Speaker calls for tolerance

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 15, 2011

By Karissa Minn
What would you do if you had no money to feed your child?
What lengths would you go to if there were no jobs, no safety net, no welfare system and little chance of relief if you stayed in the United States?
Dr. Mark Sills, director of Faith Action International House in Greensboro, asked those questions Tuesday to an audience of about 60 people.
One responded, ěIíd go where I could get food.î
This is the plight of many residents of poorer countries who move elsewhere to seek a better life, Sills responded.
Sills was the featured speaker at a public forum on immigration reform. It was held as part of a ěMeet Your Neighborî event at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College.
ěIt is mandated in all the worldís faiths that to be authentic within our faith, we are to welcome the stranger. We are to open our hearts and homes in hospitality to those who come to be among us,î Sills said. ěSomehow, that seems hard to do these days. Somehow, there are many, many voices speaking against that kind of radical welcome.î
He said even a Post article announcing the forum was met with hostility.
ěJust the idea of talking about this subject was offensive to these folks,î Sills said. He went on to praise the diversity of culture, food, music and faith that immigration can bring, and he asked why people were hostile to it.
A subgroup of the Salisbury Rowan Human Relations Council, the Covenant Community Connection offers two public forums each year, one in the spring and another in the fall. Previous ěMeet Your Neighborî forums have addressed poverty and diversity.
In his presentation, Sills said the largest forces that ěpullî immigrants into a country include a shrinking labor pool, international competitive pressure, reconstruction after natural disasters and family reunification.
He also explained the biggest factors that ěpushî immigrants out of their countries are poverty, violence and natural disasters. A woman from the audience offered a fourth factor.
ěIím from South Korea,î she said. ěIn the 1970s and 1980s, many families came to the United States to get a better education.î
Sills replied that once those students get the benefits of our education and their visas expire, our country asks many of them to leave.
Those who do try to work through the process can wait years ó even decades ó before they get through the system. If a Mexican-American here legally petitions the government to bring family members in, the average time to process the application is 17 to 23 years.
Another audience member asked how his ancestors óIrish immigrants ó would have become legal citizens.
ěWhat is the history of how the process has worked in the past, and how different was it from what is going on now?î he said.
The process for becoming a citizen was largely informal until 1956, Sills replied. Until then, legally, only foreign-born whites ó not including the Irish or Italians ó were able to become naturalized citizens.
Even though the law has changed since then, he said, the way people feel about immigration is still largely tied to race.
Sills said he asked the Department of Homeland Security what percentage of immigrants cross the border without permission. He was told that about 75 percent of all immigrants have legal documents, and of the 25 percent who donít, 40 percent have expired documents or are in transition from one status to another.
ěOf the people who never had legal documents, about 10 percent of them actually crossed borders without permission,î Sills said. ěThere are no armies of people invading here to destroy our culture. … These are folks that are coming to work, for the most part, and better their lives.î
He said Latinos contribute $13 billion to the stateís economy, and Latino immigrants often will work jobs in agriculture, construction or food service that American workers have demonstrated they wonít.
Even undocumented immigrants pay taxes, Sills said, including sales taxes and property tax fees included in rent. Some even pay income taxes with an individual taxpayer identification number.
He said if immigration reform led to more of these people becoming legally documented or even citizens, they could come ěout of the shadows,î work honestly and pay more taxes. They will no longer be afraid to report being victims of crimes or testify as witnesses to them.
Crossing the border illegally is a statutory offense, like speeding, he said. First offenders cannot be imprisoned or fined ó only detained and deported. (A second offense is a felony, though.)
Sills said 28 percent of North Carolinaís population growth comes from immigration.
About 56 percent of the total foreign-born population in North Carolina are Latinos, he said. Of the Latinos, 72 percent are from Mexico.
ěThose coming here are young for the most part ó considerably younger than the median age of native-born Americans, with a higher birth rate,î Sills said. ěFifty-seven percent of new students in public schools across the state are Latin American.î
Greensboro has become the fourth city in North Carolina to have no racial majority, he said, because its white population dropped below 50 percent of the total in the 2010 Census.
ěWe are becoming a nation of minorities,î Sills said. ěIf we cannot learn to love each other and live together in harmony, we will fall apart as a nation. … But we can do this, folks, and youíll find itís a beautiful thing.î
Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.