Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series on the new Strangers to Neighbors movement in Elkin and its first gathering, which was held Feb. 16 at Elkin Presbyterian Church.
A time for diverse communities to come together also served as a time to address how Elkin can be more welcoming to immigrants. Strangers to Neighbors is a new initiative which held its first community gathering recently at Elkin Presbyterian Church — bringing together long-time American families with immigrant families.
After sharing a dinner and stories of how their families came to America, whether that was hundreds of years ago or in the last few years or months, those participating heard a personal story of immigration and DACA participation from Erick and Brandy Fuentes.
Following the Fuentes siblings’ story, community leaders and members of both communities shared their thoughts and comments with the group at large.
On the panel of leaders addressing those attending were the Rev. Stuart Taylor, Cynthia Gonzalez, an immigration attorney, Dr. Myra Cox, superintendent of Elkin City Schools, and Elkin Police Chief Monroe Wagoner.
“As Mayor (Sam) Bishop stated, this all started about a year ago when a couple people in our community … started thinking about our immigrant community and how it’s in the shadows, and with all the negative media happening in the beginning of 2017, we wanted to make sure that that negativity didn’t pour into our community,” Gonzalez said.
“Today we heard from Brandy and Erick Fuentes, which are very brave, very courageous DACA students, but just like them, there are hundreds more, thousands more in our communities, families that share the same story just like they do,” she said.
Gonzalez took time to briefly educate the attendees on immigration law. “Immigration is such an intricate and complex subject that it’s impossible for me to tell you every single thing about immigration,” she said.
Instead she chose to clear up some “myths that often bring misconception or negative thoughts toward immigrants.”
“One of the myths is that immigrants are undocumented because they choose to be,” Gonzalez said. “They have to begin by obtaining work authorization, then they have to have a permanent residency for at least five years before they can even apply for citizenship.”
A limited number of options are available for people who want to gain American citizenship, she explained. “Among those ways is marrying an American citizen, getting a work visa, and even those now with this presidency are very, very limited and only given most of the time to people with exceptional abilities,” said Gonzalez.
“So there is no direct path to citizenship. There is no line people can get into. I guarantee if there was, there would not be an undocumented person in this room.”
She said DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), which allows undocumented young people to continue education or employment beyond high school under protection from deportation, isn’t even a guaranteed long-term option, since President Donald Trump ended the program through executive order. “The only reason it is standing right now is because a judge made a decision that DACA must continue accepting renewal applications until everything with DACA is played out in court,” explained Gonzalez.
“There are no new applicants that can apply for DACA,” she said. “For example, families that have children that are maybe 13, 14 years old that haven’t been able to apply for DACA in the past because of their age, they cannot apply right now.
“These students are hanging by a limb,” Gonzalez said of those already in DACA. “We have several students right now that are in the process of applying for colleges and they face the fear that their DACA will expire during this process and they won’t be able to continue their education.
“I ask of you that you take this into consideration when you’re voting,” she said. “I ask of you to write your congresswomen, congressmen and express your concern, because these students are part of our community. They go to school with your children. They’re just like your children, they want an education, and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t have it.”
Cox, during her panel time, shared several ways Elkin City Schools can be more welcoming to immigrants, strategies she hoped to return to the school system and implement.
“I can imagine coming to a new country is intimidating enough for kids, but add to that being perceived as different when they walk into the hallways of our schools,” Cox said. “I can imagine English language learners and especially newcomers sometimes feel like outsiders, and this is a problem since one of our most basic human needs is to feel a sense of belonging, and when we don’t feel that sense of belonging, it’s difficult to thrive and succeed.”
After some brainstorming, she came up with a few simple techniques the school staff can employ to make immigrants, and others, feel welcome and “foster an inclusive safe environment for all students.”
One of those was for all teachers to “greet every student at the door” of their classroom. Cox said while this may seem simple, many times teachers are busy hustling and getting lessons ready between classes and may not make a point to do that. “It is my belief that we can greet each student by making a positive connection, and that it feels our classroom with good positive energy,” she said.
Along those same lines is for schools’ front office staffs to stop and engage with those coming in the office, making good eye contact. “Warmly welcome you and figure out how we can help you,” Cox said. “Brandy said her father said to tell me he was nervous that he wouldn’t be able to understand me, and I said to tell him I’m nervous that I won’t be able to understand him either. So we share mutual feelings. If we just recognize them and confront them, then we can move beyond those feelings of fear and connect with one another.”
Cox also said staff can work “to value each student’s identity and recognize the fact that we have cultural differences, and one of them lies in their names.”
She said staff in the school system need to be sure to learn everyone’s names and how to pronounce them. “I’ve been in situations where I’ve read names from a list that I really butchered, and I felt embarrassed. We don’t need to do that,” she said.
Also, embracing the individuality of each person is something that should be focused on at the schools. Cox said, “I don’t want any student in my school system to give up their culture to fit in, so we need to embrace each other’s individuality by getting familiar with one another’s culture.”
She suggested teachers take 10 to 15 minutes weekly in their classrooms to allow students to get to know one another, without the books and academics.
Two other key points she focused on were the need to listen, she said, “with a capital L,” and be more patient, with those techniques targeting better communication.
“The bottom line to all of this for me is that we invest in relationships and that we make an intentional effort to bridge those gaps,” Cox said.
Wagoner emphasized his desire for those in the immigrant community to understand his officers are not focused on people’s immigration status, but protecting and serving those in the community. He wanted them to know they shouldn’t be afraid to call for help when it is needed.
“You’re not going to be asked to prove you’re a citizen or not, you’re going to be asked how can we serve you,” Wagoner said. “You’re going to be asked, if you come to see us, what can we do to help you.
“I don’t work for ICE (immigration enforcement). I don’t work for Homeland Security, I work for the town of Elkin,” he said.
Taylor said he got to thinking about how much he daily uses a form of identity, such as a driver’s license, and Gonzalez said for immigrants that is a challenge every day, because they can’t get medicines they need without identity. “A lot of the immigrants in our community cannot get a state ID or a government identification in North Carolina. This presents a great barrier in their lives,” she said.
Taylor asked Wagoner if he would be willing to work with the Strangers to Neighbors group on exploring possibilities for some sort of identification card that could be used in the area. The chief said he would work with the group.
Three members of the congregation chose to speak during the open conversation of the forum — Susan Stewart, David Fuentes and Farando “Sly” Best.
“Dr. Cox you said something that took a lot of courage to say tonight,” said Stewart of Cox’s comment that more needs to be done to be inclusive at the schools. “I just want to say as a citizen of Elkin or just as a human being, that I’ve not done enough things I need to for the immigrant community.”
She shared how her daughter was friends with Brandy Fuentes’ cousin in school, and that her cousin was one of the best math students in the class.
In Spanish, and then translated by Gonzalez, David Fuentes, Brandy and Erick’s father, spoke up in an emotional comment to those attending. “This is such a big event. The only thing I can say about Elkin is that it is such a wonderful place, and the school system has been very wonderful,” he said.
“Many say Americans don’t want us here, but I know that everybody here is a good person and everybody here has welcomed us,” Fuentes said. “We as immigrants are hard workers. Just tell us where to go and where is work and we are there. We teach our children that they must adapt, we teach them how to adapt to your culture, and we are very grateful because Elkin is such a wonderful town, and we are grateful that we are here and that we have found Elkin.”
Best, who owns Midtown Barber Shop in downtown Elkin, said, “I actually came today to witness what purity was today. I’m from Goldsboro and we don’t have unity like I see here today.
“As I sit here, I think about the recent passing of Martin Luther King’s birthday and for me to stand here … to give me an opportunity to be in the middle of downtown Elkin and not be looked upon as the black barber, I’m the community barber,” Best said. “To see these Latino people here in America with tears and the struggle that they have reflects back on my culture, to my people, my ancestors, and my ancestors actually got the unity that allow me to be here today.
“With these guys as strong as they are, it makes me want to be as strong as they are,” he said. “And with the unity we have here, this is true America. I wish that everyone that was Republican and Democrats and independents could be here today to witness what just happened.
“What happened to us, we just became one. That’s what we are here, we’re one, we’re Elkin. Elkin is one place, American is one place, and we are one people. With that, I’m proud to be American, I’m proud to be in Elkin.”
Wendy Byerly Wood may be reached at 336-258-4035 or on Twitter @wendywoodeditor.