The Rights Stuff Forum: Backlash

Backlash and Immigration

Kirsten Lindbloom, Chair, Austin Human Rights Commission

Kirsten LindbloomThe controversy over immigration in Austin remains heated, with the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement and its opponents both taking to downtown Austin streets, confronting each other with bullhorns, their crowds of supporters promoting vastly different views of immigration and opposing visions of America. "It's pretty intense," says Kirsten Lindbloom, chair of the Austin Human Rights Commission and herself an immigrant from Canada. A town than was more than 90 percent white as recently as the 2000 census, Austin has changed dramatically through increased Latino immigration — this year its public schools' kindergarten class is 45 percent nonwhite. In this divided community, the Commission works to promote dialog and respect for human rights. Lindbloom talked about the continuing debate of immigration in Austin in an interview.

Comments from Kirsten Lindbloom

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Question: The growth of the immigrant community in Austin has sparked controversy in the past. How would you characterize attitudes in Austin toward immigration now?

Kirsten Lindbloom: I think that no matter where we stand on the issue of immigration, we all agree that things need to change. The current system is not working for any of us. I'm actually an immigrant — I'm Canadian and in year nine of my own immigration journey. I have a green card, and it took me eight years to get it. I'm white, I'm educated, and I found the system to be cold and challenging. I can't imagine what it must be like for my counterparts, who have language issues.

As far as what's happening in Austin, we've got some opposition (to immigration) here. We have strong voices on both sides of the table, and as I'm sure you've heard, there is a National Socialist Movement (NSM) group that has been very active locally. They were with us at an event on September 12th, and then on the 14th they attended Riverland Community College's Mexican Independence Day celebration. They're a small group locally, but they're loud.

Question: Is it your sense that anti-immigrant sentiment is increasing in Austin?

I wouldn't say it's increasing, but I think the discussion is happening more openly. It's more visible.

Question: What effect is this more visible debate having on the community?

As far as the Austin Human Rights Commission is concerned, we believe that immigration is something that needs to be talked about. And no matter where you individually stand on this issue, it is something that is a huge part of our changing community. When I first moved to town 14 years ago, there was a nonwhite community but it has grown significantly in that time. In Austin's public schools roughly 45 percent of our kindergarten class this year is not white. We're changing, just as many other communities are — Worthington, Willmar and other communities. We've got lots of families and lots of children in our system, and something we need to talk about is that not all of those families, and not all of those children, are here legally. Many of them are, but many of them are not.

Many have observed that nationally the debate over immigration has become much more intense, and less civil. How would you characterize that debate in Austin?

It's heated. We're talking about citizenship, we're talking about people's jobs, we're talking about taxes, we're talking about Social Security — it's all those things. There is a lot of misinformation out there, on those key areas that people really feel strongly about. Of course it's going to get heated.

What are the concerns of those in your community who are opposed to immigration?

I'd say you need to talk to them. There is the perception that they are taking American jobs — one gentleman at one of our workshops was very clear that he believes he can't get a job because he's not Hispanic. There is concern about increased crime, and the housing problem that it causes. And they feel that immigrants are accessing services, and using American tax dollars, to have services that only citizens should have.

Does the Austin Human Rights Commission take a position on these concerns?

As a commission, our view is that in this dialogue — whatever happens with immigration and immigration reform — human rights need to be honored. Certainly it's clear to us as a commission that there are problems, and that people's rights are not being respected. We have a welcome center in Austin that has done some different things to help all of our families coming in. And we've got those who would say that the efforts we are making in our community are too welcoming. As a commission, we want to promote dialogue and ensure that people's rights are respected.

How can a community be too welcoming? What is the criticism?

With the welcome center for instance, there is a perception that we don't need one, that having a place to land and some support — that helping in any way — is seen as a problem, especially if we're talking about "illegals." That's not my word, but their word. There is really that anxiety about people here illegally.

How has the National Socialist Movement figured into this debate?

They have been pretty active this spring and into the summer. They've had a couple of rallies, and they have been attending events like the immigration training that we held on September 12. They were not disruptive, but they came and attended the workshops, and they were very active in the discussion. But at the rallies, you've got both sides standing in downtown Austin on the other ends of bullhorns, yelling. You've got the NSM (National Socialist Movement) crew that is organizing these rallies, and you've got community folks coming to oppose that, standing and circling them. At the first NSM rally there were maybe 40 or 50 people who would dare to oppose them; the next time they did it, there were well over 100 people, outnumbering them, and being vocal about their opposition to the NSM messages. It's pretty intense.

As a commission, we are working at finding our way in this, and at continuing to keep a dialogue open. We're a quieter voice in the storm. Our approach is education, reinforcing the facts, and eliminating some of the myths.

What are the myths you want to eliminate?

It's things like misunderstandings about taxes. If people are working, legally or illegally, they are paying taxes. If you are employed, they're taking out taxes. There is misunderstanding about the kinds of services and support we are giving to non-documented people in our communities — they can't just walk in and have access to services.

The other thing that is needed is general education about immigration. People don't have any idea how hard it is to immigrate. When I tell my story, people ask, are you a citizen yet? Why is it taking so long? Well, because there's a system and a process. You just don't fill out a form and say, all right, I am a good person, and I'd like to work and live in the United States. You've got to jump through hoop after hoop after hoop, and many of those hoops are very expensive, and take time. I think if most people understood the system, they would be less critical about people who are trying to maneuver that system. I mean, it's brutal.

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