews in the 1930s, I think most of us would want to go back in time and say, no, we'll take as many Jews into this country as we could. And so when we (a) forget that history, and (b) replicate it by shutting the doors to desperate people, we're setting ourselves up, or well, I guess I'll be more blunt about it. We're engaged in shameful behavior and we're going to be ashamed of this someday.

George Mason: 06:26 Well, one of my questions is what has changed in us as a nation, because this used to not be as much of a political issue partisan-wise. I mean when you listen to old speeches of people like Ronald Reagan for instance, Ronald Reagan talked about America in the way that we're describing where he said, what makes us so exceptional is that, you know, if you go to another country, you are Italian or you are French or you are whatever by virtue of having been born there and if you move there, they don't think of you as being French or Italian or whatever. But when you come here, you may be Italian or French or you may be Guatemalan or whatever, but once you're an American, you're an American and you have equal rights and equal identity as an American, we're not thinking the same way about that. What has changed in us culturally that this has shifted so much in terms of our self identity as a nation, Bill?

Bill Holston: 07:26 Well, I think, first of all, I think 9-11 was a real watershed event. I think we became much more concerned about security. I think that people became more comfortable trading liberty for an illusion of safety. I think the economic recession of 2008 was a very traumatizing event in our economy and I think people then with the globalization, the decrease in manufacturing jobs in the country has caused people to be more fearful and have more of an attitude of scarcity, as the middle class has shrunk. You know, people are feeling, they're more susceptible to that manipulation. People saying, hey, there are people are trying to take your job.

George Mason: 08:56 Well and in fairness, you know, this is one of the ironies of the way things are. We actually have an expanding economy and what's known as, practically speaking, full employment right now, which is to say if the economy's going to continue to expand, we're going to have to have more workers. And yet what we have had is a contraction of certain kinds of workers and certain kinds of jobs, which tend to be the less educated, white, manufacturing positions. So that's where a lot of the loss has taken place and the blame for people who are taking their jobs where the jobs are really not being taken by immigrants, but they are moving off shore in a lot of ways. So I often like to say that there's no such thing as a good economy or a bad economy there's only where you are in the economy that makes a difference about that. But what you're talking about is the complexity of this. That it's not as easy as just saying, well, we have more people coming or less people coming or the right people coming or the wrong people coming. There are a lot of factors that have made this happen.

Bill Holston: 09:52 I guess one thing I'd want to add to that is, in some ways that seems like a very abrupt change, but in other ways that's not., That is, we've always struggled with this tension in our country. It just depends on what group of migrants we're talking about. People talked about Catholics, people talked about Jews. People talked about Greeks. Like every wave of immigration. Irish met with a nationalist reaction. Chinese, you know, one of our first most restrictive changes in law around immigration was the Chinese exclusion act. So this sort of fear of the other has always encountered our identity as a welcoming country.

George Mason: 11:03 And I'm a New Yorker and you know, I do, I remember when the tension was greater about, you know, Catholic European immigrants. So, the original immigration into this country of people voluntarily coming were essentially northern European Protestants. And so white northern European Protestants are the people who sort of define, this is what America will be. We're not going to talk about Native Americans, of course, and where that was, nor will we talk much about those who came against their will in terms of the transatlantic slave trade, and how all of that gets processed. But once you have established a kind of hegemony of a kind of immigrant, then suddenly that gets challenged with the potato famine and the influx of Irish Catholics. And then, the influx of Italian Catholics as well. And, you know, we're not hiring Irish here. We're not hiring, which is why you end up with public servants, like a high percentage of Irish are in the police force, for instance, in Boston and in New York.

George Mason: 12:01 Eventually we process that, right? But then the Jewish migration because of pogroms in Europe and the like. And then the question is, you know, can we find a place for them? And every new wave of immigrants ends up in the Lower East Side, you know, and eventually it's another group and another group and another group. We're in that place now again. And we seem to not be able to figure out that human beings are human beings regardless of what their religion is, what their native tongue is. And how do we get to the point where we recognize the full humanity of everyone knocking on our door?

Bill Holston: 13:04 I'd say two things. One is just from a point of compassion, realizing that our state here in the United States is based upon the accident of birth being born in a place that had these kinds of resources available to us. And then another thing is thinking about immigration, not from a place of compassion, but out of just the practical realization of how much immigration has contributed to our country. Someone asked me during the refugee crisis in Europe a few years ago, where there were a million refugees from Syria and Afghanistan coming into Germany. And I was at an event, and somebody said, what do you do with that? And I said, well, okay, if we're here in Richardson, if you go three miles from here, you'll see acres and acres of Vietnamese restaurants like businesses and banks and grocery stores that were all established by people that came here with nothing, spoke another language, actually coming from a country that we had been at war with, many of them not Protestants. And that's worked out really well for us as a country, as a community. And unless you just don't like Banh Mi sandwiches, you've got to admit the benefit, and we just forget that. I heard a story on NPR just a few days ago about this man who was a tutor in mathematics. He had tutored hundreds of gifted mathematicians as a teacher, and I think he was from Florida, and he was a refugee from the Hungarian uprising in 1956. Wow. That's what drove him to the United States. And you give example over example of that.

George Mason: 14:52 Well, obviously we hope that there would be successful revolutions in countries that would make stable countries all over the world. That we wouldn't have to be the place where everyone had to come in order to seek the same kind of experience. But I think we need to talk, Bill, in our final segment here in just a moment, about some concrete ways where we see what needs to be fixed, what needs to change if, if we're going to be able to be the kind of country that we really want to be. So let's take a break and we'll be right back.

George Mason: 15:30 The Good God program is a project of Faith Commons, a nonprofit organization that I founded in 2018 to promote the common good. Think of a commons on a campus and how you can bring all your faith and people from all corners of the campus together. Think of the city that way. Think of the country that way. Faith Commons aims to bring people together to promote greater understanding and peace throughout our communities. You can find more information about it at faithcommons.org.

George Mason: 16:08 We're back with Bill Holston of the Human Rights Initiative and Bill, we've been continuing to talk all around the causes, root causes of immigration issues, asylum seekers, why they do, what's the difference between an asylee and refugee, all of those sorts of things. But at the end of the day, we're talking about human beings. Tell us about some of the human beings, the human stories that you've encountered so we can understand.

Bill Holston: 16:36 You know, it's, it's the reason I left my law practice to do this work full time, it's just how inspiring I found the people that I have had the privilege of representing. One individual really always springs to my mind. This was a man who had been a pro-democracy activist in Ethiopia from the time of Haile Selassie. So his whole life had been involved in political activism. He was a school teacher during the Derg era, which was the Marxist government of Ethiopia. And he was teaching school one day and men with AK47s came into the classroom and arrested him and another teacher, and they took him to a prison where he remained for the next five years. I asked him if he had a trial. He said, no, we were just told we were counter-revolutionaries. He was there, they drank untreated river water. They had inadequate food and medical care. And then one day they came and said, you're rehabilitated, you may go.

Bill Holston: 17:36 So he'd lost his job as a teacher because of his activism. So he and his wife bought a bus and they started a small transportation business. The Derg was overthrown by the current administration, which was a totalitarian regime. And he devoted many years of activism for promoting pro-democracy candidates for office and multiple parliamentary elections. And for that, he was persecuted. I tried his case in immigration court here in Dallas, and I asked him on the stand, I said, sir, you were an activist for your whole life, right? And he said, yes. And I said, as a matter of fact, you were arrested five different times, weren't you, because of that activism?

Bill Holston: 18:20 And he said, yes, that's true. And I said, and you were beaten every single time you were in prison, weren't you? And he said, yes. And I said, as a matter of fact, the last time you were in prison, you were tortured. And he said, yes, that's true. And I said, describe for the court how you were tortured. And he did. He detailed the torture that he received. And I said, every single time you were released from prison, you were told to stop your political activity, weren't you? And he said, yes. And I said, and yet you continued, why? And this 62 year old man got tears in his eyes. And he looked at the judge and he said, because there's a price for freedom, there's a cost for democracy. I did that for my family. And I remember thinking, what a privilege it was to be a lawyer, to have the opportunity to meet a man like that, much less represent him.

Bill Holston: 19:08 And the question is, are we as a country better off because he chose to come to the United States and seek refuge here and become a citizen?

George Mason: 19:17 Right. So you clicked off in his story, several of the requirements for being granted asylum in our country: persecution, political issues and things of that nature. So, you know, he fulfilled those criteria. Who are the kind of people who don't meet that bar, who come here?

Bill Holston: 19:49 Well, I guess one thing, it's very difficult to get asylum. I think presently around 40% of people are successful in their cases. Most of them fail because of a lack of proof. It's just difficult to obtain evidence of things that have happened to you in your home country. Sometimes it's because it's really, you may have had some really bad things happen, but they're not connected to one of those five grounds.

Bill Holston: 20:18 You're coming from abject poverty. Maybe you're someone who's fleeing generalized conflict from a place like Syria where there was lots of death and destruction all around you, and you were afraid, and you fled. But you can't prove that you as an individual were ever targeted. So those kinds of cases are unsuccessful. And then at the moment, the former attorney general has sought, to some extent successfully to destroy case law protection for women escaping domestic violence. So those cases are very challenging. Oh, and then there's one last thing. The judges judge credibility. And so the asylum seekers have to fill out a very, very detailed statement of what happened to them. And if they testify inconsistently with that, they're found not credible. So people lose cases on that as well.

George Mason: 21:16 Well, so I'd like to distinguish between asylum seekers who are coming for one of these five reasons of their being in personal jeopardy in some way, and those who are seeking to be immigrants. Many people I think confuse asylum seekers and those who are coming into the country illegally because they don't go through the formal process of applying for immigration status and waiting their turn in line to be granted immigration status. So let's distinguish between those folks. The people who are coming illegally, crossing into this country, are people who are not necessarily seeking asylum, but they are seeking work or they're seeking, you know, to come for other reasons. How do you describe the difference between those folks?

Bill Holston: 22:22 Well, I guess fundamentally what I'd say is that our immigration laws really don't provide many mechanisms for people to immigrate legally. There's really very, very inadequate systems for people who want to just come here and work. That almost doesn't exist. Particularly for construction workers and restaurant workers. So there's, you referred to a line, there's barely a line. There really isn't a line for people to wait in to get here.

George Mason: 22:58 Really? Because you hear that language, all the time, just get to the back of the line.

Bill Holston: 23:01 It's usually from somebody who said, I quote did it the right way. Well, in the vast majority of circumstances, the right way is they married an American citizen. That's how most people obtain legal status in this country is they married a legal American citizen. And that does provide you the most direct way to become a citizen. A lot of people do that, but you don't, you don't meet people who said, yeah, I waited in line in order to come up here and be a concrete worker. There's not really a line for that person.

George Mason: 23:36 So if I'm in Guatemala, say, and I want to work in the U.S. as an agricultural worker or a construction worker or something like that, how would I go about applying legally to immigrate so that I could work in the United States?

Bill Holston: 23:58 I think that barely exists. I know that there are programs that agricultural, like commercial, well, I don't think that person could really initiate that. I think employers here in the United States, there are processes for them to bring in seasonal agricultural workers and things, so called guest worker programs or things like that that exist. But they're inadequate. And our economy has been based on this, uh, millions, hundreds of thousands and millions of people who come up here and have been working illegally. And then in the more, even more problematic, uh, and sympathetic group are their children that they brought up here, there were, you know, small children when they came to the United States. And none of those people have status either. And we continue to just kick the can down the road and not deal with, how do we pass laws that recognize that there are people here illegally but they're working and they're not violating our criminal laws? How do we help them get status so they can stay?

George Mason: 25:12 Bill, many people who are watchers or listeners of this Good God program are people of faith. They want very much to put their faith into action. And on a matter like this, I think most of us don't know what to do next. So previously you'd said, get informed, you know, learn the facts. Here are some resources so we can do that. What's the advocacy or the action that individuals and churches and synagogues and people of faith can take to help effect change?

Bill Holston: 25:53 Well, I'd say two things. One is not related to change. Just to the social service needs of people who are here, asylum seekers, while they're waiting for their cases to be heard, they have tremendous needs. They're very resourceful, hardworking people, but they have a lot of needs. And some of them don't qualify to work immediately. So some people aren't able to work at all while they're waiting. And so they have housing needs, there really are no housing resources for asylum seekers in Dallas. They exist in Fort Worth. So they need really fundamental things like toiletries, English lessons, clothing, food, healthcare, huge need for psychological services for traumatized people. All of those are needs and faith communities could, if they wanted to act collaboratively with each other could actually solve those problems for asylum seekers.

Bill Holston: 27:06 So on the advocacy side, you know, representatives actually do care what the faith community thinks. And so calling your Congressperson, your congressional representative and say, you know, I don't actually favor turning away asylum seekers. I don't actually favor having the lowest refugee resettlement numbers in modern history. I don't favor having immigration judges as a part of the executive branch as opposed to being truly independent as judges in the judicial branch. Those are policies that I favor. I don't actually favor your vote against the Violence against Women Act renewal last week. And they care when you say that.

George Mason: 27:55 Okay. So I think we should clarify that, uh, this is a federal matter. It's not a local or state matter particularly. There are implications for local and state elected officials. But for the most part we're talking about contacting your congressperson in Washington DC. or in their local office, and your Senator, and the current executive administration as well in order to get your opinion clarified. Of course we have a problem with gerrymandered districts where it's difficult sometimes to get your dissenting opinion to be heard because our congresspersons are being elected often by such grand majorities that if you have a difference of opinion, it's hard to be taken seriously. But I think what you're saying is, the burden is still on using your voice and in being a person of faith who acts, you can't necessarily be responsible for the outcome, for the result or the conclusion. But if you want to be the kind of person who lives in this world, is committed to compassion and justice, taking some step to be able to engage is important.

Bill Holston: 29:16 Well, I've read recently the words of William Wilberforce, the first time, it was a British abolitionist and, you know, a devout Christian, went to Parliament and he testified about the details of the slave trade, which he was trying to eliminate. And at the end of his talk, he said, from now on, you will never be able to say you did not know. Uh, it took decades for the law to actually change. Right? But he fulfilled his obligation as a Christian by serving as a witness to what the facts were. Then that's on the representative to do the right thing.

George Mason: 29:55 Well, you're doing just that very thing. And thank you for putting your faith to work in the way that you're doing. It represents our concept of Good God here really well. Bill, thanks for your friendship and for all that you do.

Jim White: 30:11 Good God was created by Dr. George Mason, produced and directed by Jim White. Guest coordination and social media by Upward Strategy Group. Good God, conversations with George Mason, is the podcast devoted to bringing you ideas about God and faith and the common good. All material copyright 2019 by Faith Commons.


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