Fishwrap Archive

Guilt by recent arrival

ENGLEWOOD, N.J. -- On the Day of Atonement in ancient Israel, the high priest would choose between two goats. One goat would be sacrificed as a sin offering to God. Afterward, the priest would lay his hands on the head of the other goat, and confess the sins of the people, transferring their iniquities to it.

Once that was completed, the surviving goat, or scapegoat, was driven away into the wilderness.

Many Hispanic citizens and immigrants can relate to the scapegoat's plight, according to the Rev. Victor Lopez, associate pastor of St. Cecelia's Church in Englewood. With anti-immigrant fever sweeping the country, they feel the blame for much that is wrong with America being heaped on their heads. While they may not always be driven away, many do not feel welcome.

Pat Buchanan, while running for the Republican presidential nomination, declared a cultural war against immigrants, claiming there are too many to be properly assimilated into American culture and that they are contributing to the erosion of American values. In California, Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, and U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein, a Democrat, have blamed immigrants for overwhelming the state's education and social service programs. And all across the country people feel immigrants take jobs away from citizens by being willing to work for lower wages.

Immigrants, like Miguel Acebbedo, cannot hear this for long and remain unaffected.

"It makes me feel sad," said Miguel Acebbedo, who came to Englewood last year from Colombia. Acebbedo, who was guarding keys at a valet stand in front of the Smoke Chophouse and Cigar Emporium in Englewood, came here to study at Bergen Community College in Paramus, N.J. He is frustrated at the common misconception that all Colombians are involved in the drug trade. And he is also upset that many feel that immigrants don't contribute to the community.

"My father has been here for 11 years," Acebbedo said. "He works and pays taxes for the government. He pays taxes every year. My mother is working and paying taxes."

Aracelly Patina shares many of the sentiments that Acebbedo expressed. She and her husband Luis came to the United States from Colombia in the early 1970s. The business they own on Palisade Avenue, Fiesta-Party -- a combination of party supply store, ice cream parlor and service outlet (customers can pay bills and purchase telephone cards there, for example) -- is evidence that immigrants do contribute to their communities. She resents the notion that Colombians are all drug-traffickers.

She, too, is not immune to the anti-immigrant talk.

"Even though it doesn't affect me personally," Patina said, "it hurts."

Lopez hears the same from many immigrants in his congregation.

"They experience an unwelcomeness, they experience discrimination, prejudice and they're hurt, sometimes angry, and many times just bewildered," Lopez said of the immigrant parishioners at St. Cecelia's. He said many of them wonder how Americans could be so mean to others who come here to work hard and share the American Dream.

What is the cause of the current anti-immigrant attitude?

To some, like Chris Nugent, a lawyer who works for the Immigrant Rights Program at the American Friends Service Committee in Newark, N.J., the bottom line is racism.

"The current anti-immigrant climate," Nugent said, "can be attributed to a combination of xenophobia, which really is camouflaged racism, considering that the vast majority of immigrants are people of color from other continents."

Nugent pointed out that immigrants are easy targets for discrimination.

"It's harder to get jobs," said Nugent. "They get insulted a lot because of their country of origin and race. Of course, their options for redress are limited. The options exist, but access to legal representation is limited, primarily due to financial constraints."

Rodrigo Cardenas, of the Bergen County Hispanic Resource Center in Englewood, said that recent harassment of immigrant day laborers by the police in neighboring Palisades Park, was driven by racism.

"They were being stopped on the street," Cardenas, a Colombian native, said of the laborers. "They were being questioned when they should not be questioned. I really feel that they were being picked up because of the way they looked.

"There is the feeling of what are they doing on our streets , what are they doing in our town, that they don't belong here."

Al Arrezi, a volunteer with the Office of Concern at St. Cecelia's, agreed that racism is at the core of much of the anti-immigrant sentiment today, but pointed out that it is nothing new.

"It's been going on since Columbus came here," said Arrezi, a retired special agent for immigration. "But now it's easier to come in. We have plains, trains, mules, jackasses, cars, buses."

Arrezi, who now assists immigrants in preparing immigration and citizenship application documents, said racism often inspires the way immigration laws are enforced.

"They used to have subway sweeps," Arrezi said. "They would stay at a bus stop, a subway station. And if anyone looked Hispanic, looked Latino, they were stopped and asked for identification, which as you know is strictly illegal. That didn't last long."

The Bethany Presbyterian Church in Englewood is the host to a small Hispanic congregation in addition to its primarily African-American congregation. The secretary of the church, Rosemary Tillman-Scott, said that more than racism underlies the current anti-immigrant feelings.

"I think it's unfortunate that immigrants are being singled out," Tillman-Scott said. "I don't think it's just color of skin. I think it's also economic."

Some in the immigrant community, however, do not see their fellow immigrants as blameless victims. A Colombian-born owner of a restaurant in Englewood, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, believes that something has to be done to control immigration, saying that there are too many immigrants, with too few jobs and too little capacity for absorb them.

Eloisa Gonzalez, Director of Hispanic Counseling at the Women's Rights Information Center in Englewood, blamed the immigrants for much of the assimilation problem. The primary problem she cited was the unwillingness of many Latin American immigrants to learn English.

"If I would be in Taiwan I'd have to learn that language," said Gonzalez, a Colombian native. "Because it doesn't matter if I will get three or four bachelor's degrees, master's degrees, if I don't speak that language then I won't be able to get any job."

Despite numerous free programs to learn English, Gonzalez said that many of the programs had low enrollments because of this reluctance.

Lopez, who grew up in southern Arizona near Tucson, finds the anti-immigrant backlash ironic since the United States is primarily a nation of immigrants. Besides, his great-great-grandparents lived in southern Arizona before it became a U.S. territory, much less a state.

His faith reinforces what he's learned from studying his past.

"The bible says don't forget from where you came, that you were a stranger once," Lopez said. "The Biblical injunction is to welcome the stranger."

David M. Lawrence