Tuesday, October 24, 2006

A Day with an Immigrant

Yesterday was a whirlwind here in Harrisburg. A few months ago, we started planning Power to the People! (P2P), a series of community forums in Harrisburg city. We planned them for the fourth Monday of the month in September, October, and November, and this month's forum was on immigrants' rights. We then planned another event at Widener School of Law in Harrisburg with our student chapter there on the same day with one person, Dr. Agapito Lopez, who has emerged as a spokesperson for the Latino community in Hazleton, speaking at both events.

Ironically, we found out a week or two ago that Hazleton Mayor Louis Barletta would be speaking on the same day in Harrisburg at the Pennsylvania Press Club, which opens its luncheons to the public, so we made a reservation and had lunch there. Mayor Barletta stuck to his talking points throughout the speech and the Q&A session, but particularly striking was his display of two collages of newspaper headlines and photos from the Standard-Speaker, Hazleton's daily fishwrap, blown up onto boards about 2' x 3'. Although Barletta continued to narrowly define his mission, to insist that there will not be racial profiling in enforcing the ordinance, and to swear that he welcomes documented immigrants to his town, the posters with their photos of young Latinos in handcuffs, some looking a bit disheveled, in white tank tops or a t-shirt that says "G Unit," blared another message altogether: "Beware of dark-skinned people. They are criminals."

(Not surprisingly, none of the headlines said, "Convicted." They all said, "charged," "arrested," etc., so in the eyes of the law, they were all innocent since they had not been proven guilty. But I guess it's old-fashioned to still believe in "innocent until proven guilty.")

But with all of this focus on Hazleton throughout the day, the most striking moment came during the evening P2P event when Ho-Thanh Nguyen of the Pennsylvania Immigrant and Refugee Women's Network spoke. Ho-Thanh started with a prepared script on the mission of PAIRWN, but then she veered into a personal story that appeared, based on her mannerisms, to be unprepared. Ho-Thanh told the audience about a recent experience of harassment. Her phone rang at 8:30 on a Saturday morning, and a woman on the other end launched into a tirade, telling her to go back to her country (Ho-Thanh came here from Vietnam in 1975) and calling Ho-Thanh a "parasite." For me, it was the most dramatic moment of the day, and you could hear a pin drop in the room.

This is why we push back against unjust public policy that kicks around the most vulnerable among us.

Andy in Harrisburg

The P2P event was taped by Pennsylvania Cable Network. Typically, PCN airs events within a few days, so check out their schedule by clicking here. They update it around the close of business each day. PCN is available on cable systems around the state and online at this link.


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