The only thing I would have changed about last night’s immigration forum at our church was the low attendance. There were only nineteen people there. We limited publicity this time, because we were not sure of what kind of response we would get. Lesson learned – next time we will spread the word more broadly.
The presentation itself was outstanding. Suzanne Gladney of Legal Aid of Western Missouri spoke for just over an hour and took questions from the group. She spoke in both English and Spanish; about five of the attendees only spoke English and the rest were either bilingual or Spanish speakers. Her remarks were very informative and pragmatic. A sample:
- No laws can be made unless both houses of our legislature agree on them and they are signed by our president. The talk about immigration reform is just talk until it becomes law, and even then it will take months or even years for implementation.
- If you have questions about immigration laws, do not go to the Immigration Office for help; that’s not their job. Their job is to arrest you and deport you. Instead, find an honest lawyer. She then provided a list of a dozen or so lawyers who are, in her opinion, honest and who have someone in their office who speaks Spanish.
- If you are anticipating some kind of amnesty in the future, start preparing now by collecting the appropriate documentation proving how long you have been in the country.
- Almost all of the 20 – 35 immigration cases she handles per day start out as minor legal violations (parking tickets, broken taillights, not having your headlights on in the rain, etc.). The Immigration Service is not out making arrests on the street, but the police are required to make referrals. Know the laws and follow them.
- There is a difference between a notario in most Latin American countries and a notary public in the U.S. A notario has special training and legal connections; a notary public has $25 and can fill out an application form. Many notaries in the U.S. take advantage of this misunderstanding and bilk immigrants out of thousands of dollars.
- Currently, the only ways to legally immigrate to the U.S. are 1) via a family member who is a citizen or 2) through employment. There is no provision based on length of time residing here.
- One of the most “personal opinion” moments happened when Suzanne lamented the false perception that immigrating legally to this country is an easy process. “From what you read in the press, you would think it is as easy as filling out a single piece of paper,” she said. Actually it is a lengthy, expensive, and complicated process.
And this is the reality that I have been trying to confront. I am only tangentially interested in the question of what to do with people who want to be here illegally. The point I have been trying to make all along is that immigration is very, very difficult for those who want to be here legally, and this process is in need of reform. It is very easy to say, “They are criminals, and should be treated as such.” But it is not so easy to say, “They do not want to be criminals, but our system makes it nearly impossible for them to be otherwise.”
I think our forum was consistent with the United Methodist Discipline's encouragement “to continue to work with community-based organizations to provide forums for citizens to voice concerns, educate one another, and confront the problems of racism and xenophobia as obstacles to building community.” And yes, there was one man at the forum I would consider to be a smidge xenophobic. He was not vocal during the forum, but afterwards he engaged Suzanne in a quietly angry conversation. I only picked up bits and pieces, but Suzanne reported to me that his remarks would have been highly offensive to many in the room had he expressed them aloud. I was greatly impressed by how Suzanne responded to his comments calmly and with respect. (Of course, I know that not every person who is in favor of tighter immigration laws is xenophobic, of course. All I'm saying is that this man seemed to be.)
So I consider the forum we held to be a success, albeit not well attended. We will most likely have more forums like this in the future. It was highly informative, very interesting, and quite timely. As immigration reform continues to simmer on the stovetop of U.S. politics, more and more people will have big questions, and the church can and should be a safe place for those questions to be asked and answered.