Advocacy groups step up efforts to rally support
By NOELLE PHILLIPS | The State
Jan. 25, 2010
In recent weeks, Latinos in South Carolina have gathered for food and conversation to discuss a strategy for immigration reform.
Energized by the election of President Barack Obama, they are trying to push the explosive issue back into the national conversation.
"It's going to come up," said the Rev. Sandy Jones, pastor of Spring of Life Lutheran Church, which has a predominantly Hispanic congregation. "I'm afraid this debate is going to be more vitriolic than health care was."
People attending these events want the federal government to create a way for illegal immigrants to become documented and stay in the United States.
Those opposed to that idea are gearing up for a fight, too.
Opponents of immigration reform shared the stage at an early January "tea party" on the State House steps with other groups who are frustrated with the federal government.
And when the Lexington County Republican Party censured U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., it listed his willingness to discuss immigration reform as one of the reasons.
The two sides disagree over how to handle the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States. South Carolina is home to more than 80,000 illegal immigrants, most of whom are Hispanic, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
While a new immigration reform bill has been filed in Washington, political onlookers believe the issue will be on the back burner for a while.
That's because the health care debate has not been resolved, said Kevin Bishop, a spokesman for Graham.
"We don't know when health care will be finished," Bishop said. "The health care debate has dragged on much, much longer than they ever thought it would."
However, Latino advocacy groups are sponsoring public events to renew interest.
On Friday, about 60 leaders from the state's Hispanic community gathered in Columbia for a summit to share information about immigrants and their contributions in South Carolina .
A week earlier, more than 200 people attended a Friday night potluck at a Columbia church, where they listened to immigrants' stories, watched a documentary and signed letters to senators and congressmen.
Ivan Segura, a Columbia resident who is involved in several Hispanic groups in South Carolina, said Latinos are no longer going to wait on health care.
"We kept waiting and waiting and waiting on health reform," he said. "We can't wait forever."
In 2006, Hispanics across the country, including those in Columbia, gave a big push for immigration reform.
In April of that year, mass protests took place across the country. In Columbia, more than 3,000 people - many of them illegal Latino immigrants - marched from Finlay Park to the State House to demand change to U.S. immigration laws.
"We had a whole movement with marches and demonstrations," Segura said. "It got very big, and it went nowhere."
That widespread, public demonstration ignited a heated response from others who believe illegal immigrants should be deported and a wall built along the border between the United States and Mexico.
In response to their outcries, South Carolina's General Assembly in 2008 crafted an immigration law to crack down on businesses that hire undocumented workers. The intent was to drive illegal immigrants out of the state by taking away their job opportunities.
At the same time, immigration played well for Republican candidates seeking national and state offices in 2008.
Once the election was over and the state law went into effect, immigration slipped from the state's headlines.
Now, Segura and other Latino advocates are pushing it again. This time, though, they are using a different strategy.
They are using small, community gatherings and forums to explain their positions. They are asking people to write and call their congressmen. They've set up text-messaging networks.
They hope more personal contact helps people understand the plight of illegal immigrants.
When organizers planned the recent potluck at St. Mary's Episcopal Church on St. Andrews Road, the expected to serve 200 people. But as more and more people piled into the church's fellowship hall with covered dishes in hand, they scrambled to set up extra tables.
Anna Walton, 22, and Cathy Hardin, 19, put aside Friday night parties with their college friends at USC to attend. Both are involved with a campus group called Amigos del Buen Samaritan, which focuses on health issues in the Latino community.
"A big part of seeing them is learning what they are going through," Hardin said. "It's not just their problem. It's our problem, too. They are part of us."
St. Mary's agreed to host the potluck because it has a large Hispanic congregation. Over the years, the Rev. Alfredo Gonzalez, who leads the congregation, said he has seen families suffer because of the nation's immigration laws.
For example, he counsels two young women in the congregation brought to the United States as small children. They graduated from local high schools but are not eligible to attend college or find jobs because they are not legal residents, he said.
Another church member recently was deported after someone reported him to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He is back in Honduras, and his wife and two children, who are U.S. citizens, have moved to Florida, Gonzalez said.
"When you see these types of things, it just breaks your heart," he said. "You realize how unfair our law is right now."
But, those who see illegal immigration as a major problem are adamant in their opposition. They believe illegal immigrants threaten national security, take jobs from legal residents and sap resources from public agencies.
Michael Visnjic, S.C. state committee chairman for the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps, said illegal immigrants are stealing jobs in South Carolina, introducing gangs and generally breaking the law for being in the country in the first place.
Most people in South Carolina oppose laws that favor illegal immigrants, he said. There is only one solution for Visnjic and others who oppose change.
"The only correct or proper option on this is to remove or deport all of these illegal aliens," he said.
Thus far, groups such as the Minutemen have been the loudest in South Carolina.
Now, the other side is trying to make its voice heard.
Tammy Bersherse, an attorney for S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center, has spent years working as an advocate for the state's immigrant population.
While it can be frustrating work in such a conservative state, Bersherse has not given up. In the past month, she's been attending forums and potlucks to rally support.
"We have to do this," she said "I think we can change. We have enough people who are passionate about having basic human rights protected."