Thursday, July 12, 2007

Green Bay - Day 4 (Wednesday p.m.)

“No plans tonight? Attend forum on immigration reform.”

This is the headline of an article posted shortly before the forum today in Green Bay (incidentally following a press conference we held mostly because we had no other plans). Green Bay is hot spot in the immigration debate largely because of the recently passed ordinance.

Ordinances are powerful mechanisms of change. A positive ordinance is a victory, a mandate for modifying what’s broken. The Milwaukee police passed an ordinance promising they will not seek out undocumented workers. A negative ordinance can be devastating. Green Bay is a bad ordinance. I see a copy for the first time today.

It says: “No city license shall be issued to unauthorized aliens.”

It says: “It shall be a defense that an employer was shown and can produce fraudulent documentation of an employee’s legal immigration status.”

This clearly includes food and liquor licenses, an obvious blow to the restaurant industry which is one of the largest employers of undocumented workers. The bill also calls for a screening program to check for social security numbers and false documents for all licensed businesses. The program is administered by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and encourages employees to act as immigration officers. It promotes raids like the one in Whitewater. Perhaps the most troubling clause is the one that comes last:

“All ordinances, or parts of ordinances, in conflict herewith are hereby repealed.”

In other words all the positive ordinances calling for respect are trounced in two words: hereby repealed. There was widespread support for the Green Bay ordinance and the city is the largest to have passed an ordinance of its kind. With this knowledge in hand, we came expecting a fight.

The battle of Green Bay never came. Instead we heard, “one of the things about the ordinance that most frightens me is that it gives people license to be disrespectful to others. We must fight against this sort of thing.”

A hundred people arrived and listened. While I imagine there were dissenting voices among us, none of them spoke out, they merely observed politely. Also among the under represented was the Hispanic population. Fortunately, the entire forum was simulcast on the local Spanish radio. The representative from the station says the people are scared to come to things like this, but also recognizes that they should be, that they need to be.

There are more questions about legalization, “I understand that most people came legally and then stayed later. Is that true?”

Christine points out that yes, 60% of undocumented workers have overstayed visas, but emphasizes that this trend only began in the 1970’s when the US systematically started cutting back the numbers of visas to countries which generated the most demand for those visas.

Maria brings up another important, often overlooked point. She clarifies that not everyone who is here came legally or illegally. She is from Texas which was part of Mexico not so long ago. She quips, “my family didn’t cross the border, the border crossed my family.”

For the first time Luz is asked about her crossing. She hesitates before answering and Christine assures here that it is okay to talk. Luz applied twice for a visa and was twice denied. She decided to come illegally to visit her sons who had already come. At first she just wanted to visit, but after investing so much time and so much risk just to arrive for a visit she began to question whether it was worth it to go back. It would be a risk to stay and a risk to go back. If she went back would she be able to overcome the risk of another trip to see her family again? She decided if she is going to take a risk, it is better to do so close to her family.

Another person asks about about "six month visas or something?" Christine responds, “it’s a thing called the guest worker program, it ties a worker to a single employer and it’s as close to slavery as you can get.”

The audience is sympathetic. The woman who asked Luz to share her story then turns back to the audience and rails against a prohibitive system. Another woman wearing a headscarf informs us that she has cancer. Maria lost a daughter to cancer while waiting for her husband to get his legalization. The woman tells Maria she cannot imagine going through it without her family.

The talk moves to mobilization. A recent graduate complains that she has been here seven years and has not been able to find diversity. Local panelist Matt Hollenbeck takes the mic to talk about diversity circles and the anti-ordinance effort. A minute later there’s a paper in my hand with a phone contact for involvement in the diversity effort. Matt says there is a need to organize voters. He asks for help especially in predominately Hispanic wards to bring allies into the government so this doesn’t happen again.

The panel finishes and we stop the discussion. We mingle, we talk, we network and the night comes to a close. As we’re packing up two Hispanic men come rushing in. They heard the testimony on the Spanish radio and when they realized it was simulcast they came because they wanted more information. They want to tell their friends. We chat for a while and they walk out with us as we’re leaving. They tell me that they did have plans for tomorrow night but they are going to break those plans. They would rather go to our forum in Appleton.

Thus, perhaps the Green Bay headline would have better read: Plans tonight? Attend immigration forum instead.


Anonymous said...

Illegal is illegal! What part of the definition says to reward someone breaking a law, a "criminal"

The answer to our immigration problem isn't to give an easy, quick route to millions of people breaking the law. AND it's not fair to all the immigrants here legally.


Justice William Brennan said...

Unfortunately, the deeper question that needs to be asked is not whether something is illegal but whether the law itself is a good one. Indeed, those who believe abortion is wrong don't simply say abortion is legal and thats the law; instead they call out to a higher law. Likewise, we can not simply resort to saying the law is the law but must justify the legitimacy of the laws themselves. Let us not forget that laws are man-made and not simply a product of nature that we can reflexively rely on.

stevenherro said...

I too attended the tour stop in Green Bay. Considering how hotly debated the issue has been in the Green Bay City Council, I commend Alderman Wiezbiskie for his attendance; he took advantage of the opportunity to learn more about this issue which has gripped the City Council for months. I would also like to acknowledge Aldermen Jeffreys, Zima, and Vander Leest for responding to the invitation to attend, but stating that they had prior commitments.

I wish that the public could have seen and heard from more members of the Mayor's Office, City Council, County Board, and County Executive's office. All were invited; they missed a great educational opportunity.