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Forums set up to quell fears of Arkansas immigrants

Group responds to reports of Trump-policy anxieties by Jessica Seaman, Kenneth Heard | November 26, 2016 at 3:35 a.m.

When Francisco Lira’s 8-year-old daughter Lizette woke up the day after the presidential election and found out Donald Trump would be the next president of the United States, she began to cry.

“Why does he hate us so much?” Lizette asked her father.

Recalling the conversation with his daughter, Lira said he didn’t know how to answer her.

“I just can’t find the words,” Lira said Tuesday at an Arkansas United Community Coalition community forum in Fort Smith. “I don’t know how to answer her. I just tell her you have to be strong.”

Lira, 38, and his family live in Fort Smith but are originally from Mexico. Since the presidential election, Lizette has been questioned by classmates about her immigration status, and Lira himself fears being targeted for being an immigrant.

“We don’t know what is going to happen,” Lira said of living under a Trump administration. “We have a difficult time right now.”

Trump has promised to overhaul the U.S. immigration system, including a crackdown on illegal immigration. During the campaign, he pledged to build a wall between the United States and Mexico and deport millions.

So far the proposals have been discussed mostly in broad terms.

During a Nov. 13 interview on the CBS program 60 Minutes, Trump said the wall he promised to build might end up being a fence in places. The priority, he said, was to deport 2 million to 3 million immigrants he characterized as dangerous or as having criminal records.

That was a change from his original position that he would deport all of the estimated 11 million illegal aliens in the country, according to The New York Times. The Times article also pointed out that President Barack Obama has deported more than 2 million illegal aliens during his time in office.

When Trump released a video earlier this week outlining executive actions he said he plans to take once in office, the plan to build the wall wasn’t mentioned.

Trump’s comments during the campaign sparked fear among some in the immigrant community, prompting the Arkansas United Community Coalition to schedule community forums across the state this month to address immigrants’ concerns.

Hundreds have attended the forums, which feature speakers such as immigration lawyers and representatives from the Mexican Consulate to answer questions, said Mireya Reith, executive director of Arkansas United. Reith is also chairman of the state Board of Education.

Forums have been held in several cities, including Little Rock, De Queen and Springdale.

Lira, who attended Tuesday’s forum at the Fort Smith Adult Education Center, said he wanted to hear from the Mexican Consulate and learn what he can do to prepare his family for policies that might be enacted once Trump enters office.

“Anything that can help,” he said.

Arkansas United decided to hold the forums after hearing from people concerned about mass deportations and the future of Obama’s 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, Reith said.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals is meant to protect young immigrants who came to the United States as children. It allows those who qualify temporary relief from deportation and a two-year renewable work permit.

“We experienced mass panic in our immigrant communities on a couple of different levels,” Reith said.

About 7.2 percent of Arkansas residents are Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Community members at the Fort Smith forum said they fear their families will be separated and said they are afraid one day immigration officials will knock on their door. More than 25 people attended the meeting, which was conducted in Spanish and English.

At another forum, in Jonesboro, some expressed concern about deportation and asked about gaining quick citizenship for themselves or relatives.

One person asked whether he would be eligible for citizenship if he married a U.S. citizen. A young woman said her boyfriend entered the United States illegally, and she feared he would be deported.

“Would he have to go back?” she asked, crying. “I’m worried.”

Reith said Arkansas United also has heard from students and teachers who have been taunted by other students and teachers about having to be concerned about being deported.

One attendee at the Fort Smith forum said her granddaughter was told to “leave” by some students after a mock election at an elementary school. Another person spoke of a high school Spanish teacher who was told by a student that she should prepare to be deported now that Trump has been elected.

More forums are planned in the coming weeks that will teach attendees how to respond to bullying, Reith said.

“We wanted the opportunity to collectively discern what we can do to actively take a stance against bullying,” Reith said. “We don’t want Arkansas’ legacy to be one of bullying and racism. We want to be agents of change.”

Concerns raised by immigrants in Arkansas mirror concerns being expressed nationwide, said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, an advocacy group.

“Certainly it is something we have been hearing about across the country,” he said. “Until we see details of what [Trump] is going to do, I see no reason to doubt his campaign statements.

“The important part of this is not only is the immigration community affected, but tens of thousands of residents in Arkansas. What President Trump does in regards to immigration impacts society overall.”

David Nunez, an organizer of the Jonesboro forum, said his group was nonpartisan and would not criticize Trump, but others in the crowd of about 40 were more adamant and expressed fear. .

“This was a campaign based in fear,” said Richard Wang, a political science professor at Arkansas State University at Jonesboro. “As a result, the Hispanic community has a lot of anxieties about what awaits us all.

“We should take him for his word,” Wang said of Trump’s comments during his campaign about dropping programs for immigrants. “There is room for anxiety.”

Nunez said he has monitored area schools to see if Hispanic students have been bullied because of their ethnicity or perceived immigration status but hasn’t heard of any such incidents in the Jonesboro area.

Victor Valtierra, an attorney with the Mexico Consulate in Little Rock, tried to allay fears in Jonesboro.

“The immigrant community is scared, worried and afraid of what will happen,” he said. “But nothing has changed since this election.”

He said the consulate is promoting a 24-hour hotline that Hispanics can call to help quell their anxieties.

“He is the president, not the king,” said Carlos Hernandez, an immigration attorney from Little Rock. “We don’t know what is going to happen, but it is truly difficult for [Trump] to do all he says he will.”

Lira said the election, and subsequent conversations on social media, have made him realize Americans are divided when it comes to immigration.

“A lot of people don’t like us,” he said.

But, Lira added, when he speaks to his children about the future, he wants to show them there are also people who support them.

“In the end,” he said, “I don’t want them to feel fear.”

Print Headline: Forums set up to quell fears of immigrants

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