COLUMBIA — Community advocates, lawyers, and immigrants came forward to tell their stories at Centro Latino's first Central Missouri Immigration Summit.
Panelists and speakers addressed immigration in Missouri and nationwide during the summit on Saturday at Columbia Hope Church.
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“It was an idea of Eduardo’s (Crespi) and mine of just trying to find a way to educate the community on immigration issues,” Carrie Tyler said.
Carrie Tyler, legal access program coordinator and Board of Immigration Appeals accredited representative for Centro Latino, and Eduardo Crespi, founder and director of Centro Latino, worked with other volunteers for about four months to plan the event.
According to 2006-2008 American Community Survey, 3.5 percent of Missouri's population is foreign-born. Neighboring states Kansas and Illinois were about 6 percent and about 13.7 percent, respectively. California had the largest with 27.1. The total number for the U.S. is about 12.5 percent.
Jennifer Rafanan, executive director of Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates, was one of the six speakers.
“I find that immigration is a topic that people care a lot about, feel a lot of ways about and don't know a lot about,” said Rafanan. “So I think that accounts for a lot of our public discourse on immigration.”
Although the majority of Missouri’s immigrant population is of Asian origin, we hear a lot more about the Latino and Hispanic immigrant population, Rafanan said.
“There are a variety of reasons, of course, why people migrate, but NAFTA is one of the main things we deal with,” she said.
Citing articles by Alfredo Sainez and Diane Solomon, Rafanan said the North American Free Trade Agreement caused the cost of basic foods to rise by 247 percent and the real value of the Mexican minimum wage drop 22 percent since 2000 and more since the trade agreement to $4.66 a day in 2007.
“They can’t really afford to produce against the exports from the U.S.,” said Rafanan. “People can’t feed their families, they’re losing their land, and eventually people are migrating to the border to work in maquilas, some of the factories.”
Thirty years ago, people looking for work in the U.S. on the border would walk across for work and walk back across after the workday was over. Now, Rafanan said, people are finding it too dangerous to walk back and forth.
According to the September 2010 Visa Bulletin, backlogs have extended into the 1990s for family-based visas. For Mexicans migrating under the first category of preference, people who applied in December of 1992 are still waiting in line to receive a visa.
“It’s not the same for Americans,” said Mayra Canales, an immigrant from Peru who has been here for almost five years. “They want to go to Mexico, they want to go to Peru, they want to go everywhere. They just need their passport.”
Gabriela Renteria-Poepsel, another immigrant from Mexico, stood next to her and nodded in agreement.
Canales said her sister who is a boss and has been working at the same place for 10 years was able to receive a visa, while her friend, who has a decent job and no criminal record, was denied.
Canales first came to the U.S. in 2004 on a student visa and she said her citizenship process was fortunate. After marrying her husband, who is an American citizen, they were able to prove it was an honest marriage.
Besides the long lines and the restrictive policies, Rafanan pointed out another reason people travel across the border without a visa.
“There's always the fact that there might be an immediate need to be here,” said Rafanan. “I mean are you going to wait five, six, seven years to be separated from your spouse or from your children?”
Allie Gassmann, a member of Parents as Teachers for the Columbia Public School District, was at the event. She works with many English as a second language parents and said she attended the summit so that she can present the information she learned to her colleagues. Gassmann said that it is important to address immigration because it is so politicized.
"I think people need to be educated about it,” she said.