By Michael Barajas
The sighs, exasperated looks and brief bouts of shouting proved the debate would go nowhere.
St. Mary’s University on Monday gathered a five-person panel to debate how to fix the broken U.S. immigration system, and as the other panelists spoke, local Tea Party leader George Rodriguez shook his head at almost every turn, making it clear he would be the sole voice of opposition at the dais.
Rodriguez opened with talk of the U.S. Constitution, calling it a document “divinely inspired,” then moved to say undocumented immigrants need to be held responsible for breaking U.S. law.
“We’re not anti-immigrant. We’re anti-illegal immigrant,” he said of the Tea Party. “That immigration laws need to be reformed? We don’t argue with that. There has to be first a securing of the borders,” he said.
Rodriguez faced up against U.S. Rep. Charlie Gonzalez and Benita Veliz, an undocumented St. Mary’s grad facing deportation, along with MALDEF’s national litigation director Nina Perales and Lee Teran, a St. Mary’s law professor and activist. All four favor a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already in the country and say the U.S. needs to implement a more reasonable immigration policy.
While the intent was to bring opposing voices to the table, the debate made it clear those polarities would agree on nothing – except that the immigration system is broken.
After almost an hour of back and forth between Rodriguez and the other panelists, Rep. Gonzalez remarked, “If the opponents of comprehensive immigration reform believe that deportation is the only answer to someone that’s here illegally, where do you go with that?”
“How do you compromise and find consensus on that? So the only thing Benita can do is go back to Mexico? There is no other alternative?”
Veliz, 25, who holds two degrees from St. Mary’s, first entered the U.S. from Mexico when she was 8 years old believing she was on a family vacation and never left. Arrested three years ago on a routine traffic stop, Veliz has been able to stay her deportation for two years, though her next deportation hearing set for later this Spring.
Veliz insisted many like her, who came to the U.S. as children and now consider themselves Americans, are simply unable to immigrate legally.
“The paradox that we find ourselves in currently is that although we’ve grown up with American values and American ideals
we cannot realize our dreams and it’s simply because of something that is beyond our control.”
Rodriguez countered, “We see that as something that’s a responsibility for the person who has broken the law.”
“The problem between this poor young lady is between her and her parents,” he said, at one point remarking, “I’m tired of hearing about how sad it is that this poor young lady is in her situation when we should be putting the onus on her parents.”
Rodriguez insisted Veliz could find a legal path to citizenship if she tried hard enough, drawing a strong reaction from the rest of the panel. Teran said immigrants like Veliz brought into the U.S. as a child have almost no chance of getting a visa.
“I’ve been told that many times, ‘There is a way, you need to go back and look,’ and I myself believed that a few years ago,” Veliz said. After consulting with law professors and over a dozen immigration lawyers, Veliz said she realized “the fact of the matter is I simply don’t qualify for any of the visas that are available.”
“The bottom line is that if there was a way, I promise you I would have pursued it.”
The hardest blow to Veliz seemed to come when a woman from the crowd said Veliz’s time in public school and a scholarship that helped pay for her college seized those opportunities away from an American citizen. “You took their seat and you were lucky enough to get that money,” said the woman, who later declined to give her name.
Fighting tears, Veliz said her success proved any student could do just the same.