By Tom Ballard
Undocumented immigrants do not pay taxes. They take away jobs from documented Americans. An overwhelming majority of immigrants are Latino. Immigrants only have children in America in order to secure residency or citizenship. It is easy to become a U.S. citizen.
Those were the stereotypes that the sisters of Lambda Theta Alpha (LTA) and the El Centro team at the Bonner Institute seeked to dispel in their inaugural Immigration Panel Discussion held in the Education Building on Wednesday, Nov. 18.
The discussion featured a diverse group of panelists, including Roberto Hernandez, the director of El Centro, a division of Catholic Charities that aides mostly Latino immigrants into adjusting to life in the U.S.; Alberto Carbonilla, a cross-cultural management professor in the School of Business at the College; Sandra Sepulveda-Kozakowski, a psychology professor at the College who teaches a course about power and oppression; Talia Martinez, a senior business management major and Bonner scholar who works at the El Centro site teaching English classes and senior mathematics major Aracely Vivanco, a sister of LTA.
Throughout the event, LTA posed a number of polls that asked the audience whether or not they agreed with the stereotypes. Mayra Aburto, a senior business management major and president of LTA, notes that while the polls only allowed for 25 of the over 75 member audience to respond, they still provided a great way to see what the audience actually felt.
“Immigrants pay approximately $11.7 billion in taxes,” Hernandez, a graduate of the College, said to the audience. “I want you to look at the value of it… along with the value to this country.”
The El Centro director later revealed that 24 percent of poll respondents agreed with the statement, “Undocumented workers do not pay taxes,” whereas 76 percent of respondents disagreed.
The audience was more spilt when asked if “the overwhelming majority of immigrants are Latino,” with 32 percent of the respondents agreeing and 68 percent disagreeing. Aburto noted how much of what people see about immigration comes from the media.
“There were people who agreed to it where someone in the audience responded that her perspective was based on what she saw on T.V.,” Aburto said.
Hernandez said that immigration in the U.S. is not just a Latino issue.
“The biggest increase of immigration is from Asia,” Hernandez said. “This is about human rights. It is not a Latino issue, it is not an Asian issue.”
When asked whether or not undocumented immigrants take away jobs from documented Americans, 4 percent of the respondents agreed, while 96 percent disagreed. Members on the panel quickly dispelled the stereotype by saying that the statement lacked substantial validity.
“People come here and make their own business, they don’t take (away jobs),” Vivanco said.
Hernandez noted how the general influx in the population leads to the increase in available jobs.
“When you have an increase in the population… then obviously you have a better chance at getting a job,” Hernandez said.
The term “anchor baby” sparked an intense discussion by panelists and audience members when they were asked if immigrants only had children in the country to secure a path to citizenship. Twelve percent of the poll’s respondents said that they agreed with the statement, while 88 percent disagreed.
The term “anchor baby” is used to describe the children of undocumented immigrants who are born on U.S. soil and can get their parents residential rights in the United States due to their child’s status as an American citizen.
“It’s not fair to simplify the life decision to have children in one sentence,” said Carbonilla, who immigrated to the U.S. as an adult 20 years ago. “It’s simplifying something that shouldn’t be simplified.”
Hernandez said that parents, particularly mothers, have good reason to come to the U.S.
“Moms are special,” Hernandez said. “You know what they come here for?… They come here to make a better life for them and their children.”
Martinez, the child of Hispanic immigrants, said that the term “anchor baby” has no validation and should not be used.
“You hear people with very conservative views that say, ‘This only happens in the United States,’” Hernandez said. “That’s not true. There are 30 or 35 other countries that give automatic citizenship.”
The panel concurred that becoming a U.S. citizen is not an easy process, something that 100 percent of the poll’s respondents sided with when they disagreed with the stereotype that gaining U.S. citizenship is an easy process.
“I urge all of you to look into the immigration processes of different countries,” Carbonilla said to the audience. “(The U.S. immigration process is) a torturous, difficult path where even getting to the next step doesn’t guarantee (citizenship).”
Carbonilla then explained what it feels like to go through the immigration process.
“It’s like having somebody borrow your limb, an arm (or) a leg, without the promise of having it returned… and hope that one day you are going to have that limb returned to you,” Carbonilla said. “It’s like pawning part of yourself… and you don’t have to ability to buy it back.”
Students in the audience were highly receptive of the message that the panelists were trying to convey, some are even immigrants to the U.S. themselves.
“I think it’s unfortunate (that people believe the stereotypes) because I think a lot of Americans don’t (understand) why immigrants come to America,” said Gayle Manayi, a freshman international studies major who immigrated to the U.S. from Kenya at the age of five. “It’s is not just a free ticket. People leave behind their families and their lives… to obtain citizenship.”
Sepulveda-Kozakowski encouraged students to be proactive if they hear the stereotypes used in public.
“When you hear a comment like (immigrants don’t pay taxes), one of the things you can do is interrupt it,” Sepulveda-Kozakowski said. “Be thoughtful about the tone you use… you can have a respectful, thoughtful and controlled tone… to combat the stereotypes that already exists.”
Members of the panel emphasized the important role that college students play in bringing about change in society.
“(Immigration) is not necessarily a big issue everywhere,” Hernandez said. “Any kind of movements that have gathered fire has started at the college level.”
Hernandez noted several social movements, including the civil rights movement, in order to show the impact that young people have had on shaping social change.
Aburto said that LTA and the El Centro Bonner team decided to host the event in response to the current media attention surrounding the topic of immigration.
“(With) the presidential elections (being) right around the corner, and the constant media attention to Donald Trump, I think (the media’s attention on immigration) definitely triggered something on my team where we knew we had to do something and make our voices heard,” Aburto said. “Our passion to serve our students, our passion to educate and our passion on immigration where each of our members has a story to share made this possible.”
According to Aburto, LTA and the El Centro Bonner team plan on hosting a similar event in the spring, as well as building upon this event for next fall.