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Important Immigration Lessons for Pacific Islander Communities

(Ta'iala) In the past few months, I have hosted several immigration seminars, workshops and informational booths in both California and Utah, targeting the Pacific Islander community.  During these public venues, four key things stood out to me as issues that NEED to be addressed in the Polynesian community with regard to immigration. 
First, we need to take the stigma out not having immigration status or being considered an "over-stayer."  The shame and stigma associated with needing immigration help is preventing people in our communities from seeking out the information they need to actually DO something about it!  I have seen this problem first hand at every informational booth we have ever had.  To give you an example, at the Samoan Cultural Celebration in Utah last month, we had a good response and many people came up to ask about their "friends" or family.  It was RARE, however, for a person to come and ask a question about their own situation.  We saw people walk by, glance at our banner, walk by again, walk by a THIRD time -- but never actually approach us.  I saw one person go as far as pretending to look at handicrafts at the booth next to ours, while covertly entering our phone number into her cell phone.  This is not because she didn't WANT the information, she just didn't want other people SEEING her at the booth.  As a community, we need to tell people that this is NOT something to be ashamed of and that getting the right information is KEY to tackling immigration issues.  
The problem of shame and stigma goes hand--in-hand with the second issue I have noticed: failure to seek out the RIGHT help.  Due to the fact that people are wary to share information regarding their immigration problems, they do not seek out advice from professionals.  All to often, people go to someone they have heard about third-hand who "used to work in immigration" or "knows how to do paperwork."  Some familiarity with immigration procedures does NOT mean a person is qualified to help or represent you.  Unless the person is a licensed attorney or an accredited representative (i.e. someone who has been AUTHORIZED to help with immigration matters by the Board of Immigration Appeals), there is no way to be SURE that they are qualified to provide assistance with immigration matters.  Moreover, there is often no way to hold them accountable if they fail to provide the services they promised.  It is painful to see, but I have witnessed first hand how people in our own communities, who profess to be "experts" in immigration, take thousands of dollars and important documentation, and do nothing -- or even worse, do HARM.  In order to combat this problem, I give the following advice at every workshop or seminar we host:  there is a place on almost EVERY immigration form for the person who helped you to put THEIR name, and if they aren't willing to sign it -- they can't be trusted.  We need to spread that knowledge and hold the people who are providing a disservice to our communities ACCOUNTABLE.  
The third problem I have encountered is that immigration issues are not a priority in the Polynesian community.  Immigration issues BECOME a priority when something pressing happens back home in the islands, and we need to travel -- then something has to be done within a few weeks, or even days.  On a regular basis I have to tell people that we cannot get them home in time for the funeral/wedding/fa'alavelave, and it is heart-breaking.  Think of immigration like the DMV, only the waiting room is your house, the paperwork is in triplicate, and you have to take your fingerprints and get a physical before the clerk will call your number.  Again, as a community, we need to stress the importance of putting this FIRST.  Not only because of the inconvenience it causes when you want to GO SOMEWHERE, but for so many other reasons that people never even really consider.  Take retirement for example, if you have been working in the United States for decades and paying into Social Security, you cannot see a penny of those contributions without lawful immigration status.  People also do not consider the fact that immigration laws constantly change and benefits/avenues to getting residency (green card) exist now, that never existed before -- or vice versa -- benefits that USED to exist, are no longer offered.  Not to mention the fact that immigration filing fees have increased exponentially over the last few years and things that used to cost $200, now cost $600 or $700.  There will always be things that come up that seem more important, especially with fa'alavelave added to the normal daily grind -- but we need to make sure that immigration takes a front seat for our community.
The fourth and final issue is the importance of CITIZENSHIP.  Citizenship is a privilege that everyone should take advantage of.  I cannot stress this enough.  A lot of times, people will remain green card holders or US Nationals for decades, and never even consider taking the next step to Citizenship.  Thomas Jefferson said; "The best principles of our republic secure to all its citizens, a perfect equality of rights."  That perfect equality he talks about -- those rights -- those are reserved for CITIZENS.  While green card holders enjoy the privilege of being here, they do not have the same rights as citizens, and that privilege can be taken away at the will of the government.  Citizenship comes with the right to vote, and if our community could organize, the way other larger ethnic groups have done, we could have a very powerful voting block.  Just look at the last election.  Whether you support the current president or not, that election was heavily swayed by the Hispanic vote.  If everyone in our community who is eligible for citizenship took the time to BECOME a citizen -- we could have that type of voice in our government.  
About the Author:
Leah L. Tuisavalalo is an immigration attorney and author of the Ta'iala Immigration blog. She is a partner at the Pasifika Immigration Law Group, LLP in Fresno, California.
Born in New Haven, Conn., she is of Samoan descent and is a graduate of the esteemed Robert Louis Stevenson Academy in Samoa. She graduated with her bachelors from the University of Hawaii in 2002, obtained her law degree from the Santa Clara University School of Law, and was admitted to the California Bar in 2009.
Leah L. Tuisavalalo • Pasifika Immigration Law Group, LLP •2125 Kern St. Suite 303 • Fresno, CA 93721
Phone: (559) 441-9400 • Email: l.tuisavalalo@gmail.com