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Immigration Concerns Forum, Grow Benzie

Immigration Concerns Forum, Grow Benzie

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

by Sylvia McCullough

On Tuesday evening a crowd of about 150 people attended a panel forum focused on immigration concerns hosted by Concerned Citizens of Benzie County at Grow Benzie, organized by Keria Duvernoy. The panel included moderator Christie Bardenhagen, and panelists Don Smeltzer, Carolina Tabora Cortez, Sheriff Ted Schendel; Marcelo Betti, and Fr. Wayne Dziekan.

When asked if the Trump administrations recent changes around immigration have affected the availability of farm labor, Don Smeltzer, a grower who has managed large apple and cherry farms in Benzie County for over four generations; responded that indeed it has. Migrant families that have come to work for the growers of Benzie County for generations are afraid for fear of being arrested and deported. He explained that the farmers have tried to affect legislation to no avail. Another grower representing the Putney Family of Benzie County, spoke from the audience of the frustration that farmers face when confronting lawmakers in Washington, pleading for a Guest Worker Program to be enacted so that migrants can work here legally and return home safely at the end of the growing season. Washington, he said, seems paralyzed and unwilling to act. “Migrants pick over two million dollars’ worth of fruit and produce in Benzie County alone. If we can’t harvest our crops, no gets to eat. That’s the bottom line.”

According to Carolina Tabora Cortez, a Family Service Specialist at the Bear Lake Migrant and Seasonal Head Start program; the Michigan Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Program in 2015 served 1,227 farmworker children under the age of five enrolled in Michigan Migrant Head Start. In addition, the program aims to help low income families with job training, provides healthcare for farmworkers, provides childcare services, serves nutritious meals, and provides bi-lingual education. She said those undocumented farmworkers who live here, spend their money here and pay taxes while also sending a portion of their wages home to families abroad. According to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy Social Security Administration, undocumented immigrants pay an estimated $11.64 billion in state and local taxes nationwide, and pay $13 billion to Social Security. “These people are not criminals. They are hardworking, contributing members of our society.”

Sherriff Schendel of Benzie County said he had taken an oath to defend the US Constitution, swearing to protect life and property of Benzie County citizens. He conceded that immigration is a hot topic that people with differing opinions clash around. He asked that we inform ourselves on the issues. He said the Sheriff’s Department assists the federal government, but are not going around knocking on doors looking for undocumented migrants. But if someone is picked up for committing a crime, such as speeding or DUI, and they are found to be undocumented, they do notify Homeland Security. He assured the audience they are not cooperating with ICE near schools, that he has an open-door policy where anyone is welcome to stop by and chat.

Attorney Marcelo Betti, an attorney for the West Michigan branch of Justice for Our Neighbors (JFON); was asked what the civil rights of undocumented workers are. He spoke of three categories of immigrants, none of whom can vote. Those who have green card status and live and work here, those here on legal visas, and those who cross the border and are illegal. ICE agents have a great deal of authority to make arrests and deport those deemed here illegally. Previously, undocumented immigrants picked up within 100 miles of the border and here less than 14 days, could be deported without due process immediately. Now, anyone here for two years or less who is picked up anywhere in the US, can be deported within 48 hours without due process. Betti explained that while being undocumented is not a crime, someone who has crossed the border without legal status has a very slim chance of ever becoming a United States Citizen. Green cards (permanent residency in the United States) is limited these days to persons who qualify under very specific criteria, often based on or affected by country of origin, education, and ties to family already here.

Father Wayne Dziekan, a Catholic Priest of the Diocese of Gaylord and Director of the Secretariat for Justice and Peace for the Diocese and

President of the Justice and Peace Advocacy Center (JPAC) here in Traverse City, stressed the need to become educated on the issue of immigration. Instead of conducting a broad Google search, rather seek out four reliable sources that he recommends: 1) Michigan Immigration Rights Center (MERC) , 2) Immigrant Legal Resources Center, which puts out a highly recommended brochure, “Searching for Sanctuary,” and updates concerning the Trump Executive Actions effecting immigration, 3) USCIS or United States Citizenship and Immigration Services website for “Early American Immigration Policies,” on the website at and 4) Justice for Immigrants website at, put up by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Read in “Strangers No More,” and “Comprehensive Immigration Reform.”

Father Wayne strongly advised organizing on the community level by advocating for comprehensive immigration reform, for driver’s Licenses for All residents of Michigan, and against the Trump Executive Actions on Immigration, against honoring ICE Holds and ICE Advisories which are voluntary actions on the part of local law enforcement and not laws.

Father Wayne further urged joining JPAC’s Rapid Response Team network, joining JFON which is engaged in advocacy and assisting primarily persons who have a path to establish or maintain legal status in the US through low-cost professional legal services. Finally, he stressed that the undocumented seldom are given due process once arrested. Those who do receive legal counsel are rare indeed. Father Wayne’s rebuttals to those in the audience who objected to the presence of the undocumented were well argued, reasoned, and powerful, and strongly supported by the majority of those in attendance.

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