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Agata Di Maggio and Manuel Rodriguez

"We All Feel Insecure."

It's an unsettling time to be an immigrant. Three families tells us why they came here.

by Eve Silberman

From the October, 2017 issue

During last year's presidential election, Donald Trump fanned populist anger at undocumented immigrants, calling them criminals and blaming them for the economic struggles of native-born Americans. Since he took office, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has been deporting residents who lack legal status indiscriminately, from Chaldean merchants in Detroit to an Ann Arbor mom from Mexico who overstayed her visa.

Less noticed is his clampdown on legal immigration. Reversing fifty years of U.S. policy, Trump wants to lower the number of people admitted each year, and even briefly barred permanent residents from re-entering the country.

As the president closes what poet Emma Lazarus called "the Golden Door," we asked legal immigrants to tell their stories. Call them "the documented."


Navigating the global economy

When a Fiat subsidiary transferred Lorenzo Romeri to the Detroit area in 1997, he spent the evenings of his first month driving around southeastern Michigan looking for a place he and his wife would enjoy calling home. When he reached Ann Arbor, he knew he'd found it.

"You have a downtown, and you have shops and stores, and you can sit outside" at restaurants, he says. Unlike "the subdivisions and strip malls" he'd seen elsewhere Ann Arbor was "similar to a European city."

Romeri and his sixteen-year-old daughter, Anna, meet me at Black Diesel Coffee on a Saturday morning. They live nearby with his wife, Alessandra Dagostin, a dentist, and Anna's ten-year-old brother, Rocco. Romeri is slightly built, stylish in taut blue jeans and an Oxford shirt, and speaks with a mild accent. Anna has none; she talks eloquently about everything from her participation in the Huron High Ethics Bowl team to her absorption with Italian news. "I think of myself," she emphasizes, "as Italian American."

Romeri's career has spanned the global economy. He got an undergrad degree in business at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan and started working for Fiat in Turin; later, its metal-casting subsidiary sent him to

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London and then to Detroit. He earned an MBA in U-M's executive program in 2006.

He then took a consulting job so the family could move back to his and Dagostin's hometown, Trento, in the mountains of northern Italy. They had missed the cuisine (Romeri says there has been no "authentic" Italian restaurant in Ann Arbor since Bella Ciao closed in 2009) and wanted to be closer to relatives and old friends. But, after a little more than a year, they returned to Ann Arbor.

"I think you idealize the idea of returning back home," Romeri says of the reversal. There is "less bureaucracy" here, he says, explaining that back home it might take three days to renew your driver's license and horrendous paperwork to open a bank account. But the "biggest driver" for returning to the States, he says, was that there "are more opportunities" here for his children. Here, "it's easier to do what you want."

Like many European countries, Italy has very strong worker protections. "It is very difficult to fire somebody," he says, but also, he notes, very difficult for young people to get permanent jobs. Many languish for years in low-paying temporary positions.

Still, he had to weigh the pluses and minuses. Italy also has universal health care, with some small co-pays. "I know if I was to lose my job it's a much bigger deal [here]. I would lose my health insurance."

He's been working for DTE for seven years, promoted most recently to a position that analyzes responses to customer problems like power outages. (He's lost power himself in storms, and no, he can't magically get yours turned on, so don't call.)

The family lives near Buhr Park, and he and Dagostin became citizens in 2012. He remembers with pleasure the ceremony in the federal courthouse in Detroit. "They call out your name, and they say, 'What country do you come from?' and you shake hands and you take the pictures ... We found it very inclusive."

Watching an Italian news channel every night with his family, he's reminded that he's a "modern-age and privileged immigrant." He speaks with compassion about the refugees from Ethiopia and Syria who risk death at sea to reach Italy. And while he treads lightly on politics, he acknowledges that President Trump is often compared to former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, another flamboyant billionaire. But, he says, there's a difference: "In Italy, in the big scheme of things, whoever is in charge is not that important. But the U.S. affects other countries."

Fleeing crime and chaos

The first time I walked into Di Maggio Tires on Jackson Plaza, Agata Di Maggio was tensely watching TV in the tire retreading plant's small office. A Latin American news station flashed scenes of turmoil: soldiers lined up, demonstrators shouting, and a middle-aged man in sunglasses talking agitatedly in Spanish. "What's he saying?" I ask.

"He tells you they throw [tear gas] bombs inside the building," she says.

"Who's throwing them?" I ask. Di Maggio, a serious-looking woman whose dark hair is a shimmer of tiny ringlets, just shrugs. It could be the country's National Guard, or it could be the protestors who've taken to the streets to demand the resignation of Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro, who's defying the opposition-controlled National Assembly. "Almost sixty days protesting," she says. Maduro has since replaced the legislature with a new one of his own choosing. "Fifty-seven dead in the whole country."

Under Maduro and his predecessor, socialist dictator Hugo Chavez, Venezuela has suffered under oppressive government, huge inflation, and widespread crime. "It's very bad," says Di Maggio's husband, Manuel Rodriguez, coming in from the huge work space that holds machinery and hundreds of tires. "I was almost killed," the boyish-looking thirty-six-year-old explains matter-of-factly. "I got shot twice. I was robbed with a gun at my head."

This was in Barquisimeto, Venezuela's fourth-largest city, where the couple worked at a tire retreading company owned by Di Maggio's father. They finally decided to get out, Rodriguez says, when he got phone calls hinting his wife would be kidnapped. He recalls telling her, "I prefer to be at work, entry level [in the U.S.]. I don't want to worry about you being safe."

They were lucky to have options. Because Di Maggio's mother was born in Detroit, she was already an American citizen. (She's also a distant relative of the famous ballplayer.) Another high card: her dad, seeking an outside investment as Venezuela's economy tanked, had bought a retread factory in Miami. Rodriguez moved there first and started work; DiMaggio and their small son, Juan, joined him in July 2014.

Despite the plethora of Spanish-speaking workers--Rodriguez was just starting to learn English--he didn't particularly like Miami. In early 2015, he flew to Detroit to purchase a large number of used tires and learned that a retreading business in Ann Arbor was shutting down. He bought the factory in February 2015 and two months later opened Di Maggio Tires' Ann Arbor plant.

"I know tires," Rodriguez says, as he proudly shows me around the rambling building dominated by stacks of tires--a place five-year-old Juan loves to visit. Their first year in business was tough, the couple says, but things have improved. They have one employee and would like to hire more but are having trouble finding good help; one person quit without explanation after working just two hours.

The family lives in an apartment near Briarwood. Juan, who just started kindergarten, has picked up English easily. His parents find their English skills improving as they talk to customers.

Rodriguez has experienced some unpleasant moments as an immigrant, mostly outside Ann Arbor; an Ohio gas station worker asked him if he was Mexican, adding "We don't like Mexicans." And he is baffled by America's racial tensions; back home people of different colors mingle freely, he explains. But he enjoys how quiet Ann Arbor is compared to Miami and has started the process of becoming a U.S. citizen. With emotion, he exclaims, "Trump says he's going to make America great. America is great!"

Finding a place to be passionate

Born in the small Dutch town of Bemmel, Annemarie Toebosch first visited the U.S. as a teenager with an American friend. "I was sixteen," she remembers, "and I promised myself I would live here when I could."

Why? "The passion I felt in the country," says Toebosch, professor of Dutch and Flemish studies at U-M. "The Dutch are so much about ... even-keeled emotions and being compromising and being calm." She says they consider nuchter (pronounced something like "nis-ter") a defining national trait.

"I was told my whole childhood that I was not 'nuchter,'" she explains in a later email. "I was either 'too happy' or 'too sad,' 'too this' and 'too that,' essentially not even-keeled and dispassionate enough. I feel I fit in American culture because my emotional life is more accepted here."

I get a sense of that Dutch reserve when I meet Toebosch, forty-seven, and her mother Dina Toebosch-Janssen, eighty-five, at Zingerman's Roadhouse. Like her daughter, Toebosch-Janssen, a retired social worker, is slender, fair, stylish, and friendly. But when, snapping a cell phone photo, I suggest she hug her daughter, she folds her arms and says something disapproving in Dutch. Toebosch explains her mother sees no need to be so demonstrative--adding that the Dutch tend to regard such mugging as "insincere."

Toebosch, her husband, David Dugger, and her sons from a previous marriage, Timo, thirteen, and Joris, ten, live near Virginia Park. Their home is decorated with touches of the Netherlands--an antique coffee grinder, wooden shoes displayed on a windowsill--and they travel to Europe every summer to visit her mother and other relatives.

While she basks in Ann Arbor's progressive climate, Toebosch also believes that American parents are often too permissive (she's tougher about bedtimes than other parents, she says) and also too protective, shielding their kids from upsetting current events. Kids in the Netherlands, she says, regularly watch a children's TV news show that explains events at their level.

Toebosch praises the Dutch comprehensive social welfare system--health insurance is mandatory, but employers and the government bear most of the cost--and there are many added benefits, such as a government-provided helper for new mothers. On the other hand, she's impressed at how American families and neighbors voluntarily "set up really good ways of taking care of each other."

Toebosch recently rankled friends in the close Ann Arbor Dutch community by publishing an article in Newsweek titled "Shattering the Myth of Dutch Tolerance." It was prompted, she says, by Holland's March presidential primary, where Geert Wilders--"a Trump lookalike populist"--finished second. Recalling that as a child she "never stepped freely into the homes" of immigrants from Indonesia" (a Dutch colony until World War II), she argues that the Dutch have basked in a not-totally-deserved reputation for open-mindedness.

Her husband is an American citizen, and she has a green card that lets her live and work here. She readily acknowledges that, unlike Latinos, "there's no discrimination against people from my part of the world."

And yet, she says, "we all feel insecure" about Trump's verbal and legal attacks on immigrants.

Toebosch moved to Ann Arbor in 1995, earned a PhD in linguistics, and commuted to a teaching position at U-M Flint for eight years. In 2012, after her predecessor retired, she took charge of the tiny Dutch/Flemish language and culture program at the Ann Arbor campus.

Her classes fill up quickly. "Annemarie is such a kind-spirited teacher and phenomenal teacher," writes one student, on RateMyProfessors.com "The class is so interesting because she draws so much from her own cultural experience."

The kids confide in her. Recently, a Latina student cried in her office about her fear of deportation. Toebosch understood.

When Trump issued his first executive order on immigration in January, even permanent residents who were abroad were barred from reentering the country. Though the administration later backpedaled, Toebosch applied for citizenship in February.    (end of article)

[Originally published in October, 2017.]

 

 
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