Holding America to its ideals

The imagery of immigration makes it seem so simple: People are said to come to the United States in waves, in flows, and, literally, in boatloads, as if carried along by the tide and deposited on the shores of freedom. Each immigrant's story is, of course, not simple. It's a tangle of sacrifice, hardship, and, finally, hope that life will be better in a land where freedom and self-government are the principles that bind a disparate people - a nation of immigrants.

Since Sept. 11, though, their adopted homeland has struggled to find the right balance between safety and civil liberties, openness and caution. In this time of threat alerts and war and falling US standing in the world, are immigrants seeing their hopes deflated? Or is their resolve to help America embody its ideals now stronger?

Perhaps one answer can be found in the fact that immigrants continue to flock to the US - both legally and illegally. Indeed, the number of new arrivals permitted into the country has not abated during the two-year "war on terror." The persecuted still seek asylum here, although the flow has slowed now that background checks are more extensive. And 8,000 immigrants serving in the US military are on an expedited path to American citizenship, an opportunity afforded by a presidential order.

Still, for some "the new normal" has brought uncomfortable change - harassment on the streets or long delays for clearance to visit relatives living abroad.

In a way, recent immigrants hold up a mirror to America in which all can see it through fresh eyes: what it's like to be a Muslim in terror-scarred New York, or why US policy toward other countries is of vital importance. On the eve of America's 228th year of independence, several immigrants share their views about how these turbulent times have - and haven't - changed the US.

'Everything is stuck'

Martine SongaSonga was shocked to see the images of Iraqi detainees being abused. It wasn't so much the specific tortures; she knew of worse acts in her own country, the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was that Americans were the ones responsible.

"I saw America as democracy, and peace, and human rights. They stood for human rights no matter what," says Ms. SongaSonga, now a refugee caseworker at the Heartland Alliance, a human rights organization in Chicago. "I thought they were the ones who knew better. Maybe I can say in my country they don't care, but here they care about it."

SongaSonga came to the United States in 1998 to attend a peace-studies program at Notre Dame University. She gained political asylum when the situation deteriorated back home and she feared that, as a former human rights volunteer, she would be targeted if she returned.

Living in America hasn't always been easy - her family and friends are all back in the Congo, and her fiancé lives in Greece - but SongaSonga has appreciated the freedoms here.

She doesn't agree with all the American government's policies, particularly in Iraq, but she says it's often the implementation, not the values themselves, that she dislikes. "The Americans want to bring democracy and peace to Iraq, but they cannot justify the violence or the force. It's very contradictory. The official declaration is different from the practice."

But on the other hand, she praises the US government because it "allows organizations, and protests, and lets people speak up. In my country it's not like that. In my country, you can't dare to do some activity or say something [against the government]."

One change that has frustrated SongaSonga since 9/11 is that "everything is stuck" in the immigration process. She works with African refugees and has applied for a green card herself. Applications for travel outside the US - which would allow her to visit family - now take about a year for approval, instead of a few weeks. During her years-long wait for a green card, she's already been kept from one job that required it.

"This is halting our lives," she says. "America has to take precautions; that is normal. But they shouldn't go beyond the reasonable."

'Something is different'

Rahman Mohammad tends to sizzling lamb and vegetables at his halal food cart, preparing for the lunch rush in midtown Manhattan. "Three years ago, I feel good; now, life is too hard," he says, his English still choppy 15 years after his arrival in New York from Bangladesh.

The turning point was 9/11, but more for economic than for political or social reasons. "Business go down - all the prices go up," he says, motioning with his hands to drive home why it's harder now to make a living.

His wife, Delruba, wearing a green apron and a black hijab, is helping out today. "Now, something is different," she says, referring to a less tangible change than can be measured by dollars and cents. "Before, people were nice."

But both of them are quick to point out that they haven't been treated badly as Muslims. "Nobody bothers us," Mr. Mohammad says.

"What I like in this country [are] the laws," Mrs. Mohammad says, breaking into a smile. It's hard for her to explain why, but the simple fact that so much is governed systematically seems to impress her. "I have freedom," she agrees when asked if that's one reason she appreciates the laws here.

As a mother of four - two in public schools and two in college - she also praises American education.

When asked about Iraq and the broader "war on terror," Mr. Mohammad waves his hand as if to indicate how little relevance it has to his daily life, but he offers a curt critique: President Bush sent troops to Iraq because Saddam Hussein was supposed to have weapons of mass destruction, he says, "and they found nothing. Now everybody's upset."

'I liked the education system'

"When Sept. 11 happened, I supported sending troops to the Middle East. My thought was that if they draft my younger son, I probably would support it," says Li Bao Pan, who moved from southern China to San Francisco in 1993 with her husband and her son, then 12 years old.

She changed her mind when the claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq began to unravel. "I see so many people dying, so I don't think this war is right," she says through a Cantonese interpreter at a cafe not far from downtown.

The family came here to give their son, Wei Ping Lou, a good education.

A social worker in Guangzhou, Ms. Pan found jobs in San Francisco as a childcare provider, seamstress, cook, and home healthcare worker. She took English classes and became a citizen, and Wei Ping is now studying computer animation at San Jose State University. She proudly brings out her wallet-sized photo of his high school graduation.

"In China I heard a lot about the US," she says. "They said America has freedom and human rights." Those hopes have been fulfilled. But Pan is disappointed in her adopted country in some respects.

Cuts in school funding, she says, "mean less opportunity for children. I came here because I liked the education system, but right now it seems it's not as perfect as I thought."

Gringos and 'gringuitos'

Neris Gonzalez figures she's seen both the best and the worst of this country. When she first came here from El Salvador in 1997, she already had a firm opinion, and it wasn't a positive one.

After all, the US had supported the government and military forces that detained and tortured her, including deliberate acts to kill her unborn child. Her offense: teaching her fellow campesinos how to read and write so that landowners could no longer cheat them out of their wages.

"I never thought that teaching someone how to count to 100 would make me a terrorist," she marvels, speaking in Spanish and referring to the label that the government in El Salvador applied with a broad brush.

But the US has also helped Ms. Gonzalez rebuild her life. She came to Chicago with her husband because she'd heard about the Marjorie Kovler Center for the Treatment of Survivors of Torture. Her treatment there has helped her, as did testifying in a class-action lawsuit against two Salvadoran generals who had moved to the US. The court ultimately held them responsible for atrocities against her and others.

Gonzalez was surprised to discover how much she identified with Americans. "I didn't realize before that there were many people with a good heart here, fighting for the same thing." She's created her own linguistic distinction: "Gringo" refers to the US government, to policies she abhors. "Gringuitos" is for Americans with whom she feels an affinity.

The events of the past few years haven't done much to improve Gonzalez's view of the US government. Seeing graphic images of the torture of Iraqi detainees, in particular, was hard.

"It's the same as in my country - abuse and torture in the name of democracy," she says. "Freedom we all make together, with dignity and with democracy, which is very important.... But practicing torture isn't going to open up freedom." Americans, she says, need to wake up to what their country does beyond its borders.

A small, middle-aged woman, Gonzalez emanates a quiet strength. These days, she's continuing what she sees as a lifelong struggle to make society better. In America, she didn't find bombs or death squads, but she did find a "silent war" of poverty, drugs, and homelessness. So she started a nonprofit, ECOVIDA, that provides environmental and nutritional education in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood.

Gonzalez wants to learn English eventually and go back to school. "The best of this country is that for all immigrants who come here, there are opportunities," she says. "I want to stay here and do more projects in ecology ... and work for human rights."

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