Karibu Presidential Series: “Anti-immigrant rhetorics are destructive, ignorant, divisive, un-American, and a betrayal”

Photo by Flickr user Michael Vadon

Karibu News continues its Presidential Campaign Series and spoke to Sam Magavern, the co-director of Partnership for the Public Good (PPG), about the most important issues at stake during the presidential campaign. PPG is an institution that provides research and analysis on community issues in the Buffalo and Niagara region, and supports advocacy for partner organizations.

Karibu News: What’s your general reaction to some of the anti-immigrant commentary taking place in the debate?

Sam Magavern: I think the anti-immigrant rhetoric we’ve been hearing is very vicious, very destructive, ignorant, and divisive; completely un-American and a betrayal of everything this country has stood for over the years. I’m very dismayed by it.

What types of immigration issues need to be addressed during the campaign?

One thing is educating the American people more about the benefits of having more of an open immigration policy, rather than keeping people out. It would be very beneficial to be thinking about how to bring more people in.

The problem of illegal, undocumented immigration is very overblown. There’s not that much that’s been happening anymore from Mexico, which is where the tensions are the greatest. But even that [illegal immigration] is a much smaller problem than people think, and undocumented people bring benefits to the country. They tend to improve economies, rather than make them worse. You know, one of the solutions to solving undocumented immigration is to make it easier to immigrate here legally, which is the direction we should be going in.

I think one of the easiest ways to see it is to look at the Toronto metro area, which is experiencing incredible growth. They’re the fastest growing metro in North America, and the reason is not because their birth rate is higher, it’s almost entirely due to immigration…American cities could learn a lot from that.

Here, where we’re sitting in Buffalo is a great example of the energy and dynamism that immigrants and refugees can bring to the community.

Are there specific policies that the federal government and the President can address?

Well, every level [of government] has a role in this. At the federal level, they control immigration policy. So the administration just announced they were going to let in more refugees this year, so it’s still really a small number, I believe it’s 100,000. But 100,000 for a big country like us, you have people fleeing persecution, civil war, all over the world, we should be taking more refugees.

Another piece is taking more work-related immigrants…opening up those doors more widely. That’s probably the key thing at the federal level.

Also, the way they enforce immigration laws at the federal level has been shameful for years. It’s incredibly harsh. They imprison people without due process, they break families apart; it’s a really bad system. And it’s been very punitive, disappointingly so, under the Obama administration. I think it’s one of the black marks under his administration.

Are you hopeful policy could change at the federal level, given how Congress has functioned and the political discord in Washington?

Well, the executive branch controls a lot of that, so it is stuff the president could do. Whether Obama will change it in what’s left in his term or whether we have to hope the next president does that, I don’t know. But there’s a lot that can be done just by the president.

If you had to prioritize immigration policies, what would be the most important ones to address first?

At the federal, I would probably say those three I mentioned would be a tie; so let in more refugees, let in more immigrants, and more humane enforcement policy.

And enforce against employers, not against employees is a big piece of that. You know, the employers are the ones that make a lot of money by having undocumented workers, and who have the means to not do it. Undocumented people are desperate to eat…and they’re often refugees in all but name.

Do you see those three policies as being of equal significance here in Buffalo, too? It seems like we also deal with those same issues.

Yes, I think letting in more refugees would stand to benefit Buffalo. You know you have lots of parts of the country that have declining population issues. Rural, small towns, in places like Utica and Troy, they’ve become increasingly reliant on and welcoming to immigrants.

PPG works with various organizations that service the immigrant community. So in your view, what are the needs of the immigrant population that must be addressed?

So I don’t do direct service, but the people I speak to who provide services seem to say language first, then education, employment, housing are the biggest.

So could the President affect education, for example, by changing policies around standardized testing?

I think the policy for standardized testing has been disastrous for everyone, not just new arrivals, but particularly for them. I think we need a much more holistic view of how kids are doing, and what’s important to them, rather than just scores on a test. It’s really important to protect things like…the cuts to music and art, science, and everything that’s been thrown under the bus in the name of math and reading scores.

Do you see the immigrant population as being engaged in the political process? Are there any barriers?

Language is huge. And then income is another big one. Political power is closely related to economic power in our system. So, if you’re talking about a refugee, you’re talking about someone who by definition came here with nothing, so to gain political power is challenging for that reason. And the social networks of power are very relational, and if you’re not plugged into those networks, it’s very difficult.

Do you think issues affecting asylum seekers, and refugees are even a priority for presidential campaigns?

No, but they should be. But refugees are comparatively a pretty small group. So it’s difficult to have refugees on the radar. But the overall treatment of new arrivals needs to be addressed differently.

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