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Immigrants take their turn at microphone

WORTHINGTON -- During the past month, local, state and federal officials have converged on Worthington to discuss illegal immigration.

Yet in all of those meetings, one key element was missing -- the immigrants.

In an informal setting at a downtown coffee shop Saturday, state Reps. Doug Magnus and Rod Hamilton met with more than a dozen individuals representing the local Hispanic, Lao and Ethiopian communities. Their goal -- to listen and gather suggestions on reforming immigration in the United States.

The meeting came just days after Gov. Tim Pawlenty unveiled a proposal to thwart illegal immigration in Minnesota.

That proposal, and the subsequent article that appeared in the Daily Globe on Jan. 4, created a fear among many in the community's immigrant population.

Sharon Johnson, coordinator of the Nobles County Integration Collaborative, said she fielded numerous calls from people afraid to leave their home -- even to go grocery shopping -- because they feared being deported. Many, still learning the English language and culture, mistook the governor's proposal as a new law.

Though specific points of the proposal were not discussed Saturday, Magnus, R-Slayton, said he is not in support of all of the issues the governor outlined. Both he and Hamilton said the proposal is too focused on enforcement.

"It seems like we're going down the road of enforcement and enforcement only," said Hamilton, a freshman Republican legislator from Mountain Lake.

That was great concern to immigrants in attendance as well.

"My concern is that Governor Pawlenty and the Republican Party are color-blind," said Leticia Rodriguez. She said all of the discussions about illegal immigration have focused on South America and the Mexican border. "They don't talk about Canadians or Asians like that -- only Mexicans. That's my race, and you're picking on my race."

Rodriguez said the problems with illegal immigration will not be fixed with enforcement, to which Mike Potter agreed.

"You're going to step up racial profiling," said Potter, a local union representative. "They haven't talked about how they're going to close the Canadian border."

Potter said the only thing enforcement of illegal immigration is going to do is create more work for police officers -- officers who should be more concerned with those who break the law than of the color of a person's skin.

He reminded the legislators that immigrants -- legal or illegal -- contribute greatly to the economy with the goods and services they purchase and their payment of taxes. Those tax dollars, said Potter, are helping the U.S. fight a global war on terrorism. Money has also gone unclaimed through the Social Security system, helping to keep the program afloat.

Potter said immigrants come to this country to work hard and to create a good life for their families.

"I don't see anything wrong with people trying to better themselves," said Potter. "This country was built on the immigration of people coming from all around the world."

"(Illegal immigrants) want to obey the laws -- they're here because they need to work, not because they want to take advantage of anybody," added Tina Gonzalez. She helps illegal immigrants obtain necessary documentation through Liberty Tax Service so they can open their own bank accounts.

Tempers flared at times during Saturday's discussion, with a couple of immigrants placing blame on the Republican party for what they see as an attempt to divide a nation that was forged from many ethnic backgrounds.

Still, the discussion resulted in some valid points for future discussion on the issue of illegal immigration. Magnus and Hamilton came to Worthington in search of ideas to write new immigration legislation, and they took with them an array of suggestions.

Among those offered by attendees:

l Don't create a system that might lead to racial profiling.

l Allow illegal immigrants to obtain legal identification. In Michigan, for instance, illegal immigrants can obtain a valid driver's license by showing proof of their birth certificate and valid driver's license from their home country, said Jose Comparan. He said Minnesota's rules force people to steal identities or give fictitious names.

"If we have a legal venue where I can use my real name, we won't have a problem with people using multiple ID's," added Mariano Espinoza, director of the Minnesota Immigrant Freedom Network.

l Lower the cost to obtain legal documentation.

"If we can decrease how much money it takes for someone to be legalized, maybe people will get the documents to be legalized," said Thongsay Chantarath. She said it costs about $1,000 per person -- and that's just to start the process of getting a Green Card.

l Amnesty. Allow those illegal immigrants who are already living and working here, and being good members of society to stay.

"Why kick them out?" questioned Aida Simon. "Why not give them the opportunity -- give them the chance to work? Stop looking at the skin. We're all as one -- give us a chance."

l Reduce the amount of red tape and time it takes for an immigrant to obtain legal documentation.

l Increase the number of visas -- the U.S. only issues 5,000 visas for low-wage workers from around the world to enter the U.S.; and

l Be pro-active with education and communication. State communications should be translated to the different languages represented in Minnesota.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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