Immigrant relations initiative kicks off in Glenwood
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado – Providing a forum for an open dialogue is a primary goal of a new initiative aimed at fostering better relations with immigrants in Colorado communities.
And a small band of anti-illegal immigration protesters was willing to oblige at a Monday evening press conference in Glenwood Springs, called to launch the new statewide “Welcoming Colorado” project, sponsored in part by local Rotary clubs and the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition (CIRC).
“This initiative seeks to strengthen our communities by breaking down barriers,” Jim Coombs, president of Club Rotario in Glenwood Springs, said at the event held at Centennial Park in downtown Glenwood.
“We think that, by creating a community dialogue, it will help people to learn about each other … and raise awareness about the contributions immigrants make to our state,” he said.
The lightly attended gathering included a handful of protesters carrying signs discouraging the abetting and integration of “illegal” immigrants, led by anti-immigration activist and frequent letter-writer Bruno Kirchenwitz of Silt.
He said a distinction needs to be made between those immigrants who are here legally and those who aren’t.
“We have rampant unemployment, and you’re sheltering illegal immigrants who are taking jobs from American workers,” Kirchenwitz, who carried a sign reading “Illegals are a Cancer,” said when the forum was opened up to questions and comments.
“I believe in dialogue,” he said in a brief interview afterwards. “If we’re talking about legals, I’d join up [with the initiative] in a heartbeat. But they don’t make that distinction. We want to have a counterpoint expressed.”
Welcoming Colorado is not tied to any piece of legislation on immigration reform, Coombs said. Rather, it seeks to “transform the public dialogue on immigration into one of respect and dignity through relationship building, community engagement and strategic use of the media,” according to an overview of the project circulated at Monday’s press conference.
Instead, the debate has been taken over by “hateful rhetoric” found on talk radio shows, primetime television programs and Internet blogs, Coombs said.
The Glenwood event launched a week-long series of events around the state, including press conferences, community discussions, film screenings and an advertising campaign. Another press conference took place in Grand Junction on Tuesday, with events in Boulder and Aurora on Thursday, including a meeting with Congressman Jared Polis.
“Being an illegal immigrant is not a crime, it’s a circumstance,” said Alexandra Yajko of Glenwood Springs, who was one of the featured speakers Monday. “We need to remain open-minded to the plight of many immigrants.”
A Polish immigrant herself, arriving in the United States as a teenager, she and her family entered the country legally as political refugees. It’s a circumstance many Latin American immigrants find themselves in today, although political asylum is harder to come by, she said.
“When I came to the United States, I really tried hard to shed any orientation with my home country,” Yajko said. “Integrating was my goal.”
But she said she felt like she lost herself along the way.
“It’s not easy to reject your roots,” she said of immigrants today who cling to the cultural traditions of their home countries. “What I would like to see is for people to be authentic about their roots, and not step away from them. We are who we are.”
Another attendee, Estefania Carter of Glenwood Springs, agreed that people should not be judged based on their immigration status.
“We’re all sons and daughters of God, whether we’re legal or illegal,” she said.
Chuck Bawden, manager of the Glenwood Springs Ramada Inn and an active Rotarian with the Glenwood Sunrise Club, also spoke at Monday’s event. As a hotel manager for more than 20 years, he said he has worked with immigrants from many different countries around the world.
“I’ve seen the discussion turn to one of ridicule and hatred,” he said. “Immigrants are here for a variety of reasons, but most just want to raise their families, earn a decent wage and be part of the community.
“This country has always been two-faced. We welcome immigrants, but when they get here we step on their toes,” Bawden said.
Added Coombs, “It helps to understand our differences. And the difference in how we treat people can determine whether they become part of the community, or whether they become dysfunctional, disenfranchised, or even a ‘cancer,'” he said, referring to Kirchenwitz’s sign.
Coombs said future events organized through the ongoing Welcoming Colorado initiative, both locally and around the state, will include workshops, panel discussions, book and film discussions and other means of fostering dialogue on the issue.