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There are millions whom we can’t deport, and who deserve a chance to stay

There’s a century-old red brick building that used to be a convent in Detroit, in the shadow of the Ambassador Bridge.

It’s next to the city’s oldest Roman Catholic Church, St. Anne’s. Inside that church is a rough-hewn box holding the bones of an immigrant who arrived without papers, a priest by the name of Gabriel Richard, one of the founders of the University of Michigan.

Inside the old convent are 40 living undocumented immigrants from 18 different countries, people who fled torture and murder, fled for their lives, and are here seeking asylum.

They are in less fear of deportation than most of our nation’s eleven million “illegal” immigrants. This is a place called Freedom House Detroit, and for more than 30 years, it has helped such folks win asylum in the United States and Canada.

That has become harder in recent years, and the refugees, who are usually destitute, are not allowed to work while they await a decision on their fate. But the ones in Freedom House nearly always win asylum in the end.

Our Constitution firmly establishes the right of victims of persecution to asylum.

Freedom House has a dedicated corps of volunteer attorneys who help them make their case. The folks they serve aren’t really affected by the president’s action on immigration.

But I was curious to find out how they felt about it. So last night I asked Deb Drennan, the executive director, what she thought.

“How about if you just say I set off some fireworks to celebrate?”

She laughed.

Then, after she thought for a moment, she said “We are glad to see positive movement forward for so many immigrants who have already become part of our community.”

She regrets, however, that the president’s initiative was so limited; its protections extend to less than half of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the nation.

She wishes the president had extended his action to “the children fleeing gang violence in Central America.” Drennan, as unselfish a person as I know, has worked with immigrants for years now.

Reflecting, she told me,

“A large majority of Americans want to see our broken immigration system fixed.”

She welcomed what the president did, but added, “We really hope the Congress can take up the call and pass reform that will help people be on a more permanent path to membership in our society.”

I’ve seen her in action, so I knew she meant it when she added, “At Freedom House, they are already family.

We can’t wait until the day the United States sees them as family too.”

That may be awhile, since we live in a country where millions still can’t accept that we have a black president. In his common-sense remarks last night, President Obama said one thing that wasn’t true, that we are here only because “this country welcomed (our ancestors) in.” Well, not always.

Not only did the Native Americans not exactly beg us to come, a lot of our ancestors snuck across some border, or were carried here against their will as slaves.

Today, there are millions  among us whom we can’t all deport, and who deserve a chance to stay.

Now, it’s nice to know they’ll have one.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. You can read his essays online at michiganradio.org. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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