Community members share stories, concerns over immigration reform

A forum on immigration reform was recently held to discuss the impact customs laws had on families and businesses in both Minnesota and the nation at large.

The Think Again Brooklyns organization presented the four-speaker discussion on immigration laws Tuesday, Feb. 18, at the Brookdale Library in Brooklyn Center, with the speakers delivering personal stories, anecdotes and advice to immigrants worried about the future of the country’s policies on immigration.

Headlining the forum was Javier Morillo, president of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 26 and a former professor of history and anthropology at Macalester and Carleton colleges, who talked about the difficulties faced by immigrant workers in Local 26, which represents the seven-county metro area. Morillo voiced his concerns over what he viewed to be a “broken” immigration system, noting that though the Obama administration distanced itself from the Bush administration tactics of immigration enforcement, there was still plenty of room for improvement.

“In the Bush era, there were very dramatic, military-style raids of workplaces,” said Morillo. “And when the Obama administration came in, they said, ‘Well, we want to focus on the bad employers, and not on workers.’”

Morillo mentioned that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) currently performs I-9 audits on employers suspected of hiring undocumented workers, but the notice given to businesses not only gave workers very little time to properly prepare themselves for the audit, but that most workers had little to no legal recourse or resources.

“They weren’t even tallying everyone if you were on the list or not,” Morillo said about a certain audit in 2009. “This actually was a violation of a whole set of laws, and the next Friday I was in D.C. in a meeting with their Chief of Staff of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. It was a long, long ordeal to get them to do something simple, which was to give people time.”

Morillo also feared that Democratic lawmakers supposedly sympathetic to the plight of immigrants were doing very little to help with the situation.

“The (Obama) administration is actually deporting more immigrants then George Bush did,” said Morillo. “Because Democrats have accepted this logic for 30 years, that the only way we’re going to get the good stuff is if we make concessions on enforcement. The problem is we’ve been the worst negotiators because we keep giving them this stuff, and not getting any of this stuff.”

According to ICE’s website, 368,644 individuals were removed from the United States in 2013. More than 133,550 of those individuals were inside the country when deported, and the remainder were apprehended along the nation’s borders when attempting to enter the U.S.

Later in the evening, a younger perspective on the topic was presented by Mounds View High School student Abena Abraham, a Liberian immigrant who talked about the uncertainties faced by immigrant families, such as her own, when it came to lost immigration status documents. Abraham proceeded to play a video featuring a diverse array of high school friends and classmates who expressed their support for a more progressive and fair approach to immigration reform.

Andrew Suah, owner of the All Seasons Video/Printing company and the chair of the Immigration Reform Committee of African Immigrant Services spoke of the services his organization provides, especially to immigrants who left their war-torn or heavily impoverished African home nations and face deportation.

Finally, immigration attorney Elizabeth Tolzmann provided legal advice for individuals and families struggling to not only find work but also attain citizenship status.

“Not a lot of people know what their status is,” said Tolzmann, a Brooklyn Park community engagement coordinator and the daughter of first-generation Laotian immigrants. “For somebody like me who immigrated to the U.S. as a young child, I was very fortunate to be naturalized with my parents at a very young age. So I was an automatic U.S. citizen, but a lot of families don’t know how to include their children in that process.”

Tolzmann went on to mention the various roadblocks immigrants face on the long road to citizenship, from language barriers and lack of a family or friend network to poor legal advice and financial difficulties.

“To file for a green card application, the filing fee’s over $1,000 per person,” said Tolzmann. “Imagine having a family of two or three or four. You’re spending $4,000 to $5,000 just for filing fees.”

Ultimately, the fate of immigration reform lays in the hands of the electorate, claimed Morillo.

“The ballot box is just one tool,” said Morillo. “The work doesn’t end on election day. In many ways, it begins on election day. And it’s the work of the movement outside to create the political space for the politicians who promised things to be able to do(them).”

Contact Christiaan Tarbox at [email protected], or follow him on Twitter @ecmsunpost.