Immigrant-friendly cities help communities thrive

An immigrant’s experience in Philadelphia shows what is possible when communities trust law enforcement

by Eri Andriola

On July 25, 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) announced a new policy that seeks to penalize cities and states with pro-immigrant policies. Specifically, the DOJ issued a press release stating that recipients of the Edward Byrne Justice Assistance Grant Program (“Byrne JAG grant”) will now have to give federal immigration officials notice and access to their local detention facilities.

Philadelphia is one of the cities that were placed under these new requirements. Philadelphia has adopted policies that seek to build trust between immigrant communities and city government, so that immigrant communities and the city as a whole can thrive. We decided to find out how these friendly policies affect communities in Philadelphia, and spoke with an immigrant couple about their experiences.

Syarif Syaifulloh lived in West Java, Indonesia, and worked for a non-profit organization for children. In 2001, he arrived in the United States to work and support his family. Like many immigrants, Syarif was shocked to find that much of the work available was dangerous and menial. Despite these harsh working conditions, all Syarif wanted was to work hard and keep his head down.

Not long after he arrived in Philadelphia, in 2002, Syarif was assaulted in a predominately immigrant neighborhood. He was walking with a friend in an area where many immigrant workers went to cash their hard-earned checks, when he was assaulted by a group of individuals and badly beaten. Someone called the police. Others at the scene assisted with language interpretation. Despite being in an area with a substantial immigrant population and having obvious difficulties understanding English, the police never inquired about Syarif’s immigration status. Syarif believed that poor immigrants like him were likely targets of these types of assault. Indeed, a week later, one of his friends was also assaulted in the same area, just a block away. Syarif wanted to help the police identify his assailants, but it was too dark and he was not able to see clearly.

The police and fire department brought Syarif to the hospital to get treatment. At the hospital, a social worker was made available to help him. To this day, Syarif remembers the kindness of the social worker and his positive interactions with the police. Even when the police followed up to speak with him a week later, they still did not ask about his immigration status. They protected and served Syarif like they did with all city residents. The police were eventually able to make an arrest in this case.

Despite all that Syarif has gone through, he has an unwavering optimism. His wife, Hani White, recounts how Syarif would take photos with state troopers without hesitation, much to the shock of his friends who could never imagine approaching the police in that way because of their immigration status. Syarif finds much of the current rhetoric about immigrants is out of sync with the attitudes of local government and communities, and is heartened by local efforts to combat negative views. Syarif hopes that the city can work with communities more so that people can learn about the city’s friendly policies toward immigrants to build better relationships. He worries for his friends that are without documentation, and wants them to know that they can come forward and work with law enforcement and local government without fear of deportation.

In 2003, Syarif met Hani at a local mosque that they both attended. They connected over their mutual love of photography, and were later married. Hani is a former Deputy Director of the Office of Immigrant Affairs for the City of Philadelphia and currently serves on the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs. Several years ago, when Indonesian families in South Philadelphia noticed flooding caused by drains clogged with cooking oil, Hani worked with the local Indonesian community and the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) to come up with an innovative solution. Many in the community were worried about the EPA’s presence at community meetings; they saw officials with jackets bearing government logos and did not know if they were immigration officials. However, through communication and education, Hani was able to build trust between the community and the EPA, and created Feed the Barrel, a program designed to recycle used cooking oil. The residents, the city, and the environment all benefited from this partnership.

Syarif is now a Lawful Permanent Resident and works as a cook at a local hospital. Despite being assaulted in a predominantly immigrant neighborhood, the friendly interactions with law enforcement and hospital workers allowed Syarif to help with the investigation and receive treatment. By not inquiring about his immigration status, the police were able to do their job and work toward creating a safer community for all. Syarif recognizes that not everyone might be as optimistic as he is, and believes that more needs to be done to foster better relationships with the community and law enforcement.

With the help of immigrant-friendly policies like Philadelphia’s, dedicated and hard-working individuals like Syarif and Hani are able to actively engage with and contribute to a thriving city.

Eri Andriola is the Civil Rights Litigation Fellow at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC.

Advancing Justice | AAJC

Working to empower Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to…

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