Felix Kucenas, of Belleville, immigrated to the United State from Lithuania when he was just 4 years old after World War II. His family was fleeing the Russian army, which had threatened to deport Kucenas’ father, a freedom fighter turned farmer, to Siberia.
German and Russian troops destroyed their family farm multiple times and threats to their freedom caused the family to flee as refugees to Germany. They lived in a displaced persons camp for four years until a farmer from Montana sponsored the family. They lived in Montana for nine months, eventually moving to Springfield, Ill., and then in 1951 to East St. Louis, where Kucenas grew up.
More than 60 years later, Kucenas says the recent order from President Donald Trump barring citizens of seven predominantly Muslim nations from entering the United States concerns him.
“I am very grateful to be an immigrant,” Kucenas said. “As far as today’s situation, I feel for a lot of these refugees. They’re just fleeing their tragic situation just like my family did.”
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To address issues refugees face under the Trump administration, a local group has organized a protest set for Tuesday to rally against Trump’s order. Shannon Russell of Belleville, one of the individuals organizing the protest, said he expects at least 40 individuals to show up to the event.
“If you are at all concerned about the treatment of Muslims, of immigrants, if you are at all concerned about the huddled masses, please join us,” Russell said.
The protest starts at 4 p.m. on the Bank of America corner of the public Square in downtown Belleville. U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, has an office in that building. Alex Enyart, a local attorney who focuses on immigration law, says he hopes to urge Bost to resist the president’s order. Bost on Sunday supported the president’s order, saying “Given the world we live in today, taking steps to strengthen our national security is simple common sense.”
Enyart says the order goes too far, however.
“I believe firmly in this country. America is supposed to be a beacon of light and hope, and Donald Trump is flipping the switch,” Enyart said.
Enyart said he views the executive order as overstepping the president’s boundaries by not offering due process or warning to immigrants, refugees and “green card” holders. He said there should have been a period for rule-making, questions and comments before instituting the order.
The attorney says he also plans to provide legal counsel to local foreign nationals who might be worried about their legal status.
“I want to show people that there is a way to resist Donald Trump,” Enyart said.
Belleville police have been notified of the protest, Enyart said. Police prohibit protesters from giving out handbills and said protesters should not obstruct traffic or pedestrian right of way.
As for the immigrant from Lithuania who moved to America when he was just a kid, he said he understands the need to protect the nation from terrorism, but he said blocking refugees is not the solution to freedom.
“There’s radicals in every religion,” Kucenas said. “But you cannot just throw a blanket over this whole thing. There's no 100 percent fool-proof way to protect everybody.”
Kucenas’ parents didn’t live to see their native country freed from Soviet rule in 1991, but Kucenas says he and his siblings appreciate their parents’ efforts to make a better life for them.
“When somebody moves here and they’re already past middle age, it’s hard for them to adapt. They’re only doing this for their kids so they can have a decent upbringing and life,” Kucenas said. “As you get older, you start really appreciating what they did.”