Immigration a hot topic at Humphrey Center seminar

Attendees divided into groups and brainstormed ideas for policy reform.

On Wednesday at the University, a group of educators, business leaders, students and community members gave three Minnesota mayors a piece of their minds about immigration reform.

At the end of an all-day conference at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, focused on the myths and truths of immigration in the United States, audience members separated into groups and jotted down ideas on Post-It Notes about the type of value system they felt should guide the nation’s policy toward illegal and legal immigrants.

They then presented Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and Austin, Minn. Mayor Bonnie Rietz with their policy reform suggestions.

The groups repeatedly identified three underlying values during the discussions: First, immigrants should be allowed to reunite with their family members by granting their relatives entrance into the country; second, immigrants should be welcomed into American communities and schools; third, the public should be educated about immigrants’ histories and reasons for coming to America.

Once immigrants become citizens, their immediate relations – including spouses, parents and children under 18 – can join them, but it’s much harder for siblings and other relatives, Demetrios Papademetriou said at the event. Papademetriou is president of the Migration Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank based in Washington, D.C.

A quota system controls the number of visas given each year for people from certain countries, Papademetriou said, which means millions of people end up on waiting lists. Some immigrants, such as those from the Philippines, have to wait 20 to 25 years to reunite with their brothers or sisters, he said.

Immigrant quotas contribute to the high amount of illegal immigrants in the country, he said, because it’s easier to work illegally than wait to be allowed in. The U.S. Census Bureau estimated that in 2000, there were between 8 million and 11 million illegal immigrants living in the United States.

Humphrey Institute alumna Dawn Thongsavath said the idea of letting immigrants reunite with their families resonated with her.

“I know many people who are yet to see their family members,” Thongsavath said.

Since graduating in 2004, Thongsavath has become a Dakota County management analyst and said the county’s immigrant population is increasing.

“It was an interesting educational opportunity to hear different perspectives,” she said.

Professors, lawyers and social service providers attempted to dispel common myths about the history and effects of immigration to the United States throughout the conference.

Although the United States is often referred to as a “nation of immigrants,” it is a myth that Americans have viewed immigration positively in the past, said Donna Gabaccia, director of the University’s Immigration History Research Center.

“Every significant period of immigration into our country has sparked intense or hostile reaction,” Gabaccia said.

One of the most voiced concerns – that immigrants could pose a danger to national security – is misleading, Mayor Coleman said.

“The way the issue is being framed is plain out backwards and wrong,” he said.

Mayor Rybak said immigrants are assets that not only bring diversity to communities but also help teach U.S. citizens skills that will help them break into the global economy.

“I don’t want to be in a melting pot; I want to be in a stew or jambalaya Ö where we can keep our own unique elements,” Rybak said.