People from 38 states and seven countries around the world gathered to discuss the rising movement of immigrant reform at The National Immigrant Integration Conference, held on Oct. 24-26 at the Seattle Westin Hotel. More than 700 people came to network and learn about how to get involved and join forces within the immigrant community.
The conference sessions ranged from “Passing Pro-Immigration Legislation” to “Building Our Movement’s Media Watchdog,” which discussed promoting fair and realistic images of immigrants in the media.
Pramila Jayapal, founder and executive director of OneAmerica, has been working on immigrant policy reform for over 20 years. According to Jayapal, the goal of the conference was to reach 500 attendees, so she was pleased with the big turnout.
“For every track we have here at the conference, I feel like there are some very specific things that could move forward that would put immigrants front and center of the conversation,” said Jayapal, who helped put on the event as well as lead a couple sessions. “On jobs, on health care, on enforcement … that’s what I’m really looking forward to see.”
OneAmerica has focused on immigrant integration for over 10 years; when Jayapal first founded the organization it was known as Hate Free Zone.
Originally from India, Jayapal has been in the U.S. since she was 16 and has been a citizen since 2000. But as such an influential female figure in the Northwest, Jayapal has faced quite a few hardships regarding her ethnic background, including lynching threats.
“I’ve been told to go back home over and over again,” she said. “I get unbelievable hate mail. They’re not really attacking me. They’re attacking the message, but they’re attacking the messenger.”
Next spring, Jayapal will step down as executive director of OneAmerica. She said she wants to leave when everything is perfect. Her decision to leave now is in hopes that the next leader will be able to start out strong without any mess to clean up.
“I love doing things that people tell me I can’t do,” she said. “That’s kind of how OneAmerica got started. I ‘m really just looking forward to the next thing I can’t do.”
Kasar Abdulla, director of advocacy of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC) attended the conference to learn about the different models of working with immigrants in communities across the U.S..
“It’s very, very important to have this conversation,” she said. “To see a mayor do something positive in a city that has a very large percentage of immigrants.”
According to Abdulla, those facing discrimination in Tennessee are mostly Muslims and Latinos.
“The receiving community [has] a fear of them because they’re seeing a lot of people who don’t look like them, don’t speak like them, they don’t practice like them,” Abdulla said.
Although TIRRC does not directly aid in teaching English to immigrants, it does help the receiving communities understand the changing demographics.
Linda Savsour, an attendee at the conference, said it’s good to see that some people are behind the same cause she is with a similar goal. But while the conversation is strong, not everyone is on the same page.
“We do a lot of things separately, but how do we bring these things together so that in 2012 we are a coordinated national immigrant community that is voting for the right issues that affect all of us?” she said.
According to Savsour, it can be hard to be heard when there’s such a big crowd, but social media outlets like Twitter have helped her get her voice out to people who are interested in similar issues.
“When you’re feeling unheard, it’s kind of your place where, maybe if you’re not listening to me here, maybe someone, somewhere in the web world is listening,” Savsour said.
Many political figures from other states spoke at the conference as well as state Speaker of the House Frank Chopp, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, and King County Executive Dow Constantine. All voiced their support for the immigrant integration movement.
Constantine said: “Instead of saying, ‘Show me your papers,’ in King County, we say, ‘How can we help you?’”