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In Midst of Divisive Campaign Season, Hundreds of Iowans Gather for Civil Discussion on Immigration

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Presidential Candidates & Local Leaders from Across the Political Spectrum Find Common Ground on Immigration at Historic #UniteIowa Forum

 STORM LAKE, IOWA—As Donald Trump continues to dominate headlines with his latest line of attacks against immigrants and their families, an event in Storm Lake, Iowa over the weekend offered a fresh (and much needed) reminder of what’s missing from the national debate. 

At Buena Vista University, leaders from Iowa’s immigrant, business, educational, faith, labor and political communities  convened with Democratic candidates Martin O’Malley and Lincoln Chafee to find constructive, common ground on immigration in America. The forum was moderated by Kyle Munson, Iowa columnist at the Des Moines Register as part of his ongoing #UniteIowa campaign.  Watch video of the forum here.  

Ironically, the event took place in what was formerly a prime target of anti-immigrant rhetoric and heated demagoguery.  In 2004, FAIR, a designated hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, ran an ad warning people of the “dangers” associated with immigrant friendly cities such as Storm Like, IA.  The ad was widely discredited and faced a wall of criticism, forcing some stations to pull it entirely.        

“How wrong they were then, and how wrong they are now,” said Matt Hildreth, Director of Iowa’s Voice.  “Storm Lake and #UniteIowa are models for the nation and how we should be treating immigrants and the issue of immigration in America.  It’s moments like these that make me proud to call myself an Iowan.”   

Per a recap of #UniteIowa from Grant Rodgers of the Des Moines Register:

“A panel of Iowans that included a Republican activist, a CEO and a Presbyterian pastor gathered on a Storm Lake stage, all agreeing on only one point: The immigration system in America is failing.

“But retired Storm Lake art teacher Barbara Patten saw faces she knew of both Democrats and Republicans at the #UniteIowa on Immigration forum hosted by Buena Vista

“University in Storm Lake on Saturday. She was encouraged to see people listening politely to a discussion on issues that are divisive ahead of the 2016 presidential election, she said – from birthright citizenship to college tuition for young undocumented immigrants.

“’It’s a beginning,’ she said. ‘It’s a start. There was no political bombasting, name-calling, protesting. …This is what needs to happen.’”

That sentiment was echoed by the speakers as well.  According to a report from Tommie Clark of KTIV:

“As the first state in the nation to hold its caucuses, Iowa sets the tone for the rest of the nation. The subject of immigration reform brought together Iowans on the front lines of immigration issues to convene with presidential candidates in an effort to find constructive, common ground.

“’It’s an attempt to bring people from a wide range of perspectives and viewpoints together in productive conversation about one of the most pressing issues the United States and the communities face and that is immigration,’ said Professor of Political Science at Buena Vista University, Bradley Best…

“’I’m here because we think immigration reform is one of the top priority issues impacting Latinos. We’re very concerned about the way this issue is being discussed, especially in the Republican primary,’ said National Executive Director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, Brent Wilkes…

“All presidential candidates were invited to attend the conversation dedicated to immigration, but only former governor of Maryland, Martin O’Malley, and former governor of Rhode Island, Lincoln Chafee, attended the event.

‘Rather than looking at immigration reform as some sort of check the box issue for this constituency group over here or over there, I believe we need to talk about this as a national economic comparative,’ said presidential hopeful, Marin O’Malley.

“Chafee expanded his discussion to issues regarding immigrants beyond the Americas.

‘From all over the world, of course Hispanics, but also Southeast Asians, West Africans from Liberia and Ghana, refugees from war torn countries of Eritrea and Syria– and so we just have to deal with these issues, I think as public servants,’ said presidential hopeful Lincoln Chafee.

“The nonpartisan event drew in hundreds of Iowans. Organizers of the event say they hope it will make attendees more aware of immigration reform here in Iowa.”

As forum host Munson explained in a column entitled, “Immigration talk stays civil”:

“The #UniteIowa on Immigration forum Saturday brought together 400 or so Iowans around a topic that tends to flare up with the slightest spark — especially with all the rhetorical gasoline poured on it by this summer’s presidential campaign. Yet we were able to create a temporary bubble of civility where it seemed OK to disagree.

“We spent more than 90 minutes on stage with a panel discussion and Q&As with two candidates — Democrats Martin O’Malley and Lincoln Chafee — and managed to avoid the pitfalls. There was no booing. Nobody was shouted down…

“One of the things I loved was how the panel of six Iowans brought to bear all their different experiences, expertise and political views – and they played off each other in compelling, revealing ways.

“Sandra Sanchez of Des Moines, a naturalized citizen from Mexico and director of the Iowa Immigrants Voice Program, was persistent in challenging some of the status-quo points on immigration – including with the candidates themselves.

“One of her final messages was to step back from the snapshot of immigration within our borders and ask her fellow Iowans to look at how America’s ‘economic and military policies produced displacement’ in other nations…

“The forum’s final plea came from the Rev. Chuck Valenti-Hein, senior pastor at Lakeside Presbyterian Church in Storm Lake. As the immigration debate churns on, he said, we need to find a way to ‘weed out the threat of fear in the conversation.’ People may vote based on fear, he said, but that may not be the most productive place to start a dialogue.

“Leave it to a preacher to strike a philosophical grace note at the end of a complicated, heartfelt discussion.

“I’m grateful to more people than I can begin to list here. Let’s keep talking. Saturday made me proud yet again to be Iowan.”

Iowa’s Voice is a project of America’s Voice.

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