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Appreciating our differences: Immigrant Heritage Month

News Article
In honor of Immigrant Heritage Month, Civic Life asked June Schumann – an activist, chair of the Minoru Yasui Legacy Project, and member of the Immigrant and Refugee Program’s New Portlanders Policy Commission – to share the story of her family’s immigration to the US.

My mother is a Nisei, a Japanese American child of immigrants from Japan. She was born in Seattle, Washington. Shortly after she graduated from high School, she went to Japan to study language and culture. Her plans changed when she was hospitalized for a long illness. In the hospital, she met and later married the Japanese physician who cared for her. I was born shortly after war WWII was declared between Japan and the United States. My father was drafted into the Japanese army and was killed in the war. My mother, a US citizen became a widow with two small children in Japan. In the United States, her parents and sisters were forced to move away from Seattle by government orders. They avoided the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans in concentration camps by moving to Denver, Colorado where my grandmother's relative lived. 

My earliest memories are of post-WWII Japan. Many people had lost their homes and were dislocated. There were food shortages and many of my classmates at school had lost one or both parents because of the war. Although my mother was an American citizen, she could not return to the United States because my sister and I were classified as alien dependents. It was not until the Walters-McCarron Act passed in 1952 that Japanese citizens were allowed to immigrate to the US again. We moved to Denver, and my mother attended night school to brush up on typing and steno to find a job as a clerk-typist to support herself and two children. My sister and I attended Denver public schools where we learned English and American ways. We became naturalized citizens a few years later. As I was becoming an American, I remember, even as a child, I remember wanting to remember my Japanese upbringing as part of my identity.

After college, I taught in public schools, got married, and found myself in Philadelphia during the civil rights movement of ‘60s and ‘70s. The Black Power movement of that era had a significant influence on my thinking about American race relations and identity and helped me realize the importance of each of us finding words and concepts that lead to our own self-identities. I became more aware of what it means to be a Japanese American and being part of the Asian American community. I obtained a master’s degree in Social Work and started a long career in community organizing and social planning. I am now retired, but I am involved as a community activist and serve as chair of the Minoru Yasui Legacy Project and on the Executive Committee of the New Portlanders Policy Commission.

Through her activism work, June also helped establish many groups working for racial equity and education, including the Asian American Council of Greater Philadelphia, Portland Taiko, and the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center, (not called Japanese American Museum of Oregon). In her current role with the NPPC, she knows a lot about the ways in which the City of Portland can better welcome and support our immigrant and refugee community members.

June Schumann:

The NPPC, in collaboration with other organizations, can help make Portland a city where everyone can feel safe and welcome, and where we can appreciate the value that everyone adds to our community. We are seeing a growth in immigrants and refugees in our community because of people seeking better education and opportunities, but also because of world events and economic conditions. Cities like Portland need to understand that we are now living in communities that include people whose cultures and life experiences are different. We need to learn how to use our difference to help us benefit and grow, rather than responding negatively or shutting people out of our communities.

Immigrants tend to be younger and of working age, while the American population in general is moving towards older age groups. The City needs to embrace immigrants as a sources for adding enterprising vitality to our population. We need to do more to fight the stereotype of immigrants as needy, taking jobs away from the Americans, and over-using public assistance programs. The New American Economy studies show that immigrants make significant economic contributions to the City and to Oregon. During the pandemic, greater portion of immigrants (including undocumented immigrants) have worked in essential jobs, putting themselves at greater risk. Many immigrants also worked in hospitality service jobs that disappeared due the pandemic. Yet unemployment benefits do not cover undocumented workers. With advocacy from statewide organizations and the city, including NPPC and other community organizations, the City contributed significantly to the Oregon Worker Relief Fund. But the work is not done.

We need to keep addressing concrete needs and policies to make life more equitable for everyone.

To learn more about how to support our immigrant and refugee communities, visit Civic Life’s Immigrant and Refugee Program website or email Mariya Klimenko at Mariya.Klimenko@portlandoregon.gov!