Hundreds Attend OLLAS Conference Cumbre to Give and Get Diverse Perspectives on Migration Issues
I am not normally crazy about covering events because I think of myself more as a writer than a reporter. While spending several hours at an academic and community confab I was assigned to report on is not my idea of a good time I did mostly enjoy covering the 2010 Cumbre conference put on by the Office of Latino and Latin American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The big topic under discussion was human mobility or migration and the political, social, economic, and personal fallout of populations in flux. It’s interesting how things work because a year or so after the event I became aware of a great book about one of the most important and underdoumented migration experiences in U.S. history – the great migration of African-Americans from the South to all points North and West. The book by Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, is one I eventually read and wrote about, interviewing Wilkerson at some length, then meeting her before a talk she gave in Omaha. And that sparked my beginning to do research for a story or series of stories on African-Americans who migrated from the South to Nebraska. I’ll write that story next year in conjunction with the big black heritage celebration here known as Native Omaha Days. And I was to have undertaken a rather epic project all about human migration for a Catholic community of missionaries but it has been put on hold. Finally, I may be making an individual and temporary migration this fall reporting on set of Alexander Payne’s upcoming feature production Nebraska, which would find me embedding myself among the crew as they traverse from eastern Montana across much of Nebraska for the making of this road movie. So, you see, in the midst of overcoming my reluctance to cover a migration conference I found myself open to a pattern of migration subjects and opportunities that came my way. Would they have otherwise? Who knows? I’m just glad they did.
Hundreds Attend OLLAS Conference Cumbre to Give and Get Diverse Perspectives on Migration Issues
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in El Perico
A wide spectrum of Latino concerns, including the need for federal immigration reform, swirled around the May 14-15 Cumbre conference held at Omaha‘s Embassy Suites in the Old Market. The theme was Human Mobility, the Promise of Development and Political Engagement.
The every-few-years summit hosted by UNO’s Office of Latino and Latin American Studies is part I’ll-show-you-mine, if-you-show-me-yours research exchange, part old-fashioned networking event and part open mic forum.
More than 400 registrants from near and far came to share ideas. The perspectives ranged from star academics allied with major institutions to local grassroots organizers.
Adding urgency was the divisive new Arizona law targeting illegal immigrants. OLLAS director Lourdes Gouveia said when planning for this year’s summit began four years ago immigration was a hot topic. It was expected to remain so once Barack Obama won the White House, but the health care debate put it on the back burner.
“We began to think well maybe this was not the year when the national context about immigration was really going to provide the impetus,” she said, “and then along comes Arizona. All at once we had people like Jason Marczak (policy director with Americas Society/Council of the Americas) call and say, ‘I’d like to come, is it too late?’ We had vans of people coming from Colorado and Iowa. We had people showing up from all kinds of communities in the Great Plains, besides all the international scholars from Africa, India, Latin America, Europe.”
Beyond facilitating dialogue, Cumbre introduces new scholarship. Coordinators for the Woodrow Wilson Center Mexico Institute’s Latino Immigrant Civic Engagement Project chose Cumbre to unveil their report’s findings of Latino civic involvement in nine U.S. cities, including Omaha. The authors tied engagement levels to several factors. Generally, the more engaged immigrants are with their country of origin, the more engaged they are in their adopted homeland. High participation in church activities correlates with high participation in civic activities. Coalitions, whether community, church or work-based, such as the Heartland Workers Center in Omaha, act as gateways for increased engagement.
But each Latino immigrant community has its own dynamics that influence participation, thus authors titled their report “Context Matters.” Co-author Xochitl Bada, a University of Illinois at Chicago assistant professor, presented the findings.
OLLAS issued its own site report, “Migrant Civil Society Under Construction.” Investigators conducted roundtable discussions with local Latino immigrants, who said that fear, inadequate education and lack of information are barriers to engagement.
Bada said Omaha is rather unique in being both a new and old destination for Latino migration, a mix that may partly account for the moderate levels of civic-political participation by the emerging Latino immigrant community here.
Respondents in all nine cities regarded the 2006 immigration mobilization marches as a turning point in Latino engagement but expressed disappointment the movement did not sustain itself.
Among other panels: UNO economist Christopher Decker outlined Latino immigrants’ substantial economic impact in state; and UNO languages professor Claudia Garcia detailed a project delivering education programs and restoring family connections to local Spanish-speaking immigrant prison detainees.
Cumbre’s hallmark is gathering under one roof different players. Speeches, panels, workshops, town hall meetings, Q & As and breakout sessions provide opportunities for these wonks, worker bees, policymakers and service providers to interact.
Princeton University scholar and Center for Migration and Development director Alejandro Portes has attended all four Cumbres. The Cuba native said he made his 2010 keynote address on Latino immigrant transnationalism accessible to Cumbre’s diverse audience. The Creighton University graduate said, “I think bringing the community and the scholars in the same room is one of the things I like about it. The organizers have great talent in bringing these different constituencies together.”
Another featured speaker, journalist, author and University of Southern California communication professor Roberto Suro, said what distinguishes Cumbre is “it attracts really A-list, blue-ribbon people from the academic world and at the same time a very broad swath of people who work on the ground. It’s the only conference I know of that does that. There’s a reason the room’s full.”
“Through gatherings like this,” Suro said, “what you see is people broadening the horizons of policy discussion and starting to think about reformulating issues, adding to the agenda and starting to develop the kind of understandings and intellectual framework that might permit better policy in the future.”
Suro told the audience that researchers and activists like them are well ahead of policymakers and politicians on the issue and give him reason for optimism.
OLLAS assistant director Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado said some of what happens at Cumbre “is bound to be carried” to global forums,” adding, “and that to me is probably the highest compliment for what we try to do in bringing all these people together.”
Xochitl Bada, co-principal investigator of the Latino immigration Civic Engagement Project, said Cumbre “has a very important public aspect. Unlike most academic conferences, it’s conceived “as a report back to the community.” She said the fact the summit is free makes it inclusive. “That’s very unusual.” She said another mark of Cumbre’s open door approach is the simultaneous translation, from Spanish to English and from English to Spanish, it provides to ensure that “language is not a barrier.” She called Cumbre an important vehicle for “public discourse” and “public dissemination.”
Rev. Ernesto Medina, pastor of St. Martha Episcopal Church in Omaha, moderated a panel discussion on human rights, work and community membership. He said he appreciates the opportunity Cumbre presents “to see things holistically” and to put “different communities and different passions” in the same room to find common ground.
Though many differing views were voiced, some consensus emerged: immigration reform must happen but the current partisan climate makes it unlikely soon; criminalization of migrants is punitive, narrow-minded, counterproductive and damaging to families; today’s nativist anti-immigration arguments echo those of the past; lawmakers need good data about immigration to make good policy; Latino immigrants can be fully engaged in both their country of origin and American society; remittances made by Latino migrants to their native countries are crucial to those economies.
Roberto Suro said the full contributions of the recent Latino migrant wave can only be weighed when second generation children reach adulthood. He advocates Latino immigrants be viewed as more than merely a subsistence labor force.
National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Countries executive director Oscar Chacon called for more “robust” organizations like his that represent Latino immigrant interests and celebrate their cultural differences while working toward “common cause.”
Alejandro Portes warned if the rhetoric and actions of anti-migrant forces continue “it could usher in ethnic unrest, and there’s absolutely no reason for that. I don’t think it will get that bad because of Obama in the White House and the federal government at some point is going to enter the situation and bring some kind of immigration reform.”
- Institute for Latin American Concern at Creighton has Dominican Focus (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Where Community, Neighborhood and Representative Democracy Meet (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Latino voters do care about immigration (salon.com)
- You: Commentary: Immigration debate harbors plenty of misconceptions (star-telegram.com)
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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