Nadine Lee, a French national, is considering becoming an American citizen. On Monday, April 24, she joined local elected officials, community activists, and high school and college students in a two-hour forum on U.S. immigration in the Barbara Room at the San Benito County Library.
Open and free to the public, the evening event was part of “A Closer Look: Using Academic Inquiry to Probe Current Issues,” a discussion series organized and funded by Gavilan College’s Civic Engagement Title V program.
“A Closer Look At: Immigration” was the third in the ongoing series that began last fall.
Two faculty members from the junior college, professor of history, Dr. Enrique Luna, and professor of sociology, Marilyn Chap, each gave a 25-minute presentation about U.S. immigration from the lens of their respective disciplines. Their colleague and the Civic Engagement’s community liaison, Leah Halper, moderated the discussion.
Before beginning his history lesson on Mexican immigration to the U.S., Luna showed the audience of nearly 50 a graph reflecting current immigration trends. Since 2014, immigration from Mexico has been steadily decreasing, he pointed out. And today it stands at zero, meaning there are more Mexican immigrants exiting than entering the U.S.
Luna then provided an account that was analogous to a welcome mat being rolled out one minute and being shown the door the next.
From the 1880s to the 1920s, railway lines running north and south between the U.S. and Mexico provided American industries access to raw materials and cheap, Mexican labor.
The Great Depression halted the immigrant flow and calls for repatriation followed.
American agribusiness pleaded for government intervention to stave off its labor shortage during World War II, resulting in the Bracero Program, a bi-national agreement between Washington, D.C. and Mexico City that allowed Mexican nationals to perform seasonal work.
Nativist sediments gripped the post-war years, culminating with Operation Wetback in 1954, when thousands of Mexican immigrants were rounded up and deported.
Luna concluded his lecture by explaining how the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 resulted in a large influx of one-time, small farmers from Mexico who were squeezed out of their economy.
Four million of these undocumented individuals sought employment in America’s fields and orchards.
“There was nowhere else for them to go,” explained Chap, who spoke on the sociological aspects of immigration.
Push and pull factors drive immigration, she said.
Abject poverty, crime, and environmental problems typically force people out of their country, while opportunity, safety, and ample resources draw them into another.
She noted that many of today’s immigrants arrive from Asia not Mexico.
In an effort to shatter other common misconceptions, Chap asked attendees, “Are people scared of immigrants?” Many responded, “Yes.”
The sociology professor explained that there is actually an inverse relationship between immigration and crime, for it is not “Muslim or undocumented youth” committing criminal acts, but instead the American-born, Chap said.
Immigrants, who are often entrepreneurial, also spur economic growth, opening businesses at a rate twice that of their non-immigrants counterparts.
“There’s lots of benefits” to having an immigrant population, Chap concluded.
A dialogue involving audience participation followed Chap’s lecture.
Luna initiated the conversation by encouraging attendees to ask their “most brutal question.”
Gavilan College sophomore and San Benito High School graduate, Maria Rios, volunteered first. “Deportation is quite costly. Is there any talk of legalization?” Rios asked.
Both professors explained that partisan politics and the lack of political will have prevented immigration reform.
A woman who identified herself as a grandmother of a 10-year-old student at R.O. Hardin Elementary School, explained that her grandson, a U.S. citizen, is fearful of deportation because of his Mexican ancestry.
Hollister School District Board member, Rob Bernosky, raised his hand and asked to respond.
“It’s incumbent upon us as adults to speak the truth when we can,” he said, adding that schools in California are safe from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.) raids.
“Tell your children ‘don’t be afraid’ and tell them to tell others ‘don’t be afraid,” Bernosky said.
An stanch advocate for Latino issues, Veronica Lezama, retorted, “It’s difficult to tell children not be afraid.”
An elderly woman chimed in, her statement evoking an applause.
“We need to think of immigrants as family. They are just like us,” she said.
Nadine Lee, the French national and a Hollister resident, explained how French voters are facing similar questions over immigration that the American electorate confronted last November.
One of the French presidential candidates, Marine Le Pen of the National Front, wants to seal her country’s borders in the wake of several terrorist attacks.
“I do not know if Le Pen is the solution,” Lee said in an email to BenitoLink a few days after the forum.
As the Barbara Room emptied, Rios shared her thoughts about the evening with BenitoLink.
“I came tonight because I wanted to be more informed and most of my questions were answered. But it’s frustrating when people say children are safe when they are not,” she said.
Recollecting her middle-school and high school years, Rios stated the history classes in which she was enrolled then often painted a false narrative of the immigrant experience in the U.S.
A naturalized citizen, she spoke first-hand about the obstacles and challenges faced by immigrants, including language barriers, stigmatization, and discrimination.
The 20-something-year old recently changed her major from engineering to English.
“I want to become a teacher and help give immigrant students a voice,” she said.
Before she left for home, Halper took a minute to comment on the two-hour discussion.
“I really appreciate the thoughtful comments and heartfelt feelings people expressed about what’s happening in this community,” she said.
Gavilan College’s Civic Engagement Title V program website.