The long-standing issue of illegal immigration has been a controversial topic throughout the United States for decades, often driving a wedge between those who view the subject from different sides of the political aisle. On Thursday, March 22, however, Jacksonville-area residents met at Palms Presbyterian Church in Jacksonville Beach to share their personal perspectives on the issue through civil and constructive discourse, exploring the pros and cons of three possible paths forward.
The first path discussed was that of total amnesty for illegal immigrants, offering them all a path to legal status. While undoubtedly the most lenient solution for illegal immigrants, to many at the meeting, one of the biggest drawbacks of such a path would be its inherent unfairness to those who either already have or are still waiting to move here legally.
“Some people have been in the immigration system for 20 years, and somebody just gets to run across a line and we say it’s OK?” asked Ruthie Smathers, a member of Palms Presbyterian. “I don’t think that’s fair.”
Others, however, felt more conflicted on the issue, pointing out that many illegal immigrants have spent most of their lives here.
“It’s such a delicate decision,” said Myrna Cook, who hails from California. “Who’s going to decide who’s worthy? The woman who’s been here for 30 years, working illegally, who’s had children, husband, church, job. Is that person less likely to be a good citizen than a person who’s been on the waiting list for 20 years? Who can decide and what’s the criteria?”
The second path presented was the exact opposite of the first, proposing strict enforcement of immigration laws, including the identification and deportation of all illegal immigrants.
“Impossible,” Ann Weisz remarked regarding the idea of mass-scale deportation. “It’s 11 million people. That’s impossible.”
Others also expressed concern over possible abuses of power by the authorities while conducting their investigations, as well as the potential hampering of law enforcement due to an increased fear among illegal immigrants, making them less likely to report other crimes.
The question of whether federal funding should be denied to “sanctuary cities,” cities that grant asylum to illegal immigrants, was also raised, with many voicing support for such a measure.
“I don’t think people should be allowed to break the law on top of a law that’s already being broken,” Smathers said. “We should try to create a better system, because the impression that leaves on society is that it’s OK to break the law.”
The final course of action discussed was one of compromise, both recognizing the contributions of immigrants to American culture and history, but also acknowledging that the current system is broken and imposes a burden on society. This path would moderate the flow of immigrants entering the country – both legal and illegal – and focus on strengthening the bonds among American citizens, regaining the national sense of identity and helping newcomers to assimilate into that identity.
For some, assimilation was their primary concern.
“Immigration, for our country right now, it’s such a central focus,” said Suneeta Chanan-Khan, who is herself a legal immigrant from Pakistan. “I love the fact that it gives us the opportunity to dip into the global pool of intelligence, and energy, and art and all the wonderful things that are part of human society, but my biggest concern is a preservation of the culture, which is what attracts immigrants to begin with.”
Others at the meeting, however, felt it was more important that Americans spend more time learning about other cultures.
“I truly feel that Americans need to learn another language; they need to study it in school,” said Nancy Caulfield, who spent years abroad working for the U.S. Department of State. “There are so many people who’ve immigrated and people throughout the world who speak English and another language. Americans are going to fall behind because they can’t compete, because they expect everybody can speak English.”
Although multiple different views were shared throughout the course of the meeting, many attendees left with a sense of optimism for the United States’ ability to find a reasonable and practical solution.
“I think there are ways that this can be done in a very positive manner, but as you have all said, it’s a mess right now,” Betty Engle said. “We all just need to search for and seek out new ways of dealing with it.”