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Local coalition joins dialogue on immigration reform

The Rev. Naomi Mahler, left, reviews a draft of a letter being sent to Seventh District Rep. Collin Peterson by the newly formed Willmar Area Comprehensive Immigration Reform coalition. Also pictured is Meredith Webb, an organizer with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 789 in St. Paul. Tribune photo by Anne Polta

WILLMAR -- The letter being sent to U.S. Rep Collin Peterson comes right to the point: The immigration system has broken down, and a local grassroots coalition wants to start a public dialogue on how to reform immigration laws to make them not only more effective but more humane.

Over the next two weeks, the Willmar Area Comprehensive Immigration Reform group hopes to collect dozens of signatures to bolster the group's request for a meeting this month with the 7th District congressman. On a snowy evening last week, about 20 coalition volunteers gathered to eat a supper of chili and plan their strategy for helping shape the immigration reform debate and educating the public.

The group, still relatively new, has met only three times since its initial meeting in December. It has neither funding nor a budget. But already it's growing and gathering momentum.

"Every time we're getting bigger," said Meredith Webb, an organizer with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 789 in St. Paul.

An immigration reform bill is expected to be introduced in the U.S. Senate before the end of February.

It's not clear how much progress will be made this year on addressing the volatile issue of immigration reform.

"We think our main struggle is just to get a bill out there to talk about," Webb said.

What members of the Willmar-area coalition want to see, however, is legislation that keeps families together, provides a path to citizenship to the broadest group possible, and contains humane enforcement provisions.

Through personal stories and community discussion, they hope to mobilize enough support to begin influencing the agenda for comprehensive immigration reform, especially among Minnesota's congressional delegation.

"So many people at the local level and state level are frustrated that Congress at the national level is ignoring the problem," said Willmar Mayor Les Heitke.

The grassroots effort in Willmar is one of several being launched around the state. In the Twin Cities, an immigration reform coalition has a meeting scheduled with Sen. Al Franken next week. A similar meeting has been requested with Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

The Willmar group organized itself quickly and is several steps ahead of the coalition-building in other Minnesota cities, said Doug Mork of the UFCW office in St. Paul, which has been providing logistical support.

"This needs to happen in other cities too," he said.

At times, last week's meeting took on the flavor of a well-rehearsed campaign. Final draft of the letter to Peterson? Check. Postcards for mass distribution? Check.

The group contains a cross-section of local pastors, human services professionals and immigrants.

For many of them, immigration reform is personal.

"This is my passion," said Maria Diaz, who arrived in the U.S. from Mexico and is now a citizen.

One woman in the group lost a son who died during the border crossing.

To highlight the role of immigration in U.S. history and spark community discussion, the Willmar coalition has begun planning a film series to be hosted next month. The Rev. Naomi Mahler hopes the series, the details of which will be announced later, will help educate the public about the impact of immigration on families and communities.

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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