The topic of comprehensive immigration reform got a comprehensive discussion Wednesday morning that encompassed jobs, education, crime and safety, family and community, fears and more.
A panel discussion in downtown Modesto, presented by the lobbying group FWD.us and the Central Valley Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, included U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, Assemblyman Heath Flora, R-Ripon, Stanislaus County Supervisor Kristin Olsen and Congregations Building Community Executive Director Homero Mejia. Also on the panel was Gustine High School senior class President Alexis Angulo, a DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipient who will attend Dartmouth College on a full-ride scholarship.
Denham said the immigration system is broken from top to bottom, and that no comprehensive reform has emerged from Congress in more than three decades. He said he has been a proponent for reform of everything from border security to refugee programs to the visa system.
Flora added that meetings like Wednesday’s with constituents – not beneath capitol domes – are how the problems will get fixed.
I think the issue with Dreamers in our community has to get resolved through legislation and through an act of Congress, to not only make sure its done transparently in the full light of day but ultimately it is resolved for the future of our county on a long-term basis, not an executive order order that may last only the term of a presidency.
U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham
And Olsen said ignoring a broken immigration system hurts everyone. It’s important to keep families together – there are children growing up not knowing they are undocumented – and the immigrant community is a vital work-force source at all skill levels, she said.
“In the short term, we need to increase the number of H-1b visas because have a ... a major skills gap, literally tens of thousands of jobs that companies cannot find Americans to fill,” so the U.S. needs to bring in highly skilled workers, Olsen said.
“At the same time, we need to double down our investment in our K-12 and university systems so we begin to grow our own and make sure Americans have the skills they need.”
Flora agreed, saying the state and nation have a serious infrastructure issue with much work to be done. “A lot of very good skilled labor jobs will be coming available in very near future,” he said, and training people to work in sheet metal, pipe fitting, welding and other trades will be of tremendous benefit to the nation. “We need those folks to become the citizens they want to be.”
Immigrants are critical contributors to the Modesto business community. In the 10th Congressional district alone, there are 5,812 immigrant entrepreneurs. We believe that supporting immigrants in our region through business development, federal immigration reform, and other community initiatives is vital to the success of our economy and our district.
Christine Schweininger, president of the Central Valley Hispanic Chamber of Commerce
Denham spoke of his ENLIST (Encourage New Legalized Immigrants to Start Training ) Act, which would allow otherwise qualified “Dreamers” to earn legal permanent residence through military service. He said he also supports the BRIDGE (Bar Removal of Individuals who Dream and Grow our Economy) Act that protects those who came to the U.S. as children.
He stressed that Congress is where change should be made, not through executive orders – the way DACA was created – which can be dismantled under new presidential administrations.
Angulo, the Gustine student, said that as a sophomore, he tried to enroll in junior college classes but could not afford to. He would have been charged out-of-state tuition because of his undocumented status, he said. “I think there should be reform to make sure it (DACA) is stabilized and make sure it keeps active in our community and in the national community as well.”
Questions and comments from the audience took the discussion into the topic of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and deportation. Panelists essentially were asked if policies have changed under the Trump administration.
As a country, we must give DACA recipients a legal pathway to gain status. They have shown their unwavering commitment to their country by working, going to school, or serving in the military. They should be given the chance to gain legal status and fully give back to their communities.
Homero Mejia, executive director of Congregations Building Community
Olsen said they have not – that occasionally a DACA student was deported under the Obama administration just as under President Donald Trump. But the aim is to remove violent offenders, she said, and she and Denham stressed that inaccurate rhetoric and fear-mongering on “both sides of the aisle” in Congress and in the media need to stop.
“You’re saying don’t be scared,” said Maria Harrington, a 39-year-old teacher in the audience who has lived in the U.S. since age 9. But she said she is “shaking in my boots” because she is simply a resident, not a citizen. Her husband was a citizen but he died when she was 29, and she had failed to put in the citizenship paper while he was living because she lacked the funds. “What’s going to guarantee that one day I don’t make a simple traffic offense and I find myself deported into a country that’s more alien than this one will ever be?” she said, bringing applause from the estimated 70 in attendance.
At the close of the discussion, Mejia urged his fellow panelists and the audience to remember, “We need to focus on the families, on the people that are going through this. ...The further you are from the issue, the more you philosophize. ... Stop speaking from theory, from sound bites, from a little you read here and there.”
Deke Farrow: 209-578-2327