Experts and activists from the New Haven community and Yale joined together Thursday night to present a forum on immigration issues in New Haven at Dwight Hall Chapel.
At the forum, which was attended by over 50 students and community members, four panelists discussed the living conditions of the approximately 10,000 undocumented immigrants who live in New Haven and the status of immigrant rights and services in the city. The talk was part of Dwight Hall’s “In-Reach Series,” an initiative aimed at breaking down the town-gown barrier.
The first panelist to speak was Kica Matos, the executive director of Junta for Progressive Action, a nonprofit whose mission is to improve the lives of Latinos in the greater New Haven area through integration programs and advocacy. Matos discussed some of the problems that immigrants face in the area, such as poor working conditions and unfair terms of employment.
“Immigrants are exploited in the workplace,” Matos said. “They often work in poor conditions, get no pay for overtime, and are threatened with deportation if they don’t comply with their employers.”
Matos said quitting is not an option for unsatisfied immigrant workers, as it would lead to joblessness or even deportation. As a result, workers are forced to put up with unacceptable employer practices, she said.
“One factory in Fair Haven paid in checks that bounced,” she said. “When the boss was confronted about this he told his immigrant employees that if they didn’t like it, they could quit.”
Despite the current problems, Matos said, she hopes New Haven can become a model city in serving the needs of immigrants because of local government’s willingness to address the issue with immigrant organizations.
John Jairo Lugo, the president of Unidad Latina En Accion, a group created four years ago that works for immigrant rights, said ULA works to improve everyday life for immigrants.
“The people who are here decided the only way to survive was to come here,” he said. “Now we’re here, but people don’t have running water or heat, and their homes are infested with roaches.”
Lugo, who immigrated to the United States in 1986, said ULA is currently working to obtain driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants in New Haven. He said the city owes its immigrant residents a lot more than it currently provides for them.
“The city should provide services because we work here,” he said. “We are the people who work in the kitchens, clean the University, and clear the snow, but we’re invisible.”
New Haven Mayoral Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Smuts ’01 said he agrees with Lugo that immigrants need more support. But Smuts said the problems faced by many immigrants are too complicated to be fully resolved by the city government.
“From a government perspective, it is a problem when people live in unsuitable housing and can’t legally get insurance or driver’s licenses,” he said. “I’d love to just issue [illegal immigrants] papers, but only so much can be done on a municipal level.”
American Studies professor Alicia Schmidt-Camacho discussed U.S. dependence on immigrant presence and gave a brief history of immigration and immigration laws.
“We’re told by the government that immigration is a problem, but it was only in 1924 that crossing the boundary in the South became a criminal act,” she said. “This law was enacted during a period of racism. We’re heirs to an apparatus that is flawed from its conception.”
All four panelists encouraged the audience to join the fight for immigrant rights, while Matos and Lugo encouraged the audience to volunteer.
Jessica Bialecki ’08, one of the forum’s organizers, said Yale students seeking to become leaders in their community and the world should try to escape the “Yale bubble” and educate themselves on social issue affecting their communities.
Emily Polanco ’08, who attended the talk, said the speakers addressed issues she has personally come to terms with in her hometown.
“Immigration is a really important issue,” she said. “I’m from L.A., where Latinos dominate. We have to support them and help them.”