A few years ago, Anabel Mondolfi sat with her mother in a federal immigration office in San Antonio.
Mondolfi’s mother, a legal resident of the U.S. but not a citizen, was there to renew her paperwork, as required by law.
While waiting, Mondolfi took a discreet peek at her cellphone after it buzzed inside her purse, she said. Because of the large signs prohibiting cellphone use, she did not take her phone out of her bag, instead checking the phone’s screen while it was still inside her purse to see whether the message was important.
An employee of the office walked over, she said, and told her, “My son wants a cellphone. If you don’t put that away, I’ll take it.”
“I am an American citizen,” Mondolfi said, retelling the story of what happened to her. “I don’t know of many American citizens that would just take that.”
Because she was with her mother and felt vulnerable, Mondolfi said nothing.
“Am I proud? No,” she said. “Did I want to say, ‘With what right are you to take my phone?’ Yes.”
At a forum Friday in Victoria, organizers with the nonprofit Center for Peace Victoria expressed hope that stories and experiences like Mondolfi’s can be heard so that even people with deeply disparate views about immigration can find common ground. The organization is hosting what’s known as a “public deliberation” and will break attendees into groups of about 10 people to discuss the country’s immigration system.
Danna Cole, the founder of the Center for Peace Victoria, and Mondolfi, the group’s vice president, both went to Baylor University to be trained in the discussion model espoused by their public deliberation initiative. The model mixes dialogue and debate to encourage productive conversations so that communities can go beyond looking at an issue as a simple matter with two distinct sides and instead find common ground about how to improve the situation.
Cole said she hopes people with diverse views about the immigration system will come to the deliberation to discuss their thoughts.
Mondolfi, 57, came to Victoria in 1995 on a student visa with her husband and their daughter. Mondolfi was born in Spain but grew up in Caracas, Venezuela. She and her family decided to leave the capital city because they thought it was no longer a safe place to raise their daughter.
“It is insane,” Mondolfi said about the conditions in Caracas. Economists have labeled the economic fall of the country the single largest economic collapse outside a war zone in at least 45 years. The collapse has happened concurrently with a rise in homicides and violent crime as well as thousands of killings by Venezuelan special forces targeting their political opponents.
It took Mondolfi seven years to become a citizen, during which time she pursued her graduate degree in Victoria. The period was a stressful one. Under the conditions of her visa, she could not fail a single class; because she was seeking citizenship, she was not allowed to return to Venezuela for her father’s funeral after he died of a heart attack; and even the places in the U.S. where she could travel were restricted, she said.
And the process was expensive. She had to hire at least two lawyers during the process, both of whom charged thousands of dollars.
“Not everybody has the luxury of not being able to work for seven years,” she said.
Although some political leaders have painted immigration as a divisive issue in which people’s opinions are dictated by party allegiance, polling from American citizens shows there is some common ground. About 65% of Americans agree that the federal government is doing a bad job of handling the situation at the border.
And 60% of Americans agree that the system should be made easier for people seeking asylum, according to an August report from the Pew Research Center. Also 82% of Americans polled agreed that it is important to provide safe and sanitary conditions for asylum seekers while they are detained in the U.S.
Despite this common ground, disagreement exists. Many conservative leaders in the Republican Party have espoused plans to build a wall along much of the U.S.-Mexico border and have advocated for sharply limiting the number of people who are legally permitted to enter the U.S. each year. The number of people who have showed up at the U.S.-Mexico border has increased in recent years, according to federal data. The number of people apprehended at the border doubled between fiscal year 2018 and fiscal year 2019, although the number is still lower than its peak in 2000, when 1.6 million people were apprehended. And safety advocates also worry about the flow of drugs across the border and the power that criminal organizations can wield in the border regions.
Most of the public conversation about immigration in recent years has focused on illegal immigration, but Cole said experiences like Mondolfi’s show that the legal immigration process can be time-consuming, expensive and difficult.
Both women said they hope people with diverse views about immigration come to Friday’s event so attendees can learn from each other.