‘Empowering Immigrants’ program focuses on humanity

November 15, 2013 by

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When Armando Minjarez and Emira Palacios came to Concordia to speak Friday afternoon, their focus could have been immigrants and comprehensive immigration reform.

And while each has a powerful story to tell as an immigrant from Mexico, they asked their audience at the Nazareth Motherhouse to focus instead on the words “humanity” and “empowerment.”

 

The special afternoon program was part of the semi-annual Assembly of the Sisters of St. Joseph, but it was also open to the public. About a dozen people joined the sisters in the packed auditorium to hear Minjarez and Palacios, two of the three founders of The Seed House ~ La Casa de la Semilla, in Wichita. Traveling with them was Laura Dungan, the third of the co-founders.

“On the news, we hear people saying we must have immigration reform because (undocumented immigrants) are the workers in the meat-packing plant and our gardeners and our dishwashers,” Minjarez said. “You never hear them say we must have immigration reform because of the humanity of these people, because we are all human beings.”

He urged the audience to think beyond the “economic context, where we are cheap labor” and consider how their fellow human beings are treated.

Minjaraz was just 15 when he arrived with his parents in Ulysses, Kan., a city just slightly larger than Concordia in the southwest corner of the state. He learned English in his job as a dishwasher at a local restaurant and by the time he was a senior in high school, he was at the top of his class.

He was accepted into the architectural program at Kansas State University and was offered several scholarships, but he couldn’t attend because as an undocumented immigrant he was considered a foreign student and would have to pay roughly three times the tuition, he said.

Instead, he enrolled at Garden City Community College. Then, after the Kansas legislature passed the in-state tuition law for students who had graduated from state high schools, Minjarez went to K-State and graduated in 2012 with a degree in fine arts. Minjarez eventually married a citizen and today has legal status.

Throughout it all, he has been an activist and spokesman on issues of immigrant justice at local, state and national levels. His newest project will be a short video that will be part of the Kansas Humanities Council’s Turning Points, looking at the demographics of the city of Ulysses over the last 20 years.

Like Minjaraz, Emira Palacios arrived in the United States as a young undocumented immigrant. It was 1985, and she was 20 years old. In her 30s she began working to become a legal resident and eventually a U.S. citizen — and notes that the process took more than 10 years at a cost of roughly $30,000.

She began involved in the fight for immigrants’ rights while working as a community resource specialist in the Wichita Public Schools. For the past 12 years, she has been involved with Sunflower Community Action and served as that organization’s immigrant rights coordinator from 2007 to 2012. She is currently vice president of National People’s Action, a Chicago-based network of grassroots organization working toward national economic and racial justice.

Palacios has testified to both the Kansas Legislature and in Washington, D.C., on issues of immigrant rights and the proposed comprehensive immigration reform.

Both Minjarez and Palacios said that “stepping out of the shadows and telling our stories” gave them the power to reach out to help others.

That explains, in part, why a little over a year ago they joined with Dungan to launch The Seed House ~ La Casa de la Semilla, a Wichita-based organization created to help established and emerging community leaders learn about bringing justice, equality and sustainability through collective action.

In introducing the program Friday afternoon, Sister Esther Pineda read a portion of the letter Cardinal Timothy Dolan wrote earlier in November to House Speaker John Boehner. He wrote:

“As a moral matter … our nation cannot continue to receive the benefits of the work and contributions of undocumented immigrants without extending to them the protection of our law. Keeping these human beings as a permanent underclass of workers who are unable to assert their rights or enjoy the fruits of their labor is a stain on the soul of the nation.”

On Nov. 11, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which Dolan has headed for the past three years, endorsed the letter – and its strong language.

Sister Esther noted that the Senate passed a bill in June that would provide a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants living here illegally and tighten border security, but the measure has stalled in the House where Boehner and GOP leaders have argued for a piecemeal approach.

In Dolan’s letter, he called the issue “a matter of great moral urgency” and called on Boehner to act on it before the end of the year.

But, Palacios doesn’t believe that will happen.

“There’s not going to be comprehensive immigration reform this year,” she said, “but we don’t give up; we keep fighting.”

Part of that “fight,” Minjarez added, is addressing the issue at a local and state level while educating more Kansans about the human impact of anti-immigrant laws and attitudes.

“It’s not enough to advocate for people,” he said. “We must bring people to the front; we must put a face on the issue.”

That’s exactly what the Sisters of St. Joseph hoped to do with this public program, said Sister Judy Stephens, one of the organizers. It is part of a major effort by the congregation to better understand the issue and to work on behalf of undocumented workers in Kansas.

In November 2011, the Senate of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia — the formal deliberative body of the congregation — gave full support to a “statement on immigration” that calls for a comprehensive national policy, including:

  • A pathway to lawful permanent residency and citizenship for the undocumented persons currently living in the United States;
  • A process to reduce the backlog of family visas in order to ensure family unity and reunification;
  • A guest worker program that ensures labor protections and equitable wages;
  • A border security and enforcement policy that is humane;
  • A process whereby undocumented students living in the United States can earn a college degree and become gainfully employed.

 

 

 

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