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Chicago Activist Voices Opinion on Immigration

August 18, 2006 at 12:00 AM EST
The fourth conversation in a series on immigration in the United States highlights the perspective of Jesus Garcia, a community activist in Chicago.
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MARGARET WARNER: Next, insights about immigration.

Just today, the Department of Homeland Security estimated there are about 11 million illegal immigrants living in the United States. In 2000, the estimate stood at 8.5 million. Gwen Ifill has tonight’s immigration conversation, the fourth in our series.

GWEN IFILL: Jesus Garcia came to the United States from Durango, Mexico, in 1965. His family settled on Chicago’s southwest side where he has lived and worked ever since. He became a naturalized citizen in 1980.

Garcia has served as a city alderman and was Illinois’s first Mexican-American state senator. He is now director of the Little Village Community Development Corporation, an outreach group. He joins us now from Chicago.

Welcome, Mr. Garcia.

JESUS GARCIA, Community Activist: Great to join you for this discussion.

GWEN IFILL: You have written that mainstream America is rethinking whether it wants to continue to be a haven for immigrants. Tell me what you base that on.

JESUS GARCIA: I think that the current debate in the country and in Congress about legalization, allowing people to become integrated into society has set off a broad debate about the future of this country, about the number of undocumented immigrants that are in the country, and what it will mean for the country if these individuals should become legalized and go on to be a part of U.S. citizenry.

And I think that, as we saw at other times in our history, debates about the Chinese, about Jews, about other ethnic groups like the Irish, and whether or not they would assimilate into society, so it is that we are seeing that in today’s debate.

Today’s debate is a little bit different perhaps and a little closer to home, if I may, because of the large number of Mexican immigrants in the U.S. and other immigrants from Central America and from Latin America. And thus, America is grappling with all of the implications, the demographic, ethnic, et cetera, and to a degree questioning whether or not this group of people in the society can be counted on to be good Americans.

GWEN IFILL: Are you suggesting that brown-skinned immigrants are being welcomed differently than lighter-skinned immigrants were in past years?

JESUS GARCIA: I think there’s some of that going on, surely. I think it’s evident in some of the rhetoric that some of the far-fringe groups are using to try to criminalize and to whip up fear in the debate.

But I think there’s the other reality of the large border with Mexico and the large numbers of immigrants that come from Mexico and Central America that also have a bearing on the debate. And I think it has a lot to do with the proximity of the places of origins of many of the immigrants in the country.

GWEN IFILL: You work every day or a lot of the time with people who have chosen to immigrate to this country one way or another, legally or illegally. As the debate has been framed as one of security on one side versus opportunity on the other side, how does this resonate within the community where you work?

JESUS GARCIA: I think that people understand that there has to be a balance. And that balance — I think people who have gone deep into the debate recognize that, on the one hand, legalization of people as they earn their legalization and potential pathway to citizenship entails responsibilities and that the legalization of people will allow the government to document where people are at, what they do, and their contributions to society.

On the other hand, there is the debate about how much border security is adequate. Is having the wall that’s being erected on our southern border something that is really necessary or is it more of a political statement? Is it practical? Will it stem the tide of immigration?

Is having the National Guard called to patrol the border really a necessity or is it more of political positioning by some of the elements that have been trying to instill fear and block immigration reform from becoming a reality, or substituting it with extreme measures like the criminalization of millions of people and their families, and teachers, and doctors, anyone who cares for an immigrant that may not have authorization to be here?

GWEN IFILL: You were one of the organizers of the big March 1st protest that happened against a lot of the House legislation that was under way. After that, those protests, some people, activists on your side said the sleeping giant has been awoken and now we’re going to hear from this new base of voters. Are we hearing from them? What difference will their voices make, if any, in politics, in law, and on the attitudes of other Americans?

JESUS GARCIA: I think that the marches have had at least two very important effects on the country. One, I think they changed the nature of the debate on immigration. And we went from the community responding to a bill that they saw as being very draconian and a real attack on the fundamental human beings and human dignity through the House version, the Sensenbrenner bill.

And since the marches occurred in historic proportions all over the country, we saw the Senate rise and take a position recognizing that legalization of this undocumented immigrant population is something that has to happen, that it is realistic, and that is good for America. So that’s the first thing that happened.

I would say the second thing that we saw is we saw how important immigration policy and immigrants’ rights are to the immigrant community throughout this country. There had been speculation about how important an issue immigration is. We saw the emotional appeal to solidarity and unity on the part of the immigrant community.

And in marches throughout the country we saw, for example in Chicago, that over 70 percent of the participants in those marches were not so-called illegal aliens and immigrants; they were U.S. citizens.

GWEN IFILL: Jesus Garcia, thank you so much for joining us.

JESUS GARCIA: Thank you, Ms. Ifill.

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