‘Borders in Our Backyard’ focuses on immigration, Pacific Northwest

During spring break, 16 Whitman students delved into the debate surrounding illegal immigration.   The students met with over 20 groups and individuals involved in all sides of the debate, including Immigration and Customs Enforcements (ICE) officials, Portland Mayor Tom Potter, CASA Latina Day Workers’ Center and Oregon Senior Policy Advisor Danny Santos.

The trip, titled Borders in Our Backyard, emphasized how the Mexican-American border and immigration laws affect people all over the country, including in the Pacific Northwest region.

Students discussed the causes of immigration, the status of documented and undocumented Latinos in the United States and the relationship between North, South and Central America with a variety of experts.

Most speakers attributed immigration to an economic issue of supply-and-demand.

“People immigrate because of the economy.   I don’t think you can get anyone to say otherwise,” Immigration Attorney Tom Roach told students.

Some people expect that the declining U.S. economy will cause more hardships for immigrants.

“I suspect we’re facing an economic downslide and as the economy gets worse, so will the situation for undocumented immigrants.   Things are going to get worse before they get better,” said Potter.

People who want to immigrate legally may have to wait five to 20 years for a green card, depending on his/her nationality and eligibility.   Green card holders can become legalized after living continuously in the U.S. for five years, paying a fee and passing a written English and civics/history test.

Once in the U.S., deportation is a fear of many undocumented immigrants.   Because ICE officials are called when undocumented immigrants contact the police, many immigrants are afraid to report crimes and abuses.

“Before the union, workers didn’t have any rights at all.   The bosses threatened us.   They said they could turn in illegal immigrants at any time.   So everyone did what they told us to do,” said union organizer and former worker for Tyson Meatpacking Industry Maria Martinez.

Students toured the Yakima Detention Center, where undocumented immigrants await deportation.

“The way they looked at me through the glass and the way I was awkward around them made me feel really sad.   There were so many walls between us.   We’re dehumanizing each other in little ways every day,” said first-year Abby McCoy.

Students talked to Jim Ludwick, president of Oregonians for Immigration Reform.   The group works to curb illegal immigration through attrition.

“The number one duty of our federal government is to protect our borders and sovereignty,” said Ludwick.   “Politicians want to sell out traditional American values.”   Ludwick argued that the increase in immigration is having a negative effect on the environment and the US economy.

“I really felt like nothing before Jim really challenged my views,” said first-year Andrea Lucero.   “I went in there feeling dread and came out feeling so afraid that there are so many of him out there.”

The trip motivated the students in many different ways.

“So many strong feelings came out of that detention center that I just feel like doing art,” said senior Hannah Sherrard.
Other students developed a desire to help undocumented immigrants and underpaid laborers.

“I want to get more involved with the planning and the organization of the May first marches,” said sophomore Estela Vasquez.

The students on the trip have unanimously decided to keep and work towards solutions.

“I feel a new sense of urgency.   We have to organize ourselves, make ourselves a very visible, vocal group,” said junior Andrea Miller, addressing the other students.