‘Illegal People’ class hosts immigration panel for students

Brynna Mitchner | @BrynnaOfficial, Contributing Writer

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Students in the Illegal People course hosted a discussion on Tuesday for students to gain insight on the immigration system, immigration detention and immigration policy in Alabama.

After learning about immigration issues, systems and policies in class and even visiting the Etowah County Detention Center, students in the Illegal People course (AMS 300), taught by Dr. Carlton McHargh, decided they wanted to give more students the opportunity to learn about the topic like they did. Partnering with the University of Alabama Department of Gender and Race Studies, the Illegal People class hosted a discussion on immigration in Alabama.

In order to provide several unique perspectives, the panel featured speakers with very different connections to the topic: immigration attorney Carol Armstrong, Michael Innis-Jiménez of the University of Alabama Department of American Studies, and Julia Calderón and Resha Swanson of Adelante Alabama Worker Center.

Sumona Gupta, a senior New College major, explained that the students in the class became very fascinated by everything they were learning about immigration right away and wanted to give more students a chance to become informed about the topic. Gupta explained that the event was not part of any assignment for the course; rather, students in the class decided to take it upon themselves to organize the panel.

“Even though the immigrant community in Alabama is small, we really do think that, you know, their issues need to be heard,” Gupta said.

Stacey Torkelson, a senior majoring in English, decided to take the Illegal People class because she was interested in learning more about immigration. She found the trip to Etowah County Detention Center especially eye-opening, where she observed undocumented immigrants being detained under awful conditions, and reflected on the motivation for students in the class to organize the event to raise awareness about what they had been learning.

“We wanted to have a historian’s perspective on policy, we wanted to have an immigration lawyer who knew the ins and outs, and then we wanted to have activists,” Torkelson said. “So we kind of wanted to raise awareness on all three levels.”

The panelists discussed the topic of immigration from different angles, speaking to past and present attitudes of anti-immigrant hostility, Alabama’s more recent policies, and even the significance of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) case that happened to be heard by the Supreme Court on the same day as the event.

Discussing differences between common attitudes locally and in other places throughout the country, Armstrong cited the victimization of undocumented immigrants in Alabama in particular.

“It does seem to be that a lot of our folks who are maybe local to Alabama, born and raised here, don’t comprehend the extent of victimization of some of the undocumented folks,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong spoke about her experiences as an attorney, working with undocumented immigrants in many diverse situations and how she realized that there is often a lack of awareness of the victimization of undocumented immigrants that occurs closer to home than many may think.

“It’s quite frightening when you live in a city the size of Tuscaloosa to see that there are pockets of folks, areas where folks are repeatedly victimized because they are undocumented,” Armstrong said.

Discussing local immigration policy, in particular, Innis-Jiménez also brought up Alabama’s HB 56, strict legislation that was enacted in 2011 in an effort to restrict opportunities for undocumented immigrants in almost every aspect of life. 

“There were several reasons that HB 56 happened when it did, but part of it had to do with this feeling of, a lot of what you hear now with the current administration, and that’s just rhetoric that it’s the immigrants’ fault,” Innis-Jiménez said.

He compared current perspectives to those that have been visible throughout history, citing his research regarding immigration to the American Midwest in the Depression era.

“They were at about the same age, or stage of development, in Chicago at the beginning of the Great Depression as they were in Alabama at the beginning of the Great Recession, so in 2008, 2009,” Innis-Jiménez said. “And the language and the attitudes – the first, you know, the first group – now this is not only an American thing, but the first group to get blamed for any type of economic issue is going to be the immigrant and the latest immigrant.”

Calderón and Swanson discussed the work that Adelante Alabama Worker Center does to help immigrants and answered questions about what students could do after the event about the issues they explored. Swanson spoke about her involvement with the organization and advocated becoming more informed about immigration issues.

“Bring those problems to the forefront and you’ll realize that they’re much more embedded in your daily life than you think,” Swanson said.

Armstrong also emphasized the importance of recognizing humanity, especially at such a divisive time.

“Immigration is an issue that appears to be dividing our country now, and I think if you learn more about it, learn more about other people, just basic, you know, being a good human being, perhaps,” Armstrong said.

Students in the Illegal People class were happy about the turnout for the event. Torkelson was glad that so many students were interested in the topic and attended the event, and recommended the Illegal People class as a way to continue becoming informed in unique ways.

“The whole experience has been very humanizing on the issue of immigration,” Torkelson said. “I can’t recommend the class enough to other people.”