Immigration Reform Advocates Discuss Political Climate in Panel

Around 50 students, professors and staff members attended the panel “Immigration Reform: Past, Present and Future” Thursday afternoon, the second of a series of three immigration-themed events organized by the Faculty Executive Committee, following a film screening Wednesday night and preceding an informal dinner and discussion.

The panel consisted of the two filmmakers of The Senate Speaks, Shari Robertson and Michael Camerini, as well as Esther Olavarria, a member of Senator Robert Kennedy’s staff who was an early proponent of an immigration reform bill in 2005-2006, and Stuart Anderson, the director of the National Foundation for American Policy, a firm that focuses on trade and immigration policy. Karen Grisby Bates, an NPR columnist whose articles have covered immigration reform, moderated.

Immigration has been a hot topic at Pomona College since November, when the college administration asked some of its employees to submit updated work authorization documents. The college fired 17 staff members who could not prove their eligibility to work.

“What happened in November raised for many faculty and people in the community how little they knew about immigration policy,” said Cecilia Conrad, Dean of the College and Vice President for Academic Affairs. “So I think there was the notion that we need to learn more about the policy.”

“President Oxtoby mentioned [the panel] as one of the ways that the school was hoping to respond to the firing of the workers last semester,” ASPC President-Elect Sarah Appelbaum PO ’13 said.

There were only a few students in the audience, however.

“I wish that we had more students,” Conrad said.

Rachel Gregory PZ ‘12 said that the panel highlighted the deficiencies in how immigration issues are handled in Washington. 

“It’s very disheartening how far removed politicians are from the actual issues, and how much of a game it becomes,” she said.  

Camerini said that the anti-reform stance is “really a mask for discomfort with new people, with immigration,” and that anti-immigration policy is an attempt at control.

The panelists said that immigration is no longer among the five most important topics for voters. This is good news, Robertson said, because “it’s a lot easier to deal with when it’s not a hot button topic.”

Camerini said that immigration reform is necessary.

“The fact that there are undocumented people in our country means that our visa system does not reflect the reality,” he said.

Robertson said that recent public opinion polls offer some hope to advocates of immigration reform. 

“People are looking for a solution,” he said. “There’s leadership that’s lacking and there’s political support that’s lacking, but there’s potential support.”

Film clips shown in the first half hour of the panel discussion, drawn from the documentary that was screened Wednesday night, showed the intricacies of Washington politics and the difficulties that senators and their staffs confront when trying to get enough support to pass bills.

“You need a champion like [Kennedy] willing to fight the fight” in order to make a difference, Olavarria said. “Right now there’s no one like him in the Senate. You have to be able to work across the aisle, you have to be able to make the painful decisions and compromises. And in the last couple of years [we’re] not seeing that anymore.”

Robertson urged supporters of immigration reform to vote in local and national elections.

“I’m glad that I was here, but I think there’s a lot to be done still,” Gregory said.

Conrad said that she hopes “there’s some conversations that will emerge from this.”

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