As the Great Immigration Debate rages in America and other countries, there's a modest bit of sanity — and humanity — happening in Palo Alto that brings people virtually face to face with real immigrants.
It is a resource that enables people to judge for themselves what is real versus fake in the exchange of views and epithets.
It is the product of soft-spoken but visionary Elliot Margolies, who has been affiliated with the Media Center in Palo Alto since its inception in 1990, when it was part of Cable Co-op, the original operator of local cable television, later bought out by AT&T. Margolies served as the center's executive director for 11 years before stepping down to focus on special projects.
One such project, he said, set the stage for a partnership with the Day Workers Center in Mountain View that led to the development of the "Made into America" database.
"My first entrance to the immigration projects on media was when I was a volunteer at the Day Workers Center in Mountain View (circa 2010) and I asked Maria Marroquin, the director, if I could write a grant proposal to train some workers on video production — and we jointly made a documentary about their lives," Margolies said.
"Borderless Dreams" is now used at community meetings when the workers center is trying to tell people about who they are.
"There were eight of them who went through the training and did the recording. They all came from different countries and found the Day Workers Center, which supports them with (English) classes and helps them find work," he said.
Marroquin herself is an immigrant who came from Mexico with her son and has been widely recognized for her work with immigrants.
Margolies said the $20,000 grant from the Silicon Valley Community Foundation was pivotal: "That grant enabled me not just to work with the day workers, but the foundation connected me with eight other organizations that provide services to new immigrants. So I learned a lot and was inspired by a variety of different groups."
Margolies also had a realization that impacted his life: "I thought that part of the problem with immigrant groups that are trying to build bridges with the community at large is the fact that nobody has the time to pay attention beyond a narrow range — and I include myself. ... It's hard to find the bandwidth to connect with people who are not in your immediate vision.
"So that's when I thought about starting a website that celebrated almost every American's background from another country. And that became the website archive of immigration stories called 'Made Into America.'
"At this point we have more than 500 stories of people who have come from every corner of the world, and from many different eras.
"We've got wonderful stories. It gives you an appreciation of the commonality, of the common experiences many people face when they start all over again from scratch in this amazing country."
Margolies said his basic inspiration "was to create an archive that would bring people together ... regardless of what country or what era they trace their immigration to," while "being under this common umbrella of families who are proud of their heritage" as they start a new life.
"It takes a lot of guts to start all over. Most people do not have a job waiting for them, and do not have command of English. And they're adults.
"I remember when I found my own grandfather's report card, from an English class, after work — he worked in the stockyards in Chicago. And you just feel a sense of appreciation and pride that they were able to do it. And usually a couple of generations later, the family has found its footing. His name was Usher Dushnitzer. He came in 1929, from Lithuania."
Margolies emphasizes that the immigrant-stories project was only possible due to significant support from others, such as the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, from Cal Humanities (formerly the Humanities Council for California), and the Bay Area-based Acton Family Giving fund.
There have been individuals who have had — and are still having — a huge impact on the stories project and on the topic of immigration as a whole, Margolies said.
One of those is Susan Chamberlain of the First Presbyterian Church of Palo Alto, who in February visited the Mexican border town of Nogales to observe the situation there. She and seven others from the church and 13 from the Presbyterian Church of San Jose spent six days seeing firsthand the high wall through Nogales that cut off community ties and access across the border. They hiked on a desert trail, interviewed asylum seekers and even a Border Patrol official, and witnessed court hearings where people were brought in shackled in groups of eight with no chance to tell their individual stories.
Members of the group are now working on how best to share their story of the soul-shaking tour.
As for the future of the immigrants-stories project, Margolies said there are community presentations and videos by the original eight day worker trainees — from Mexico, Central America and one from Peru — and others.
There's an open invitation to anyone to share a personal or family immigration story, in writing or on video or online.
Hostility to immigrants is historic, but there is a true crisis today, Margolies said. "Although Trump is the one who leads the charge visibly in our country, it's in other countries, too. There seems to be a wave of us-and-them feelings ... and it's crazy because we're facing, at the same time, more displacement through war than at any other time in world history.
"There are 65 million people who are out of their homes due to violence, and there are 22 million who are out of their countries looking for a place to live, like in refugee camps and whatnot."
Millions of stories.
Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at email@example.com.