A Civil Dialogue on Immigration, our panel event co-hosted by the UAB Office of Diversity and Inclusion, took place on Monday, March 21. President Watts introduced the evening by acknowledging the diverse community of UAB and the criticism faced by leadership from students and the Birmingham community for the inaction following the executive orders on immigration. The goal of the panel discussions is provide a forum for dialogue as a means of gaining understanding and cultivating empathy. UAB is limited in taking political positions as a public university, yet moderator Suzanne Austin says that UAB, through this panel, wishes to “take a deeper dive into rights of specific populations, demonstrate support for international students, and listen to the concerns of the public.”
There are four panelists: Selvum Pillay, Khaula Hadeed, Catherine Crow, and Inocencio Chavez, selected to aid in shedding fact on the misconceptions and misunderstandings surrounding immigration. Pillay, an administrator and international former student from South Africa, begins the conversation. He came to America in October 2001, and faced significant racism created by backlash from the prior month’s infamous attacks. He was told to “go back to Afghanistan,” but today still believes in fostering peace through discussion and the sharing of opinions. Hadeed gives voice to the importance of shutting down misconceptions about immigrants, specifically those of the Muslim faith. She provides statistics about immigrant demographics, including that are majority Christian and most often from Mexico, India, and China. She concludes her introduction with a bold statement that “we will look back and say that these years changed the future, and we must not repeat the horrors of the past.” Crow, is a former immigration attorney, who currently works at UAB as the director of International Scholar & Student Services. She works closely with the international students and faculty at UAB. Chavez is Youth Organizer for Community Engagement and Education Program at The Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama. He states that immigration is a human right, particularly for safety. Immigration, he says, is also a benefit to society by diversifying thought and understanding; cities and countries with the most immigrants have been the best and most effective. Chavez says his personal aim is to help Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals students obtain educational help through Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama scholarships and non-federal aid programs.
The floor opens for questions. The first audience questioner asks, “Is there a difference between current and past vetting programs?” Hadeed answers by saying that there isn’t substantial knowledge on the new vetting programs, but gives her experience on past vetting programs. She says that there is a two-year vetting process involving numerous levels of qualification checks, and individuals can be turned down for something as inconsequential as inconsistencies in paperwork. Others can go through the entire process, be approved, and yet still be denied entry under executive orders. Hadeed says that she has lived here for almost sixteen years, but only became a citizen last year. Her husband, on the other hand, has been here for even longer and is still waiting on his.
An audience member asks for opinions on the forty arrests over the last weekend, and how to protect targeted people, to which Chavez responds, stating their rights were violated. ICE may not be targeting innocent people, but innocent undocumented people are undereducated on their rights and tend to get caught up in ICE raids that focus on other targets. Chavez emphasizes the need to educate all immigrants and U.S citizens on their rights to deny entry, the right to silence, and other rights that many may not be aware of.
The third question is, “As an elementary school teacher, what should we teach about immigration?’ All panelists answer this question and their answers vary, but center on acceptance and respect. Pillay answers initially and says that he believes that children should be taught respect for others through the Golden Rule, because respect is the biggest service individuals can do. Crowe adds that she believes inclusion of lonely and unpopular students should be emphasized in schools, because we carry those inclusive attitudes from childhood into civil society. Both Chavez and Hadeed speak on themes of equality though diversity, and acknowledging and celebrating the uniqueness of every student.
There are a series of written questions asked by moderator Suzanne Austin to the panelists. All three questions focus on inclusion of immigrants in the workplace, involving economic change, job “stealing,” and the combating of misinformation on this topic. Pillay answers first and quickly says that the question of job stealing is a non-starter, because the question answers itself. UAB has four-hundred nurse vacancies alone; there is a surprisingly large amount of jobs out there. In addition, most immigrants are not taking desirable jobs. Crow adds that getting a job is not an easy process for international students. For domestic students, you can simply walk into a place and find a job easily and quickly. For international students, it is a lengthy process involving many forms, references, and other steps that employers often do not want to deal with. In addition, international students only have a period of ninety days after graduation to find a job. Even in cases where that period is extended up to two years for STEM majors, that period is punctuated with evaluations from the university and constant contact with academic advisors. Additionally, obtaining a work visa is awarded on a lottery system, so there is no guarantee that you will be allowed to work. There are also a number of protections for federal appointments for international students involving a public notice saying that domestic applicants can come to challenge the appointment. In essence, Crow is saying that the steps to getting a job for international students are so intensive that it does not make sense to claim that they are ‘stealing our jobs.’ Chavez has the final response by sharing a personal story. He says that when he grew up in a rural area, he and his parents works in tomato and melon fields. Non-citizens were hired to do this grueling labor intentionally so that the owners could underpay them—sometimes as little as one dollar for hours of hard labor. This is not a job that non-citizens are stealing from the American people, because no one would do that work for so little money. Austin answers the last part of the question about misinformation and says that UAB is doing that through public forums like these.
The final question comes from a man who introduces himself as Ramirez who works for an accounting firm. He says that undocumented immigrants pay taxes into the system but never obtain the benefits that documented taxpayers do. Many do not want to file anymore for fear of arrest and deportation. Ramirez asks, “Will it hurt the economy if immigrants are too afraid to file their taxes? What can we do to minimize being taken advantage of by people who try to underpay us and violate our rights?” Chavez answers and says to do something. Be in local government, host rallies, and organize. He warns that you will face plenty of rejection, but even if you only reach a single person, your message still spreads.
This panel was particularly effective because it magnified the voices of people directly affected by the executive order on immigration. It allowed non-immigrants to more clearly understand the institutional barriers and societal struggles faced by both documented and undocumented immigrants. As a model for civic dialogue, panel discussions are a fantastic tool to spread awareness and challenge prejudice in a civil way.