The immigration issue is complex and confusing, and that's a big part of the problem.
Panelists at a discussion Monday at IPFW's Helmke Library said tightening of procedures are noticeable since the Donald Trump administration began, though the number of arrests and deportations in this area may not have increased. The biggest day-to-day problem for immigrants and refugees now is uncertainty.
Desiree Koger-Gustafson, who offers help to would-be citizens as Fort Wayne director of the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic, said constant news about the issue has had an effect on the people she works with. “My clients are definitely much more fearful,” she said. “And even for those who are advising them, there really is no sure, safe bet to advise them at this point, because things have changed so much.”
“If they've recently moved to Fort Wayne from Central America, Mexico, Myanmar, they're struggling every day,” said Rusty York, who retired last year after four decades in law enforcement, including 13 years as chief of the Fort Wayne Police Department. “Unfortunately, they're oftentimes the victims of crime, disproportionately.” At the same time, he said, they're caught in a political tug of war, “not knowing from one day to the next what their fate is going to be. ... It affects them significantly.”
York said he believes police here have made much headway in how they deal with refugees. “In the late '80s and early '90s, there was an influx of Latinos,” he said. They tended to commit fewer crimes than the population as a whole, he said. But “you soon realized they were significantly underserved.” Language barriers, coupled with bad experiences with police in their home countries, led to mistrust.
“I think we've done a much better job in the last 20 years in recruiting officers who are fluent in Spanish, Hispanic officers, Latino officers,” York said. Later, the department tried to meet a similar challenge with the wave of Burmese newcomers, York said.
Many local departments, including Fort Wayne's, are reluctant to become an enforcement arm for immigration authorities. But changing policies at the federal level have generated “a considerable amount of anxiety,” York said. “It has made a portion of our community very wary of dealing with the police department.”
Comprehensive immigration reform would be the answer, of course, even if the package was not wholly satisfying to either conservatives or progressives. Such legislation could tighten border security while clarifying other aspects of immigration policy, said James Toole, an associate professor of political science at IPFW.
“Because there is support for this on both sides of the aisle, you would think that this is something that should be able to get done,” said Toole. “But of course, we don't live in normal times, it seems. We have extreme polarization at the national level.”
Koger-Gustafson also doubts the many details of immigration reform could be addressed at one time. She said her hope is that Congress will at least address the plight of the Dreamers –- people who were brought here as children before 2007 but have gone through life with the understanding that they were pursuing a path to citizenship.
Few in Congress want to break faith with those non-citizens, now youths and young adults. Both chambers of Congress have before them a version of a bipartisan DREAM Act that would protect those groups from deportation.
Action on those bills would at least be one step toward a more humane and coherent immigration policy.