Months after making national headlines, New Haven is still the epicenter of the immigration debate.
Gateway Community College hosted a discussion on immigration Saturday as part of a national effort of the “By the People” initiative. The event included two discussion sessions and a plenary session moderated by Ray Hardman — host of WNPR’s Morning Edition — and featured a panel of several other local leaders. About 70 New Haven area residents attended the event, at which topics of discussion focused on local policy initiatives, forum organizers said.
Although many participants said the discussion was a good model for social discourse, some said they believe the discussion will do little to affect change in government policy.
The forum comes on the heels of numerous immigration-related developments that have drawn the nation’s attention to New Haven.
In June, Governor M. Jodi Rell vetoed a bill that would have provided in-state college tuition rates for undocumented immigrants. Three months ago, City Hall instituted the Elm City Resident Card, the first municipal ID program in the United States, designed to act as a form of identification for all residents who choose to obtain it, regardless of immigration status.
The forum featured discussion about issues related to the recent events: granting community status and in-state college tuition rates to undocumented immigrants and countering local businesses’ illegal hiring practices.
Cynthia Farrar, co-chair of the forum and a Yale lecturer, said the goal was to foster an open atmosphere in which individuals could express their opinions.
“What’s unusual about this forum, unlike some others, [is that it is] not like your standard town meeting or an opportunity for advocacy groups to get people out,” Farrar said. “By having a group of people who are not the usual suspects, you get much more diversity in terms of view and background and life experience.”
But the random method of selecting potential participants did not guarantee diversity of backgrounds in each small group: Of the 21 participants and observers in one small group, only four members were of minority ethnic backgrounds and only six were women. But the participants of other sessions better reflected New Haven’s ethnic diversity.
Hardman moderated the question-and-answer portion of the group-wide session. He said the event was especially relevant in light of the upcoming elections and the potential to impact policymakers.
“This is really a unique forum, and a way for citizens to become fully informed, hear viewpoints they wouldn’t have heard, and especially with the issue of immigration, put a face to it,” Hardman said.
Selase Williams, panelist and Advisory Committee member for the event, said during the session that the idea of immigration should be rethought because of the complexity of the issue.
“Trying to control immigration is an unmanageable process,” he said during the portion of the event that featured the entire group. “In [spite] of what’s happened, with advances of technology and all that, borders have become so porous that [it] has become impossible for people … and [for the government] to control the process.”
Many participants said they were unsure of the discussion’s ultimate aim and its impact on future legislation.
Kica Matos, panelist and New Haven community services administrator, said the issue of immigration lies with the municipalities and its citizens. Cities and towns must deal directly with the day-to-day challenges and assets that result from an influx of immigrants, she said.
But some participants appeared not to pay attention at all during the conversations. One man left the room during the discussion session to smoke a cigarette, coming back to the room 10 minutes later. One woman spent her time reading the newspaper and filling out a crossword puzzle.
Still, Evelyn Gard, program co-chair and Gateway College public relations director, said the forum was worthwhile because of its promotion of civic discourse.
“We’re looking at the things on the minds of people who normally wouldn’t think they had a voice,” Gard said. “We have no agenda … Over the generations, we’ve forgotten this is a privilege, to have a civic discourse.”
Participants took surveys before and after the forum detailing their views on the government-citizen relationship as related to immigration. Each host city will collect and analyze the results, after which leaders from various fields across the country will convene in November to further discuss citizen-government issues.
The national television broadcast will air on PBS in early January.