Immigration Debate: Views from North Carolina

Congressional debate over immigration policy has sparked a movement across the United States. With their protests in recent weeks, immigrants to America are demonstrating their numbers and the urgency of their concerns. The debate has touched immigrants living in North Carolina.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Congress is on vacation, and the Senate adjourned Friday without completing its version of a comprehensive review of immigration policies. A bill passed by the House in December makes it a felony to be in this country illegally, and a crime to help such immigrants.

There have been large demonstrations in response to the House bill, and there are plans for demonstrations in ten U.S. cities tomorrow.

NPR's senior national correspondent Linda Wertheimer went to Durham, North Carolina to ask people of the fast growing immigrant community there what they think is happening.

LINDA WERTHEIMER reporting:

We met with a group of people who are legal immigrants, and in some cases citizens, at the Latino Community Credit Union, which helps immigrants to save, send money home, pay taxes, and borrow money.

Liliana Concha is a tiny, delicate looking woman from Columbia, the branch manager at the Credit Union. I asked what she thought as she listed to news coverage of the huge demonstrations last month.

Ms. LILLIANA CONCHA (Director of Administration, Latino Community Credit Union, Durham): People are so desperate, so scared, that they've been coming together. And it's great to see they're in this country that is always talking about freedom. Everybody got together to ask for the things that they always say in America. It's the country of freedom, with freedom of speech. I feel proud that people at last have taken this step forward. It was good.

WERTHEIMER: A loan officer at another bank, Rosanna Arteaga(ph), is originally from Venezuela. She said she was proud to see the demonstrators, calling it a huge step for people who've mostly been invisible.

Ms. ROSANNA ARTEAGA (Loan officer, Durham, North Carolina bank): Like it or not, all the legal immigrants in the United States are having babies every day, and in future years their sons, their children, their grandchildren are going to be Americans. And they're going to have a right to vote and a very strong voice in this country.

WERTHEIMER: Arteaga laughed and told us that whichever political party helps her become a citizen, she'll vote that way forever.

Anhill Romero(ph) is older, a U.S. citizen originally from Spain. He told us he thinks people have had enough of the anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from Washington.

Mr. ANHILL ROMERO (Durham, North Carolina): Certain politicians have been talking very loudly about this issue, and I think that people have, we've had enough. You know, we're here, we're working, and we're contributing to society. We're here for good. We're not criminals, and you're trying to criminalize us, you know, and that's not fair.

WERTHEIMER: When I asked about a backlash to that strong message, we're here, Romero said it could go either way. There are lots of American Latinos, he said, who might just vote against a vocal opponent of immigration.

We also visited El Centro Hispano, a Community Center just across the hall from the Credit Union. At El Centro that day, immigrants were learning about sending their kids to school, and there was an English class for 15 women, some with babies, some with toddlers, in the playroom next door.

(Soundbite of playroom activity)

WERTHEIMER: Nora Herrera(ph) is a counselor at El Centro. She is a U.S. citizen, but perhaps because she works with the poorest and most insecure of the immigrants, she says she watched the demonstrations with a mixture of pride and concern.

Ms. NORA HERRERA (Counselor, El Centro Hispano, Durham): Sometimes I am afraid, not about the people, because they are doing this in peace, but sometimes I am afraid about how the people react about this. If they're making people feel afraid.

WERTHEIMER: So there's a little edge of fear?

Ms. HERRERA: We're moving a lot of people, when people is realizing they can do more, or they can do something when we are together, someone is afraid.

WERTHEIMER: Right.

Ms. HERRERA: Yeah. I think so.

WERTHEIMER: We are not criminals, Nora Herrera repeated.

Tamara Loggia(ph), a Mexican who works for another non-profit group, says that all too often people look at all Latinos and see only illegal aliens.

Ms. TAMARA LOGGIA (Mexican Immigrant, Durham): Every person thinks like if you're Latino or Hispanic, you're illegal. The people say Hispanic-Latino, they always have that, the idea that we are uneducated, we are poor, we are illegal or we are criminal. And that is not the truth.

WERTHEIMER: That situation may have contributed to solidarity among Hispanics. Polls show legal immigrants have very little resentment of illegals, and there was strong support among the people we talked to.

Tamara Loggia again.

Ms. LOGGIA: I think it doesn't matter if you are legal or illegal. We are immigrants, and we are all immigrants, and we have the same feeling, the same feeling, about living in another culture, in another country. It doesn't matter if you are legal or illegal. We have all the same feelings about being an immigrant.

WERTHEIMER: So is this a movement that will end in citizenship for large numbers of Latinos now here illegally?

Community organizer Ivan Parra(ph) says it's not yet a movement, but for the people he's trying to help, it is an important moment.

Mr. IVAN PARRA (Durham, North Carolina): The challenge for us in this work is just not to think this as just one moment, but as an opportunity to potentially help change the system in a comprehensive way. But there are a lot of other things that need to be worked out. Just like in the civil rights movement, after change was accomplished, that wasn't the end of the task.

WERTHEIMER: Reporting on North Carolina's Hispanic immigrants, Linda Wertheimer, NPR News.

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