The Status of America's Immigration System Is Uncertain. What Does That Mean for Delaware?
Theresa del Tufo wrote “Behind the Golden Door: The Resilience of Today’s Immigrants” to serve as a guide for action to improve immigrants’ abilities to achieve the American Dream.//Photo by Joe del Tufo
On those ubiquitous and superfluous most-hated professions lists, lawyers often come near—or at—the top. People who answer the surveys, however, likely have never met Xiaojuan Carrie Huang, owner of Huang Law LLC. The Wilmington-based attorney routinely receives flowers, chocolates and other gifts and tokens of gratitude from her clients, many navigating the byzantine American immigration system.
Huang splits her caseload primarily between family- and business-based immigration, so she does everything from helping unite couples separated by an ocean to assisting small companies in obtaining green cards for their employees.
A native of China, Huang has a special appreciation of the immigration process and the often-complicated steps to legally live, work and go to school in the United States. Huang moved to the country in 2000 and graduated in 2005 with her juris doctor degree from Washington University in St. Louis School of Law. Soon after, she headed to Delaware and passed the bar exam. After several years of working at different firms, she opened her own shop in 2011.
“My own experience helps me to be more patient, kind and understandable toward my clients,” says Huang, admitting her accent became a hurdle early in her career. (See the gray blurb at the very bottom of this article to hear from one of her clients.)
She’s part of a growing, vibrant, diverse—and vital—segment of Delaware. In 2015, 87,509 immigrants comprised 9.3 percent of the state’s population, a percentage that ranks 21st in the country, according to the Washington, D.C.-based American Immigration Council. Of these people, 45.2 percent had naturalized as of 2015, and 16,777 immigrants were eligible to become naturalized U.S. citizens that same year.
The organization also detailed that Delaware residents in immigrant-led households had $2.3 billion in spending power in 2014, immigrant business owners accounted for 11.1 percent of all self-employed Delaware residents in 2015 and generated $161.5 million in business income, and immigrant-led households in the state paid $552.2 million in federal taxes and $154.6 million in state and local taxes in 2014. (See gray box below for more statistics on immigration in Delaware.)
“I don’t know if the average American understands how much immigrants contribute to the economy,” says Nina Qureshi, owner of Wilmington-based Nina Qureshi Immigration Law.
Like Huang and numerous other advocates across the state, Qureshi wades through a tense political climate where immigration has become the centerpiece of debate.
“Some radical ideas have been proposed this past year, like lowering the number of visas available for family members of U.S. citizens or work visas given out,” she says. “If the number of visas available is decreased, employers wouldn’t be able to bring in as many educators, scientists, engineers and physicians. These workers are extremely important to the state.”
AN IMMIGRATION SNAPSHOT
The American Immigration Council provides a wide range of details on the state of immigration in Delaware. Here are a few highlights:
As part of her job, Qureshi often must field calls from nervous people worried about their status, as well as squash the many misconceptions about immigrants in the state.
For one, she often hears most undocumented immigrants take advantage of the system. Not true, says Qureshi, who has practiced immigration law since 2006. Undocumented immigrants are ineligible for food stamps and welfare, and many hope to become legal one day.
“It’s just not easy,” she says.
In fact, despite the obstacles, the vast majority of people she works with want to contribute. For example, many use an anonymous tax ID number from the IRS. The stats back up her experiences. Undocumented immigrants in Delaware paid an estimated $13.5 million in state and local taxes in 2014, according to the American Immigration Council. She notes that their contribution would jump to $19.7 million if they could receive legal status.
“Undocumented immigrants do pay into the system,” Qureshi says. “However, if they don’t have a Social Security number, they may not receive the benefits that others would. Even if they paid into Social Security, they wouldn’t get those benefits, even after working in this country for many years.”
Another misconception, she says, is that immigrants work only in trade jobs such as agriculture, food services, landscaping, poultry production and construction. Many of her clients also enter industries in science, technology, banking, higher education and engineering. Recently, she has helped more and more physicians come to the state, especially in Southern Delaware, to ease the shortage of healthcare providers in hospitals and medical practices.
Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Wilmington also has seen an influx of immigrants entering various healthcare fields—nursing, in particular, says Daniel Hicks, the organization’s immigration specialist.
His clients come from around the world, including Latin America, Haiti, Liberia, Ghana and Nigeria, and they often settle in the Diamond State because of job opportunities and the affordable cost of living.
Providing immigration services since the 1960s, Catholic Charities frequently counsels people on citizenship and green card applications, and family reunification petitions, he says. The organization also offers vital related services that can prove to make all the difference in easing the sometimes-difficult transition to American life.
“They’re perfectly self-sufficient,” stresses Paula Savini, community relations director for Catholic Charities. “They just need to be established in their new home area. If we can help them find housing and link them to educational services or employment opportunities, then they can become contributing members of society.”
History as a guide
La Esperanza in Georgetown also serves as a multiservice organization to help immigrants effectively integrate into the state, says Bryant Garcia, immigration specialist. Specifically, the Department of Justice-recognized provider familiarizes Latinos with the immigration system and helps them in applying for immigration benefits, such as legal working documents or residency in the United States. La Esperanza helped more than 600 clients in Sussex County in 2016.
“If you speak with any immigrant, there are always challenges that come with learning a new language and culture,” Garcia says. “They have their moments of stress, anxiety and uncertainty for the future. It doesn’t matter who’s in political office.”
That said, he acknowledges the ups and downs in how much of the country feels about immigrants.
“I see it as a wave,” Garcia explains. “Right now, we’re at this low point, and the presidential administration is reflecting that. They’re trying to be closed off to people who want to enter.”
But using history as a guide, Garcia stays optimistic. Views, after all, can and will change.
“We have always appreciated people who come and build something for themselves through their hard work and taking risks,” he says. “We can do something better for newcomers.”
Hypothetically, though, if the government enacts stricter laws to limit legal immigrants and their family members from entering the country, it would have a detrimental effect on Delaware, Garcia believes. Some companies would feel the strain of a depleted workforce, and others could leave the state—and country— altogether.
Huang says many people wrongly think that immigrants take their jobs, resulting in fewer opportunities for the native population.
“That’s a misunderstanding,” she says. “Immigrants create jobs.” She points out the bounty of international students starting new businesses in places like Newark.
The economy grows contingent on three factors: the ability to generate capital, improvement in technology and population growth, Huang says. “With all three, immigrants contribute a lot. If you shut the door, the job opportunities and money will go somewhere else.”
Garcia hopes people in authority, as well as the population at large, “can see through a clearer lens in how immigration affects us all,” he says. “Judge people on their individual and personal merits. They want something better for themselves and their community too.”
Writing the roadmap
Theresa del Tufo sees consistent dialogue as one of the best ways to change people’s perceptions. To facilitate discussion, she hosts gatherings at libraries across the state so immigrants can share their stories with other Delawareans.
“We’re all human beings, and we all have common challenges and dreams,” del Tufo says. “If we have a conversation, that’s a first step. And then maybe they will discover that we’re not different after all.”
To further the discussion between sides and among immigrants themselves, del Tufo wrote “Behind the Golden Door: The Resilience of Today’s Immigrants.” The idea first bubbled when she moved to Dover from the Philippines in 1966 and finally became cemented with the election of Donald Trump 50 years later.
“I’m one little person who isn’t important to Washington, but I still can speak my mind,” del Tufo says.
Though she dealt with prejudice when she arrived in Delaware, “there’s more open racism now,” she says. “With the Trump administration, we’re seeing all the difficulties immigrants have assimilating into the culture. I wrote the book for them.”
“Behind the Golden Door” (Motivational Press) aims to serve as a roadmap, a guide for action to improve immigrants’ abilities to achieve their version of the American Dream, del Tufo says.
For the book, she interviewed 12 immigrants from 10 countries—China, Greece, Romania, Cuba, Nepal, Guyana, Venezuela, Sweden, Japan and her native Philippines—to hear their stories of moving to the United States and to discover the commonalities, regardless of their nation of origin, del Tufo says. By distilling their experiences, she wanted to paint an accurate picture of an immigrant, as well as develop a “wheel of success” to smooth the integration into American society.
Culture sits firmly at the wheel’s center. “If you have a set of beliefs and a value system to lean on, it’s a lot easier to survive,” says del Tufo. She places a solid work ethic, a focus on education, strong family bonds, community acceptance and faith in a higher power as spokes to the wheel—and the pillars to happiness here.
“There are common threads,” she says, “and it’s inspiring to see them.”
DELAWARE, BY WAY OF AUSTRALIA
Ruth Faulkner spent the better part of the past four decades traveling back and forth from her native Australia to the United States for her job in nutrition science. However, once she and her partner of 20 years—an American citizen—got married five years ago, she wanted to obtain her green card, which would allow her to live and work permanently in the country. (The card must be renewed every 10 years, though.)
“I have a lot of respect for the American people, having worked with them for so long in my career,” says Faulkner, who settled down in Delaware because of the contacts made here and the “English quality” of folks on the East Coast.
The 78-year-old met repeatedly with attorney Xiaojuan Carrie Huang through what the Australian describes as a laborious immigration process. Faulkner made countless trips to the immigration and customs offices, and much to her dismay, she needed to be fingerprinted five different times. Fortunately, she says, Huang guided her at every step of the way.
“She’s genuinely interested in helping people,” says the grateful Smyrna resident and Melbourne native. “America needs to congratulate people like Carrie.”
While Faulkner finally achieved the green card milestone in August 2017, she doesn’t plan to take the next step of full U.S. citizenship. The stress of getting to this point dampened her enthusiasm.
“Hopefully,” Faulkner says, “the process to renew my green card won’t be as daunting.”