Civic journalism project
produces Latino Forum


The Latino Forum sponsored by Elon University's School of Communications at the Paramount Theater in Burlington April 29 drew state and local leaders together to discuss important issues of the Hispanic people living in the communities near the university. A culturally diverse audience of 60 local citizens attended, and simultaneous translation services were provided with wireless headsets for audience members needing interpretation of the proceedings.

A group of 12 Elon students, under the direction of Dr. David Loomis, worked to bring the civic journalism event together during the course of the spring semester. They spent time in the Latino community talking people about their problems, needs and issues. They worked with the local daily newspaper, the Times-News, to put together this forum at which those issues could be brought before area leaders for discussion.

At the forum, Elon students Keren Rivas and Jennifer Oglesby presented information gathered through interviews with Latinos in the Burlington area.

Steve Buckley, publisher of The Times-News and La Voz, led the forum panel, which included Dr. Heriberto "Nolo" Martinez, adviser to Gov. Mike Easley's office on Hispanic/Latino affairs; James H. Johnson, director of ubran investments at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC; Helen Styles, director of at-risk services for the Alamance-Burlington School System; Tina Siragusa, coordinator of Hispanic/Latino outreach programs at El Centro: La Communidad in Burlington; and Ebher Rossi Jr., an immigration attorney from Burlington; and Federico van Gelderen, publisher, Que Pasa Latino Communications.

Johnson, a professor specializing in urban investment strategies at UNC, presented a demographic update on immigration and the Latino population of Alamance County and North Carolina. Also on hand was Richard Corpening from the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services in Charlotte.

Immigration rules and school support services were two of the primary areas of concern covered during the panel session.

Martinez said the influx of Hispanics and Latinos will continue, adding that it is an issue that should be looked at from all angles. He said illegal immigrants now making a positive contribution in the United States should be allowed to become legal residents. He saluted Hispanic immigrants for their sometimes "invisible contributions" to the workforce. "Right now, our system is broken," he said.

"We know illegal immigration keeps happening, but we keep perpetuating the issue because we know we have a new slave," said Siragusa, an advocate for Latinos in Alamance County. She said the government should do something about the way U.S. businesses lure illegal immigrants with job opportunities

Corpening, an immigration official, said his department has had a significantly increased workload since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. People are presenting false documentation. "Folks learn to use and abuse the system," Corpening said. "Document fraud, identity fraud and marriage fraud cause applications to be scrutinized more closely." He said the government must find ways to serve the Latino community fairly.

Some audience members told their personal stories, voicing the frustrations Latinos with U.S. structures, especially those who are illegal immigrants living in a community such as Burlington, N.C.

The second major issue covered at the forum was the impact the area’s increasing Latino population is having in area schools.

Helen Styles of the Alamance-Burlington School System said the increase in Spanish-speaking students has placed a strain on resources, but not on willingness to teach the children. "By law we cannot not serve the children," Styles said. "We do it with open arms."

The people working in area schools are pledged to do their best for everyone she said, adding that no child will go without an education regardless of his or her resident status.

No conclusions were reached; no solutions found at the Latino Forum. But important issues were aired. Panel members urged that there should be more future discussions.

Loomis said the meeting addressed citizens' perspectives and helped create a balance.

"Tonight's forum was a good start on getting diverse and thoughtful approaches to a set of local, state and national Latino immigration issues that are often cast in black-and-white terms," Loomis said. "My plan is to keep this network of social capital - local, state and federal; public, private and non-profit; secular and faith-based - active, and to apply it where it is needed in the community."

(This article includes contributions from student reporter Mary-Hayden Britton.)



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Last Modified:  5/01/03
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