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John Keller, executive director and supervising attorney of the Immigration Law Center of Minnesota, addresses an audience Wednesday during an immigration-themed community picnic at Miller Park in Willmar. Community leaders were on hand to hear ideas from local residents on immigration reform. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

Fellowship meets activism for immigration reform

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news Willmar, 56201
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

WILLMAR -- Under the shelter at Miller Park, the conversation was lively Wednesday as the Willmar Area Comprehensive Immigration Reform coalition hosted a community picnic.

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People loaded up paper plates with pot-luck hot dogs, chips, baked beans and fresh fruit and sat visiting with each other at the picnic tables.

The atmosphere was festive but the gathering also had a more serious purpose: to talk about immigration reform and galvanize the 60-some people at the picnic to take action.

"Go home. Write a letter. Make phone calls," urged the Rev. Naomi Mahler as she handed out fliers.

The grassroots coalition has been working since the beginning of the year to mobilize community support on behalf of federal immigration reform.

Wednesday's picnic was the group's latest effort to bring people together, encourage discussion and provide some community education on immigration issues.

"Immigration is very complex," acknowledged guest speaker John Keller, the executive director and supervising attorney of the nonprofit Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota.

There's also tremendous pressure on elected officials to clamp down on undocumented immigrants, he said.

Current laws, however, create an immigration system that's cumbersome, difficult to enforce and fails to recognize the realities of immigrant families and U.S. workforce needs, Keller said.

Family petitions, the most common way for immigrants to arrive legally in Minnesota, can take anywhere from one to 25 years, he said. It can take five to eight years for someone to obtain a green card that gives them legal status as a permanent resident.

"We have to be honest and real that enforcement has to work," Keller said.

But in order to be effective, immigration reform also needs to help families stay together and provide immigrants with a path to citizenship, he said. "It is unacceptable to tell anybody they have to wait 25 years."

John Guetterman, who is working with Church World United to mobilize support in Minnesota for immigration reform at the federal level, said he's a second-generation American with two grandfathers who immigrated, one from Germany and the other from Sweden.

If his grandfather from Sweden were to immigrate today, current U.S. laws would not allow him to enter the country, said Guetterman, the other guest speaker at the event.

Guetterman pleaded for compassion in reforming the laws. "It's not an absolutist hammer that we just hammer down. That won't fix anything," he said.

Kandiyohi County Commissioner Harlan Madsen was one of several local elected officials at the picnic. Madsen said he was hoping to gain information and insight about the volatile issue of immigration reform.

"Other than the BP oil spill, I would submit immigration reform is probably the hottest topic in the county right now," he said. "In many people's minds it's either A or B... It is very emotional for people."

He called the picnic a start to a more rational, informed conversation on the topic.

"From my perspective as a citizen and a commissioner, we'd better figure it out," he said. "We're never going to go back to where we were so we'd better figure out how to make the changes."

With a population that's more diverse than many towns its size, Willmar can set an example, Keller said.

"You have the opportunity to define what living in Willmar is like for the next generation of kids," he told the audience.

Carolina Pastene and Erika Obregon said they thought the picnic was a positive experience.

"People were willing to talk and share," Pastene said.

Both women agreed, however, that the discussion can't stop.

"It can't just be a one-time deal," Obregon said. "I think it's the start of something really good that can continue."

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