By JOHN KLINE
THE GOSHEN NEWS
GOSHEN — Immigration reform was a hot topic in Goshen Saturday afternoon.
A healthy crowd packed the downstairs conference room at the Goshen Public Library from 2 to 3:30 p.m. Saturday to take part in a special town hall meeting on immigration reform sponsored by the Northern Indiana Community Coalition for Immigration Reform.
According to Jeremy Bernstein, one of several organizers for the event, the purpose of Saturday’s forum was to educate citizens on the most important aspects of the comprehensive immigration reform bill recently passed by the U.S. Senate and to call on Congresswoman Jackie Walorski, U.S. Representative for Indiana’s 2nd congressional district, to support similar legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“I just feel like immigration reform is a really important issue,” Bernstein said of his reasons for hosting the town hall meeting. “Goshen has a growing Latino community, and I think it’s important to protect all of our citizens and all of our workers, and create a system where people are out of the shadows and have a fair and just system. I feel like that’s what the Senate Immigration Bill did, and I want to push Jackie Walorski to support a similar bill in the House.”
As part of that goal, the coalition invited Ryan Clem, district director for Walorski, to attend Saturday’s event with the goal of providing him with questions and concerns from the local public regarding immigration reform that he could then take back to Walorski for her review.
“Everything I’m hearing from area citizens is that they really want this,” Bernstein said of the bill. “They were really encouraged by (Indiana senator) Joe Donnelly’s vote for the bill in the Senate, and now the key is to get Jackie Walorski, and I’m encouraged that she’s listening. She hasn’t said she’s going to vote either way yet, but as long as she’s listening, that’s a good sign.”
Among the first speakers to take the podium Saturday was local immigration attorney Felipe Merino. During his talk, Merino provided attendees with a brief breakdown of some of the more pressing and important aspects included within the Senate Immigration Bill, more formally known as Senate Bill 744, or the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act.
Topics touched on by Merino during his talk included border security, immigrant visas, interior enforcement and new opportunities for immigrant youth.
“Nothing was negotiated without border security being at the forefront,” Merino said of the bill. “As a matter of fact, a huge border security amendment was added onto the Senate bill in order to be able to obtain the number of votes that it did obtain in the Senate.”
In discussing the border security amendment, Merino noted that the bill, if passed by Congress, would require a southern border security strategy which includes 700 miles of new fencing along the U.S. southern border, deployment of an additional 38,000 border patrol agents, and mandatory use of the E-Verify system by any business with more than 50 employees.
In discussing changes to the visa process, Merino noted one very important change that would place immigrants who have been waiting 20 to 30 years to get a visa at the front of the line when new visas are dolled out.
“This says within seven years those people will have their number come up,” Merino said, “and get the first crack at residency.”
Merino also touched on the potential expansion of what is known as the Dream Act, which would allow youth, who were brought to this country by their parents at a young age and who have made the best of their situation, the ability to obtain a quicker path to citizenship.
“These are the kids that have grown up in the schools with our children,” Merino said. “These are the kids that pledge allegiance to our flag. These are the kids that live right next to us.”
Among the other speakers providing insights into the Immigration Bill Saturday were local Dream Initiative speaker and Elkhart student Erwin Zacarias, who spoke on his own experiences as an undocumented immigrant in the United States.
Goshen City Council member and local businessman Edward Ahlersmeyer also spoke briefly on his experiences working with undocumented workers in the RV industry and how the current system for dealing with undocumented immigrants in business is broken and needs to be overhauled.
Closing out the speakers Saturday was Goshen Mayor Allan Kauffman, who spoke on what the effects of a lack of progress on immigration can do to small cities, including Goshen. Topics touched on by Kauffman included: potential exploitation of undocumented residents by landlords, fear of reporting crimes to the police due to undocumented status, exploitation of undocumented workers by employers and damage to city coffers due to uncollected taxes.
“These things just pile up in a community, and the federal government needs to fix this,” Kauffman said. “As a local community, I suppose we could take a really hard line, and be as unwelcoming as we can possibly be, but that’s not humane. So we want Jackie and the rest of the Congress to get together and figure this out, because until we do ... we will never resolve all the issues we have. But I’m hopeful. One side of Congress passed it, and now if the other side does it, maybe we can get something done.”