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Although the immigration debate has largely faded in this year’s presidential election, it is at the forefront of politics in New Haven.

Experts on American and New Haven immigration held an open dialogue with the community in the New Haven Free Public Library Thursday evening. Two guest speakers — author and host of WBAI’s “Wake Up Call” Deepa Fernandes, along with Kica Matos, head of the city’s Community Services Administration — were moderated by Yale associate professor of American studies Alicia Camacho during a 90-minute discussion. All three echoed the view that America’s current immigration policies were excessively harsh, overly focused on law enforcement and in urgent need of repair.

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Alicia Camacho wasted no time in addressing what she saw as the biggest immigration concern before turning the discussion over to the speakers.

“We have to examine the current regime of criminalization of immigrants and see how it has affected and marginalized parts of communities,” she said.

Matos traced the origins of the current immigration debate to the surge in the 1990s, when Hispanic immigrants began to move beyond gateway cities like New York, San Antonio and Los Angeles. She pointed out that the federal government had the duty to regulate immigration, and that without action from Congress local communities being affected by the immigration surge had to implement their own measures.

“Cities either turned up the heat on immigrants or tried to make them feel welcome,” she said. “New Haven chose the latter. The city had always been friendly to immigrants and acknowledged their contributions to have community cohesion, and it continued to do so.”

Among the measures implemented by New Haven were the translation of crucial city documents into Spanish, a police order barring officers from asking about immigration status outside of a criminal investigation and the controversial Elm City ID cards that can be issued regardless of citizenship.

Matos said the card and police order were in part responsible for a subsequent 17 percent decrease in crime and a renewed sense of trust in the city on the part of the immigrant community. But, she said, trust was shattered when federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents conducted raids and arrested dozens of illegal immigrants in the city in June 2007.

“The raids literally terrorized the entire community and paralyzed New Haven,” she said. “Some parents were even afraid to take their children to school.”

Both speakers stressed that, unfortunately, the raids and anti-immigrant speech are what we have come to expect from the current immigration system. Fernandes urged a less repressive approach.

“A lot of the resentment for immigrants is based on the assumption and perception that they’re not people like us, and we have to get past that,” she said. “We are enriched by immigrants and we need to go towards a more open-door policy.”

Camacho closed the discussion on a forceful note.

“Immigration doesn’t have to be in the criminal justice system,” she said. “We have to allow and aid naturalization.”

In 1986, President Reagan granted amnesty to all illegal immigrants in the United States. Immigration experts debate whether this was responsible for the subsequent rise in illegal immigration.