Local minorities following immigration discussions
WORTHINGTON -- Jose Comparan remembers how it used to be, 12 years ago, when he arrived in Worthington and was the only Hispanic worshipper at a local church.
"I was seated. And the people seated next to me, they left a seat open next to me," he recalled Tuesday. "But now you go there and they talk to you, and they sit next to you. A lot of (Americans) now go to Spanish Mass because they want to participate."
Worthington, indeed, has become a more welcoming community, Comparan said. But locally, as well as nationally, he explained, more changes need to happen for minority residents to feel truly comfortable. At a time when U.S. House and Senate leaders are debating sweeping immigration legislation -- talking about sealing the southern border at the same time they're discussing new opportunities for guest workers -- local minorities are paying close attention.
New get-tough policies, including erecting a 700-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, making being an undocumented immigrant a felony and criminalizing aid to illegal immigrants, are being heard in the House.
The strong measures have sparked large rallies across the country. Worthington residents, too, are considering organizing their own rally in support of immigrant rights, and plan a 2 p.m. Sunday meeting at the Nobles County Integration Collaborative to discuss the idea.
Comparan, president of Nobles County Community Action (NCCA), supports an amnesty program for all illegal immigrants now working in the United States.
"Everybody here has a right to work and be together with their families," he said. "They want to bring their families here, and in order to do that, they have to have the right papers."
Comparan agrees with local city and law enforcement personnel that the false documentation of illegal immigrants is a serious concern. Steps should be taken, he said, not to deport those individuals but to eliminate the need to hide their real identities. He favors a Michigan system in which immigrants can show birth certificates and be given a test to get driver's licenses.
"They don't need to show a different name to police. They can show their real name," he said.
Another Worthington resident, Geraldo "Pancho" Lira, arrived as an illegal at age 18 and was unable to speak English. He now speaks English well, owns his own house and is a foreman at the railroad company for which he works.
Lira wants today's illegals to have the opportunity he had -- to become citizens.
"They come up here just to work and to better themselves. I was one of them," Lira said. "I came from a long ways. I knew if I wanted to stay here and live here, I had to speak the language."
Opportunity should be coupled with personal responsibility, Lira said.
"I think they should give the six months or a year permission (to work)," he said. "And if they're going to get in trouble, then send them back. You can tell right away if they're going to do good or they do bad. They should be given a chance. But I'm doing good. I'm doing really good."
Comparan warned that if all of Worthington's illegals are made to leave, the local economy would suffer -- the Swift & Co. meatpacking plant would be devastated, he said.
"I tell you what, if they make these (illegals) leave, Swift will close, because there will not be enough people to work. And a lot of stores -- the economy won't work," Comparan said.
When Gov. Tim Pawlenty arrived in Worthington recently to discuss enacting his own get-tough policies, the local minority population was fearful, Comparan explained.
"The people were afraid when the Minnesota governor, Pawlenty -- when he wanted to change the laws in Minnesota. There was a lot of people scared. ... Some people were saying the police, they were checking papers, and they were afraid. They wanted to stay home," he said.
But Comparan agrees with local law enforcement officers that illegal documentation is easy to get.
"I talk to people and they tell me that, 'Anytime I get in trouble, I can throw the paper away and get a different name. I feel like it's a privilege -- any time I get in trouble, I can get a different name,"' he said. "If you wanted to, it's easy for you, too."