Immigration ‘Reports’ look at myths, reality

April 15, 2012

Iliana Holguin and Allie Devine have distinctly different backgrounds and live in two very different worlds, yet on Saturday afternoon it was clear they share a passion for immigration reform. And it was clear that both women see such needed changes in national and state law as both humane and pragmatic.

Holguin and Devine were the main speakers at a presentation titled “Immigration Reform & What it Means to Rural Kansas,” held at the Nazareth Motherhouse in Concordia and organized by the Sisters of St. Joseph.

Iliana Holguin of El Paso, Texas

Holguin is an attorney and executive director of Diocesan Migrant & Refugee Services, the largest provider of free and low-cost legal services to immigrants and refugees and their families in El Paso, West Texas and Southern New Mexico. She remembers growing up in El Paso when it and Ciudad Juarez, its much larger neighbor just across the U.S.-Mexico border, seemed like one big city.

“As a child I traveled with my mother to Juarez every morning and it never seemed like I was crossing an international border,” she recalled as she began her “Report from the Border.”

But that was before 9/11 and increased national security — and before violent drug cartels turned Juarez into what is now called the “Murder Capital of the World.”

“The laws have changed dramatically in the last 50 years,” she said, while American attitudes toward immigrants have changed as well.

She began her presentation by citing six common myths about immigration today:

  • Having a child born in the U.S. allows parents to stay. (These so-called “anchor babies” are U.S. citizens, but their parents are not and are subject to deportation.)
  • Marrying a U.S. citizen automatically allows the spouse to come to the U.S. or to stay here. (This is one pathway to citizenship, but it is not automatic.)
  • Immigrants come to the U.S. to get welfare. (Undocumented immigrants are not eligible for any kind of welfare and even documented immigrants are not eligible for the first five years they are in the country.)
  • Immigrants pay no taxes. (Both documented and undocumented immigrants pay sales and income taxes just like anyone else. For Social Security taxes and most income taxes, she noted, undocumented immigrants provide a “windfall” because they pay those taxes through payroll deductions but have no way to get it back.)
  • Most immigrants entered the U.S. illegally. (Although estimates vary, most studies agree that about 75 percent of the immigrants in the U.S. entered legally.)
  • Immigrants can come to the U.S. legally if they want to.

“Immigration laws today are very, very complicated,” Holguin said.

Most visas issued to enter the U.S. legally are based on either family connections or employment, she explained. But for 2012, there will be just 226,000 “family-based” visas issued for immigrants from anywhere in the world, which means there is a lengthy backlog for people who want to join family members here.

As an example, this year there are 23,400 visas available for the unmarried adult sons and daughters of U.S. citizens — but according to an April 2012 federal bulletin, those adult children would have had to apply for one of those visas in May 1993 to now have moved to the front of the line. And if their relative is a “lawful permanent resident” instead of a citizen — commonly called a Green Card holder — the backlog is larger and the wait will be longer.

The challenge for workers who are trying to come into the U.S. legally can be even greater, Holguin said.

While “priority workers” and those with advanced degrees have a good chance of receiving visas, “other workers” — typically the kind of employees needed for agriculture and meat processing plants such as those in Southwest Kansas — are only allotted 10,000 visas a year. And, Holguin noted, the April 2012 bulletin lists an eligibility date of September 2002 for that class of visa.

“So how many people think an employer will be willing to wait 10 years for their employee?” she asked the 50 or so people in the audience at the Nazareth Motherhouse.

Another dramatic shift in immigration law, Holguin said, has been the focus on border enforcement. “Cost have increased exponentially in the last 10 years,” she said, “and that’s not just on the border but throughout the United States.”

A huge portion of that goes to the 350 or so detention facilities that have been established in the U.S. In 2009 (the most recent year for which details are available), about 380,000 immigrants were held in these detention centers, at a cost of $1.7 billion.

“Immigration violations are civil,” Holguin pointed out. “Half of the immigrants in detention have no criminal record.”

In El Paso, there are two detention facilities that together house 1,900 adults. (There are also four facilities for children, with a total capacity of 200.)

The cost to detain each adult is $86 per day, so the total cost for the two adult facilities in El Paso is $63 million per year, Holguin said — $86 times 365 days times 1,900 detainees.

She said various studies have shown that less expensive alternatives to detention would work just as well, but neither the government nor the private companies that run detention centers are willing to consider those.

“Immigration detention has become such a lucrative business that there’s a lot of resistance to alternatives,” she added.


Allie Devine of Topeka

Meanwhile, in Kansas — like in many other states — alternatives to federal immigration policy have been at the forefront for a number of years.

Former Kansas Secretary of Agriculture Allie Devine explained the history of immigration discussions in Kansas and how a current proposal came about.

“As Iliana was on the border fighting those issues and as Congress every year lost its nerve to address immigration,” Kansas business interests began changing the way they thought about the issue.

“The first thing everybody says is, ‘This is a federal issue; there’s no role for the states,’” she said. “For five years, the Kansas business community said that — and we said it because we believed it. But we also understand the political environment that we’re in.”

So, beginning in 2008, “while we understand it’s a federal issue and there still needs to be federal reform, we realized that we need to do something (in Kansas) and do something different.”

That “something” has grown into a coalition of 27 groups “representing virtually every aspect of the economic base of Kansas,” Devine said, that has come together to oppose measures put forward by Secretary of State Kris Kobach and at the same time propose an unusual bill to help provide workers for Kansas businesses.

State Rep. Elaine Bowers, R-Concordia, listens to the presentation at the Nazareth Motherhouse Saturday.

Devine said the most unusual aspect of House Bill 2712 and its Senate companion, SB 399, is that it brought together business lobbyists and advocacy groups on a single issue, so that they were working side by side for what may have been the first time ever.

“What happened us probably one of the greatest things I’ve seen in all aspects of 25 years in state government,” she said. “We changed the hearts of lobbyists that were focused only on business interests. They now see this as a human rights issue and a community protection issue.”

Instead of the punitive “Arizona-style” laws that have been put forward by Secretary of State Kobach, HB 2712 creates a method for undocumented workers to remain in Kansas. If it becomes law, under 2712 a worker would have to:

  • Prove he or she has been in Kansas for five years
  • Pass a criminal background check
  • Agree to study toward English proficiency
  • Agree to work in an industry that needs labor

If the worker meets those criteria, the state of Kansas would support his or her application to remain in the U.S. with legal work authorization. The costs of the new program would be covered by businesses that would pay a $1,000 registration fee and an additional fee of $200 for each employee hired as part of the new program.

She said HB 2712 “would basically put people in a holding pattern, with lawful status, until they can come into the system” of entry visas, as Holguin described.

After designing HB 2712, Devine said, “We were waiting for the immigrant community to tell us they could never support it — but they said, ‘Yes, we’ll support it, because we have nothing else.’”

HB 2712 remains in the House Committee on Federal and State Affairs, where the last action on it was a set of hearings in mid-February.

If it doesn’t pass, Devine said her coalition will continue to work with the federal government on the same idea but through other channels.

Arturo Ponce from Liberal, Kan., talked about his own experience as an immigrant 24 years ago. He attended the presentation with his wife, Dora.

Also speaking at Saturday’s presentation were Arturo Ponce, who works with the United Methodist Mexican American Ministries in Liberal, Kan., and Sisters Anna Marie Broxterman, Judy Stephens and Esther Pineda. Sister Marcia Allen, president of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia, welcomed those attending the presentation and explained the congregation’s focus on immigration reform. Cheryl Lyn Higgins, coordinator for the sisters’ Neighborhood Initiatives offices, was the emcee for the event.

• • • • • • •

The Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia gave unanimous support to an Enactment Statement on Immigration in November 2011. For a copy,  CLICK HERE.


Commitment to civility continues to grow

April 6, 2012

For the third year in a row, Concordians have stepped up to sign a public “Civility Pledge” sponsored by the Year of Peace Committee.

This year’s pledge — with 312 signatures — was published in today’s Concordia Blade-Empire newspaper (Friday, April 6) and is available as a downloadable PDF; just CLICK HERE.

In 2010, when the committee first introduced the Civility Pledge, it garnered 244 signatures. Last year that number grew to 299.

People signing the pledge promise to be “civil in my public discourse and behavior” and “respectful of others whether or not I agree with them” and to “stand against incivility when I see it.”

Sister Jean Rosemarynoski, who chairs the Year of Peace Committee, said the Civility Pledge is particularly important in this presidential election year.

“Civility means being respectful despite our differences of opinion,” she said. “We want to get the message out, and then encourage everyone to live that message: That all people must be treated with dignity and respect.”

The Year of Peace Committee came together in late 2009 as a result of an “interest group” at the Community Needs Forum working lunches hosted by the Sisters of St. Joseph.  Anyone who wants more information about the continuing Concordia Year of Peace or would like to be part of the committee may contact Sister Jean at 785/243-2149 or by email at

Each year the Blade-Empire has generously donated space to publish the signatures.


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Advocates gather in Dodge City to discuss immigration

March 2, 2012

     “We are a nation of immigrants. I think we forget that. Mine were German immigrants in the 1880s. If we told those stories more, if we remembered that, we might become more welcoming. “

— Kathy Denhardt,
mobility manager for Dodge City and Ford County

DODGE CITY — Nearly three dozen people from throughout southwest Kansas packed a meeting room in the Catholic cathedral in Dodge City Thursday afternoon, all with the same question: How can we better ensure that immigrants are treated fairly and humanely?

• • • • • • • •

The Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia had organized the meeting to bring together representatives from social service agencies, religious congregations, city governments, political entities and the community college as well as individuals who advocate for immigrant rights.

But, as organizer Cheryl Lyn Higgins pointed out at the beginning of the meeting, the Concordia-based congregation of Catholic women doesn’t presume to have all the answers.

“Our goal is to become better informed advocates for our brothers and sisters, whether documented or undocumented,” she said. “I believe, collectively, we can generate the outcome we all want to see.”

Higgins, who is coordinator of the sisters’ Neighborhood Initiatives office in Concordia, had organized a similar meeting in Salina in January.

Both meetings come on the heels of the congregation’s unanimous support last November for a “statement on immigration” that calls for a comprehensive national immigration 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; and
  • A process whereby undocumented students living in the United States can earn a college degree and become gainfully employed.

Higgins and the other members of the congregation’s immigration committee — Sisters Esther Pineda, Anna Marie Broxterman and Judy Stephens — handed out copies of the statement during Thursday’s Dodge City meeting.

Many participants had ideas on what needs to happen, particularly in southwest Kansas where the Hispanic population is continuing to grow.

Garden City Mayor John Doll said that a pressing need is a local immigration office.

“People now have to go to Wichita or Kansas City,” Doll said. “Having services available here is a key.”

For Maria Musick of Dodge City, another key is learning about the immigration issue “so we can tell the difference between fact and myth.”

Johnny Dunlap, chairman of the Ford County Democratic Party and a representative of the League of United Latin American Citizens, agreed — but he added that action is also needed.

“We need to raise awareness on the hearings (legislative) in Topeka and in D.C.,” he said. “We need to inform our communities and immigrants so that they may speak against  (proposed anti-immigrant legislation).”

Sister Esther Pineda, who was in Topeka during February for hearings at the Capitol, reported to the group on the status of several bills being considered by the state Legislature.

She urged the group to pay particular attention to House Bill 2576, the so-called “Anti-Harboring Bill,” as well as House Bill 2712, a measure that would require the Kansas Department of Labor to identify labor shortages and then create something of a “guest worker” program to help eliminate those shortages. The bill, which was drafted by a coalition that includes agriculture groups and the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, has drawn strong support from immigrant rights advocates across the state and equally strong opposition from Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and others.

Arturo Ponce, who works with the United Methodist Mexican American Ministries in Liberal, said that three elements are needed to advocate for immigrant rights: collaboration, cooperation and communication.

“This meeting, bringing us all together, is an example of all three,” Ponce said.

But Robert Vinton, ESL/migrant director for USD 443, expressed concern that more needs to be done.     “There hasn’t been an adequate response from this country that allows immigrants to stay,” he said. “In 20 or 30 years from now, these people are going to become people we’re going to need to depend on. They can become lawyers or doctors. We as a country have been fighting it, but at some point we have to see that it’s reality.”

At the end of the two-hour session Higgins said the sisters’ Immigration Committee is compiling all the information and ideas from both this meeting and the earlier one in Salina, as a first step in an action plan. “What I’m hearing today is that we need to be more vocal,” she said.




Sisters bring immigration rights advocates together

January 19, 2012

This afternoon's meeting began with a prayer — and Mary Salazar, with the Univisión affiliate in Wichita, was there to report on it for the TV station's Spanish-language newscast.


Just days after Catholic bishops had convened a national conference in Denver on immigration policies and ways to move the issue to the forefront of political debate, a much smaller group of people from throughout central and western Kansas gathered in Salina Thursday to talk about immigrants in the state.


• • • • • • •

Nearly two dozen Catholic sisters, social service workers and other citizens took part in the “Conversation about Immigration” organized by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia. They had been invited by Cheryl Lyn Higgins, the coordinator of Neighborhood Initiatives, an office within the Concordia congregation that is working with the sisters’ Immigration Committee.

Higgins said this meeting — and a second one scheduled for March 1 in Dodge City — were designed to “develop a better picture of what is available for immigrants and what needs to be done.”

Many of the participants brought to the meeting passion and a certain level of frustration over limited services, funding cuts and a lack of understanding among both politicians and voters.

“There are a lot of people who really do know our (economic) need for the immigrant,” said Sister Therese Bangert, a Sister of Charity of Leavenworth and a longtime immigration rights advocate. “But we have to be more effective in getting that message out. Maybe, eventually, our own self-interest will move us (toward immigration reform).”

Sister Therese was among those last year who lobbied against Kansas House Bill 2372, which was authored by Secretary of State Kris Kobach and which contained provisions modeled after the Arizona law — also written by Kobach — that is still being challenged as unconstitutional. The Kansas House voted 84-40 against pulling HB 2372 from its Judiciary Committee, where the bill was tabled indefinitely.

But, Sister Therese said, that does not mean Kobach has given up his agenda on immigration. “He has said this year he’ll divide that bill into maybe nine little bills that won’t attract that much attention,” she said.

Sister Mary Ellen Loch of the Congregation of St. Joseph in Wichita said that educating laypeople of all faiths remains a crucial element.

While the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the Federation of Sisters of St. Joseph and numerous individual church organizations and religious communities – including the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia — have called for national immigration reform, Sister Mary Ellen said, “The people (of the Church) have to see this as an issue for all of us. We’re not going to change anything until we change the spiritual attitude of the people.”


Cynthia Colbert, executive director of Catholic Charities in Wichita, said that after people are educated about the issue, they can apply political pressure. But, she noted, that takes money.

“We need a political action committee, we need a lobbyist,” she said. “Right now there’s no unified organization to get people calling legislators.”

Colbert added that while there are many Kansans in support of national immigration reform, there are also some who stand adamantly opposed to that position. “We’ve got to speak to those in the middle,” she said. “We’ve got to help them understand why this issue is so important to us, as people of faith and as Americans.”

Sister Judy Stephens, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia’s Immigration Committee, said that people in Wichita and other cities across Kansas need also to understand that services for immigrants are mostly limited to urban areas – despite the need for them in rural, agricultural areas where many new immigrants may work. “There is a Hispanic, Spanish-speaking family in virtually every little town, and yet there are no bilingual services outside of Salina, Wichita and Topeka,” Sister Judy said.

A Concordia resident who is fluent in Spanish, Sister Judy frequently provides informal translation services for people in the Concordia area.

Higgins said the sisters’ Immigration Committee will take all the comments and information gathered at Thursday’s meeting — and well as information from the upcoming Dodge City session — and compile it, “to see what steps we can take.” The goal, she said, is to find ways to work together collectively.




Sisters call for compassionate immigration reform

January 13, 2012

In a brief but powerful “celebration” Friday afternoon, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia joined other groups across the nation in calling for compassionate and comprehensive national immigration policy reform.

• • • • • • •

The sisters took the opportunity of National Migration Week, proclaimed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, to publicly release their “Statement on Immigration” that was unanimously accepted by the women’s religious order two months ago.

At the Sisters of St. Joseph Senate in November, the congregation calls for a national immigration policy that includes:

  • 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; and
  • A process whereby undocumented students living in the United States can earn a college degree and become gainfully employed.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the U.S. Federation of the Sisters of St. Joseph, as well as numerous other religious communities, have supported similar proclamations.


Sister Esther Pineda, a member of the congregation’s Immigration Committee and director of the Justice and Peace Center in Salina, began the half-hour ceremony by noting that the theme of the national week was “Welcoming Christ in the migrant.”

“The Sisters of St. Joseph offer a welcoming hand to the immigrant in our midst,” she said. “Being concerned for the least among us is the … cornerstone of the Sisters of St. Joseph.”


As the ceremony continued, sisters lit candles and quoted Scripture and their congregational Constitution in support of their stance in the Enactment Statement.

A special guest for the ceremony was Ana Aquirre-Brown, whose family fled war-torn Guatemala in the early 1980s and came to Concordia as part of the “sanctuary movement.” They first arrived at Manna House of Prayer in Concordia, and were supported by the Sisters of St. Joseph while they established themselves here. Ana, who was born in the United States and now lives with her husband in Minneapolis, Kan., spoke of the sisters’ generosity and kindness to her family. “I just want to thank you,” she said, fighting back tears.

Sister Marcia Allen, president of the Concordia congregation, closed the ceremony with a short speech that recapped the sisters’ history of taking a stand to do the right thing, even when it was unpopular. She said the sisters are committed to working toward immigration policy reform, collaborating with other immigration rights advocates where appropriate and helping immigrants already in the United States.

“We know that legislation is necessary,” Sister Marcia said, “and it will take a great deal of conversation and compromise to bring about fair policies for immigrants.”

But in the meantime, she added, “We will care for those who already find themselves here and we will do what we can to see that they are welcome.”