DANCERS GIVING BACK to the Migrant Caravan: A first-hand account of a non-profit’s efforts to send humanitarian aid to families along the Border

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Written by James Rodriguez Daza

—-Tijuana, Mexico  The road least traveled is usually the one that brings you closer to your destination. Traveling with a non-profit group to Tijuana, Mexico to help distribute much needed supplies to migrant families who were part of a caravan from Central America, the policy implications surrounding the issue of immigration reform and border security resonated throughout a trip I took to the border. Having spoken with immigration lawyers and human rights activists during the summer as the political crucible began to heat up over immigration, I felt I needed to go to the border to see first-hand what the situation was really like and if possible offer some level of assistance. What I saw for a single day had opened my eyes widely while producing a sense of sadness for the families who had traveled so far. Nevertheless, the trip had indeed strengthened my resolve toward furthering the call for a significant change in US immigration reform and human rights advocacy.

Nearing the end of 2018 and as the holidays were reaching their conclusion, the subject of immigration and the migrant families affected by the US Zero-Tolerance Immigration Enforcement Policy (implemented in May of 2018) continued to linger. Reports of increasing numbers of migrant families being detained and unaccompanied children being transferred to US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) facilities and/or camps kept circulating throughout political and media circles especially as conflict within Congress intensified as both Democrats and Republicans argued over budget appropriations for the New Year. US President Donald Trump’s insistence on a $5 billion price tag for a border wall that he had championed since his presidential campaign over 3 years ago have however continued to be the lynch pin derailing recent efforts to reach a bipartisan accord. The end result was another US government shutdown before Christmas, which is not expected to end until well into the new year.

Debate on the subject of migrant family separations and reunifications at the US Border spiraled into new territory as a recent caravan of migrants from Central America (primarily from Honduras) had reached the border inspiring heated, angry debates on both sides of the political spectrum over the next steps to deal with this latest cohort of arriving migrants—mostly comprised of women, children, LGBT, and temporary workers escaping acute gang/political violence and persecution from their home countries as others were seeking work and a better way of life in an attempt to escape extreme poverty. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), an estimated 7,000+ migrants comprised this particular caravan that was making its way to cities along the US border. Some had returned home due to the extremely difficult and precarious journey. The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) estimated over 2,000 children were among the caravan numbers. Both UN, government, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) specializing in immigration law, human rights advocacy, crisis management, and humanitarian aid had dispatched representatives to address the matter as US military personnel were eventually ordered to the border for security purposes. Among the NGOs, Dancers Giving Back (DGB), a registered 501 (c)(3) non-profit had been directly distributing humanitarian aid to migrant families at the border in addition to other charitable pursuits in Los Angeles, CA that included feeding the homeless in Skid Row and distributing clothes, blankets, and supplies to other indigent pockets throughout the city. It was DGB whom I had accompanied to the border in mid-December of 2018.

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Founded and led by Jose Lopez, Dancers Giving Back had been operating for the past 3 years steadily growing support as their social media presence continued to grow and their collaboration with local charities like the Adopt-A-Meal program and local churches gained notoriety. A number of their donation drop-off locations have in fact popped up allowing contributors to leave needed clothes and toiletries for them to collect and distribute for their following trips. According to Lopez, the group’s humble beginnings really originated from a personal desire to engage his daughters in caring for their community. As a member of the Latin dance community in Los Angeles, Lopez soon realized and appreciated the potential neighboring social dance events had for congregating a large population of patrons. Appreciation soon turned to opportunity as Lopez gathered his fellow dancers and formed DGB hosting their own charity drives and social dance events throughout Los Angeles. Early in April of 2018, Lopez registered the group under the 501 (c)(3) non-profit tax code forming a board of directors and networking with local charities in order to solidify and increase their impact onto the community. Guided by members of the board, Lopez worked tirelessly to cement the group’s standing within the non-profit sector learning about the bureaucratic labyrinth and the political realities associated thereof.

BORDER TREK

On their third outing to the border, I had accompanied DGB trekking through Tijuana carrying 4 carloads of donations made up of clothing, shoes, toiletries, blankets, and non-perishable food to distribute directly to the migrants in the caravan. Zooming down the I-5 Freeway during the early Saturday morning hours, we had arrived at Lopez’s family home in Mexico where DGB members were already prepping some of the donations that we were about to distribute separating them by type and gender. Multiple bags of mostly women’s and children’s clothing were piled onto a towing trailer waiting to be hitched onto one of the trucks Lopez had prepared for the trip.

Curiosity spurred by the carloads of donations we had brought down to the border prompted my inquiry as to why larger trucks had not been acquired for the trip. After all, larger trucks meant more donations could be distributed and required less vehicles. Understandably, Lopez broke it down for me when describing their previous efforts to help out at the border:

The very first time that we did this, we didn’t know [about the import fees imposed at the Border]. So, we went from people who told us that ‘Yeah! It’s fine. Just go and take a letter that you’re going to an orphanage and they’re going to help you out.’ So, we did that, and we got fined [by Mexican officials]. It was for a Christmas [about a year and a half ago]. We had another truck that we brought full of donations along with another truck from a U-Haul. We managed to get a lot of sponsors for these kids at the orphanage. We were able to get about 5 sponsors per kid. So, we had a lot of gifts. They were wrapped really nice. The trucks were full. We figured we’d be cool. When we crossed over, we got pulled over. One truck we had to pay something close to $500 US. The next time we came to an orphanage. They did the same thing. We brought a trailer full of stuff. This time I figured I take my 501 (c)(3) letter and they’re going to let us cross the border. Nope. They taxed me another $500 US saying that they were giving me another break because if they were to weigh that, it was going to be over $1,000 US. So, I had to pay $500 bucks because if I didn’t agree to pay it they would’ve confiscated everything and something about registering or tacking the truck with some additional costs. In the end, I had to pay the $500 bucks. I had no choice. This time, I said we’re not going through this again. So, I decided to bring the [donations] in multiple cars.

Indeed, all of us (15 in total) packed our vehicles completely with donations and headed over to the Benito Juarez migrant refugee station making a short stop at a local area where homeless Mexican indigents were also camped out. The migrants by the Benito Juarez location were camped outside the initial station where all of the families were placed upon arriving in Tijuana. According to a migrant, Eduardo Avila, who had been there for 40 days after traveling from Honduras with the caravan, explained that when the rains occurred in early December, families were pushed out from the station because it had completely flooded the area forcing them to live out on the street in the cold. Since then, none had returned leaving a somber empty space with only tattered clothing and personal belongings spread throughout the area as a testament that they were once there.  Many families were later shipped to neighboring shelters, churches, and other refugee stations dwindling the number of migrants seen in one given space.

According to Lopez, this time around was much better controlled compared to when he visited Tijuana as the caravan first arrived in late November. As he described it, multitudes of families were packed here. It looked like a “’war zone’…We didn’t get enough footage to show what it was really like for them then. We didn’t get footage of kids bathing in cold water or setting up their own tents wearing old clothes and shoes.” Organizing the donation distributions then was very challenging. For Lopez, the experience from that trip felt chaotic as many rushed their vehicles to grab what they could before they were left with nothing. People were desperate, and members of DGB empathized with their desperation and took steps to improve their coordination. This time around, they felt better organized and asked a couple of members in the caravan to help group families in lines separating the women and children from the men alongside opposite sides of their vehicles. Wearing surgical masks and gloves, we tried to quickly pass out shoes and clothing while leaving an open bag and box of toiletries and mixed supplies on the trucks and alongside the walls. Children as young as 3 were either holding on tightly to their mothers or were roaming around our vehicles playing while their parents asked us for shoes or blankets. As we came to learn, many men had asked for additional clothing and shoes directing our attention to their current clothes’ state of disrepair. Alas to our dismay, we were in short supply for them during this trip.

In cases of supplies and storage, allying with local churches or shelters would seem to prove useful in these situations. However, experience has taught DGB that some of these locations are unreliable having lost a full load of their donations from one trip.

[Having gone with my brother the first time before bringing the group], we went to a shelter in Tijuana with over 200 brand new shoes to donate. We also decided to bring cash and buy blankets there. When we came there on a Tuesday shopping, and…sometimes I get it. It’s hard for these people, and the blankets we’re getting over here in the US are super cheap wholesale [by comparison]. The blankets are 3 times more there. I mean the market was crazy. So, I ended up not buying the blankets. I just went to Downtown LA and bought them there and ended up bringing them down next time we came. By then, I had left about 200 shoes [at a shelter]. Now, I made the mistake of leaving them in a shelter. I don’t like to do that not even in LA or anywhere. I like to do the [distribution] ourselves with our group. Well, I made the mistake of leaving the shoes there because I didn’t want to take them back. So, I asked the shelter to hold them for me. The next week when we came back to pick them up, the shelter told me that they never saw me. They don’t know what we were talking about. So, they pretty much took the stuff. It sucks because when we left the shelter, one of the guys that…They had arrived at Tijuana from Honduras about 3 days later… had told us, ‘You know what guys. Sorry to say but the stuff you left here, you’ll never going to see it. He had said that that last week. When a few other families came, the shelter had charged us for the stuff we had left and kept the rest. So, the following day we tried to get some of the shoes back. We were able to get what little shoes we could get but not everything because the guy even told me that if ‘you go right now they’ll take everything from me and they’re not going to let me spend the night in the shelter. So, please don’t do that.’ And yeah! Sure enough, they did exactly what he had said they would do

Benito Juarez

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Conditions in Benito Juarez are such that the migrant families from the caravan are sadly left to their own devices despite the presence of local shelters. Interestingly, some members of the caravan have had taken leadership roles among their group organizing the rest to coordinate with visiting NGOs or neighboring shelters when they arrive to offer help. Since some speak English, it was easier for them to rally the others in the caravan to follow them. Our guide, Eduardo escorted a DGB member and myself through the encampment of migrants camped out along the street just outside the Benito Juarez refugee station informing migrant families to meet with DGB staff around the corner for donations they were distributing. As we kept meeting other families, Eduardo explained how some shelters do not always pass out donations or have enough beds to offer for a night. Moreover, he stressed that some migrants at times do not even know where they’ll sleep the next evening. In some cases, neighboring shelters from other regions may drop by and offer food sometimes enticing some to join them. In fact, in an effort to lessen the optics of the caravan, arriving migrants have been at times rustled together (appx 200-500) and taken to different locations further reducing the number of migrants seen in one setting where they had congregated.  When asked what the current status of asylum applicants were, he indicated that each were given a number and were called to present themselves. The average number of applicants called to present themselves by his count was approximately 60-80 applicants per day. He approximated that the number of applicants with assigned numbers thus far was around 2,668. The day we arrived, Eduardo told us that roughly 800 migrants were currently situated in this area around Benito Juarez. Of that, there were around 185 children.

Many tents throughout the area were seen erected where you can easily find a family or a group of indigents huddled together inside just idling as we pass them. Eduardo kept explaining the hardships he had witnessed as the caravan arrived and how the residents in Tijuana had responded to their presence. In fact, he had noted how a number of NGOs had dropped by to lend support albeit it was not always consistent.  Medical assistance was one need he did point out describing a couple of incidents of the ill being shipped out by ambulances when their conditions were brought to the attention of Mexican authorities and aid workers. One girl was actually seen covered in chicken pox following her mother down the street as we passed by. Seeing each person in the encampment stare at us as we peruse the site, their eyes—better yet what one sees in their eyes—spoke volumes. The level of desperation even now after just a few weeks passed when the caravan first arrived is incomparable. Sadness and dread can be seen by many. Only the few smiles from playing children that circled our vehicles were able to lift one’s spirits if only momentarily. The more we spoke with Eduardo, the more we received a better picture of how the situation at the border is developing. There are no local bathrooms or enough food and water to go around. Surrounding shelters do not have enough beds, and migrants (especially children) are exposed to the elements increasing their risk of illness. Some local residents in Tijuana have at times offered migrants the use of their bathrooms for as much as 20 pesos for showers and 5 pesos for the use of their restrooms. If they wanted to rent a room for the evening, migrants would have to pay 5-10 pesos per night. For many who ventured on this journey with very little if anything at all, finding enough to pay for just the use of the restroom is difficult. Since there are no public restrooms or outhouses conveniently located nearby, many are forced to use gutters or anywhere else that may serve as a momentary substitute.  A few feet away, we had passed a kitchen soup line where you could see a line form for food offered by neighboring NGOs. Piles of freshly laundered clothing were gathered in the middle of the street for onlookers and nearby scavengers to inspect and carry off should anyone so desired. Actually, I mistakenly thought the pile to be dirty laundry until Eduardo had corrected me to my surprise.

Here’s Eduardo’s first-hand account of his experience joining that caravan to the border for approximately 2.5 months:

To see this video with subtitles, go to the YouTube link below and click the closed caption button at the bottom of the window to activate the translator. Click on the settings (gear) icon. Click on Subtitles/cc. Then Select Auto-Translate to configure the preferred language. 

MEXICO’S RESPONSE

Mexico’s response to the arrival of the caravan had been well documented by reporters highlighting the fact that the overwhelming numbers of migrants had strained local resources frustrating some residents and officials while prompting others to help as more migrants arrive. Resentment toward the caravan had in fact set in among some calling for their deportation. Although, the Mexican government, under former President Enrique Peña Nieto, had already instituted stricter immigration guidelines and have deported thousands arriving from Central America. According to the Mexican Interior Ministry, 84,000 were deported in 2017 alone. Considering recent NAFTA deliberations though, Mexico had been under considerable pressure by the Trump administration to further tighten their immigration processes and increase their border enforcement if they wanted to continue receiving US humanitarian aid—a vital financial source to the nation’s economic stability. As incoming Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador recently took office this month, he had to balance the promises he made during his campaign of softening immigration policies while avoiding Trump’s ire and risk a complete cutoff of US aid. According to Professor Javier Urbano of the Ibero-American University in Mexico during an interview for the Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/nov/09/migrant-caravan-mexico-response-rich-poor-supplies-complaints), Mexico’s recent tightening of its borders have ironically resulted in an increase in migrant caravans. Since Mexico’s borders are tighter with greater numbers of border security, migrants had opted to take more dangerous routes through the northern region forcing many to travel in groups for safety purposes resulting in the current migrant caravan situation. In one attempt to help alleviate the pressure along the border cities, President Obrador had even promised to offer migrants temporary work visas with healthcare and education benefits and help fund job creation programs angering many local Mexican citizens who are currently suffering rising unemployment and poverty rates. Moreover, evidence of such programs being developed are still up in the air as the new administration is trying to calm the citizenry along its borders. With respect to the temporary work visas, journalists have reported that some migrants from the caravan have been skeptical and feared that such offers were lures, a ruse to trick them into detention and eventual deportation prompting some to dismiss some offers out of fear; while, others have agreed to enter legally and presented themselves to a few shelters.

According to reports from some NGOs like Al Otro Lado and CHIRLA, many migrants who arrive at the border to apply for asylum do want to cross legally but both US and Mexican immigration officials have purposely stalled or have engendered processing obstacles delaying many to apply expeditiously forcing many to wait up to 45 days to a couple of months for some.

Here’s an interview by Rise to Reunite founder, Angeline Chen interviewing Erika Pinheiro from Al Otro Lado on the current obstacles facing asylum applicants at the border:

Frustration eventually sets in for many migrants, and they attempt to cross along other areas at the border forcing border agents to respond and arrest them. Videos and photographs of migrants taking extreme measures to cross borders have circulated during media outlets like the clips of migrants crossing the Suchiate River along the Guatemalan and Mexican border. Immigration rights attorneys and advocates have consistently stressed that such stalling acts are in direct violation of both US and international laws—specifically the UN Refugee Convention of 1951 along with US anti-human trafficking laws. According to the UN 1951 Refugee Convention and the subsequent 1967 Protocol to the Status of Refugees, asylum seekers may not be turned down or sent back to their country of origin if sufficient evidence/cause is determined that such return would endanger the lives of the applicants. Among US anti-trafficking laws, the more commonly referenced by advocates is the US Victims on Human Trafficking and Violence Act of 2000. According to the law, victims who were victims of human trafficking can seek assistance if they admitted/presented evidence showing they were victims of human trafficking and are willing to prosecute their traffickers. Sadly, migrant families are at a greater risk of falling victim to human traffickers as they trek the perilous journey to the border, and they still face danger from them the longer they stay on the streets by the border. Reports of cartel kidnappings are well documented in federal DOJ reports and in academic journals like those archived in the National Criminal Justice Reference Service (NCJRS).

Considering that less than 100 asylum cases are generally reviewed daily and the number of migrants in the caravan are numbered in the thousands, processing asylum requests have no doubt presented challenges for both US and Mexican officials as they try to manage an already beleaguered immigration system. With recent US immigration policies calling for either a postponement or a reduction of additional asylum petitions during and soon after the US mid-term elections back in November, migrant families have been left in limbo until US authorities review their petitions for consideration and adjudication effectively extending the wait time thus increasing pressure on Mexican officials to deal with these families at the border.

SUMMATION

There is no doubt by either side of the immigration debate that the current political environment has placed a spotlight on the inadequacies and overall short-comings of immigration policies and enforcement. In the struggle to balance effective border enforcement and human rights advocacy as global economics, national security, and the rule of law along with international laws and treaties intersect throughout the discussion, the one group most affected are the people who risked everything and traveled thousands of miles through perilous conditions to find refuge from severe poverty and acute violence back home.  Returning for most would mean certain death. As such, these families are left without a home and have effectively become less like human beings seeking help but instead political pawns subject to ridicule and xenophobia. As 2018 comes to a close and 2019 is welcomed with jubilation, policy makers and the judiciary in both the US and abroad should redirect their energy and political capital towards seriously finding multitudes of practical solutions if only to reduce the human casualty witnessed at the border. The rule of law should indeed be followed; however, when the laws have proven to operate in contrast to the spirit of the collective moral standards of human decency and utilitarianism, change is required.

Special thanks to Jose Lopez and the rest of the Dancers Giving Back (DGB) team for allowing me to join them and help distribute humanitarian aid to the migrants we encountered at Benito Juarez.

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Also, special thanks to Eduardo Avila who helped us gather the families and speak about his experiences. Gracias Don Eduardo. Espero que llegues bien a tu país con salud y tranquilidad. Tus palabras serán escuchadas y se iluminará una luz en esta historia.

For additional information on Dancers Giving Back and how to donate along with upcoming scheduled events, they can be reached at:

DANCERS GIVING BACK
738 W 99th St
Los Angeles, CA 90044
(323) 807-9487
Email: dancersgivingbackofficial@gmail.com
Facebook Page: www.facebook.com/dancersgivingbacklosangeles

 

 

“Rise to Reunite!!!!”–A grass roots call for all to address the Trump Zero-Tolerance Immigration Policy

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written by James Rodriguez Daza, June 30, 2018

Pasadena—During the early part of the 20th century, the United States received millions of immigrants from all over Europe, Canada, Latin America, as well as the Far East. According to Kraut (1982)*, an estimated 9 million immigrants had arrived during the early decades mostly from Northern and Western Europe having dropped a bit during the 1920s due to conditions left after WWI. Many who did arrive at Ellis Island, NY at the time were escaping persecution, severe impoverishment, political violence, natural disasters, or severe state health and safety conditions beyond their control. The Statue of Liberty soon became a symbol of refuge from such conditions for many immigrants arriving to the US for years that followed….until recently.

As far back as the early 1990s, immigration policy has been a hotly-contested, persistent political minefield for congressional players that culminated in the creation of several laws addressing it that eventually led to the denigration of immigrants among US society today.

“…we [the US] started to understand that immigration into this country was a problem. It was a problem that we needed to take to respond to in a militarized fashion. That’s the reason why President Bill Clinton had signed a number of laws in 1996 that made it harder for immigrants to seek asylum. It ramped up the militarization of our borders. I say that to suggest that what we are facing today is the imminently crueler, harsher version of what’s been really a consensus of a bipartisan problem we’ve had in this country. I’m heartened by folks [recently] on the left and by Democrats now who are starting to understand that particular problem and starting to say that, ‘Maybe voting for tons and tons of money to police our border today is not something that’s tenable any longer. And that maybe when we did that in 1996 was a mistake.’”—Mohammad Tajsar, ACLU Immigration Attorney, 2018.

After three presidential administrations and increased border enforcement, the debate continues with increasing fervor as the Trump administration took the debate into a much harsher place with the implementation of a zero-tolerance immigration enforcement policy that separated families and galvanized both the nation and the world to decry against it. An estimated 600 grass roots assemblage of concerned communities and professionals had gathered in less than a month throughout the country to discuss ways to address the current immigration policy and work toward ending it. One such effort took place over the weekend at the Flintridge Retreat Center in Pasadena, CA. aptly named “Rise to Reunite: Panel and Action Workshops”.

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The event offered an approximately 150 attendants a full afternoon of workshops intended on setting up actionable campaigns to lend a voice to both the affected undocumented migrant families and the numerous concerned citizens, professionals, and advocates who were outraged by the current US government actions that led to the current immigration dilemma. Several organizations were represented. They included the ACLU of Southern California Pasadena Foothills Chapter, YWCA Pasadena – Foothill Valley Chapter, the Pasadena/Altadena Coalition of Transformative Leaders (PACTL), the National Immigration Law Center (NILC), the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), the Law Office of Carl Shusterman, Day One, and the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights (CHIRLA). In fact, Congresswoman Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA) of the 27th District of California was present to speak to attendants recanting her experience visiting the detention facilities at the border emphasizing the importance of such grass roots efforts like that displayed on the streets in DTLA and in workgroups like Rise to Reunite.

The event started with a panel discussion (overseen by senior counsel for the Law Offices of Carl Shusterman, Angeline Chen, and moderated by public speaker, Ernest Fenelon, Jr.) had key experts in the field who addressed numerous issues related to the current debate on immigration policy, the effects of the separation of undocumented migrant families, and first-hand accounts of site visits of some of the detention facilities where the children were held waiting to appear in immigration court. PACTL executive director, Yoland Trevino briefly gave a history of how US-CIA intervention in Guatemala during the Cold War helped sow the seeds to the political upheaval that eventually engulfed the country in acute cases of violence and poverty prompting an exodus of migrants to the US where they endured substandard living conditions and living in a constant state of fear and uncertainty.  ACLU attorney Mohammad Tajsar gave a general description of the current immigration policy and explained the historical events that led up to it stressing that the problem had continued under both Democratic and Republican administrations. NILC communications director, Adela de la Torre provided a heart-wrenching, first-hand account of her organization’s visit to the Artiga detention facility in New Mexico where they inspected the facility and interviewed both staff and migrants in order to confirm that all immigration legal detention requirements concerning the care and treatment of the detainees including the children were being adhered satisfactorily. A video of the panel discussion is provided below.

Interestingly, the most important take-away from the panel discussion was the importance of helping attendants understand the current problems facing undocumented migrant families under the zero-tolerance policy and identify areas of focus to direct their efforts at establishing a coherent and actionable campaign to end it. So, participants were separated into four discussion workgroups after the conclusion of the panel discussion. The groups included advocacy, fundraising, community organizing, and general volunteering coordination. Each were headed by group leaders to brainstorm ideas, identify target audiences, identify actionable steps for goal execution, and more importantly group direction which would maintain the overall sustainability of group actions. Attendants actively engaged in their corresponding groups discussing possible solutions and voicing their personal feelings on how friends and families were directly affected during the enforcement of the contentious immigration policy.  Many feared the repercussions and direction toward which the country was heading and understandably expressed their frustrations. IMG_1437The general consensus from the community organizing group (at least) was the importance of providing a face and/or voice to the undocumented migrants in order to humanize them and educate both advocates and naysayers alike of the real immigrant experience that follow them as they pass through an immigration system that Adela de la Torre had described as a “labyrinth that is difficult to navigate” for anyone caught in the process without adequate legal counsel, counsel which is generally not provided to immigrants who seemingly do not have the rights to it. Moreover, the direction that the workgroups emphasized was collective inclusion and fact-based campaigns to help persuade a larger consensus to support undocumented migrants and keep their families together. As one attendant noted, it doesn’t matter how much planning and coordination is done, if the other side of the immigration debate cannot be swayed to veer the pendulum toward a more moderate, coherent, and humane immigration policy, all their efforts would be in vain.

What are the current problems presented by the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance immigration prosecution policy onto undocumented immigrants?  

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According to the policy that was announced by US Attorney General Jeff Sessions on April 11, 2018, any undocumented person that has been caught crossing the US Border will be detained and criminally prosecuted for illegal entry into the United States. If they were requesting asylum at any recognized port of entry, they would not be arrested and prosecuted; instead, they would start application proceedings for asylum. However, if undocumented families were caught crossing the US Border other than a recognized port of entry, the families would be detained. Since only the adults can be prosecuted, the children as young as infant-aged would be removed and held separately. In the meantime, the adults await adjudication–most often than not–without the benefit of legal representation. To complicate matters further, a 1997 Supreme Court ruling called the Flores Consent Decree stated that the then-Immigration and Naturalization Service (now U.S. Customs and Border Protection) cannot detain undocumented, unaccompanied minors for more than 20 days at which point they must be released from their custody. With respect to the zero-tolerance immigration policy, children who were separated from their families are then reclassified as “unaccompanied minors” and subject to the Flores Consent Decree. Once the 20 day limit is reached and they have not been reunited with any member of their families, they are released from US Customs custody. Since the US cannot simply release unaccompanied minors without being placed under the care of a designated adult custodian other than a relative, these children are subsequently remanded to the custody of the US Health and Human Services where they would be assigned to foster care anywhere in the country while they wait to appear at a court hearing to decide their fate (i.e. deportation, asylum, etc.) Again, legal representation is less likely to be provided and the probability that they speak or understand English sufficiently to compose an adequate defense is very low. Considering that children younger than 3 years old are also separated from their families at the border, they too would be required to present their case in court.

Considering the varying bureaucracies at each stage of the immigration process, the policy implications present several areas of concern. Immigration experts point out that these children and their parents may wait several months before seeing a judge to decide on each case leaving affected families separated for extended periods of time potentially permanently keeping them apart especially if the parents are deported before the children are located and reunited with them. Another point of contention includes the fact that an overwhelming number of families arrive at the border seeking asylum from the extreme violence and poverty in many of their home countries that the designated points of entries at the Southern US Border are backlogged leaving asylum seekers to wait weeks to be seen. Frustrated, desperate, and often requiring medical attention due to the perilous journey to the border, they look to claim asylum at other points on entry not recognized by US officials resulting in their criminal arrest. In addition, US staff is severely undermanned to attend to the number of children housed in the facilities that have resulted in a decrease in the quality of care and trained personnel. Due to US child protection laws, detention facility staff and visitors are prohibited from touching, holding, or hugging children crying for their families in order to provide needed comfort from the trauma of family separation. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics,

“Studies of detained immigrants have shown that children and parents may suffer negative physical and emotional symptoms from detention, including anxiety, depression and posttraumatic stress disorder. Conditions in U.S. detention facilities, which include forcing children to sleep on cement floors, open toilets, constant light exposure, insufficient food and water, no bathing facilities, and extremely cold temperatures, are traumatizing for children. No child should ever have to endure these conditions.” (https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/Pages/AAP-Statement-on-Executive-Order-on-Family-Separation.aspx).

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Such areas of concern only briefly describe the Rubicon that the current policy presents. The initial effect was both national and international outrage. In the 2 months that followed the implementation of the zero-tolerance immigration policy, reports of the separation of thousands of families had displaced well over 2,370 children in holding facilities, tent camps and shelters. As stories of babies being torn away from nursing mothers, a father committing suicide after losing his children, and pictures, videos, and audio recordings of children being held behind cages and crying for their parents began surfacing, a world-wide rebuke of the controversial policy rang through every form of media. The United Nations Human Rights Office in fact had declared that the United States had violated the human rights of these families and in turn had violated international law stressing that the practice of criminalizing what for all-intensive purposes was considered an “administrative offense” is detrimental to the general welfare of the children and constituted a flagrant violation of the their human rights. The Organization of American States (OAS), which is an international, continental body of 35 independent states (including the US) that promotes regional solidarity and cooperation throughout the Americas, had approved a resolution at the end of June 2018 that called for the US, its headquartered base, to abandon its migrant child separation policy at the border and increase family reunification efforts immediately or risk possible injunctions from its Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.  British Prime Minister, Theresa May, had also gone before Parliament herself and denounced the policy. “This is wrong. This is not something that we agree with. This is not the United Kingdom’s approach”.  Even a French government spokesman, Benjamin Griveaux, chimed in questioning the moral direction the US policy has taken.

The pressure was much more tumultuous nationally spurring outcries from different fronts. A majority from both Democrat and Republican camps publically repudiated the Trump policy on the floor of the House and Senate while former First Ladies Laura Bush, Michelle Obama, Hilary Clinton, Roslyn Carter, and the president’s own Melania Trump publically spoke out against it on Father’s Day.

“…Our government should not be in the business of warehousing children in converted box stores or making plans to place them in tent cities in the desert outside of El Paso. These images are eerily reminiscent of the internment camps for U.S. citizens and noncitizens of Japanese descent during World War II, now considered to have been one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history…Americans pride ourselves on being a moral nation…We pride ourselves on acceptance. If we are truly that country, then it is our obligation to reunite these detained children with their parents — and to stop separating parents and children in the first place.…[C]an we not as a nation find a kinder, more compassionate and more moral answer to this current crisis? I, for one, believe we can.” –Former First Lady Laura Bush (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/laura-bush-separating-children-from-their-parents-at-the-border-breaks-my-heart/2018/06/17/f2df517a-7287-11e8-9780-b1dd6a09b549_story.html?utm_term=.3b8c7fa3e315)

Numerous non-profit, advocacy groups, national, professional organizations, like the American Medical Association, and faith-based organizations such as the Evangelical Immigration Table, the National Association of Evangelicals, and the US Attorney General’s own Methodist Church denounced the zero tolerance policy. As more stories, pictures, and videos like those taken from the former Walmart warehouse in Brownsville, TX or the detention facilities in San Diego, CA, came to light, US public opinion toward the separation of migrant families had begun to gather the attention of many more government officials (for some) whose seats were up for grabs this year. According to a Quinnipiac University poll in mid-June, for example, 66% of respondents opposed the policy while only 27% supported it. Government officials who were moved morally to respond demanded an end to the infamous immigration policy and called for an expedited reunification process for the families that have already been affected.  17 State Attorneys General led by New Mexico AG (Hector H. Balderas) wrote a letter to US Attorney General Jeff Sessions vehemently opposing the order while 3 state governors, Govs. John Hickenlooper (D-Col.), Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) and Charlie Baker (R-Mass.) signed an executive order prohibiting state agencies from participating in the policy’s enforcement.

 

The political backlash that resulted backed US President Trump and his administration against a wall forcing him to reluctantly postpone separation efforts and demand that the US Congress pass an immigration bill that he could sign (which would have to include increased funding for his proposed border wall) in order to put the immigration debate to bed highlighting Trump’s efforts on using immigrant children as a political bargaining chip to fulfill his hard-lined immigration campaign promises. Predictably, after a week of political wrangling, no bill could pass through the House of Representatives that had a realistic chance of being signed into law by the President. Frustration, demoralization, and national polarization continued to increase. So much so, that national protests were organized and took place over the weekend demanding a complete end to the zero-tolerance policy. Since AG Sessions’ announcement of the strict enforcement on April 11 and Trump’s announced postponement of its family separation enforcement on June 21 due to political and international pressure, approximately 500 children had been reunited with their families while thousands more await their turn to see their families; however, the complexities related to family reunification due to the lack of proper comprehensive planning and protocols may potentially slow the process or potentially leave many children permanently separated prompting grass roots efforts like Rise to Reunite to overturn the immigration enforcement policy completely.

DTLA Protest2

Tajsar summarizes this grass roots push best when referring to the immigration enforcement that had affected many Central American immigrants during the past decade as an example:

“They have been met with a series of brutal responses from the US that date back to Bill Clinton but also through the Bush administration and unfortunately into the Obama administration. And chief among them is the idea, the principle of the jailing of families is the right approach to this problem. So, we start from the baseline of heightened amounts of detention and jailing of families of migrants that are coming into this country. That was a problem that predated Trump. But what Trump has since done is announce this policy, a policy of zero tolerance. This was a policy that was announced in [April] but it was a policy that they were already starting to consider as early as March 2017. …There have been approximately 66 children separated from their families every day since April.  What we have to do now is figure out a plan, a response to that problem.”

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Ultimately, the purpose of immigration advocates and these community events is to remind the country of the basic principles on which the United States was founded: It is a nation of immigrants that represents the best of each culture while serving as a beacon of hope to the disenfranchised and offer a chance at a new life where persecution and intolerance has been abandoned. Instead, justice, tolerance, and hope ring louder in the US than any other nation on the planet. When immigrants traveled to this country so many years ago, the Statue of Liberty was a symbol of those hopes and dreams. The efforts currently being laid out by such grass roots efforts are an attempt to remind this country of that very ideal and take action to preserve it. For that reason alone, the fight to help these families continues with such urgency and passion. President Trump and his base of supporters may argue that America has fallen into disarray due to poor policy and leadership promising instead that their own policies and vision for the country will help make America great again. On the contrary, it is important to let them know that America HAS ALWAYS BEEN great. Some were just too blind by ignorance, bigotry, and their own short-comings to see that. Now, it’s this country’s moral imperative to help others see it too.

*Kraut, Alan, The Huddled Masses: The Immigrant in American Society, 1880-1921 (1982); Handlin, Oscar, The Uprooted (1951)

 

The Struggle of a Bilingual America: A retrospective on bilingual education and biliteracy programs and how Montebello USD’s Dual Language Immersion program leads by example

 

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“We can no longer afford to simply learn languages and cultures; but rather, we must provide students with opportunities to learn languages and cultures by participating in communicative interactions that prepare for real-world language use and global citizenship. Language learning needs to be a lifelong endeavor.” —“Developing Global Competency” introduction excerpt to the California World Languages Content Standards 2009.

Montebello–December 8, 2016, written by James Rodriguez Daza

In the mid-2000s, California was experiencing a reawakening as technology and the global economy advanced connecting countries and redefining international commerce in its wake. The global market itself by the nature of professional natural selection began to evolve eliminating positions of old in favor of new innovation and modern skill sets. Mass communication itself had to evolve in order to catch up. Global markets opened up inviting international players to play with their US counterparts. Forecasters predicted that a major change was going to hit our economy, but the degree to which it actually occurred in hindsight was unprecedented. After the Great Recession of 2008 struck sending ripples of economic uncertainty across the globe, scholars, educators, and professional elites agreed that the US had to better prepare its youth for the 21st century marketplace which included changing old perspectives like that of bilingual education, bi-literacy, and multi-cultural awareness.

California became the first state to lead the charge on this linguistic enlightenment. After a political battle that nearly put the state on the path of an English-only state through Prop 227, educators and policy makers worked tirelessly to keep most of the current bilingual programs afloat and set the groundwork to which would later develop into the first state Seal of Biliteracy. The Seal of Biliteracy is now a nationally recognized certification awarded to students who meet all the bilingual literacy requirements that will better prepare students to develop multicultural and language relationships that will increase their chances of success in the 21st century marketplace. California became the first state in the nation to award the state Seal of Biliteracy to students in participating school districts in 2012. Ten thousand seals were actually awarded that year for proficiency in 29 languages. That number doubled the following year as additional school districts, charter schools, and county education offices began participating. In 2015, records show that California awarded 31,816 seals to graduating seniors in a state where 22% of the state student population at the time were English language learners. After the implementation of California’s Seal of Biliteracy, other states like New York, Texas, New Mexico, Illinois, and Washington state followed adopting their own respective Seals of Biliteracy with several more waiting for legislation to pass in their respective districts.

However, the benefits of a bilingual education and literacy are not only regulated to the economy alone. Empirical research shows that the benefits extend to cognitive, academic, social and cultural areas of interest. Language learning has been found to increase long-term cognition improving memory, problem solving, pattern recognition and critical thinking skills while preventing mental diseases related to aging like Alzheimer’s and dementia. Academically, students in dual language immersion programs promoting bilingual literacy and multiculturalism show increases in academic performance on achievement tests especially in areas related to language and literacy (California Campaign for Biliteracy. 2014). In a Stanford study, for example, students finishing middle school showed that they “were doing better in English and earning higher grades in other subjects, while graduates of English immersion programs often reached a plateau in English and performed consistently worse in other subject areas (Bilingual battle brewing in California. The Hechinger Report, Apr 19, 2016).” In a study by the Center for Research on Education, Diversity and Excellence on two-way immersion education, findings showed that “on average, native Spanish speakers in this study exhibited more balanced abilities in reading, writing, and oral language in English and Spanish than did their native English speaking peers… On average, both groups of students demonstrated intermediate to advanced levels of proficiency in English reading and in English and Spanish writing and oral language by the end of the 5th grade. (The Development of Bilingualism and Biliteracy from Grade 3 to 5: A summary of findings from CAL/CREDE Study of Two-Way Immersion Education. 2004).” On a social level, students in dual language immersion programs have also shown an increased level of cultural awareness and competency since language allows for a better understanding and empathy for other cultures. Bilingual competency also allows students to help bridge the cultural gap with their families by providing them insight and translation while engaging in their own native culture preserving their heritage while assimilating to another.

Bilingual-education

Despite these benefits and the paradigm shift on bilingual education and biliteracy policy makers and stakeholders have demonstrated, resistance still exists mostly on the issue of teacher preparation. Amid the growing research advocating increased academic performance, arguments have been made that teachers currently lack sufficient training on bilingualism and biliteracy to warrant continued support for the programs; although, the research says otherwise. The microscope is currently on teachers to perform along with their children who are enrolled in bilingual education programs. SB 2042, for example, arose in 1998 to increase teacher accountability and insure teachers are highly credentialed in California to meet the state’s education performance goals. However, the language in the bill doesn’t specifically address standards addressing bilingual education, literacy, or bilingual certification of teachers complicating the matter further since student performance indirectly becomes a reflection of teacher performance. California certification does use the BCLAD (Bilingual, Cross-cultural, Language, and Academic Development) credential/certificate to certify and prepare teachers to teach English language learners, but SB2042 didn’t include the domains under this certification in the body of its own legislation which became a dominant legislative force in the late 90s and early 2000s. Instead, legislative focus was geared toward English Language Development (ELD) than dual immersion or any other pluralistic bilingual model. Omission of any caveat related to bilingualism in that particular piece of legislation, experts say, contributed to the state’s decreasing number of qualified, certified bilingual education teachers. In a population of 1.4 million children in California’s public education system, only 693 bilingual teachers were certified for 2014-2015; that’s a big difference when looking at mid-90s figures when 835 teachers were state certified. Recently, state efforts to remedy this problem had occurred including the state’s Department of Education adopting new standards for English learning development, developing teacher workbooks to guide them while instructing English learners, and new sources of funding allocating some funds that could be appropriated to bilingual education like the California Local Control Formula, Titles 1 of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, Title 2 of the US Department of Education’s Higher Education Act, and Title 3 of the CA Department of Education’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act (Bilingual battle brewing in California. The Hechinger Report, Apr 19, 2016, Is there room for Biliteracy? Issues in Teacher Education, 2006, http://www.cde.ca.gov, www2.ed.gov).

There are several models of bilingual education school districts have used throughout the nation over the years ranging from assimilation to dual immersion. The oldest and rarely used now is described as submersion where the goal is to have non-English speakers learn English and assimilate to US society. The native language is not supported and the students are placed in a regular English-only classroom. Current laws have made this model illegal. The next model is ESL Pullout. Sometimes called language intensive, the model has students “pulled out” of their regular classes in order to receive an English as a Second Language (ESL) class for either a few minutes to a couple of hours depending on the program design. A similar model is the “sheltered model” where ESL and regular classes are combined and taught by either a single trained ESL teacher or by a team. In Transitional Bilingual Education, the model has the students learn content material in their native language, then taught ESL, and gives them the option of taking other less language intensive classes in English like P.E. and art. Maintenance Bilingual Education differs slightly from the others because the model requires transitioning students into English-content classes while offering support in their native language. The Enrichment, Two-Way, or Developmental Bilingual model involves both non-native English speakers and native English speakers entering a maintenance program where they’re learning the same content material but in both languages in the same class. This is designed so that the students begin to work with each other to help each other succeed in class. The design is similar in the immersion program where a portion of the curriculum is taught in a non-English speaking language during a portion of the day then it switches to English for the remainder of the school day or vice versa. Like the concurrent model where classes are taught simultaneously in both languages under a team of teachers, immersion also has students learn both languages but the majority of the content is taught in the native language then transitions to English after the first couple of years of instruction when the students are fully immersed in both English and their native language. This is called a 90/10 model where 90% of the material is taught in one language while the remaining 10 % is taught in the secondary language slowly leveling off as the children reach middle school (Bilingual Education Program Model. The Bilingual Research Model, 1995).

As general popularity for bilingual education and biliteracy increase, programs promoting them also pop up. In California, Glendale Unified School District have offered numerous immersion programs covering languages ranging from Vietnamese, Armenian, to French. The San Francisco Unified School District has programs spanning 15 schools which include middle and high schools covering languages from Spanish to Mandarin. In Montebello Unified School District, its elementary and intermediate schools have been running their immersion program for 17 years and still going strong.

In fact, Montebello Unified recently hosted an event promoting bilingual education at one of its elementary schools, La Merced Elementary, where they had partnered with Read Conmigo , a biliteracy advocate organization which debut its first documentary (Read Conmigo: A Journey to Bilingual America) on their efforts to educate the public on the realities of bilingual education and biliteracy. Free bilingual books were distributed and a panel discussion was held to answer parents’ questions on the school’s dual immersion program. La Merced Elementary Principal, Rebecca Castro, Program Specialist, Adeline Canedo, and 5th grade teacher and 2015 Dual Teacher & Language Educator of the Year, Alicia Ramos spoke on the topic of “a bilingual America” and their own Montebello USD Dual Language Immersion program.

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Montebello USD K-8 Dual Language Immersion Program

Could you please tell me how you became attached to the Read Conmigo: A Journey to Bilingual America event?
Rebecca Castro: Well, a couple of years ago…This is my 1st year here at La Merced Elementary School…they were invited to participate in our Back-to-School Night. So, they came and they setup a table. Their goal is promoting literacy and reading in another language. So, when they were here, they gave out free bilingual books to families as well as providing an online resource for the families to access and continue to receive free bilingual books over the course of the year. I think it was 1 book every quarter.

Being a teacher here at the school, how has the topic of bilingual education affected your perspective on your work? What has been your perspective?
Alicia Ramos: I think when I first started teaching here about 18 years ago, there was a traditional bilingual program during a time when it was very negative and thought of as an awful philosophy of teaching. People thinking that it was not making students culpable of increasing their English capacity. There was a very different vibe. Parents who enrolled their children really believed in the program and really saw the positive effects that they could instill in their children. And so, I think the community has really begun to really see it in a different light. Being bilingual as a positive rather than a negative, and that building language is really building capacity for all of our students for the 21st century. It should be something that should be accessible to all students. Not just being bilingual but mostly bilingual and hopefully will be the goal of Montebello because we have such a diverse community. We hope to extend it to other languages.

What’s a rough, ball-park percentage of the students in your school who are “bilingual”?
RC: I can tell you that a 1/3 of the school…We have 808 students at the school, and a third of that population are enrolled in our dual language program. So, I can tell you that those children are already bilingual or are on their way to being bilingual. We have another segment of our population whose parents have chosen to place them in a mainstream, English-setting who are also currently bilingual. We have about 200-300 English learners at our school. Not all of them are in the dual language program.

How has the dual bilingual program helped the students? Have you seen a marked improvement in their scores, homework, etc?
Adeline Canedo: I think right now at the lower grades, they’re still learning 2 languages which is their primary language and secondary one which is the 90/10 model where they are learning in the other language I would say then 10% in English. So, I think as you see the children move through the grades, especially at the 3rd, 4th , 5th grade, you’re going to see some progress in academic achievement in both languages—not just one, but in both. We are assessing our children in English and in the target language which is Spanish. There’s certainly other benefits other than test scores measuring academic achievement. There are so many other areas that we need to take a look at when we talk about achievement. It’s a great group of students that we take through the process. Also great is that we get to send the students next door to the intermediate school where they have a dual language program. So, the program doesn’t stop at 5th grade; it does continue to 8th grade.

Does the dual program also encourage parent participation?
AR: Definitely. We have a very involved parent population in the dual program. They’re definitely wanting to participate and engage. We have workshops that we provide for parents. We have meetings where we promote bi-literacy and just inform parents about the benefits of the program. So, once parents become part of the dual program, they really embrace everything that comes along with it– parents volunteer for different activities at school even as much as tutoring. Other students (on their own time) hold meetings with parents who are uncertain about the program or who are feeling uncomfortable about keeping their kids in it. I mean it’s just supporting each other. They build community. I think they really support one another and they help each other to understand the way the program design works and that it’s an acquisition process that it takes several years to really see the benefits of i . You can really see in the middle school where you can see the leaps and bounds of the program.

With respect to the school district, have they received much support for the dual bilingual program, or have you experienced some difficulty in promoting or continuing it?
RC: The program is 17 years old. We’re starting our 17th year starting this coming year. We’re very happy about that. I got to see the program start from the beginning in 2000. Actually it was in September of 1999. I came on board on January of 2000. At that time, we were working under a Title 7 grant, and we were able to start at with 1-2 kindergarten classes at each school. We had 3 elementary schools and so at that time we had a lot of support in terms of the grant; we had people at the district that were supporting and promoting the program. I was a resource teacher, and I had the parent’s involvement. So, we went out to recruit…which is to speak with parents and inform them about the program. After the grant ended which was in 2005, then the program had to sustain itself after that from about 2006 to now in terms of continuing and maintaining a strong program. So, it did despite—sometimes—a lack of resources which is often times the challenge of these types of programs have. Now, we have a board that supports the program. We have admin, a district office where some of them will be here tonight that are supportive as well. I think in the last 3 years (I would say) we’ve seen a lot of resources going into the program to build our libraries– to provide professional development to teachers and resources. Now, we have the program at 4 schools—2 elementary and 2 intermediate schools.

What other sources of funding have you requested to maintain the program?
RC: I think as far as funding we don’t have a particular grant that was just slated for the dual language program. We have our general funds that support it. We have our Title 1 federal monies that also offers support. Title 2 supports are professional development that comes from the district office to our teachers. We have Title 3 which supports our English learners and that could be part of our dual language program support, and of course our Local Control Accountability Program supports. That’s part of the general fund.

Out of curiosity, what’s the ratio between teacher and students in the dual language program and what cultures are represented in the school?
AC: That varies. In Kindergarten, it’s 24 to 1, and when you get up…It all depends on how many students you are able to enroll in kindergarten. So, when I was meeting with parents, last Spring we were able to get…it just worked out…we have 24 and 24, 25 which is our number, and you go up the grade levels, I think 1st grade has a little lower. They’re at 21. 2nd grade…they’re a little higher. 3rd grade has probably the highest number which is at 27. Then we have 2 4th grade classes then a 5th grade class which has 28. 
RC: We have mostly Latino. I don’t have the breakdown. It’s in our Census report. But we have Armenian students. We have Asian. We have African-American, Filipino, and some Indian cultures. 
AC: In the district, we have some 17 different languages. I would say the school has quite a few languages.

The Montebello USD Dual Language Immersion Program is an option for parents who are interested in enrolling their children. Principal Castro pointed out that the program is open to all students regardless of language background. Information can be accessed online on http://www.montebello.k12.ca.us . Simply look for the La Merced Elementary tab where visitors will be taken to the website detailing the program’s parameters and criteria. If you would like to contact Principal Castro to discuss the program, she can be reached at castro_rebecca@montebello.k12.ca.us or you can call her at (323) 721-5043.

As more information on bilingual education and biliteracy reach parents, the more popular programs like dual language immersion will become. The most recent development on the issue was the recent passage of Prop 58 where multilingual education funding was approved by a 72% margin reflecting California’s growing acceptance of bilingualism. More work is still required getting the word out on helping the nation become a more multicultural, multilingual society. California is the trend setter as in so many areas to jump start a movement that reaches across the coasts of a country where diversity and cosmopolitan sensibilities define numerous generations. Only through communication can diverse cultures reach common ground in order to achieve progress. In our current polarizing political reality, movements, such as the promotion of bilingualism and biliteracy, are so important in uniting our society so that as a nation we can advance and lead the world by example. Nothing less should be expected of us.