California conversation about immigration: Can we get along?

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Rebecca Goddard doesn’t understand why some of her fellow Californians have labeled her a racist simply because she supports increased enforcement of the nation’s immigration laws.

Vinisha Thornton supports legal immigration but says it’s unfair for illegal immigrants to reap the many benefits and privileges of living here. But Teresa Nuñez, who illegally crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, says she can’t understand why undocumented immigrants who work hard and pay taxes aren’t more valued in the Golden State.

At a time when America’s political landscape has become so toxic, is there any way that strangers like Goddard, Thornton and Nuñez can come together to help find solutions and compromises in regard to the vexing, incendiary issue of illegal immigration?

The premise of the Talking Across Borders project is that progress will come when we figure out how to talk about the issue with civility — and the warring sides at least listen to the concerns of people with whom they disagree.

Making that conversation happen is the mission of Spaceship Media, a Bay Area nonprofit whose aim is to use journalism to bridge divides and reduce polarization. The media partners in the new project include the Bay Area News Group, the Southern California News Group and Univision, a national Spanish-language TV network.

As part of the project, more than 60 people across California will take part in a closed Facebook group over the next month. About half of them support greater enforcement of immigration laws. About half oppose increased enforcement. A smattering of those in the group have staked out middle-ground positions.

During the monthlong discussion, participants will be able to suggest topics and questions for the group to address. The effort will be moderated by Spaceship Media founders Eve Pearlman and Jeremy Hay, two veteran journalists who will also prompt conversation. Reporters from the media partners will write about the project and supply research to inform the discussions.

“The debate about immigration and about undocumented immigrants often seems to be at a standstill,” Hay said, but “we hope that conversations like this can start to move it forward.”

Terry Meehan, 60, of Aliso Viejo, decided to participate in the project because he believes the immigration debate is a symptom of a severely divided country.

“The rhetoric that I see every single day … is slowly destroying the fabric of our nation,” said Meehan, whose ancestors came here from Ireland. “This is an important issue, because I look at it and I think to myself, ‘We’re all immigrants, absent Native Americans.’ Some of this venom that is spewed about people who weren’t born here, I think, is very destructive.”

Carol Stephenson, a San Jose native, agreed. She said she decided to participate in the Facebook group because she hopes a more sweeping national discussion on immigration issues can start with communication among well-meaning Californians. “It’s time to be able to talk to each other about both the concerns and the benefits” of immigration, she said.

Shortly after Trump’s election, Spaceship Media coordinated a similar effort, working with the Alabama Media Group as part of the Alabama/California Conversation Project. It included a Facebook group with 50 women. Half were Trump voters from Alabama. The other half were Hillary Clinton voters from the Bay Area. After the monthlong project, many of the women continued their discussions and even formed their own Facebook group.

Neil Chase, executive editor of The Mercury News and the East Bay Times, said the new project can help journalists learn different perspectives in greater depth.

“We interview people every day, but we rarely get to be part of a sustained conversation about an important issue,” Chase said. “This approach connects people with diverse views and helps us explore this story in deeper, more meaningful ways.”

Goddard, 49, of Mission Viejo, says she joined the group because she’d like some of the Californians who call her names to hear the reasons behind her support of beefed-up enforcement of immigration laws.

“I’ve been called bigoted. I’ve been called xenophobic. I’ve been called white supremacist,” Goddard said. “I’ve been called a lot of things — and none of them are true.”

The Facebook conversation will be taking place as Democratic lawmakers in Sacramento work to pass Senate Bill 54, also referred to as the “sanctuary state” bill. It would prohibit the use of state and local public resources to aid U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents in deportation actions.

California is home to more than 10 million immigrants, more than any other state, according to the San Francisco-based Public Policy Institute of California. More than two million of them are undocumented, the nonpartisan group says.

Nuñez, 47, of Riverside, was once one of them.

She moved to California from Mexico 16 years ago with her two daughters after her husband passed away. Nuñez said she knew she wasn’t going to make it in Mexico on her own financially, so she and two children illegally crossed the border.

Nuñez, now a U.S. citizen, said she hopes to clear up the common misconception that undocumented immigrants don’t pay taxes, noting that many unauthorized immigrants end up paying sales, income, Social Security and property taxes.

“I know about the struggles,” Nuñez said. “I just hope I can share my story and shed some light about the contributions that immigrants make to this country.”

Stephenson, 49, said she’s seen firsthand how immigrants have helped San Jose thrive, from the Vietnamese refugees who pumped new life into East Santa Clara Street in the late 1970s and early ’80s to the Mexican and Central American immigrants who through the decades have become a rising political force and a key part of the labor force, championing local issues such as fair wages and affordable housing.

“I feel like it’s an important part of what’s great about San Jose and about living here,” said Stephenson, a communications consultant for local nonprofits such as People Acting in Community, or PACT.

But Thornton, of Pittsburg, said it’s time to emphasize the needs of native-born Americans and legal immigrants.

A  27-year-old nursing student at Los Medanos College who voted for Clinton, Thornton argued that undocumented immigrants “get benefits and that’s taking away from people who came here legally or who were born here and work hard.”

“I don’t have any problem with people immigrating,” she added. “This country was built on immigrants, but they did it the right way.”

Does she think she’ll change her perspective by the time the project wraps up?

“I’ll never say never,” she said. “I might gain a new perspective on why people feel the way that they do. I just want people to come together and find middle ground to put our country first.”



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