By Lynne Beauchamp,

What is it like to be an immigrant or refugee in Michigan? What makes a person flee their country and family to come to the United States?

St. James Episcopal Church in Dexter held its latest Coffee and Conversation on September 27, part of an ongoing series of events, with the topic of refugees and immigrants in Michigan.

The evening’s speakers included Kayla Park, Samaritas Youth Services in Detroit and Dr. Paul Fleming of the University of Michigan School of Public Health.


With Samaritas, Park works in the Refugee Foster Care Program. She said through Samaritas, children in refugee camps are brought to the United States and resettled in foster care. She said children they work with primarily come from Africa (13%), Asia (8%) and Central America (75%) and the children have fled for a variety of reasons, such as human trafficking. She added that of the children Samaritas works with, 85% are between the ages of 17-20. Parks explained that many of those entered into the refugee camp at the age of 9, but due to the long referral process, were not placed into the system until several years later.

Park began her discussion with asking the audience to close their eyes and asking if they knew where their children were, what country they were in; if they are safe and did they have a place to turn to if in trouble; do they have food and water, are they in school?

“These are all basic necessities a child should have the right to,” said Park and explained there are thousands of children around the world who do not have access to any of these things. Because they are in refugee camps around the world.

Park said once the children are brought to the United States, they face many obstacles including getting a visa or green card. From there, the transition to life in the US includes language barriers, cultural differences, enrolling in school and then finding a job. She added these children also have to deal with loss and tragedy, having left their families behind.

Park added that through the foster program, these children now have hope and a future. She said the current laws have made it difficult for refugee children to be placed in homes but Samaritas continues to search for people willing to home the refugee children that have made it through the system.

One refugee foster parent that was in attendance, spoke on what fostering a refugee child meant to him.

He said after discovering the need for fostering refugee children, he and his wife fostered a boy from Guatemala. He learned the boy had fled and then was kidnapped in Mexico where he was held for ransom. He said eventually the boy spent time in a detention center in Texas before being connected with Samaritas.  The foster parent said, after overcoming language barriers, the experience of fostering this young man has been a joy. He said the boy is enrolled in school and is doing well adjusting to life in the states.

“I challenge anyone who criticizes these children or refugees, to spend a day with this kid and tell me he’s a risk to our nation,” said the foster parent (who will remain anonymous for privacy reasons). “He’s a beautiful child and I hope he gets a new start in the United States.”

Dr. Paul Fleming spoke on some of the challenges that immigrants to the US face. Fleming’s side of immigration comes from health and wellbeing. He began his work in the Peace Corp in Nicaragua and saw how those living there were impacted by trying to find jobs and other issues.

During his discussion, Fleming spoke primarily about undocumented immigrants. He said, as of 2014, 66% of unauthorized immigrants had been in the US for 10 years or more.

He said immigrants are coming to the US for a variety of reasons-foreign government policy; escaping gangs, violence and drugs; employment opportunities (skilled work or no work in their country); familial reasons; and educational opportunities.

Fleming said the legal process of immigrants coming to the US is complicated, timely and costly.

In Michigan, Fleming said over half a million residents were born abroad-7% of Michiganders. He said in the US that percentage is 13%. He added there has been a 10% immigration growth in Michigan compared to 5% immigration growth in the US. He said in Washtenaw County there are about 43,000 foreign born residents but added he did not have an accurate count of how many were undocumented-estimating it to be about 3,000-4,000. He said of many of these immigrants, documented or not, studies have shown these residents have made an economic impact through spending and in taxes paid.

Fleming also discussed Immigration Enforcement System and its impact.

He noted deportations of immigrants increased post 9/11. Fleming said the Bush Administration implemented new immigration enforcement mechanisms and created ICE, the police body that enforces immigration laws in this country. He added that during the Obama years, there was another spike in deportations.

Fleming said with deportations, there are consequences. Through Fleming’s experience in Public Health, he gave an example of how one deportation can effect a community. An unauthorized immigrant lived with his female partner and the couple have children that attend school. The immigrant pays rent, works and is active in his community. After a traffic violation, the unauthorized immigrant is detained for months and eventually deported. His coworkers hear of the news and stop coming to work fearing they could be deported. Without his income, his partner is evicted, and she and the children are forced to move in with family. The example goes on to say with deportation of one, the impact can affect a community-employers lose experienced workers, families lose income, landlords lose tenants, storeowners lose revenue, and municipalities start to lose its tax base while many families are faced with sudden losses.

Fleming added that it is fair to say that some may feel immigration laws are just and should be enforced, but these deportations also create a fear and paralysis in communities that include documented and undocumented immigrants.

Fleming, through his project work in this new era of immigration and deportation has found that in Washtenaw County many immigrants are avoiding the health care system (not being able to obtain Obamacare or other government health resources due to documentation requirements and not being able to afford other health insurance), avoiding public places for fear of deportation and many are having other public health issues associated with fear of deportation. He said his work and research continues in Washtenaw County on public health issues of immigrants.

The next Coffee and Conversation is scheduled for November 8, 6:30pm-8:30pm. The topic for the evening is Native American Issues in Michigan. The event is open to all. St. James Episcopal Church is located at 3279 Broad Street in downtown Dexter.