Working for a Diverse World
by Roger Algase
In 1979, after working in various jobs related to business law for about 15 years, I made a radical change in my life and became an immigration lawyer. This was a big professional, not to mention financial, challenge, as I was completely new to this field. Communicating with my new clients was a constant battle against language and cultural misunderstandings due to the fact that most of them were from New York's rapidly growing Korean community.
However, I believed that I was doing something important, because I have always felt that America's strength is based on acceptance of diversity and willingness to welcome people from many different backgrounds. Both individuals and societies stagnate without this spirit of openness to difference.
This belief was strengthened when, several years after starting my immigration practice, I encountered Buddhism and became a member of the Soka Gakkai International. In Buddhism, I found the source of hope and courage I needed to deal with these new challenges. At the same time, interacting with the culturally diverse members of the SGI gave me the conviction that I was on the right track. The organization was a microcosm of the kind of world I was hoping to help create as an immigration lawyer. I saw that people of different backgrounds really could work together in a harmonious way.
From the 1920s to the mid 1960s, the immigration laws in the United States reflected a prejudice against immigrants and minority groups in general. These laws were based on very restrictive racial and ethnic quotas that were clearly influenced by the system of racial discrimination in effect in many parts of the United States. When I started practicing immigration law, these restrictive immigration quotas had been abolished, but many of the old attitudes remained among immigration officials and the general public.
It is very interesting that the arguments that were used against immigrants today--that they are going to break the law, that they don't share "our" values and moral code--were used against earlier waves of immigrants. In the mid-19th century, these were directed against Irish immigrants. They were later used against Jewish immigrants such as my grandparents and more recently against immigrants from Asia and Latin America. The arguments have remained the same, only the groups against whom they are targeted have changed.
The September 11, 2001 terror attacks greatly increased an already growing tendency to blame immigrants for most of America's problems. The initial response of many immigration officials was a wonderful outpouring of human sympathy, based on a realization that hundreds of the World Trade Center victims and their families were themselves immigrants from dozens of different countries. It seems, however, that an official attitude soon set in to the effect that immigrants in general were to blame for the terror attacks.
In my view the terrorists were highly trained criminals embodying great evil. They are not representative of any culture. They don't represent American culture, American immigrant culture, Arab or Islamic culture.
As result, the atmosphere in which I work has become more charged and frustrations are higher. I find that my clients tend to lash out at me as a part of a system. At the same time, the immigration officials whom I deal with seem to be more suspicious of all immigration applications and there has been a great increase in delays through procedures which often focus more on technical violations than genuine security issues. I use my Buddhist practice to deal with these tensions and to maintain a calm and respectful attitude at all times. I am also trying to speak out against anti-immigrant prejudice by writing letters to major newspapers, some of which have been published.
For me, the events of recent years have highlighted the need to assure the basic human rights of immigrants. For example, for people who wish to contribute to a society to have the opportunity to stay and work there under an orderly and just system of legal immigration. We need to make certain that immigrants, and indeed all people, are always treated humanely by the law--and not as economic or political commodities.
[ Courtesy October 2003 SGI Quarterly ]