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Immigrants and Ethnic Media Meet in the South

Teaching Lessons in Patience

New America Media, reporting, Khalil Abdullah & Roberto Lovato Posted: Jul 18, 2007

atlanta immigration summitEditor's Note: Community organizations and ethnic media gathered at New America Media's historic immigration summit in Atlanta. Khalil Abdullah is the director of New America Media's Washington D.C. office. Roberto Lovato is a New York-based writer with New America Media, where he also serves as a business strategist. Also, read interviews of immigrant rights advocates in grassroots organizations across the South and the Summit's opening speech.

by Roberto Lovato

ATLANTA, Ga. -- In a historic first, Southern ethnic media gathered to meet more than a hundred representatives of immigrant rights in Atlanta last week. Sponsored by New America Media and the Grady School of Journalism at the University of Georgia, the immigration summit marked another milestone in the region with the fastest-growing immigrant population in the country. Journalists, immigrant rights organizers, academics and others attending the one-day summit said they came back edified by contact with the participants, practical information, analysis and other resources provided throughout the event.

Pollster Sergio Bendixen opened the summit with a demographic overview of migration in the United States and the world. Bendixen underlined the need to understand immigration to the South and to the United States in the broader global context in which fast-aging industrialized northern countries need immigrants to survive.

Several Washington, D.C.-based immigrant activists assessed the very bleak prospects for immigration reform following the recent failure of legislation in the Senate. Most people concurred with the assessment that the immigration debate will now intensify at the state and local levels. Some saw possibilities for piecemeal change around possible legislation like the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented students.

Luncheon speaker Michael L. Thurmond, Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Labor, called the region the new new South, saying that immigrants are altering a region previously defined by the interactions between blacks and whites.

Following lunch, participants discussed and shared ideas about best practices in reporting as well as a session on detention and deportation issues, which many believe will now occupy the center of the immigration debate.

I really appreciate the simple fact of bringing us together, said Sarwat Husain, the San Antonio-based publisher of the English language monthly Al-Ittihaad, with a distribution of more than 100,000 in Texas. We cant really get a sense of ourselves, how large we are without these kinds of meetings, he said. Husain also appreciated the chance to talk with Latino media representatives about the need to include more Muslim, South Asian and Arab stories in their coverage.

Teodoro Maus, an immigrant rights activist with the Atlanta-based Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, complimented summit organizers for creating a great opportunity for us to network and build more networks. I made contacts with media representatives I dont always get to meet. Its also important for us to meet as we plan to build and improve the work in the future.

by Khalil Abdullah

ATLANTA, Ga. -- Michael Thurmond, Georgias Labor Commissioner, forecast that his state will be facing a severe labor shortage within the next 20 years and all of America will need more workers going forward in the 21st century than ever before. How then, he was asked, should Georgia address its anti-immigrant climate, which, rather than attracting workers is repelling them?

At the July 12 luncheon where the commissioner was the keynote speaker, one audience member pointed out that Latinos are leaving the state. Thurmond seemed to measure his words carefully when responding.

Immigration reform activists and ethnic media, drawn primarily from the Atlanta region and the South, met to determine how to better explain to each other and the American public their circumstances and challenges. The one-day event was sponsored by New America Media.

Attendees were anxious to get Thurmonds view on how to change the anti-immigrant mood in the South to gain political and civic support for reform. The first thing you have to do, Thurmond advised, is to understand those who oppose you.

On bridging cultural divides, Thurmond told of being twice defeated before 1986 when he became the first African American since Reconstruction to be elected from his district in Clarke County and to serve in the state legislature. African Americans were then, and still are, in the minority in that district, which includes his home, Athens. Subsequently, in 1998, he was elected Labor Commissioner in a state with only a 30 percent African American population.

After his first campaign losses, Thurmond said he researched the demographic data and found good news: he could be elected by African Americans. They would eventually be numerically predominant in his district. The bad news was that the demographic shift wouldnt occur until 2060. So, he said, he decided to ask white people to vote for me.

Thurmond had community roots going back decades as the son of sharecroppers. He also had a B.A., and a degree from the University of South Carolina School of Law. However, door-to-door campaigning was not without stressful moments. Once, when accompanied by his sister, Thurmond recalled a woman looked at his newly-minted campaign brochure. She told him that she would never vote for one of those people, using words like shiftless, lazy, and a string of derogative phrases. Thurmond said he turned away from her door crestfallen; my heart was breaking inside my chest. But his sister, in her outrage, took up his defense.

His sister insisted the woman read his brochure again. Taking the brochure in her hand, Thurmond said, looking it up and down, the woman on the doorstep looked at her, Like I said, I would never vote for a lawyer.

This anecdote, Thurmond said, illustrated for him that one cannot assume what is in peoples minds, and immigration advocates shouldnt make the same mistake. They must get to know people, what they think, not what you think they think, he said. When most Georgians hear the word immigration, he ceded, they think of illegal immigration first, and their reaction is negative.

He reminded attendees that Martin Luther King inherited the struggle: the civil rights movement earned moral support and legislative victories off the backs of generations of Africans and African Americans, who fought and sacrificed to be treated as human beings and American citizens. Immigration reform will be a protracted struggle, he said. Commit yourself to a generational struggle.

Read interviews of immigrant rights advocates in grassroots organizations across the South and the Summit's opening speech.

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