Uncertain times for island’s immigrants

Fri, 04/07/2017 - 11:30am
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Raul Mickle closeup
Raul Mickle

Immigrants living on Block Island work, pay taxes, send their children to the Block Island School and contribute to the community in many ways. Yet with recent shifts in immigration policy, and more changes being planned and debated in Washington, many are anxious and fearful about their future, and about their daily lives.

“People are afraid,” said Raul Mickle, a year-round resident and native Peruvian who has worked on the island for more than a dozen years. “It’s a very, very hard time.”

In an interview with The Block Island Times, Mickle talked about how his Hispanic friends and neighbors are reacting to President Donald Trump’s executive orders restricting travel by immigrants, including those with Legal Permanent Resident status (holding “green cards”), and tightening enforcement of immigration laws.

“The fear is general” for anyone with temporary status, Mickle says. “Before, you were not deported unless you were a criminal,” even without legal status. “But right now? If you for some reason are in the wrong place at the wrong time, you’re done.”

Mickle told the following story, from mid-February 2017. While The Times cannot verify the events, it is an example of what puts immigrant island residents on edge.

According to him, two Hispanic men, living and working on Block Island, went to Vermont for work. The routine was familiar: an immigrant worker — a legal resident — would pick the two up, along with others, and drive them in his van to and from a work site. On one of those trips, police stopped the van, and everyone was taken to the station. Only there were the occupants asked to produce documents. Mickle said that the police knew where all the Hispanics lived and worked. “The cops wait outside the factories, the workers all share a van (driven by someone who lives here and has a green card), and they get pulled over.”

In this case, Mickle said that the two Block Island workers were arrested; apparently they were undocumented. One paid $10,000 bail, was released, and received a court date. The other was not released. 

Everyone in Block Island’s Hispanic community is waiting to see what happens with those two men, Mickle said. But the story hits home in other ways. 

For an undocumented person on Block Island, even going to the mainland for shopping now seems to pose a risk. Mickle says that people may travel from Galilee to shopping centers by bus rather than driving (even in a car owned and driven by a green card holder). He added he knows of people on the island who had cancelled planned vacations in the U.S. since the President’s Executive Order. “It’s real, they don’t want to take that risk of traveling and not being able to get back to Block Island.” Two other people he knows have planned to go back to Guatemala, apparently to stay.

The 2010 Census counted 31 Hispanic or Latino persons on Block Island, 2.9 percent of the total population of 1,051. A more recent estimate, from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, identified 14 foreign-born residents, out of a total of 906 persons.  Within that survey’s margin of error, the number of foreign born persons could be as high as 30, and would include Brazilians, Filipinos, Europeans, as well as Guatemalans, Mexicans, Dominicans, and others. 

Mickle bases his own estimate of Block Island’s Hispanic population based on numbers from the school: 10 Hispanic families with a total of 17 children enrolled. Any of the children born in the U.S. would be American citizens, even if their parents are not legal residents. Mickle says at least 15 or 20 more Hispanics live on the island, but says he does not know everyone — Hispanics or other immigrants. Recognizing this, the School Committee has increased the number of hours for the liaison to the school’s Spanish-speaking population.

By his estimate, about half of Block Island’s Hispanic residents have proper documentation, and half do not.

Raul Mickle himself is a proud native of Peru who has lived in the U.S. for 16 years. He raised two children in Peru, one now an engineer, the other a medical doctor. “I’m very proud of being Peruvian. I won’t give up that identity,” he said.

He says he has paid taxes as an employee and an independent contractor for all except his first year when he did not earn enough income to file. He is a student at the Community College of Rhode Island, paying full price for his tuition because he is ineligible for financial aid. “I work hard,” he says. 

On Block Island, Mickle has worked with several hospitality businesses, helping them recruit and supervise foreign workers, both immigrants and students with J-1 visas in the U.S. State Department’s Work and Travel Visa program. In recent summers, he has staffed the International Student Center at the Harbor Church, a ministry providing a safe place for student summer workers from other countries to meet, socialize, and seek support. The three part-time staff members give informal counseling and advice on life in the U.S., getting along with employers, shopping, housing problems, and homesickness.

Mickle told The Times he knows that some of the approximately 100 State Department employees who quit after the President’s January 27 Executive Order was issued worked in the division that oversees the J-1 Work and Travel visa program. He says he has heard nothing yet about changes to that program, which has supplied a majority of the international students working in Block Island businesses in recent summer seasons.

Mickle added that he is sure “there will be more vetting this year” of students applying for J-1 visas. In the long run, however, “I wouldn’t be surprised if it (the Work and Travel visa program) was modified or cancelled.”

The status of the summer program is a separate but related issue for Mickle. The well-being of the island’s resident immigrant community is his main concern. He says he tries to see both sides of an issue, including immigration. He and his friends “totally agree we need to secure the borders, and fix the system, and kick out criminals. Because of these people, we’re all being considered suspect, and people live in fear.”

Mickle maintains that of the 70 to 80 percent of the island’s Hispanic residents that he knows personally, none have had a criminal record, neither in the U.S. or in their home country. He adds, “I can assure you, 80 to 90 percent of them pay taxes.”

For himself: “I came to this country to work, for my family, for my kids. After five to ten years, you become part of the culture, and we respect America. The best way to show respect is, stay on the right side of the law, work, and pay taxes.”

For himself and his neighbors, Mickle says: “We love Block Island, we love to be here... because of the community” he hasn’t seen “anywhere else” he’s lived in the U.S.

“I hope things get more clear” around immigration. “It’s so stressful, especially for the kids. We just live day by day.”