Forum draws large crowd
WORTHINGTON -- Discussions about issues pertaining to immigration, ongoing for several months, reached a new level Sunday at the Nobles County Integration Collaborative.
Between 200 and 250 people -- a standing-room-only crowd inside the old West Elementary gym -- gathered for a community forum on immigration matters. The event was moderated by State Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, and Mariano Espinoza, co-director of the Minnesota Immigrant Freedom Network. Also on the panel platform were State Rep. Doug Magnus, State Sen. Jim Vickerman, Worthington Mayor Alan Oberloh, Worthington Director of Public Safety Mike Cumiskey and Mexican Consul Nathan Wolf.
Sunday's well-attended forum took place three weeks after an informal Worthington gathering between Hamilton, Magnus, and more than a dozen individuals representing the local Hispanic, Lao and Ethiopian communities. Prior to that, local, state and federal officials had conducted several work sessions on immigration issues.
The event at the Collaborative, however, was the first organized occasion in which the immigrant community could offer comments to -- and ask questions of -- their public officials. Hamilton called it an opportunity to "initiate constructive dialogue between the local immigrant community and elected officials," and he and other government leaders pledged to work with immigrants to arrive at solutions to troublesome issues.
Mike Potter, a local union representative, was one of the first non-elected officials to speak, issuing a reminder that "a lot of people here have been affected by losing their loved ones through being deported" while adding that Gov. Tim Pawlenty's proposals on stricter immigration law would only increase hardship.
Hector Andrade, a local pastor and a naturalized American citizen, called upon legislators early in the forum to say where they stood on migration and immigration reform.
"It's a waste of time for all of us to be here if you all have different positions than we do," Andrade said. "If Gov. Pawlenty's ... proposal passes, it will be against the law for us to help our own parishioners."
Hamilton was the first to address Andrade's remarks.
"The issue I had with the initial (Pawlenty) proposal is that the focus was on enforcement and enforcement only," he said. "Enforcement may be part of the solution, but not the entire solution. We need balance ... in looking for reform."
Magnus, R-Slayton, said he believes that everyone can acknowledge the need for some kind of reform.
"On one hand, there are groups of people who want complete amnesty," he said. "On the other hand, there are groups of people who want to export everyone not obeying the current law. I don't believe either extreme is the answer to our current situation."
Magnus said the immigrant population of southwest Minnesota is critical to the region's economic future. Vickerman, DFL-Tracy, agreed.
"I don't think you can separate the two," Vickerman said of immigration and economic development. "In order to have economic development, you have to workers.
"We want you here, we need you here and we can help you, but you need to obey the same laws as I have to," he added. "My dream is to have you come to Worthington ... and own a home, and be a part of it (community).
Several of the questions posed at the forum pertained to law enforcement. Cumiskey addressed inquires on such matters as: how closely the local police department works with federal immigration officers; when an individual may be questioned about immigrant status; providing of documents by passengers in a vehicle pulled over for a traffic violation; and how a traffic ticket could potentially impact pending legal immigrant status.
The matter of limits on visas was also broached by Worthington's Racquel Andrade, who offered an example of people properly going through the process of getting approved but yet having to wait as long as 10 years because of a limit on the number of visas that can be issued by the federal government. Hamilton noted that Pawlenty's second immigration reform proposal included increasing the number of granted visas; he also noted that only 5,000 between 50,000 and 60,000 visas issued are for agriculture-related work.
"That's a big reason why we're in a situation such as this," Hamilton said.
Another topic discussed was acceptance of the matricula consular, an official identity card issued by the Mexican government, as legal documentation within the City of Worthington. Wolf indicated that cities such as Minneapolis, St. Paul and Chaska are recognizing the ID cards, and said the City of Worthington would have the ability to decide if it wanted to, as well.
Moments before the closing statements began, a final question was posed to government officials:
"How can we keep immigration from being a wedge issue this election year?"
A loud round of applause followed.