University News

Conference addresses immigration

Staff Writer
Monday, March 14, 2011

Five days after University researchers released a poll showing public division over immigration issues, academic and policy leaders met for a conference entitled “Policy and Demographics in Rhode Island: A Symposium on Immigrants and Immigration in the State” Saturday in MacMillan 117, adding a human face to the hard data of the poll.

“We invited community leaders and public officials to come to Brown to have a discussion on immigration based on hard data — the poll,” said Marion Orr, director of the Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions, which conducted the poll.

President Ruth Simmons opened the conference with an address to an audience of about 60 students and community members. Thomas Tobin, bishop of the Roman Catholic diocese of Providence, was the keynote speaker.

Afterward, the results of the survey were presented by Orr and Alexandra Filindra, a postdoctoral research associate in public policy. The poll surveyed the views of 508 Rhode Island residents about immigration. The results showed that Rhode Islanders were divided on issues of immigration and assimilation. But a majority favored providing education to immigrant children, whether documented or not.

The event was sponsored by the Taubman Center, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rhode Island Foundation, among others.

Two panels — one of community leaders and another of academics — answered questions regarding immigration.

All of the community leaders had personal connections to immigration issues.

“Some people have given me the title of troublemaker or community organizer — same thing,” said immigration attorney Roberto Gonzalez, who has defended immigrants facing deportation.

“Providence is 65 percent minority,” said Reverend Matthew Kai of the Ministers Alliance. He recounted his own experiences as an immigrant and described how hurt he felt when called an “alien.”

“They said ‘illegal alien,'” Kai said. The term angered and confused him at first, “but then I didn’t feel so bad because we were all aliens — some of us were legal and some were illegal.”

Molly Soum from the Genesis Center in Providence, who is Cambodian, spoke from the perspective of a Southeast Asian immigrant.

“It’s not that we chose to come here — it’s that we were brought here,” Soum said. “We aren’t here to squeak the wheel.”

Soum said she sees herself and others as giving a voice to immigrants. “I’m speaking for the unspeakable, the people who can’t speak for themselves,” she said.

Nasser Zawia, dean of the graduate school at the University of Rhode Island, who is Yemeni, spoke from the perspective of a Muslim immigrant, saying Muslims in the United States were particularly affected after the Sept. 11 attacks.

“What some crazy lunatic did somewhere, I suddenly am responsible for,” said Zawia, adding that many innocent people were “rounded up” and held after the 2001 attacks.

Overall, the panel encouraged more community involvement and aid for immigrants.

State Sen. Juan Pichardo, D-Providence, encouraged Rhode Island residents to “help all immigrants, whether they’re here undocumented or not.”

“It is in our best interest to be mentors,” he added.

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