Immigration author speaks at SMC

Immigration research is a way to study American culture, Dr. Christina Gerken, associate professor of women’s and gender studies at Indiana University South Bend, told Southwestern Michigan College March 29.

“It tells us a lot about who we are as a country and how we envision ourselves,” said Gerken, author of “Model Immigrants and Undesirable Aliens: The Cost of Immigration Reform in the 1990s” (University of Minnesota Press, 2013). She is originally from Germany.

“Do we really want to be a country that turns away children who come to our borders looking for help?” she asked.

She spoke on “Seeking Asylum Alone: Unaccompanied Children, Gang Violence and Gender” in the theatre of the Dale A. Lyons Building on SMC’s Dowagiac campus for the academic speaker series.

“Many already have family in the United States,” she said. “They’re not orphans. They’re 14 to 17, but increasingly younger. They went down in 2015. Everybody thought the wave was over. Now, all of a sudden, it looks like it’s going to be higher this year. They’re not all fleeing to the United States, but also to Costa Rica, Panama and Nicaragua. Asylum cases have gone up 700 percent. Until 2012, we only had 5,000-6,000 unaccompanied minors. Fiscal year 2014 we had 67,000. June 2014 was the largest single month with almost 11,000. It’s an ongoing issue that has not been fixed at all.”

“Since the turn of the century we’ve had 9/11 followed by debate on terrorism and homeland security,” Gerken said. “There’s an ongoing debate about undocumented immigrants or illegal aliens, as they’re commonly called, and the effect they have on everything from the labor market to crime and public education. What should an appropriate political response look like? Is it a path to citizenship or deportation? Recently, Europe in particular, discussion surrounds refugees and asylum seekers.”

Unaccompanied children crossing the U.S./Mexican border come particularly from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

“Because we are talking about children,” Gerken said, “we might be more prone to rethink some ideas about who should be allowed to stay. We can make three basic distinctions between non-U.S. citizens currently in America—temporary visitors, such as tourists; 12 million undocumented immigrants (some came legally, but violated visa terms to stay); and legal permanent residents with green cards, which can be renewed every 10 years.”

Green cards can be obtained two ways. Immigration officials can admit based on potential contributions to the country based on work, education or marriage to a U.S. citizen.

Or, humanitarian considerations protect 50,000-80,000 from their governments.

“Our immigration system continues to struggle” with where unaccompanied children fit. Tens of thousands coming every single year challenge an already overburdened system. It is high time to start rethinking some categories,” Gerken said.

“This is neither new nor unique to the United States. The 1951 Refugee Convention after World War II wanted to prevent another human rights disaster. So many people tried to get out of Germany, but were turned away by other countries.

“For 65 years a refugee has been defined as somebody persecuted in their home country on the basis of race, religion, nationality, members of the same social group or political opinion. Age, gender and sexuality are not mentioned. Teen-age girls have a hard time fitting one of these five categories. We have had quite a few recent claims where women and girls were able to receive asylum because they were domestic violence victims, fleeing female genital mutilation, sexual assault and homophobia.”

In one study’s interviews with 404 apprehended children, 104 came from El Salvador; 72 percent showed “valid protection needs. They have no idea what’s going on or how the legal process works. Not surprisingly, Syracuse University statistics show the percentage of children who can get a pro-bono lawyer goes down while the number who need legal representation climbs. Two-thirds of these kids go through proceedings without a lawyer, which makes a dramatic difference. You have an 85-percent chance of being deported.

“Pew Research Center compared numbers from 2013 and 2014. In the span of one year, the number of girls crossing the border increased 77 percent, boys eight percent. Honduras and El Salvador had 40 and 39 percent girls in 2014—and that percentage keeps rising. A United Nations report found boys more likely to flee forced recruitment into gangs or drug violence. Girls, on the other hand, were much more likely to flee rape and sexual assault.”

The spring series concludes at 2:30 p.m. April 13 with a presentation on “The Star-Spangled Banner” by History Professor Dr. Jeffrey Dennis and Director of Choral Activities David Carew.

Southwestern Michigan College is a public, residential and commuter, community college, founded in 1964. The college averages in the top 10 percent nationally for student academic success based upon the National Community College Benchmark Project. Southwestern Michigan College strives to be the college of first choice, to provide the programs and services to meet the needs of students, and to serve our community. The college is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools and is a member of the American Association of Community Colleges.

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