CLEARWATER — Border security. Human trafficking. Fear of being deported.
These were among the issues discussed Thursday night as Pinellas County residents joined a national conversation on immigration reform.
More than 55 people gathered at the Unitarian Universalists of Clearwater to listen and pose questions to a panel of community advocates and a White House official. The event was part of a national initiative to promote discussion of immigration issues.
Kiran Ahuja, executive director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, spoke and recorded the discussion, which she will report back to the White House. By promoting civil discussion on the "broken immigration system," President Barack Obama hopes to raise the visibility of immigration issues, she said.
"We're talking with communities about their needs and recommendations," Ahuja said. "Whether you're a small-business owner, faith leader, law enforcement officer or community advocate, immigration matters."
In addition to Ahuja, the panel consisted of local immigration lawyer Ramon Carrion; Joyce Hamilton Henry, regional director of the American Civil Liberties Union; Sandra Lyth, chief executive of the Hispanic Outreach Center in Clearwater; Roberta Perry, Florida director of the National Farm Worker Ministry; and the Rev. Abhi Janamanchi, senior minister of the church.
With Carrion as translator, local resident Carlos Quezada also spoke in Spanish about his experiences as an immigrant. Quezada, who came to the United States two years ago, told the story of a friend in South Carolina who tried to persuade him to come to that state to pick tomatoes. When Quezada asked why his friend needed him to come from Florida, he told him everyone was afraid to work for fear of being deported.
"I'm here to express the pain these people feel," Quezada said. "The community has grown a lot, and the problems are very serious."
Each of the panelists spoke about issues they felt were at the forefront of immigration reform, addressing racial profiling among law enforcement officers, the exploitation of immigrants for cheap labor, and the Dream Act, which would allow students who entered the country illegally as young children to apply for citizenship.
A common theme throughout the discussion was the role of immigrants as scapegoats for the nation's economic trouble.
"During tough economic times as we are in now, there is a push to close the door, to seal the cracks and not let anyone in," Henry said.
Henry and Lyth both pointed out that in the United States, and especially in Florida, discussion of immigration issues often centers on Hispanics, who make up nearly half of the national foreign-born population.
According to the 2010 census, 15.4 percent of Clearwater's overall population is Hispanic.
"There's so much fear in the Hispanic/Latino community here in Clearwater, it's almost an epidemic," Lyth said. "The level of awareness, consciousness, fear and apprehension of every situation you could get into is very high in Clearwater."
Ahuja, who lived in Tampa for a year and a half before she was appointed in 2009 to her current position, used to attend Unitarian Universalists of Clearwater. She said her familiarity with the church and its interest in social justice issues led her to reach out to the church about hosting Thursday's panel.
"They have been interested in issues of immigration reform and have been an educational resource," she said.
Because the panels are ongoing throughout the summer and can be hosted by anyone, Ahuja could not estimate the number of immigration roundtables occurring under the White House initiative. The White House website offers resources for people interested in hosting roundtable discussions, she said.
While many of these roundtables attract only about 10 people, larger events are planned in Seattle and Los Angeles this summer, she said.
For Tampa resident Maria McCourt, Thursday's panel answered many questions she had about immigration. She said she feels invested in immigration reform because her religious beliefs compel her to care for other people.
"When Jesus encountered the lepers, he didn't say, 'Can I see your green card,' " she said.
Katie Park can be reached at (727) 445-4154 or firstname.lastname@example.org.