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Panel examines local effects of immigration

Becky Hogan | Friday, March 28, 2008

Panelists said deporting illegal immigrants had a negative effect on the South Bend community Wednesday in DeBartolo Hall.

Panelists examined the issue examined from the perspectives of religion, healthcare, law, education and economics.

Senior economics major Jamie Grebowski’s summer research project, which examined the economic impact of undocumented workers in South Bend, started after immigrant parishioners of St. Adalbert’s Parish were deported in immigration raids.

Grebowski, along with other researchers, surveyed 62 immigrants, 40 of whom were undocumented. Their survey was based on the transactions of adults in the community according to assets such as labor income, consumer goods purchased and taxes paid. The survey also looked at benefits they receive from government programs such as welfare.

“On average, over $4,000 a month per individual is going into the community from undocumented workers,” he said.

The study ultimately concluded that deportation of undocumented immigrants negatively effects South Bend’s economy.

“Deporting undocumented workers is economically harmful to South Bend. We established that, in total, the immigrant population contributes between $2 million dollars and about $10.5 million to the community,” Grebowski said.

Manager of Memorial Hospital’s Hispanic Initiative Leonora Battani said immigrants in South Bend are given access to health care regardless of their legal status.

“We in South Bend are very lucky that we have two hospitals that treat patients from seven or eight counties,” she said. “They treat immigrants just that any person needs to be treated.”

According to Battani, the language barrier presents the greatest challenge for health care professionals when treating immigrants.

“The biggest problem we have is language – that is where the inequities start. Many hospitals can’t offer language services, including interpreters or translation of documents,” she said. “Here in South Bend, most of the major health services are bilingual – that has a lot to say for where we live and how welcoming we are to immigrants.”

Helping to combat language barriers in South Bend through the South Bend Community School Corporation, bilingual education coordinator for the South Bend Community School Corporation Bill Barna said students who are learning English as a second language are often the first generation in their family to do so.

“In our ‘English as a New Language’ program, 96 percent of students have Spanish as their home language, in second place at two percent is Arabic and then there’s about 24 other languages that make up the rest,” Barna said.

According to Barna, children face many pressures as a result of having parents who are immigrants.

“Of all the students we serve, 75 to 80 percent are citizens of the U.S.; however, their parents may not be citizens,” he said. “This has implications for our school system and puts pressure on parents that truly effects the students.”

Barna also said immigration raids have affected many of the students he works with, and the raids can have a negative impact on their learning and concentration in the classroom.

Barna said his department works to ease the communication barrier for students’ parents.

“We provide … translation services in Spanish for our parents,” he said. “Any time there’s a conference that needs interpreter; we provide that to the school. We translate a number of [legal] documents for parents, so parents are knowledgeable about what is happening in school and with their child.”

Immigration laws also present many hurdles for families, according to directing attorney of the Immigrants’ Rights Center at Indiana Legal Services Lee A. O’Connor.

“There are substantial legal problems for people who are here as immigrants,” O’Connor said. “We often think of people here as legal or illegal, and that’s not a good way to think about it … It’s often more of a continuum than an issue of undocumented or not.”

O’Connor said there is an emerging trend of immigrant men marrying American women in South Bend.

“One of the things that really surprised me when I came to South Bend was the number of situations where you have a Mexican man married to an American woman,” O’Connor said.

O’Connor said immigrants have to complete a two-step process in order to gain legal status. First, a U.S. citizen has the right to petition for a relative who is an immigrant. Then an immigrant must qualify affirmatively.

O’Connor said this is almost impossible for anyone who entered the country illegally to attain a visa.

“Immigration law has been made so complicated and difficult in the last few years, that even people with a clean record that are married to an American [citizen] face a daunting process,” O’Connor said.

He also said immigrants who enter the country are asked to go back to their country of origin and apply to the U.S. Consulate before returning to the U.S. But once immigrants leave, they are disqualified from being able to acquire a green card for ten years.

“If [immigrants] come back in again unlawfully, it’s a permanent bar and they have to wait 10 years before they can come back … That’s what I think far and away is the biggest problem,” O’Connor said.

Fr. Chris Cox, Associate pastor of St. Adalbert Parish, examined immigration concerns from a religious standpoint, and said Catholics should look to the Gospel of Matthew.

“We are supposed to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world … adding something distinctive to the word today,” he said. “When I look at the Church, I think we’ve sometimes lost our way and become invisible. Immigration profoundly affects our Church, and it’s a decisive question for us.”

Cox referred to the parable of Lazarus in the Gospel to emphasize his claim that the poor are often forgotten by society.

“As a Catholic university, education needs to be marked by the sign of the cross. We need to have the vision to see Lazarus out there, hear the cry of the poor … and have the courage to act,” he said. “There are many lenses we can put on the issue. What we believe as a Church is that the most important lens is the lens of faith. Are we going to take the lens from sounds bites on radio talk shows or from the lens of faith?”

Cox said based on his experiences in his parish, he believes the community has much to gain from immigrants.

“These are people that come from a rich Catholic heritage, that can being new life to our churches,” he said. “We will be enriched by welcoming the stranger.”

The panel, entitled “Implications of Immigration for South Bend,” was sponsored by the Department of Economics and Policy Studies and the Department of Economics and Econometrics.