Immigration conversation: Panelists discuss new legislation

On Tuesday, Sept. 17, at 6:30 p.m., over 100 patrons from St. Olaf College, Carleton College and the Northfield community gathered in Regents Hall to share opinions on current federal immigration laws. The crowd was diverse, with both international and domestic students, as well as a variety of community members, present. The discussion was dubbed Immigration 101. Associate Professor of Political Science at St. Olaf College and coordinator of the evening’s event, Douglas Casson, commenced the discussion. He introduced the designated panelists.

John Keller, Attorney and Executive Director of the Immigration Law Center; Ben Casper, Attorney and Director of the Center for New Americans; Beth Berry, outgoing Coordinator for Tackling Obstacles and Raising College Hopes TORCH in Northfield and Juve Meza, Co-Founder of Navigate Minnesota, headlined the event and served as propellers of the thought-provoking conversations. Each panelist gave short, five- to ten-minute speeches addressing immigration issues he or she found pertinent.

John Keller, a legal activist for undocumented individuals oppressed by the current immigration laws, began the evening’s topical discussion. In his opening words, he said that the current immigration laws are a “system of laws more complex than the U.S tax code.” He addressed the problematic nature of the laws and gave anecdotes proving his point. Keller was vehement in his dissatisfaction with immigration laws as they currently stand.

“It is broken,” said Keller of the current system, adding that both democrats and republicans share that opinion. Members of the audience laughed while simultaneously taking notes and listening attentively. Keller substantiated his claim on the brokenness of the laws.

“It is absurd,” he said in his discussion of individuals having to wait as long as 23 years to gain U.S. citizenship via sibling immigration. However, when ending his speech, Keller did admit to having some optimism for the future of the immigrations laws. He mentioned that the Senate passed an overhaul of the current immigration laws last June.

Succeeding a highly opinionated speech, Casper started his speech with an empathetic approach. He addressed the importance of taking into acount the personal stories of people dealing with immigration struggles while strategically using data to accomplish his main objective. According to Casper, the Department of Homeland Security alone has an $18 billion budget, whereas all other federal departments collectively have a budget comprising $6 billion. Casper focused on the idea that “nothing can be done at the state level.”

“There is no way for states to fix the issue of immigration,” he said.

During his speech, Casper spoke about the strategic planning of the government. He stated that the government intentionally implements harsh immigration laws so that undocumented individuals will “self deport.” Casper elaborated, stating that many undocumented individuals are disadvantaged financially and socially and thus are forced to return to their home countries.

Juve Meza further developed the evening’s discussion. He brought to the conversation the experience of an undocumented Latino man living in the U.S. Meza was brought to the U.S. with his family at a young age and was taught not to speak about his immigration status. He was influenced by a culture that “preached he was worthless.” As a result, he dropped out of high school in tenth grade.

Eventually, he returned to high school, completed his diploma and was privately funded to attend Augsburg College where he became student body president his senior year. Now, Meza shares his story at high schools to build awareness relating to undocumented children, particularly Latinos, within the U.S.

His approach at the panel was to educate the audience about the struggles of other children like him. He was especially passionate when speaking about the history of Minnesota’s undocumented students. Further substantiating Casper’s claim, Meza pointed out that the main obstacle that undocumented Latinos in the U.S. face is access to money.

“There is a cultural boundary,” Meza said.

The little money that is accessible for Latino families is spent on English remedial courses. Thus, these Latino families face continuous hardship as a result of efforts to culturally adapt to the new environment.

The last two speakers, Beth Berry, elementary counselor, and Chuck Walerius, head of the Northfield Police Department for the past 30 years, spoke about their experiences with undocumented individuals within the Northfield community. Berry spoke about success of the organization TORCH. TORCH has helped many undocumented people within the Northfield community find stability and achieve educational goals. Many young adults now hold undergraduate and graduate degree because of TORCH’s philanthropic work.

Berry’s vision for immigrants is that they become “prepared for when thedoor is open.” Though immigration laws are currently harsh for undocumented individuals, there is a fight for change. When that change occurs, Berry is adamant that one day undocumented individuals will be equipped with the essentials to be successful within the U.S.

Walerius conceded to Berry’s approach in that he uses a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy with the undocumented individuals living in Northfield. He said he believes the best way to help is to not make assumptions. Walerius wants to see people find stability and works with the rest of the police force to keep them out of trouble, working to keep crime low within Northfield.

Casper lauded the police department’s head, adding, “By not doing what you could do, you are doing a lot.”

The audience members contributed their opinions for the last 25 minutes of the discussion and raised issues pertaining to health care and remodeling of the immigration laws.

A common theme throughout all the speeches was that the fight to raise awareness about immigration issues is continuous. The panelists gave their last words, and Casson adjourned the conversation. There will be a follow-up forum on immigration laws in January 2014, as the Sept. 17 event was the beginning of an informed, ongoing conversation.