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UN seminar spurs UU young adults to immigration action

119 youth and adults attend three-day UU-UNO conference in New York.
By Laura Randall
5.14.12

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Starrene Rhett

Speaking on a UU-UNO panel on race and immigration, journalist Starrene Rhett cautioned youth about consuming media with damaging messages about race. (Courtesy UU-UNO)

A group of Unitarian Universalist youth and young adults have crafted a plan to combat racism in immigration following a three-day conference in New York sponsored by the UU United Nations Office (UU-UNO).

After UU-UNO’s 2012 spring seminar, “Beyond Borders: Breaking Barriers of Race and Immigration,” the participants drafted a “statement of action” to advocate for immigration reform and the DREAM Act and to take a message of inclusion home to their own communities. The conference drew 119 youth and adults from across the United States and Canada to Manhattan April 12 through 14.

The goal of the seminar, said Bruce Knotts, director of the UU-UNO, was to have people leave “not just with a great deal of information, but to leave changed.” Topics spanned from education, religion, human trafficking, arts and media, and climate change as they relate to issues of race and immigration globally, nationally, and in our congregations. In his opening remarks, Knotts stressed: “Migrants are not criminals. People who have crossed a border should not be treated as criminals.”

Stories and statistics of immigrants who had been treated as criminals filled the panel on race and immigration, held at the UN Headquarters. The United States is “uniquely a nation of immigrants,” said Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute’s office at the New York University School of Law. Yet federal and state governments are moving to the criminalization of immigration. “Immigration has become part of our criminal justice system,” said Chishti, and that prevents people from calling authorities for assistance or even sending their children to school. “We need laws that match the reality of labor and societal needs,” Chishti said.

Eugenie Mukeshimana, a survivor of the 1994 Rwandan genocide and founder of the Genocide Survivors Support Network, talked about the experiences of Rwandan refugees in the U.S. and how they cope with trauma, government bureaucracy, and cultural adjustment. “Sorrow is so hard to get to,” said Mukeshimana. The goal should be to “help them reclaim their dignity.”

On a panel called “Barriers and Bridges to Educational Success,” college student Sara Martinez, 22, shared her story of being brought to the United States from Mexico when she was a toddler. “Being undocumented is an identity crisis,” said Martinez, through tears. “You want to go to college, you want to vote, you want to be somebody, but you can’t because you are missing these nine digits.

“People ask me why I don’t get in line [to become a citizen], but they don’t understand that, for me, there is no line,” said Martinez, explaining that she would have to return to Mexico, a country she does not remember, and then wait a mandatory 10 years before even being allowed to apply for a green card. Martinez and the rest of the panel urged the seminar participants to support the DREAM Act, both on the federal and state levels.

“Everyone benefits from young people being educated,” said the Rev. Terry Troia, executive director of Project Hospitality.

Sara Rowbottom, Refugee Youth Program manager for the International Rescue Committee, said individuals and congregations could take a variety of actions to support young immigrants and refugees, such as investing in support programs, creating caring communities, advocating for improved education, and helping parents and young people take advantage of the opportunities that already exist.

A panel on race and immigration in the arts and media was an attendee favorite. Many of the youth asked what they could do to change what they perceive as vapid and divisive discourse around race and gender in the media. “Be careful who you indulge. Be careful who you give a platform to,” advised Starrene Rhett, journalist and recent pop culture editor for Vibe.com.

“The power is in your pocketbook,” said Cecilia St. King, a musician and “peace troubadour” with the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence. “What are you going to buy?”

Peter Maugeri, director of operations and co-founder of Global Potential, an international youth empowerment organization, urged attendees to be more than consumers. “Create art. Create words. Start a blog. Make your own media,” he said.

Spoken word poets Christopher Sims, member of the UU Church of Rockford, Ill., and Dylan Debelis, intern at the UU-UNO, moved conference attendees with original compositions on race, immigration, and identity, garnering applause, whistles, and appreciative snaps.

A panel on human trafficking offered dire statistics and stories about some of the most vulnerable people, often children, who are hidden in mainstream society. Grainne O’Hara, senior policy advisor from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Liaison Office, said, “Awareness-raising is fundamental to getting on the right path to combatting human trafficking, because so much about this issue is invisible to much of society.”

The final panel of the seminar was on climate change as it relates to issues of migration and immigration. Jan Dash, executive committee member of the UN Committee on Sustainable Development and a member of the UU Congregation of Monmouth County in Lincroft, N.J., said that climate change was fundamentally a justice issue. “The poor have the smallest impact on climate, but they are hurt the worst,” he said.

Pamela McElwee, professor of human ecology at Rutgers University, agreed. “The very poorest people are trapped where they are,” she said. “They cannot migrate.”

Despite the grim picture presented of global climate trends, Dash said it was not too late to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. He asked conference attendees, especially the youth, to mobilize behind the issue, writing letters to the editor, supporting renewables, efficiency, and conservation, and assisting in the efforts of NGOs. Change will require “public participation and policy change,” said McElwee.

Keynote speaker Pamela Harris, senior educational equity specialist with the Mid-Atlantic Equity Center, encouraged participants to enter into potentially difficult conversations around race and immigration with an open mind and heart. “In those moments of challenge, those are the moments we want to cultivate that growing mindset of embrace and crossing borders.”

Russell Hathaway, a high school student, said the panels were “eye-opening on how complicated and intertwined the issues of racism and immigration are.”

In his sermon during the Saturday morning worship service, the Rev. Shawn Newton, minister of First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto, said, “The work of being human, and I would say the hard work of being a Unitarian Universalist, is looking to the sometimes gaping difference we find between ourselves and the other and see it for what it is—and then resolving to find the bridge, or maybe even build the bridge, if necessary, that will connect us one to another.”

After the seminar ended, attendees participated in several conference calls to craft a statement of action to take back to their communities. Participants resolved to:

Remain open, accepting and affirming of the differences in others and live up to our first UU Principle of promoting and affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person;

Build a society where people are accepted regardless of race, gender and/or immigration status by breaking down the barriers that divide us;

Reject discrimination as a social norm;

Advocate for revision of our countries’ immigration laws to become more humane;

Support the implementation of less costly and more efficient methods to obtain legal status;

Encourage our communities to actively support and insure the passage of the DREAM Act and other related legislation;

Stand in solidarity with every member of our human family, lending our voice, energy and privilege to raise up our brothers and sisters experiencing discrimination;

Unite to teach our home communities that we are not severed ethnicities but one human race.

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