Immigration workshops bring out both sides

Published 6:34 am Monday, September 14, 2009

Nothing stirs the pot in Austin like immigration, whether it’s legal or illegal. So a series of workshops at the Austin Public Library on Saturday was no exception, as opinions mixed like oil and water.

The presentations were hosted by several groups — including the migrant rights group Centro Campesino — as part of “Journey of Hope: Minnesota March for Justice, Opportunity and Against Racism,” a three-day event that begin in Owatonna Friday and ended in Albert Lea Sunday.

Workshops included “Latino Voices,” a panel discussion about immigration life presented by Resource Center of the Americas; “Immigration 101,” an interactive presentation about immigration laws, facts and myths, presented by The Advocates for Human Rights; and “Taking Action in Our Communities and Organizing for Reform,” a presentation about generating ideas for creating welcoming communities and to organize for reform.

Yellow-vested volunteers from the Minnesota Peace Team were asked to attend by Centro Campesino. The non-partisan group responds to community requests to be present in potentially volatile situations.

“Our sole purpose in this case is to provide protection for people,” said Ann Frisch, a Peace Team member from White Bear Lake. Frisch said an example of what they do would include moving in between people who are fighting.

“We don’t protect one side,” she said. “We’re not here to be heroes.”

The Advocates for Human Rights presented the second workshop, “Immigration 101.”

“Basically, there are international human rights laws, and our job is to protect those rights,” program associate Madeline Lohman said.

Lohman and program assistant Anna Donnelly explained how immigrants obtain citizenship and what rights refugees, temporary workers, U.S. citizens and illegal immigrants have.

“The basic foundation of our immigration laws is about 20 years old,” Lohman said. As changes or additions are needed, they are tacked on, making the laws complicated.

“The vast majority of immigrants come on family visas,” Lohman said. “The immigration process is long, costly and stressful.” It is much easier to obtain citizenship if an immigrant has a U.S. relative; however, the waiting period can be as long as seven years, or even 23 years for siblings from the Philippines, she said.

“Right now, they are processing applications that were filed in 2003,” Donnelly said.

People were asked to participate in activities, including one where they were they were given a question, and then moved to sides of the room that said “Agree” or “Disagree,” or they could go in the middle if they both agreed and disagreed. Attendees were asked their opinions about immigration laws and immigration in general, including whether or not the U.S. treats immigrants fairly.

“From a Christian perspective … we might not always have the economic means, but we try to,” Sister Ruth Snyder said.

“I think our community makes them feel too welcome,” said Sam Johnson, member of the National Socialist Movement, a white-supremacist party open to non-Semitic heterosexuals of European descent. He and two other members were present for two of the workshops.

“I think there’s comments you have made that have made them feel not welcome,” said Eva Benavidez of the Resource Center of the Americas, referring to immigrants in the audience.

“There’s three Nazis here, and the rest of you are liberal communists,” Johnson replied.

Cpl. Erik Flann of the NSM countered The Advocates’ claim they neither support nor denounce immigration.

“Why are only the pros discussed, and not the cons of why immigrants come to America?” Flann asked.

“There are certain categories of Americans who are hurt by low-skilled immigrants,” Lohman said, referring to immigrants “taking” Americans’ jobs in manufacturing.

“So, you’re biased,” Flann said when she did not answer the question.

“No, we’re expressing our opinion, which is supported by facts,” Lohman said. “We believe that immigration is a positive.” During the beginning of the workshop, Lohman had stated: “There is not really a position whether we are for or against immigration.”

“What he’s trying to say is, there should have been some kind of in-between,” NSM member Sam Johnson explained.

“We rely on our audience to contribute,” Lohman said, claiming opinions like those of the NSM are welcomed at their workshops.

“We’re like the NAACP,” Flann said later in the discussion, “but we can’t exist because we’re for white people and they’re for black people — we’re ‘racist.’”

An immigration rally had been scheduled to begin that evening at Tienda Y Taqueria Guerrero, next to the library, but did not transpire.