Jace Kirk’s calling is to help others. Kirk grew up in Moore, where he served as a youth pastor in his first job out of college. He became a single foster parent at age 23, and his first set of siblings were undocumented immigrants. That experience opened Kirk’s eyes to the challenges facing children brought to the United States, albeit illegally, by parents seeking a better life for them.
“When the oldest was 12, he realized his future looked different [because he was undocumented],” said Kirk. “He asked me why he should even do well in school, and it was hard for me to answer. I told him you just have to do the right thing and hope things will change for you. That was almost a decade ago.”
Hoping to help incite change, Kirk began volunteering for FaithWorks of the Inner City, a holistic community development agency strengthening families in Shidler Elementary School and surrounding communities in south Oklahoma City. The population is 80 percent Hispanic, with 99 percent of students on the free and reduced lunch program, and Kirk said a large percentage is undocumented. Kirk met a fellow volunteer who shared his vision of how the sojourner should be treated with dignity and respect. She’d later become his wife. Kirk was named FaithWorks’ assistant director in 2005.
The organization has grown from just an after-school reading program to now serving nearly 200 kids each day by mentoring students, offering mommy & me classes to prepare young children to enter school, counseling, an adult/teen work program and assisting families to become homeowners. As it’s grown, so has Kirk’s heart for the immigrant community and his understanding of the plight of those stuck in what he calls a cycle of poverty. He calls the area FaithWorks serves “the forgotten community; the community that never was.”
“It’s not a place I knew about growing up,” said Kirk. “My parents would have probably told me ‘don’t get off the highway there.’”
The stark juxtaposition of the neighborhood aesthetics with the hardworking attitudes and compassionate spirits of the people he works within the Shidler-Wheeler area made Kirk realize he needed to do more to advocate for them, so in 2010 he moved into the very community he serves.
“I live right next to Capitol Hill to be closer and experience the same challenges as my neighbors,” said Kirk. “Proximity makes me understand.”
With the recent end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program by the Trump administration, and with deportations up nearly 30 percent, Kirk said the culture of fear in his community is growing.
Raul Font, president of Oklahoma City’s Latino Community Development Agency (LCDA), said the nationwide rhetoric about immigration has exacerbated the profiling occurring nationally and in Oklahoma. The organization works to improve the lives of Latinos in Oklahoma City. Font’s clients, both documented and undocumented, fear a run-in with law enforcement where they could be asked for a green card. Font said only registration and a license are supposed to be requested at a traffic stop and in such situations, all persons are within their legal rights to refuse to answer questions about their immigration status. Puerto Rican and born in Chicago, Font identifies with their concern because he has experienced it first-hand.
“I’ve been stopped because I’m a Latino driving a nice car,” said Font. “I can’t tell [my clients] it’s going to get better because I don’t know that.”
Like the “white flight” Kirk described in and around his neighborhood, Font said there seems to be a tradition in Oklahoma City that when diversity comes in, people run away. He fears that different races and cultures don’t know how to live with each other, understand each others’ differences and not be intimidated.
“Until we do away with the stigma of giving value to people because of their color or nationality, we will always have problems with the words diversity and inclusion in America,” said Font. “We have to learn to live with people who think and live differently and to understand the value they bring to us, no matter where they came from.”
To foster a community of inclusivity and to better understand the immigration process, policy and immigrants themselves, we take a look at common myths, stereotypes and positions.
Stereotype #1: Immigrants are taking jobs and driving down wages
According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, immigrants typically do not compete for jobs with native-born workers, primarily because they actually create jobs by starting businesses and because immigrants and native-born workers tend to possess different skills that aren’t interchangeable. The Chamber explains, for example, that removing the more than eight million undocumented workers from the U.S. would not result in eight million jobs for unemployed Americans. Some facts about immigrants and employment:
- Immigrants are almost twice as likely as native-born workers to become entrepreneurs. (Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity)
- Immigrant-owned businesses generate $775 billion in revenue, $125 billion in payroll and $100 billion income and employ one out of every 10 workers. (Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity)
- Latinos are creating new businesses faster than other Americans, with Latino-owned businesses growing by 46 percent from 2007 to 2012, and hiring by Latino-owned businesses increasing 22 percent. (LCDA)
- There is not a correlation between immigration and high unemployment at the regional, state or county level. (National Federation of Independent Businesses)
- Rather than driving down wages for native-born workers, immigrants give a slight boost to the average wages of Americans by increasing their productivity and stimulating investment. (U.S. Chamber of Commerce)
- Between 1990 and 2004, nearly 90 percent of native-born workers with at least a high school diploma actually experienced wage gains because of increased immigration. (Service Employees International Union)
Stereotype #2: Immigrants primarily hold low-wage jobs and hurt the economy
Kirk said people in his community, especially those who are undocumented, often have limited access to resources and high paying jobs that allow them to provide for their families. But while some immigrants work in industries like home care, child care, hospitality and janitorial services, it’s not true across the board. Here are some facts about the employment of immigrants:
- The most common job held by immigrants in Oklahoma is a cook, while Texas and Colorado both report housekeepers and Louisiana construction workers as the top jobs held by immigrants. However, in Delaware the most common job held by immigrants is software developers, and in Missouri it’s college teachers. (Business Insider)
- In the United States there are almost as many immigrants in white collar jobs, representing 46 percent, as in all other occupations combined. (The Economic Policy Institute)
- While immigrants are overrepresented in some low-wage occupations, they also are overrepresented in information technology, life sciences and high-tech manufacturing. (the Bureau of Labor Statistics)
- The largest waves of immigration coincide with the lowest national unemployment rate and fastest economic growth, primarily because immigrants create new jobs by opening businesses, buying homes, spending money on goods and services and paying taxes. (SEIU)
- Latinos wield more than $1.3 billion in buying power and the number of affluent Latino households is growing faster than the overall population. (LCDA)
- Latinos were responsible for 29 percent of income growth in the U.S. from 2005 to 2015, with the number of Latino households with incomes over $150,000 growing 194 percent. (LCDA)
- More than half of the country’s undocumented immigrants have federal and state income, Social Security and Medicare taxes withdrawn from their pay, but they aren’t eligible for many of the benefits their payment funds. (U.S. Chamber of Commerce)
- Undocumented immigrants contribute more taxes than they consume in public benefits; in 2010 undocumented immigrants paid $13 billion in payroll taxes into Social Security Trust Funds. (SEIU)
Stereotype #3: Immigrants incite crime
The FBI reports that an increase in immigration, including undocumented immigrants, actually mirrors a nationwide decrease in crime. Here are some facts about immigrants and crime in the U.S.:
- Since 1990, the percentage of immigrants in the United States has grown from 7.9 percent to 13.1 percent, including a tripling in undocumented immigrants from 3.5 million to 11.2 million. During the same timeframe, violent crime decreased 48 percent and property crime rates 41 percent. (U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the FBI)
- Immigrants are less likely to be behind bars than native-born Americans; the incarceration rates among young men are actually lowest for immigrants. (American Immigration Council)
- Crime rates, both general and violent, to be lowest in the top 10 states with the highest immigration growth. (Americas Majority Foundation)
Stereotype #4: Undocumented immigrants shouldn’t have come here in the first place, or they should go through the process legally
Kirk supports better border protection and clearer immigration policy, but he wishes naturally-born citizens would consider why some undocumented immigrants came to this country. Kirk’s now adopted son was legally brought to America as a child by his biological parents, who then overstayed their visa, a fairly common occurrence.
Kirk has found fear drives many immigrants to leave their countries of origin. From his own son’s experience, Kirk knows the violence of drug cartels in Mexico causes families to live in fear for their lives every day. He recalls friends who left in the dark of night to escape such a situation. Kirk also has worked with a mother who moved her family around in Mexico to get away from an abusive husband. When that husband continued to follow and threaten them, she escaped to the United States.
“They can stay in their country and make an application and go through the lottery,” said Kirk. “But when you’re living with a real and legitimate threat on your life and the lives of your family members, I’m sure you’d make the same decision to escape that threat.”
To legally immigrate to the United States, an individual must first obtain an immigrant visa, and, generally, must be sponsored by a U.S. citizen relative, permanent resident or prospective employer. According to the American Immigration Center, the visa petition process can take up to eight months to be reviewed by the USCIS, receiving paperwork takes another one to three months and scheduling an interview an additional two to four months. Immediate relatives can often secure a green card fairly quickly, but just being an extended family member is limited to 350,000 immigrants a year, and the current wait in this category is six years. Employment-based immigration petitions have up to a three-year backlog.
“These families are making the best choices they can,” said Kirk, who mentioned immigrants often struggle with poverty, both in terms of a lack of finances and resources. “Immigration feeds into the poverty issue because people who have been here many years are not able to work lawfully and provide for their family.”
In the days since DACA was rescinded, the country has seen support for the continuation of the program, with an NBC News poll showing a national 64 percent support rate. But that still doesn’t translate into a clear path to citizenship. Angelica Villalobos, advocacy and outreach director for DAOK, said one of the most common questions she hears from critics about undocumented immigrants is ‘Why don’t they get in line like everyone else?’ Her short answer: there is no line.
“Rather than a line, for most immigrants the U.S. immigration system more closely resembles a room that is so extremely packed, individuals in it can’t move through it and instead end up waiting 10, 20, even 30 years before making it out,” said Villalobos. “Not to mention that although the room is stagnant and stuffy, there are many folks who would gladly endure it, but the door into the room won’t open for just any immigrant that wants to come in.”
Villalobos said until Congress makes a serious attempt to fix the country’s broken immigration system, going through the process to become a citizen will not be accessible to many up-standing, hard-working immigrants already contributing to the state and country.
Becoming an advocate
While the staff at LCDA can’t predict how the current national debate over immigration and policy reform will iron out, the agency continues to support those who need them and is spreading the message to its clients to do the right things and obey the law.
Font was encouraged at the agency’s recent gala that amidst national strife over immigration policy, the event was packed and represented the same healthy diversity as in its 26 years past. He also said the agency makes it clear to funders and partners that they serve anyone, with or without papers, Latino or other, and he hasn’t experienced any pushback.
“I haven’t lost a penny,” said Font. “We haven’t lost partners or collaborators.”
Sharing in the immigrant community’s frustration and fears and celebrating in their joy has made Kirk more aware of hardships both documented and undocumented immigrants face. Some of the kids he has mentored over the last 10 years are now college graduates, pursuing higher education, getting married and having children of their own. Two, though, are currently in prison. While Kirk knows he and FaithWorks’ influence on young lives is important, he recognizes that it’s up to each young person to make the best use of the resources offered them, while also dealing with temptation and challenges.
“It’s encouraging to see them make good choices that led them to the place they are today,” Kirk said of the young men who pursued higher education. “I would definitely never take credit for their success, [just like] I wouldn’t take credit for the others [in prison.]”
Font, who holds a PhD in education and spent many years as a principal in OKCPS and at the State Department of Education, believes education is the key to escape poverty. It made all the difference in his own life and in the lives of many his agency helps, which helps fuel the LCDA’s scholarship program, 4-H Club, bilingual early childhood education program and Parents as Teachers program to help traditional Latino parents and first-generation American kids engage with and understand each other’s perspectives. Like Kirk has done, Font said experiencing the everyday lives of immigrants makes the community at large, and LCDA’s volunteers especially, more open to and aware of their challenges.
One of the biggest challenges facing his community is housing. Kirk said about 80 percent of the homes in his area are owned by what he calls slum lords, charging exorbitant prices and ignoring needed repairs.
“These residents are people that often don’t have a pathway to home ownership, so they are just stuck,” said Kirk.
FaithWorks’ Bridging the GAP program helps families in his community achieve home ownership, and they just completed their seventh home. Kirk said much of the cycle of poverty can be attributed to a lack of relationships and social access and FaithWorks volunteers can close that gap by helping with the home ownership program, tutoring students in reading and math, assisting teacher in the classroom or serving as mentors to teens.
“This population is here and not going away,” said Font. “We need to make sure this population is well-educated and able to weave into our state’s economic growth. That will make us a community that will thrive.”
[Editor’s Note: This is part one of a three-part series looking at immigration in OKC. Find the first part of the series here and the final part of the series in our January issue.]