A group of Victoria residents spent their Friday evening willingly engaging one of the country’s most pressing, and often divisive, topics – immigration.
The group was there for an organized discussion to consider questions like whether people who entered the country illegally should have a path to legal status and whether police officers should be required to check a person’s immigration status.
Moderators followed a model established by the Baylor Public Deliberation Initiative, which emphasizes moving away from debating or seeing issues as only having two sides and instead encouraging participants to try to learn from each other.
Vanessa Hicks-Callaway said one area where her group agreed was enforcing the law against employers who hire immigrants who are not in the U.S. legally.
“They are exploiting these people, not paying them a fair wage, not treating them properly,” she said. “As long as those jobs are being offered, you’re going to have people continue to pour in.”
For example, in August, federal immigration officers raided seven chicken plants in Mississippi and arrested almost 600 workers. No charges were brought against the owners or managers of the companies.
Friday’s event was hosted by Center for Peace Victoria and drew about 15 people who split into two groups to deliberate the issue. The nonprofit has also hosted conversations in Victoria on homelessness and housing policy and how to address the political divide.
Although the group was small, there was some disagreement over basic principles. One group butted heads over whether the U.S. was faulted for its immigration policy unfairly compared to other nations. One participant politely corrected another when he used an offensive term for Mexican immigrants while describing conversations about 20th century immigration policy.
Sister Rosario Resendez and Sister Marian Sturm, of The Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament, spoke about how their faith influenced their views on immigration.
Sturm and Resendez traveled to El Paso and its sister city, Ciudad Juárez, in September with the U.S. Bishops. There, the group visited shelters in Mexico, where people seeking to enter the U.S. and seek asylum have been sent to wait until their court cases are decided. The policy, informally known as Remain in Mexico, has sent more than 50,000 asylum seekers back to Mexican cities since it began in January.
Sturm and Rosario said they also visited shelters in El Paso.
“I think faith does inform our decisions to welcome people, but I also know that people who consider themselves as Christian don’t see it that way either,” Sturm said. “It’s just my belief that if you really, truly subscribe to the Scriptures as your foundation, then that’s what they say and that’s what we must live. We must welcome people who are not from our own country.”
National polling shows there is some common ground on these issues. Two-thirds of Americans said it was important to establish a way for most immigrants in the country illegally to remain here legally, according to a Pew Research Center survey released in November.
But that same survey showed stark differences in opinion about some basic decisions of immigration policy. The survey recorded 54% of those polled saying it was a very or somewhat important goal to increase deportations of unauthorized immigrants. But 45% said the same goal was not too or not at all important.
Danna Cole, the founder of the Center for Peace Victoria, said the organization plans to host another public deliberation to discuss mass shootings.
“I want to encourage you all to bring people who think differently than you do,” Cole said. “It’s not constructive if we’re all sitting in our same echo chamber and our same bubble. So let’s try and bring someone that you’d like to have the conversation with but are a little bit scared to.”