Reportback from Conference on Immigration to the U.S. South

by Richard Macmaster

The 5th Conference on Immigration to the U.S. South brought academics and activists to the University of Florida campus the last week in October. Planned around the theme “Immigration Reform and Beyond?” when passage of a comprehensive immigration reform bill still seemed possible, conference speakers had to deal with the reality that meaningful reform of the broken system will not happen in the foreseeable future.

Keynote speakers put immigration in broad perspective. Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami spoke to the moral imperative for immigration reform and an end to deportations. Professor Mae Ngai of Columbia University addressed “illegal” immigration in American history and a remedy for the present impasse. Monica Ramirez of the Southern Poverty Law Center dealt with anti-immigrant bias and efforts to counteract it through the courts.

Community organizers from Gainesville and elsewhere in the South provided practical answers and exchanged ideas that worked in one place and could be used in another. The Jupiter, Fla. city manager and staff from El Sol Center there, for instance, showed how a cooperative effort by municipal authorities, faith communities, and recent immigrants from Guatemala created a job center for day laborers and expanded it to provide English and Spanish classes, a health clinic, and a food pantry and onsite meals. Fran Ricardo and Robin Lewy told about the many-faceted work of Gainesville-based Rural Women’s Health Care Project with migrant farm workers and in centers like El Sol. Tony Tovar and Jeannie Economos of Farmworker Association of Florida showed how collaborative university and community efforts can improve migrant farmworker health and safety. Grey Torrico of Florida Immigrant Coalition spoke on “Dissecting the Detention Machine” and the problem of for-profit prisons.

Gainesville Interfaith Alliance for Immigrant Justice organized two sessions. In “Mobilizing Faith Communities” Samuel Trickey, Richard MacMaster, and Rev. Larry Green dealt with building support for farm workers and immigrant rights and Susan Weishar described engaging Catholic congregations in meaningful dialogue on immigration. A second panel on “Non-Violent Action and Civil Disobedience” heard Tammy Alexander of Mennonite Central Committee discuss current actions to block ICE personnel or to pressure Congress. Isabel Sousa-Rodriguez, one of the original Dreamers who walked from Miami to Washington in 2010, spoke of the need for action now. Rev. Parrish Jones told how a Presbyterian church in Arizona sheltered an undocumented immigrant in danger of deportation and thus began a nationwide Sanctuary Movement to protect immigrants that will soon come to Gainesville.

A session on “Mobilization and Community Based Organizing” gave insight into how New Orleans activists working with Catholic Charities were able to set up an alternative program to detention, how a group in Alabama exposed abuses in a forprofit detention center and eventually closed it, and how activists at the University of Tennessee joined Knoxville residents to campaign against deportation and for tuition equality. Nathalia Ochoa and Genesis Lara talked about organizing UF students.

With so many new ideas percolating, Florida immigrant rights activists will return to the UF campus early in 2015 to assess the next steps in response to Congressional inaction. For more information, contact

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