On Thursday, 19 September 2013, the St. Petersburg College Institute for Strategic Policy Solutions’s Village Square took on the immigration debate in a public forum on Seminole campus.
The panel featured Tim Curtis of the Tampa 912 Project, Edwin Encisio of the Director of the Campaign for Immigration Reform Now, and St. Petersburg College’s own Professor Tara Newsom. The program was moderated by Rob Lorei, the News and Public Affairs Director of 88.5 WMNF community radio. The Village Square advertises itself as a civilized alternative to the mudslinging found on the airwaves on serious issues of the day. That is exactly what the audience got.
Provost James Oliver recognized members of the Seminole campus Student Government Association in the audience, and students selected to attend by the board of directors from the podium. The discussion began with Professor Newsom, who laid out a brief history of how immigration has been handled in the United States to date. While states handled immigration in our early history, the first federal immigration laws gained their authority from article one, section eight of our Constitution and from the 14th amendment. That included the earliest exclusion laws, that were designed to keep out persons of Chinese ethnicity, which bred an acceptance for intolerance and racism in American culture. During the years leading up to September 11th, the government broadened the definition of aggravated felony, which made it harder to immigrate legally. Post 9/11, the Real ID Act had a number of provisions that impacted immigration law, including waiving the laws that interfere with constructing barriers at our borders. Professor Newsom said the challenge of the immigration debate was a case of economics vs. human rights. She stressed that the right of migration is an important element of our basic human rights, a part of the immigration debate not commonly addressed on the nightly news.
Mr. Enciso made the case for immigration reform; he began by praising the forum, stating that it represented “everything great about our country” in our ability discuss our concerns as a society. He went on to outline a history of indentured servitude in early American history as a comparison to modern illegal immigrantion. He pointed out that employers who use undocumented labor face few risks, while illegal immigrants face harsh penalties. He also cited a study on the economic benefits of these immigrants, claiming they bring more than half a billion dollars in economic activity into our economy.
Mr. Curtis believes that immigrants are drawn to America because of our exceptional freedom and economic opportunity. He believes that our laws on immigration should be enforced, while noting that the system as it stands today is broken. He stated that immigration should be given back to the states, citing the tenth amendment of the Bill of Rights. Curtis said that we cannot just throw open the borders to fix our immigration problem. He also expressed concern that the U.S. was taking the best and brightest from other countries. He proposed exporting our ideas about liberty and the free market using non-government organizations to build up other countries.
Lorei asked the panelists to comment on the proposed legislation on immigration, currently in the Senate Judiciary Committee, s.744 the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act. Mr. Encisio said that he supports the legislation, stating that it will bring relief for suffering families. Professor Newsom said expressed support, pointed out that money spent on enforcement is not preventing illegal immigration. She stressed that immigration is a civil liberties issue, and that while we are a nation of laws, those laws are founded on a principle of equality. Mr. Curtis provided the example of the 1986 immigration amnesty as a past failure of immigration policy that the current law would repeat. The amnesty, part of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, made 2.7 million immigrants legal residents, of which 1.1 million eventually became citizens according to this ABC News video. Mr. Curtis asked the audience “how many of you trust John Boenhner to do the right thing?” Silence. He then asked “how many of you trust Barrack Obama to do the right thing?” Several members of the audience shouted “I do!” Encisio responded to Curtis’s comments by saying laws passed by states like Arizona were not well thought-out. They damaged the economy, and we have a responsibility to fix the system.
The moderator then opened up the forum to questions from the floor, of which there were many. So many that the forum ran over its allotted time. Questions ranged from why Canada does not have the same level of border security as Mexico does, to whether having states handle immigration is appropriate, and whether children should be treated just like adults under our immigration laws. Despite the panelists and audience’s passionate beliefs, the evening stayed civil. The only warnings the moderator gave were time-related, and everyone learned something new about this hot button issue.