Activists organize around immigration concerns

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People who come to the U.S. have the hope of living with dignity, said a speaker at a roundtable discussion on immigration reform.

About 50 people gathered last Sunday at El Milagro Lutheran Church in affiliation with ISAIAH, a church-based social justice organization, to express their concerns about current immigration laws to a board of community representatives.

Among the representatives were state senators Linda Berglin, DFL, and Karen Clark, DFL, Mexican consul, Wayne Matos, immigration attorney, Julie Zimmer, Hennepin County Administrator, Sandy Vargas, and University of Minnesota regent, Steve Hunter.

The discussion began with testimonies from Latinos in the community describing the hardships they face as immigrants in the U.S. They spoke about issues involving workers rights, education, racism and what they consider to be a dysfunctional immigration system.

“We work and we work and still see hunger in the faces of our wives and children,” said one speaker.

According to a document from the Research Department in the Minnesota House of Representatives, in 2003, an estimated 3.6 percent of the Minnesota population were not U.S. citizens.

Immigrants arriving to the U.S. after the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) are ineligible for Supplemental Security Income. After 5 years, it is the state’s decision to award them benefits such as food stamps, Medicaid, and TANF.

Also, many immigrants, even documented, are unaware they are not completely protected from deportation. According to the National Immigration Forum, in 1996, acts signed into law like the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA) greatly broadened the definition of “aggravated felony.” Since then, even legal documented immigrants have been deported for committing crimes such as car theft, writing bad checks, and drug possession/dealing.

After community members shared their frustrations, the board of representatives had an opportunity to respond. The first point many of the representatives made was that in order for the Latino community to prosper and change immigration policies, they need to be politically involved.

“We have to organize together and we have to speak up,” Vargas said.

Also mentioned was the importance of fighting racism and promoting education and economic development within Latino communities. Sen. Clark said it is “very clear” that racism plays a role in the issue of immigration and that voters must educate themselves to support representatives that don’t have so-called racist tendencies.

When the topic of education arose, some representatives brought up the importance of the Minnesota DREAM Act.

In 2003, a higher education omnibus, including the DREAM Act, passed in the Minnesota House and Senate. However, in May 2005, after Gov. Tim Pawlenty threatened to veto the omnibus, the In-State Tuition for Immigrant Status Bill, also known as the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, was removed.

The DREAM Act proposes that all students who have attended at least 3 years of high school in Minnesota and have graduated or attained an equivalent of high school graduation should be eligible for in-state tuition, regardless of their immigration status. The bill does not propose special benefits for undocumented students.

In a letter to the Minnesota Daily, University of Minnesota Department of Chicano Studies Chair, Louis Mendoza said that though some opponents to the DREAM Act believe they must protect the educational benefits of in-state tuition earned by legal citizens, those beliefs will result in great social gaps.

“In adopting this stance they will exploit an underlying xenophobia that heightens the distinction between the haves and the have-nots of citizenship in order to divert attention from the real source of economic woes,” he said.

“We must realize that we can better cultivate talent, superior intellect, a spirit of competitiveness and creativity if we promote opportunities for all to reach their potential,” Mendoza said.

According to the National Immigration Law Center, approximately 500 undocumented students graduate from Minnesota high schools every year and, since 2001, nine states have passed similar laws allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition. These states are Texas, California, Utah, Washington, New York, Oklahoma, Illinois, Kansas, and New Mexico.

Community groups like ISAIAH and a new group starting at the University of Minnesota have started organizing to advocate the DREAM Act for the next legislative session. The group at the University of Minnesota has already drafted an in-depth plan for advocating the bill.

The plan includes a once-a-week seminar at area high schools from many economic backgrounds. The seminars will be designed to improve leadership, public speaking, and understanding of the legislative system and public policies so that the students can help advocate.

Alondra Espejel, a member of the University’s group, said the program will hopefully help students connect with the issue by researching and sharing their own stories of how they and their families came to the U.S.