Program March 2013

Is The Lamp Still Lit?

Speaker: Suzanne LeLaurin, vice president for individuals and families, The International Institute of St. Louis

For descendants of the “huddled masses” who arrived in America generations ago, the rights of citizenship are a lucky byproduct of where we were born. Our March 14 speakers shared an eye-opening perspective on the long, complex road today’s immigrants endure before they are admitted to our country – and the struggles they experience once they arrive.

Suzanne LeLaurin of The International Institute of St. Louis provided a brief overview of how the government categorizes America’s foreign-born residents:

  • Permanent legal residents who are on track for citizenship. Foreign-born spouses of American citizens fall into this category, and in most cases may enter the U.S. without a wait restriction. Other family members – parents, children, siblings -can wait years before they’re granted entry, particularly if they come from countries that already have large immigrant populations in the U.S. – Mexico, the Philippines, China and India, for example. Parents and children of Mexican residents allowed to enter the U.S. this year have been on a waiting list since 1993. That’s 20 years of waiting to come to America. And if a child reaches the age of 18, he or she must reapply for a place in line as an adult applicant.
  • Temporary visa holders – visitors, students and guest workers. Guest worker visas are granted for a variety of persons with expertise, including scientists, artists, athletes and professionals in business and medicine. There are no temporary visas granted for farm workers, laborers or domestic workers.
  • Undocumented residents – individuals who’ve entered the country illegally or overstayed their visa. Immigration reform focuses on this group, but there’s a misconception about why it happens so often in the first place, LeLaurin says. “People think that these ‘illegals’ just don’t want to go through the process and get in line to come in legally. What we need to understand is that, in practical terms, there is no line.”
  • Refugees, who enter the country based on proof of well-founded fear of persecution. Just 58,000 refugees were admitted in 2012, drawn from refugee camps in Africa, South America, Egypt, Ethiopia, the Bahamas and Nigeria. Refugees from these countries are given preference to increase the immigrant diversity of the U.S. population.

The Long Road to St. Louis

Two refugees who have resettled in St. Louis shared their stories of terror, survival and perseverance.

Ranga Nepal’s family was a member of an ethnic group driven out of their native Bhutan in the 1990s by the ruling monarchy. Like thousands of countrymen, Ranga ended up in Nepal, where he survived on a river bank for months, then made it to a refugee camp where he lived for 17 years. During this time, a mentor helped him receive a college education (he has a master’s degree in economics), and he returned to teach at his camp before his 2008 journey to the U.S. He is an International Institute case worker for local refugees, especially those from Bhutan, who face enormous cultural challenges as they adjust to life in this country.

“Language is a big problem,” he says. “Most refugees hardly read their own language. So their children learn English in school, and they have to rely on them. This takes away their traditional role as head of the family. They become isolated in their homes, and they feel meaningless in these new surroundings. There is a big suicide rate among the older generation.” But not in St. Louis, LeLaurin notes. “Ranga has focused on getting St. Louis’ Bhutanese residents out of their homes and acclimated within the community; much of this success is due to his work here.”

Shatha Najaf is a survivor of the civil war in Iraq between Sunni and Shia Muslims. She and her three children suffered the terror of her husband’s kidnapping, and when he was released, the family fled to Egypt. During three years there, her children were not allowed to attend school, an unacceptable situation for the Najaf family. They gained entry to the U.S. in 2009, and today, Najaf works at the International Institute as a case specialist, helping other refugees improve their English and learn to manage American life. “It’s not easy,” she says. “You don’t know how to shop, to make a dental appointment, or what to expect in a job interview. People feel lost.”

But Najaf thinks her family has finally found a safe place. “My kids will find a good life and future here,” she says. Nepal echoes the same sentiment, repeating the fierce desire of generations who’ve come to America to provide a better life for their families. “For us, he says, U.S.A. stands for U Start Again.”

Refugees receive a very limited resettlement grant from the federal government upon their arrival in the U.S. Those funds are likely to be part of upcoming budget cuts. The Tao Family Fund, a charitable arm of the International Institute, helps cover basic housing, food and transportation costs to help St. Louis refugees, especially small families and singles. Generous members of the audience donated more than $700 to the Tao fund at the conclusion of our meeting. To make a donation and get more information, visit