Talks on immigration ‘need to involve more people’

Keynote speaker Mark Grey talks during a forum on immigration reform at St. Ambrose University in Davenport Aug. 11.

By Barb Arland-Fye

At the suggestion of The Catholic Messenger, future community conversations concerning immigration issues could include a panel of speakers with opposing views on immigration reform. Judith Morrell, executive director of the Davenport Civil Rights Commission, said she’d recommend that idea to LULAC, which partnered with the commission to present a “coffee talk” on immigration issues Aug. 11 at St. Ambrose University in Davenport. “We’ve been having conversations in the community about various things. Immigration was an issue LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens) wanted to discuss,” she said.

The Aug. 11 event in the Rogalski Center featured a panel of four: keynote speaker Mark Grey, a University of Northern Iowa anthropology professor and director of the Iowa Center for Immigration Leadership and Integration;  Leslie Kilgannon, director of Quad Cities Interfaith; Glenn Leach, a volunteer with the Diocese of Davenport; and Nora Dvorak, a member of the Davenport Civil Rights Commission.

While Morrell found the Aug. 11 conversation beneficial, she acknowledged that the panelists and 50 or so audience members all appeared to be of like mind concerning the need for immigration reform and criticism of existing laws.

“I think we need to have more of these conversations and involve more people in the community,” Morrell said. “I think it’s going to take a lot of these conversations to understand this issue … a lot of people have mistaken notions that (immigrants) are coming in to take our jobs. That isn’t the truth.”


She found Grey’s observations particularly enlightening. He has immersed himself in the subject of immigration and is co-author of a new book, “Postville: USA: Surviving Diversity in Small-Town America.” He interacts regularly with people whose opinions about immigration run the gamut. Among his duties, he gives diversity training to Iowa State troopers.

Grey noted that the following day, Aug. 12, Congress was expected to pass legislation providing $600 million for emergency supplemental appropriations for border security. (The legislation was approved.) That legislation isn’t going to solve the problem of illegal immigration, he said.

Immigrants are here “because we employ them. If we didn’t make the opportunity for them to be employed here, they wouldn’t be here,” he told the Davenport audience. A number of immigrants are here as contract workers; the people who hire them are under no obligation to check their IDs, he said. Referring to recent storms that damaged rooftops in Cedar Falls, he quipped, “You can bet it wasn’t UNI students who fixed those roofs.”

Remittances to Mexico, even though they have declined because of the economy, represent the third top source of that country’s Gross National Product (behind oil and tourism), Grey noted.

Addressing a question about how he’d deal with immigration reform, Grey said part of the solution would be to allow immigrants to come out of the shadows and regularize their status. Many don’t want to become U.S. citizens, he added. They want to be able to travel back and forth for jobs.

One audience member asked about the possibility of employers meeting immigrants at the border and documenting them before they begin working. “That’s an excellent question,” Grey said.

Another audience member asked whether an undocumented immigrant can file a report with the Davenport Civil Rights Commission. Morrell said complaints involving a city employee would present a conflict of interest. She’d advise complainants to contact the Iowa Civil Rights Commission or the state’s ombudsman’s office. If the complaint concerns a business, the Davenport commission will investigate.

Speaking later with The Catholic Messenger, she said the commission rarely receives complaints from Hispanic immigrants. “A lot of it is cultural,” she said. “A lot of them don’t consider the government to be a friend. We’re trying to change that image. … That’s work on our part we have to do in the community to help them believe they can trust us and that we’re here to investigate complaints.”

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