PITTSFORD — Eugenio Otero had no qualms telling an audience gathered before him about his parents’ modest education: His father completed ninth grade and his mother only third grade.
He was even more comfortable telling his listeners about his pride in the fact that — just one generation later — he not only earned a doctoral degree but became executive dean at Monroe Community College’s Damon Campus. The Puerto Rican native said his story illustrates why immigrants flock to this country.
“We live in a wonderful country that provides these phenomenal opportunities for those of us coming in,” he told about 25 students and several members of the local Latino community who attended the panel discussion “Latino Immigration: An American Dilemma” at Nazareth College’s Casa Hispana Oct. 24.
The presentation was one of two discussions last month on this timely topic. The other was an Oct. 19 video conference that combined speakers from three sites: St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Pittsford, St. Alphonsus Parish in Auburn and St. Mary of the Lake Parish in Watkins Glen. The video conference was designed to offer guidance and resources for parish members from throughout the Diocese of Rochester, according to Sister Janet Korn, social-justice awareness coordinator for diocesan Catholic Charities. The conference also had an interfaith element, as a local rabbi and a few members of Presbyterian churches participated at the St. Bernard’s site, she added.
The Oct. 19 discussion also encouraged participants to frame conversations about immigration through their faith traditions. Sister Korn pointed out that the Torah, the Quran and Christian Scriptures all speak about the call to welcome the stranger, care for the poor and the weak, and express gratitude.
“Loving (others) ‚Ä¶ overcomes fear people have,” she said.
Sister Korn said that she agrees with the comment “Where you live should no longer determine whether you live,” made earlier this year by U2 singer Bono at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. Yet, she noted, sharp economic disparities remain, driving immigrants to risk their lives to find a better life in the United States.
“People are moving from places where you can’t live to places where you can,” she said.
Such hope is what drove many Dominican immigrants to get on rafts and travel through shark-infested waters to reach Puerto Rico in 1961 following the assassination of the dictator who ruled their island, recalled Relton Roland, a panelist at the Casa Hispana discussion.
Roland and fellow panelist Adriana Hoppe, a Mexican native who owns Translations the Hoppe, offered historical perspectives on what has driven waves of immigration throughout the 20th century.
“Immigration doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” said Relton, a Dominican native who is director of Grace Urban Ministries in Rochester. He urged his audience to question everything they hear from government officials and to do their own research.
Sister Korn said that having as many facts as possible coupled with a loving attitude will help people of faith when they are confronted by others who believe immigrants steal jobs, refuse to learn English or send all their money back to their native countries, Mexico, in particular.
The last argument in particular rings especially hollow for Mario Mart√≠nez, coordinator of vocal studies for Nazareth’s music department who attended the Casa Hispana discussion. He pointed to research from the Pew Center for Hispanics showing that Mexican immigrants send back to their families only about 10 percent, or about $20 billion, of what they earn.
“You can see how much money they’re putting in this economy,” he said.
Hector Diaz, a native of Puerto Rico, said he also is troubled by negative stereotypes that Latino immigrants come to this country for its social services.
“Most Latin American people come to this country and set up shop,” he said. “We’re not all on welfare. We’re hard-working people. We’re not waiting for anything, no handouts. We’re working 18 hours a day. We’re contributing, not depending.”
Stereotypes took on a new life after Sept. 11, as the terrorist attacks changed America’s attitude toward immigrants, agreed Otero and Luis Torres, director of Rural Migrant Ministry’s western New York office in Brockport who spoke at the Oct. 19 video conference. Otero called Sept. 11 the end of America’s innocence, and Torres said it plays a part in the rationale for building a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border. On Oct. 26, President George W. Bush signed a bill to construct the 700-mile fence, which covers one-third of the nation’s southern border.
Torres added that a wall being built along San Diego’s border shows the ineffectiveness of this policy move. According to Torres, $79 million has been spent on only 11 miles of wall, and immigrants are now finding ways around it.
“It’s ironic that in 1998 we tore down the Berlin Wall,” Otero said. “And here we are again. People say history repeats itself. It’s almost scary. We’re allowing our basic fears to enable us.”
To continue the work of alleviating fears and breaking down barriers, speakers at both conferences urged continuing dialogue and advocacy.
Justice for the poor is what is urged overall, added Sister Korn, who again quoted Bono’s speech: “The poor are where God lives. Check Judaism. Check Islam. Check pretty much anyone.”
With her synagogue currently engaged in planning social action, Rabbi Amy Sapowith of Temple Sinai in Penfield decided that it might be beneficial to attend the video conference. She said that she gleaned valuable information and resources about such a controversial topic.
“I walked away with ‚Ä¶ a respect for the diverse opinions within the Catholic community and their heartfelt commitment to the pursuit of justice,” she said.