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Officials talk immigration

Immigration — both illegal and legal — has emerged in recent years as the most controversial topic in Austin, with citizens taking sides and attacking each other’s viewpoints in a manner seldom seen in any other issue.

A public forum hosted Monday by the Minnesota Coalition of Immigration Reduction drew more than 100 people; an article the following day on the Herald’s Web site generated more than 50 postings — most emotional and many heated — in three days.

Several entities in the community were severely criticized by a forum of panelists, who included representatives from organizations with vested interests in immigration reduction. The City of Austin, law enforcement and the Welcome Center were chastised for aiding illegals, whom the speakers believe are attracted to the community because resources are available here.

“You need to shut the Welcome Center down,” Minuteman Ron Branstner demanded attendees, who responded with applause Monday. “It’s a magnet for the whole state of Minnesota.”

Branstner claimed the non-profit, founded in 2000 by the local organization APEX to provide services to newcomers with language barriers, receives millions of dollars in federal funding.

Welcome Center Executive Director Liliana Silvestry, who was not in attendance at the forum, rebutted that they do not receive any federal funding whatsoever, and that she has yet to see such documentation.

“It is funded most of the time coming from foundations — locally and out of state — also friends and supporters,” Silvestry said Thursday. “We don’t receive state funds except local funds from the city. We have an agreement for services with the county.”

Silvestry said the group hosting the forum has an agenda to “shut the Welcome Center down.”

“It’s a message of racism,” she said, adding that she believes the group is pinning societal and economic problems on immigrants. “Do you think people want to come to a community where people are fighting against each other?

“This is a small group, but if people start believing them, we are going to go back to Ku Klux Klan,” she said. “That might be an extreme, but this community has always been welcoming, and strives to provide everyone in this community a good quality of life.

“It’s sad to say the economy has affected everyone, regardless of the socioeconomics or what country they are coming from,” Silvestry said.

Contrary to some opinions, she said, the Welcome Center provides more than just services to Hispanic immigrants new to Austin.

“Our services also benefit businesses in the community — we’re talking about not only the hospital, but public services, we’re talking about landlords, car dealers, repairs, cable, phone companies,” she explained. “The community thinks it’s only for newcomers, and it’s not. We serve everyone in this community.”

Crime has been a point of contention for Austin residents, with some blaming high rates on immigrant populations, particularly illegals.

Austin Police Chief Paul Philipp said law enforcement is doing what they can in regards to illegal immigration — and that isn’t much.

“The long and short of it is, very simply, that immigration laws are federal laws,” Philipp said. “So because we’re not federal law enforcement officials, we do not have the ability or the permission to question people’s status in regard to immigration. When we stop someone, and we are talking to them about a traffic law violation, and we suspect they may or may not be here illegal, we have no right to ask them for their papers.”

Agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Immigration and Naturalization Service are so bogged down with work, the chief said, that crimes like traffic violations resulting in illegal status findings are not a priority.

“They really limit their involvement to the more serious cases,” he said.

Philipp said he believes change needs to happen on a federal level, and does recognize the issue of illegal immigration concerns citizens.

“I sense it’s such a political hot potato no one really wants to make decisions,” Philipp said. “It’s a huge and significant issue in our state and in our city, but is something we really look to the federal government to make some real decisions.

“I think citizens deserve that,” he said. “Most folks try and be law-abiding people, and they see this violation of immigration laws as going unanswered.”

Meatpacking plant raids were a hot debate Monday, with citizens asking why facilities like Agriprocessors in Postville, Iowa have been busted, netting numerous illegals, and Austin’s own Hormel Foods has not. They claimed Mower County Sheriff Terese Amazi told them raids were planned three times, and “directives from Washington D.C.” stopped them each time; this claim has not been substantiated.

“We have had teams of enforcement officials from ICE come and do work in our community before,” Philipp explained, referring to agents seeking specific offenders for arrest. “Those have been very limited and very selective in nature.”

As far as companies like Hormel and Quality Pork Processors knowingly employing illegals, Philipp said he believes they go “above and beyond” what is required.

“From what I know, Hormel and QPP do use what ICE considers to be the state-o-f-the-art system and process that they recommend for immigration-checking during employment.

“Obviously, the most significant problem that comes up with that is that a lot of the people who come here illegally are actually using true identification,” he said.

Mayor Tom Stiehm, a retired detective with the police department, agrees that companies are doing what they can to deter illegal applicants, and denies allegations Austin is a “sanctuary city.”

“Austin is not a sanctuary city because we do not offer sanctuary to illegal immigrants,” Stiehm said. “Austin goes above what cities do already. We do everything in our power to enforce these laws. We check immigration status as soon as they’re arrested. If we get somebody who’s illegal, they go up to jail and we contact ICE.

“I don’t think the city should be coddling illegals,” he added. “One of the reasons I ran (for office) is because I was kind of familiar with this.”

Branstner has also chided the city for not utilizing the 287(g) program, a partnership through ICE that authorizes local law enforcement to enter into an agreement to “perform immigration law enforcement functions.”

Stiehm claims Branstner admitted to him he contacted ICE about training Austin police in 287(g), and they said coming to the city was not going to happen; officers would only be allowed to enforce it if they came to work in the metro area.

“He knows 287(g) would not work in Austin, and at the same time he’ll say that,” he said, referring to statements made at the forum. “He’s not telling the truth.

“Everyone knows it’s a problem,” he said of illegal immigration. “I’ve been to these forums before; they are not an exchange of information — it’s a shouting match. We don’t need people from outside of town coming in trying to rile everyone.”

Stiehm said he supports any change to immigration laws at a regional or national basis.

“Anything is better than what we have right now,” Stiehm said.