By Mena Abedi
Immigration continues to be a hotly controversial topic in the United States, and the debate hosted by Colleges 9 and 10 on Feb. 21 only served to reinforce the fact.
“You Americans are hurting!” yelled Colonel Albert Rodriguez, when asked who was ultimately losing out from increased undocumented immigration into the country.
Rodriguez, a spokesperson for the You Don’t Speak for Me project of the Federation of American Immigration Reform (FAIR) was one of four panelists at the debate hosted at the College 9 /10 Multipurpose Room.
Joining Rodriguez at the debate was Ira Mehlman, media coordinator for FAIR. The two debated together as the voice opposing undocumented immigration. The panel also included Mariana Bustamante, public education coordinator of the national Immigrants’ Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Luis Alejo, a Watsonville attorney who has been active in local, state, and national immigrant rights efforts, who together argued in favor of immigrants’ rights.
As Mehlman pointed out to City on a Hill Press (CHP) after the debate, “We focused on [immigrants from Latin America] because a majority of people who are here illegally come from Mexico and Central America.”
Mehlman and Bustamante, speaking on behalf of FAIR and the ACLU, respectively, refrained from personal stances as they both discussed—with opposing viewpointsÂ­—the need for America to address the realism of immigration.
Meanwhile, Alejo used his less restricted role on the panel to portray immigrants as real people.
“A lot of this debate was only talking about statistics, figures, these immigrants, and those immigrants,” Alejo said. “I wanted to contextualize it for the audience to see that some of these people, who remain nameless and faceless, even work at or are students at UC Santa Cruz.”
The panelists each had noticeably distinct vocabularies, using carefully chosen words such as “illegal” versus “undocumented” and “assimilation” versus “integration.”
Alejo pointed out that word usage has become crucial to both sides of the argument, as the connotation of a word carries a significant meaning.
“It’s only recently where words like ‘illegal’ have been seen as pejorative words—they’re degrading,” Alejo said. “When you’re constantly calling or hearing someone being called ‘illegal,’ a specific perception is created in your mind.”
Regardless of different approaches and views, both sides listed the many “winners” and “losers” of high immigration rates in the United States.
Rodriguez believes that immigration harms Americans.
“American people as a whole… are the ones paying for having [immigrants] here in the United States,” Rodriguez said during the debate.
However, Alejo emphasized the importance of accepting immigrants, and noted that the first United States soldier to die in the occupation in Iraq was a Guatemalan immigrant. The vast numbers of soldiers overseas, he said, are fighting for a country that is not willing to fight for them.
Mehlman countered that immigrants are the winners, as they put a strain on the public school system and the job market.
“The losers are those of us who have to compete for schools or jobs,” Mehlman said, as he cited that $7.7 billion annually goes to pay for undocumented immigrant children to be educated in California.
“The people who are going to be paying the price are not the people in the executive suites,” Mehlman said. “It’s the average worker in this country who is going to wind up paying.”
Bustamante of the ACLU, however, argued that state governments and their economies benefit from the labor immigrants provide. She agreed that the population is somewhat negatively affected by heavy flows of immigration, but specified that high school dropouts and low-skilled workers are the ones competing with undocumented workers in the labor force.
Colonel Rodriguez, who occasionally spurred “boos” and shouts from disagreeing audience members, concluded that “illegal immigration does not belong here. It needs to stop.”
Helen Shapiro, provost of College Nine and College Ten and the facilitator of the debate, thanked the audience at the end for welcoming viewpoints that contradicted the generally left-leaning views of the campus.
“UC Santa Cruz has been slammed for rejecting different points of view,” Shapiro said. “[The debate] demonstrated that we’re willing to be more open-minded.”