immigration meeting minutes

Brent Finnegan -- March 7th, 2007

Thanks to everyone who took time out of their schedules to make it to the meeting yesterday evening. I counted about 33 people in attendance. It was great to see local citizens, teachers, nonprofit workers, politicians, Republicans, Democrats, and elected officials engaged in dialog about immigration. The topic certainly warrants at least one more meeting–one which would necessitate translators. As a monolingual white guy, I’m not really sure how I could set that up, but I’m willing to work with anyone with the means to organize that.

Anyway, here are the “minutes.” They’re broken down by category, as best I could decipher Kai’s handwriting:

Problems and Concerns

Everyone knows there are undocumented immigrants living in town, but no one seems to know exactly how many. They’re drawn here because they need jobs, and our local economy has a need for unskilled laborers. But since most are not eligible for work visas, they often cross the border “without permission.” And they can’t apply for citizenship, because in order to become a permanent resident, you must first apply for permanent residency (something an undocumented immigrant cannot do).

Harrisonburg is a segregated city. Language barriers, racist attitudes (people being referred to as “illegals”) and fear of deportation are factors that can contribute to the segregation. Even though the city and local nonprofit organizations offer certain services to help them, fear of appearing “on the radar” prevents many immigrants from being helped. Certain actions taken by local law enforcement and prosecutors have reinforced those fears.

There appears to be little positive interaction between the Anglo and Latino communities. When there is, it rarely seems to last for very long.

It’s not just Latino immigrants that are sometimes made to feel unwelcome in the friendly city. Just consider the anti-growth sentiment directed at white, English-speaking “immigrants” from NoVa as well as JMU “come-heres.”

Many Latinos feel that they lack community leaders who will help them and be liaisons between the Anglo and Latino communities.

Facts, Figures & Anecdotes

There were more bills aimed at undocumented immigrants in the Virginia General Assembly this year than ever before. Most of those bills died.

Technically there is no official law enforcement policy for dealing undocumented immigrants on the local level. This means that officers can either ignore it, or “turn them over to ICE” as they see fit.

English is expensive to teach, and difficult to learn. Right now, our public schools are full of ESL students that cost the city $3,000 more per student to educate than an average English-speaking student.

If you’re here without documentation, it’s technically not a crime under current law. If you’re deported and re-enter, it becomes a crime.

Dr. Zarrugh said there are only 5,000 unskilled worker visas granted per year. If an immigrant is rich, educated, or accomplished, it is much easier to qualify for a visa, because he or she is not “unskilled.”

Stephen Winslow told of his mother, who was ineligible to work several minimum wage jobs in Miami because she was not bilingual.

What Can We Do?

Since none of us are legislators, we can’t directly change the law, but we can communicate with our elected officials and politicians running for office not to push policies based on fear.

We can make greater personal efforts to interact with local immigrants, and participate in events like the International Festival, where all the separate groups in Harrisonburg can come together. We can also take advantage of the framework that is already in place (New Bridges, the Hispanic Services Council, community meetings like this, etc).

Local school boards can pass resolutions (as the Harrisonburg City School Board did) that may eventually force a change in policy at the federal level.

Be conscious of what we buy, where it comes from, and how our purchases affect our economy (which currently relies heavily on immigrant labor).

Try learning Spanish (ed note: this is not as easy as it should be. I’ve checked out the Rosetta Stone Spanish I set from the library twice, racked up $5 in overdue fees, and haven’t gotten even halfway through it).

Unanswered Questions

How can we strike a balance between open borders, respecting the laws of the land, free trade, and making sure the influx of immigrants isn’t putting too much of a financial strain on our schools, hospitals, and other services?

Does “the community” belong to native residents, or everyone who lives here?

How can we open up communication between all the separate communities in Harrisonburg, especially when there’s a language barrier?

…I’m sure we will solve the immigration issue at the next meeting, assuming there is interest in one. Stay tuned for details. In the meantime, see if you could pass the US citizenship test.

23 Responses to “immigration meeting minutes”

  1. whackette says:

    I wish I could have been there. Hopefully next time. I’m glad to hear you had a good turn out and it sounds like a productive meeting.

    I scored a 95% by missing the question about which INS form to fill out. :) I do wonder why the test has so many history questions.

  2. I missed the exact same one. It’s a trick question and I protest….oh, I’m already a citizen.

    The questions aren’t the problem, in my opinion, but when they were written are. These questions were important at one time because they were geared to creating loyalty to the U.S. and an allegiance to the flag etc. I’m just wondering if an update would be appropriate…yes I’m asking with a straight face:)

    The meeting was fantastic. I thought that people shared a lot of different perspectives and some, but not all, concerns they have. It was challenging and you needed an open mind to be able to accept different concerns and thoughts and I felt everyone was pretty responsive.

    I was the hardliner I suppose. I’m really not, but I was sort of called a classicist at one point which I found rather insulting but decided to just let it fly because I’m not really worried about the titles. I just want to work toward a real and workable solution. I still maintain that many of the difficulties, frustrations, and even resentments that exist are the result of the utter incompetence and failure of gutless leaders in Washington, D.C. that spent the last five decades in particular pretending nothing was happening and hoping that could just “ignore” it away….

    At this point, let me say that John Cook is the man. I was very impressed by his approach to the conversation and the incredible insight he brought to the evening. He provided me with something to work with and an ability to address laws so incomprehensible that it stupefies the rational mind.

    I’m prepared to go to Washington, lol!

    I’ll be very interested in the next meeting to possibly address some of the questions that are in the minutes at the end.

    Thanks to Brent for the invite.

  3. finnegan says:

    Glad you could make it.

    I think you might mean Aaron Cook.

    I got a 95 as well. Of course, those are just 20 sample multiple choice questions. The real test has 100 questions, and is not multiple choice. No cheating. An editorial in questions the “correct” answers in newest test.

  4. Chaz says:

    Great meeting Brent. Aaron brought forward some serious misconceptions about the actual process of immigration. Further comments/suggestions from the other attendees really added to making this a fantastic discussion. Thanks to you and Kai for taking the lead.

  5. I did mean Aaron. Sorry….and sorry to John Cook as well…who ever he is.

  6. cook says:

    For the sake of precision, the history questions you have linked to, finnegan, are sample questions.

    In the naturalization process, the applicant meets with an immigration “officer” in a formal face-to-face interview setting. The interview is far ranging and accomplishes several purposes.

    It is during this interview that the officer usually gives an oral examination to determine whether the applicant has “a knowledge and understanding of the fundamentals of the history, and of the principles and form of government, of
    the United States.”

    The officer also has the option to give a written ten-question multiple choice test. Some steps have been taken recently (I’m not sure of the status of this proposal) to make the history exam more uniform and less arbitrary. Under the current system the applicant is at the mercy of the bureaucrat in the extent and content of the testing.

  7. cook says:

    After posting, I followed your link, finnegan, to the Salon article, which addresses what must be the latest incarnation of the proposal I mentioned. It’s a very interesting read.

    And see the explanation of the pilot naturalization test on the official immigration website:

  8. cook says:

    After posting earlier this afternoon, I followed your link, finnegan, to the article which addresses the latest incarnation of the proposal I referenced in my post. It is an interesting read.

    The USCIS website explains the new pilot naturalization test here:

  9. kai says:

    Thanks to everyone for participating, and to Brent for putting in the organizing energy. We only uncovered the beginning of a seemingly impossible system, and that has significant value in my mind.

    I’d just like to reiterate the idea that the conversation has a chance to rise to a new level once we’ve all had a chance to get out our thoughts, concerns, and ideas. Once we get what we’re thinking out on the table and feel heard, we can actually begin to listen and be creative.

    Imagine a conversation convened in that format with 12 randomly selected people from Harrisonburg who agree to meet every two weeks for six months, and, rather than having a topic predetermined, ask them to suggest possible local issues to discuss at the beginning. The conversation will end up incorporating many, many issues and, eventually, the group will converge on a statement it can share with the larger community. That process is called a ‘Wisdom Council’ by its founder, Jim Rough, with whom I spent time last week. It’s pretty powerful.

  10. Larsen says:

    In addition to the vast problems with immigration law we learned about last night, it’s apparent that the inability to communicate clearly with each other is also a huge problem. One solution is to volunteer to tutor English learners through a local agency like Skyline Literacy Coaltion, which always needs more tutors. In fact, they have a waiting list of 50 learners right now who don’t have tutors. English tutoring is a very personal and immediate way to help the immigrants in our area.

  11. finnegan says:

    I forgot to add: Thanks for facilitating that thing last night, Kai.

  12. Tania says:

    I’m glad to know that this meeting took place. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to be there.
    But I hope that the word gets out and we know when the other meeting will be. I know that there are people that didn’t know about it and are willing to attend to future meetings.
    I’m glad to know that there are people that want to help out and learn more facts about Immigration in Harrisonburg but many immigrants are affraid of the consequences that this may bring. They rather live here(hide) work and have a decent job and be united with their families.
    Basically it is SAD but is something that we see in this community.
    I know many of you are willing to learn about Immigration and want to improve the coomunication between each other. We want this to be done fair and humane. I just want to bring this issue about the “patriots” which are the racist anti-immigrants that are comming to our area on March 30th I do not know where they will be meeting at, but I think that community members and leaders should get together before they come and discuss better ways to handle their presence here in town. I think that having the “patriots” here is going to make things go in a different way rather than improving what is now getting started.

  13. Brent…please email me! Thanks

  14. kai says:

    Just FYI, there is a growing listserv for people who want to continue the conversation and work together to make more opportunities like this available.

    Anyone may join this list. Go here, and click “join this group”:

    Once you’re enrolled, you can email everyone else on the list at You can choose whether to receive each individual email, a daily digest, or no email.

    This list grew out of the Jan 18 brainstorming session Brent and I coordinated at the library. Use it to brainstorm, reflect, and/or stay informed.

  15. Angela says:

    Legal or Illigegal, you should be able to speak English before coming to America. We as Americans would never dream of moving to a country to live and not be able to speak the language. I can’t pick up the local newspaper, turn on the television, fix a simple dinner or drive down the road without seeing something in spanish. Who do you think is paying for this Mr. Cook. We are as tax payers. Mexicans are Catholic and don’t believe in birth control that is why there are so many of them. Who pays for them….. We do; as English speaking Americans. They take time from our children in public schools because they don’t speak our language. If they want a better life for themselves then they need to accomidate to us not the other way around. I say build the fence higher and have stricter border patrol.

  16. finnegan says:

    Angela, have you checked out

  17. JGFitzgerald says:

    Angela: My ATM this morning asked me to insert my card, then repeated the instruction in Spanish. Had I paid more attention, I might have known the Spanish for “card.” This potential education was paid for by Wachovia, not by the taxpayers. Wachovia paid for it because they want the business of those who speak Spanish, and make enough from that business to pay for the signs. On the non-business side of language issues: The regulations requiring how English as a Second Language is taught were created in Washington, not Mexico City.

  18. writergirl says:

    So many things to say so little time. The Catholic comment struck me as particularly entertaining.

  19. dobletree dan says:

    JGF…WHAT? YOU pay for Wachovia to have someone spend their time to program that ATM..Wachovia PAYS FOR NOTHING! The consumer (YOU) pays for everything that Wachovia does. It is a business, remember, not a community help tank.


  20. JGFitzgerald says:

    We’re splitting hairs here, Dan. True, Wachovia pays for nothing, if you choose to take that approach. Their Spanish-speaking customers pay for Wachovia to program the Spanish part of the ATM. I pay for the English part only. Comprende?

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