JCRC immigration forum highlights city’s citizenship campaign

Immigration lawyer Alan Bennett speaks at the Tucson Jewish Community Center April 28. (Simon Rosenblatt)

The immigration crisis in Southern Arizona was the topic of a breakfast forum organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona on Friday, April 28.

Opening the meeting, which was held at the Tucson Jewish Community Center, JCRC Chair Richard White explained that it would be an educational forum. “I think at this point the crisis is large enough that we can justify not trying to bring everyone in” to debate all sides of the issue, he said, citing ongoing border issues, deportation orders and immigration raids.

Touching on the Jewish community’s “roots as immigrants and refugees,” White, the former CEO of the regional Red Cross office, said that while the country has “an imperfect record” on welcoming immigrants, people around the world still look up to the United States “as a haven, a place that opens up its doors and takes in people when they are in crisis.”

Helping legal permanent residents

Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild speaks at a Jewish Community Relations forum on the immigration crisis at the Tucson Jewish Community Center, April 28.

Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild also gave opening remarks, explaining the city’s citizenship campaign, launched in November, which aims to get information to legal permanent residents who are eligible for naturalization. More than 35 organizations, including the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, are partners in this effort.

“I wanted to become a member of the Cities for Citizenship campaign when I learned that in Pima County, there are 33,000 people living here who are eligible for citizenship, but have never taken the steps to obtain citizenship,” he said,  eliciting  murmurs of “wow” from some of the approximately 90 people in attendance.

“Naturalized citizens earn more, enjoy greater security and participate in civic life, all of which strengthens our communities,” said Rothschild.

The mayor cited statistics from “The Economic Impact of Naturalization on Immigrants and Cities,” a 2015 research report on 21 U.S. cities that concluded that if all who are eligible become citizens, in the aggregate those cities would see $5.7 billion in increased earnings and more than $2 billion in increased tax revenues. The report is available on the mayor’s website, mayorrothschild.com, which also has resources for immigrants.

The citizenship campaign is designed to help overcome financial, educational and cultural hurdles to citizenship, he said, applauding a recent naturalization fair in Nogales, Ariz., sponsored by Rep. Raul Grijalva’s office, which helped 22 people complete their citizenship applications, saving them nearly $18,000 in document preparation and naturalization fees.

In Southern Arizona, we tend to focus on the large Mexican population, Rothschild said, but the hurdles affect people who have come here from all continents, including Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

While the citizenship campaign can help legal permanent residents, the real problem, the mayor said, is the lack of a pathway to citizenship for those who are not here legally. Noting that both U.S. senators from Arizona, John McCain and Jeff Flake, are proponents of comprehensive immigration reform, he called for the country to get past the “immigrant-bashing” rhetoric and find solutions.

Refugees vs. asylees

Alan Bennett, an immigration lawyer who has worked at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, served as moderator for the panel, which included Ricardo Pineda Albarrán, cónsul of México in Tucson; Maria Vianey Valdez-Cardenas, immigration chair of the Arizona League of United Latin American Citizens; Bob Feinman, vice chair of Humane Borders; and Francisco Salcido, a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals student recipient.

Bennett explained the difference between a refugee, someone displaced from their home country, and an asylee, someone who has made it to a country, for example the United States, where they are applying for asylum because of persecution or the threat of persecution in their native land.

Asylees are not here illegally, he pointed out — by law, the United States is required to accept asylees and give them “a credible fear interview.”

This is important in Southern Arizona, he said, because a great number of asylees have made the dangerous trek here from Central America, from countries such as Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, where gangs have been persecuting children, especially girls. Children often arrive unaccompanied by an adult; Bennett’s current clients include a 16-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl.

Many good people work for Homeland Security, Bennett said. However, he fears that knowing the Trump administration proposes to hire 5,000 new Customs and Border Protection officers and up to 10,000 more Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers will make families in Central America more reluctant to send their children to seek safety here.

Continuing community outreach

Mexican Consul Ricardo Pineda Albarran speaks at a Jewish Community Relations forum on the immigration crisis at the Tucson Jewish Community Center, April 28. (Simon Rosenblatt)

Putting the situation  in Southern Arizona into perspective internationally, Pineda noted that the United Nations estimates there are 244 million struggling migrants worldwide — enough people to create a country that would be the fifth most populous in the world.

Historically, he noted, migration between the United States and Mexico has flowed in both directions. Today, he said, there are 32 million Mexicans and Mexican-Americans living in the United States; 5.8 million Mexicans are here without proper authorization, a decline of 1 million since 2007, while 3 million Mexicans in the United States are eligible for citizenship. The Tucson consulate now operates a 24-hour hotline (855-463-6395), fielding up to 1,500 calls daily from across the country, on immigration and other issues. Undocumented immigration creates challenges, Pineda acknowledged, “but the facts show constantly that immigration benefits the region as a whole.”

Bob Feinman speaks at a Jewish Community Relations forum on the immigration crisis at the Tucson Jewish Community Center, April 28. (Simon Rosenblatt)

Despite what people may think, Humane Borders volunteers are not the people who stand in front of Border Patrol vehicles, said Feinman. Humane Borders works with law enforcement to save lives, he said, explaining that while group was political in its early days, members soon decided they could prevent more deaths by sticking to humanitarian actions, such as providing water tanks on the desert routes where the most migrant deaths have been documented. Tanks are placed with written permission of the landowners, he noted. Humane Borders, a nonprofit agency, needs drivers, donations of food packs and clothing, and office help, he said. (Visit humaneborders.org or call 398-5053).

Maria Vianey Valdez-Cardenas speaks at the Jewish Community Relations Council forum at the Tucson Jewish Community Center April 28. (Simon Rosenblatt)

Valdez-Cardenas was raised in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, and came to the United States in 1994. In 1997 she became a naturalized citizen. She works for the Tucson Unified School district as a community liaison and has volunteered since 2008 with LULAC, where she is the state treasurer as well as immigration chair. She is currently a student at the University of Arizona, pursuing a career as an immigration lawyer.  In 2013 she began a program at El Pueblo Center promoting the benefits of citizenship to seniors. She said many seniors have lived here for 50 or 60 years, renewing their permanent resident card every 10 years. In 2016, she said, she helped 97 people, mostly seniors, apply for citizenship, utilizing a fee-waiver program for those with low incomes. (Contact her at 808-4330, mvcardenas74@gmail.com or azlulac@gmail.com.)

Valdez-Cardenas recently helped form a support group, Corazones Unidos (United Hearts) of Arizona, to educate undocumented people about programs that can help them and correct misinformation. They are looking for U.S. citizens to help (contact unitedheartscorazonesunidosAZ@gmail.com). “There’s a lot of fear out there,” said Valdez-Cardenas.

Fear and education were also the main themes for Salcido, whose family fled Mexico in 2003 after they witnessed a murder. A student at Pima Community College, Salcido said it is taking him much longer than two years to earn his degree because he and his father are supporting a family of eight. He has two jobs, one on the Tohono O’odham reservation, which means he must cross a checkpoint daily. Since Donald Trump’s inauguration, he said, he’s been detained every time, with waits of 20-45 minutes to process his background check.

Francisco Salcido speaks at the Jewish Community
Relations Council forum at the Tucson Jewish Community Center April 28. (Simon Rosenblatt)

Salcido also coordinates an ambassador program through Scholarships A-Z (contact francisco@scholarshipsaz.org) that educates people on immigration history, why people migrate to the United States, and community organizing. They help train educators on how to work with undocumented students and their families, he said, and hold forums to make sure people know their rights and what is happening in the community.

Sometimes, he’ll be at work and see a group text about someone being stopped on the road by Border Patrol. “To not be able to leave my job so I can go see what’s going on and protect my community, it’s really scary,” he said. 

In a Q&A following the panel presentations, one audience member asked whether Tucson is a sanctuary city. Since the mayor had left for another appointment, Pineda responded, saying that Rothschild has said that Tucson “is a migrant-welcoming city” and that there is no actual definition of “sanctuary city.”

Another questioner wanted to know how people can help promote more compassion and tolerance. Valdez-Cardenas said education is the key. “Learn and share,” she advised.

Salcido also said it is all about education, including talking about “different intersectionalities, different multi-issue people: What does it mean to be a woman, a worker … what does it mean to be part of the LGBT community, undocumented, and black?”

Salcido added that people need to “be more intentional in how we speak [about] and treat other people.” It’s an issue he’s raised in his own family, he said, while in various organizations he works with, “we’re always calling each other out” about potentially hurtful language or behavior, because “we’re all the same, right? We’re all human.”