Journalist: Immigration a ‘forgotten priority’

Friday, February 27, 2009

There are days when Julia Preston receives three – even four – e-mails from illegal immigrants. “Please help,” they often read. “I’m desperate. I’m writing from a detention center. … I have no one else.”

Immigration reform, the Pulitzer-prize winning New York Times journalist said, will be a profoundly difficult issue for President Obama. Her lecture, entitled “Immigration: President Obama’s Forgotten Priority,” at the Watson Institute for International Studies’ Joukowsky Forum provided an overview of immigration policy in the Bush era and highlighted current challenges facing the country.

Preston, who has worked at the Times since 2005, specializes in issues of immigration and Latin America. She recently co-authored the book “Opening Mexico” with Samuel Dillon.

Her lecture, hosted by the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, presented what she felt were the results of Bush-era policies, including personal stories of the struggles of immigrants and their families.

“The immigration crackdown has created populations living in the shadows with diminished rights,” she said. In their new state of vulnerability, increasingly afraid to participate in local communities, immigrants will fulfill the societal role that conservative philosophy dictates for them, she added. Factory raids and police crackdowns have left many illegal immigrants afraid to leave their houses and unable to negotiate higher wages.

Now, in a hurting economy, immigration issues are less likely to take precedence in Congress, she said.

In response to a question from the audience, Preston – who rarely takes a position on federal legislation – said she would endorse the passage of the Dream Act, a federal bill that addresses immigrants who entered the country as small children.

She gave the example of a young girl from San Antonio. Valedictorian of her high school and graduate of a private college, the 23-year-old was pulled over at a traffic stop this week and is now on her way to being deported from the country. Her e-mail to Preston was like many the journalist had seen before. There is not much a journalist can do, Preston explained. “All I have to say is, ‘Thank you so much for writing – let’s stay in touch.'”

After her recent story about a federal pilot program offering a path to naturalization for illegal immigrants by joining the military, Preston received many e-mails asking for more information. “I never thought I’d find myself in the position of being a recruiter for the U.S. Army,” she said.

Preston lastly spoke about the her role as a reporter. “It’s a combination of intuition, being around for a long time and keeping your ear to the ground,” she said.

“It’s always good to hear impressions from people not immediately involved in the politics,” she said of talking to students. “You learn a lot from the questions.”

Preston’s reporting is “a must-read,” said Professor of Anthropology Matthew Gutmann, director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies.

“She has very rich stories to tell,” he added.

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