by Kara Hansen
OVERLAND PARK —Take hate out of the debate.
That’s the first priority in immigration reform, said Janet Murguia in her keynote address at Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park as part of Guilfoil Justice Day Feb. 8.
“We can disagree and have discourse, but it’s time to take hate out of the debate. Words have real consequences,” said Murguia, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza.
La Raza, which literally translated means “the people” or community, is the largest national Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization in the United States. The focus of its work is the improvement of opportunities for Hispanic Americans through applied research, policy analysis, and advocacy in the areas of assets/investments, civil rights/ immigration, education, employment, and health.
Murguia, who grew up in the Argentine area of Kansas City, Kan., and attended St. John the Divine Parish (now St. John the Evangelist), said she has become increasingly concerned in recent years by some of the denigrating rhetoric used to describe immigrants and the Hispanic community in general.
“It’s dehumanizing to hear a news anchor refer to illegal immigrants as ‘a horde of disease-filled, crime-bringing population.’ That is an insult to the Hispanic community as a whole, whether undocumented or legal,” she said.
As evidence that words thrown around in the media and society have a direct impact on actions, Murguia said hate crimes against Hispanics were up 23 percent in the past two years. Murguia also said that whereas she used to receive only hate mail, she is now routinely receiving death threats, often signed by “a real American” or “a patriot.”
La Raza and other civil rights organizations, said Murguia, are responding to this hate with what they consider a better alternative: hope.
“Hate speech has real consequences, but we are working to confront it with something just as powerful: hope,” she said. “We need to be just as persistent with our message of hope as hate groups are with their message.”
As part of La Raza’s work, Murguia campaigns for immigration reform. Far from advocating a laissez faire approach, Murguia said that La Raza is actually a proponent of border safety and border control.
“Enhanced border security is a necessity in a post 9/11 world,” said Murguia.
But it’s equally important, she said, for Americans to recognize that the current immigration system is outdated. There is often a 20-year backlog on visas for people wanting to come to the United States.
Moreover, there are international issues and dynamics at work that contribute to the despair that drives Mexican citizens to seek to flee their own country for an uncertain future in the United States.
“Immigration reform is an issue that has put a cloud over our community and country. When parts of the system are broken, it causes complex problems, and people are affected on a number of levels,” said Murguia. “It makes it very hard for the entire Hispanic community to advance in other areas, such as education and health.”
Murguia said La Raza advocates for more accountability on the part of employers of immigrants. They also advocate for a better way to deal with the future flow of workers in the country in relation to caps on visas.
“There are approximately 12 million undocumented people in this country, and we ask for a practical, reasonable and humane response for the people who are already a part of this society,” said Murguia.
Murguia urged the crowd, which included a number of students from Catholic high schools, to take their faith seriously in the area of social change.
“Our faith is clear on what to do in the area of immigration — from following the golden rule to where [the Book of] Leviticus speaks of being kind to strangers in a foreign land. As Christians, we are called to be caring for the needy, attending to the poor, and speaking for those who have no voice,” she said.
Murguia closed her talk to a standing ovation, then stayed to answer questions from those in the audience.
Luke Nitchals, a junior at Immaculata High School in Leavenworth, said he was glad he was able to hear Murguia’s presentation.
“I thought her talk was pretty good. I liked her comment that most Latin Americans don’t think of whites as being racist,” he said. “It was also good to know that we had shared common ground in wanting increased border control.”
Joan Carleton, a parishioner of St. Agnes Church in Roeland Park, was also happy she came.
“I had heard of Janet before and really admire her work,” said Carleton. “I don’t think many of our parishes are well-informed on this issue.”