Speakers from OneAmerica, Causa Oregon and the Oregon New Sanctuary Movement gathered at Whitman College on Thursday night to participate in a panel discussion on the issue of compassion in U.S. immigration policy.
The speakers represented immigrant rights’ groups, and shared personal stories and policy positions held by their respective organizations. Many panelists said they felt hearing stories from immigrants and empathizing with their experiences was an important way to counter the heated and often depersonalized discussions that are common around the issue of immigration.
“Everything you hear on the radio or on TV is ‘illegal criminal’ and ‘alien’ and all of these dehumanizing words,” said Jasmin Santacruz, an organizer with OneAmerica, Washington’s largest immigrant rights organization.
Labels such as these can prevent person-to-person interactions. Whitman junior Keiler Beers organized the forum as part of a grant he received last year to call attention to immigration-related issues. Beers is using the money from the award to organize a spring break trip to the U.S.-Mexico border, which he hopes will show Whitman students the effects border policy has had on migrants. He highlighted the fact that hundreds of people have died in the past year attempting to cross the border, and urged compassion in immigration policy.
“While immigration is a political issue, it is also a humanitarian issue,” he said.
Panelist Miriam Corona, who spoke on behalf of Causa Oregon, said getting to know immigrants as people was an important step in understanding their experiences.
“I don’t think a title, such as ‘I’m documented’ or ‘I’m undocumented’ tells you who someone is,” said Corona. “It tells you if they have permission to be here, but it doesn’t tell you what they believe, or if they like the same music or the same sports team.”
Corona was the first young undocumented immigrant in Oregon to successfully apply for deferred actions and a work permit. She explained that her parents brought her to the U.S. when she was nine months old.
“My mom just had to leave Mexico because we were living in poverty,” she said.
Her mom dug a hole to crawl under the U.S.-Mexico border fence, and then asked men she didn’t know to hold Corona while she crawled under the fence. Corona fought tears as she recalled the story of her journey to the U.S.
“I can’t imagine having to give that child to a total stranger while you crawl under a (fence),” she said.
Making the decision to apply for deferred action was challenging, because providing required information to federal authorities carried some risk. Still, she thought going through the process was important.
“There’s all these risks but I was willing to take them because I wanted to tell other kids that it’s OK to dream big,” she said.
Other panelists addressed their focus on achieving comprehensive immigration reform, something the U.S. hasn’t done significantly since the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. Santacruz said the U.S. is politically at a point where legalizing significant numbers of undocumented immigrants is feasible.
“I’m glad that that is where the conversation is right now. Right now is the moment,” she said.