Local voices calling for progress on immigration
(pictured above: WSSU students Bria Jones, Michael Lane and Endazha Hannah.)
Rev. Glenn Pettiford, associate pastor of First Baptist Church on Highland Avenue, was among the collective of local clergy members who gathered on the steps of First Baptist last spring to call for immigration reform.
He and many other local residents are joining the national immigration debate that hinges on whether those who entered the United States illegally should be granted some kind of conditional citizenship.
Pettiford believes that they should.
“I think we as America lose a part of people who could participate in the American economy – the American civilization – more completely,” he said. “I think we’re losing valuable perspective.”
For Pettiford, bringing a sense of parity to the immigration process is a moral obligation.
“For me, it’s primarily a spiritual thing,” he remarked. “I shall love my neighbor as myself.”
A handful of local faith, business, education and law enforcement leaders called for Congress to take action on a long-stalled immigration reform bill during a panel discussion at Winston-Salem State University on April 3.
“I support immigration reform personally because I believe it’s the moral thing to do,” said C.J. Stephen, a former highway patrolman who took part in the discussion. “There are so many hardworking undocumented immigrants in the country that deserve to be citizens. I believe as a nation, we would view ourselves in a better light if we did what is right in the eyes of so many Americans. I believe we are all the same in the eyes of God and should be treated the same.”
The recent discussion was sponsored by the national Bibles, Badges and Business for Immigration Reform network and Raleigh-based Centro International; other panelists included Winston Salem First Associate Pastor Chuck Spong and Dr. Jack S. Monell, Dr. Denise Nation, Dr. Edward Opoku-Dapaah, Dr. Donald Mac-Thompson and Keenan Williams, all of WSSU.
Mac-Thompson, chair of the Social Sciences Department at WSSU and an associate professor of political science, continued the immigration discussion last week with students in his American Presidency class, challenging them to pose as presidential candidates and explain their viewpoints on immigration reform.
“My view is that we should focus on immigrants that are already here, skilled workers that could help this country,” said Bria Jones, a senior political science major. “By giving them their citizenship, it’ll be a win-win for our country because they would pay taxes.”
Endazha Hannah, a freshman from Richmond, Va., agreed, adding that special consideration should be given to Dreamers, young immigrants who were brought to this country as children and have little or no knowledge of or experience with their native lands.
“They’re Americans, basically. They were brought here and raised here, so why not treat them like everybody else?” Hannah said. “…I don’t have any personal experience with immigration, but I do feel like it shouldn’t be as hard for somebody to better their life.”
The issue hits close to home for Mac-Thompson, a native of Freetown, Sierra Leone who immigrated to the U.S. in 1976. In those days, becoming an American was easy, Mac-Thompson says. He arrived in the country on a Friday and spent the weekend with a professor. Within days, Mac-Thompson was a card-carrying American.
“On Monday, he took me over to Social Security office and I got my Social Security card for 25 cents,” he recalled. “…That’s why I am so frustrated knowing what people go through now.”
Today, there are approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country; many of them have lived here for decades, work steady jobs and are raising children who were born here. President Obama made the promise of comprehensive immigration reform one of his main campaign planks in 2008 and again in 2012. While Republicans, many averse to the path to citizenship that a reform bill would likely include, are blamed for stalling immigration legislation, the Obama administration has also been harshly criticized for deporting a record number of undocumented immigrants. Immigration advocates say more than two million deportations have taken place on the president’s watch, a number much higher than those that took place during President George W. Bush’s two terms.
Mac-Thompson said the tragic events of September 11, 2001 have contributed to a collective sense of wariness about foreign-born people and generated a bevy of rules and regulations that impede many in their quest to become citizens.
“I think maybe the hesitation comes in part from our lifestyle, that we are so much used to,” he said. “There is always a fear of the unknown, and we think that if the population increases a measure … we might have to shift our lifestyles.”
Michael Lane, a junior political science major, likened the complexity of today’s immigration process to voter identification laws, which he believes are discouraging participation in the electoral process, just as immigration laws are deterring some would-be immigrants from considering relocating to the U.S., a choice that is often to our nation’s detriment, he believes.
“I do feel that there are bright minds being turned away,” he remarked. “Hopefully, that can be rectified going forward.”
Lane said he would like to see President Obama take a stronger stand on the issue; he is not alone. Many are calling on the president to use executive power to halt the high number of deportations taking place; it is an option that he is reportedly exploring. Obama again last week called on House Republicans to advance an immigration reform bill, telling CBS news that the issue will haunt lawmakers otherwise.
John Boehner, the Republican Speaker of the House, has been irresolute on the issue. At a fundraiser in March, he told a group he was “hellbent” on getting a reform bill passed this year. Last week, though, he said it “would be difficult to pass this year.”
Mac-Thompson said the fact that both sides see the issue as crucial is a positive sign going forward.
“I think there is a consensus among conservatives and liberals that we need immigration reform,” Mac-Thompson said. “What do we disagree about is how we go about it. That’s the big difference.”