Incident last year spurred creation of Clackamas Coalition for Justice

In late May, two Latino men were beaten, kicked and had boulders thrown at them by a group of men in Oregon City.

According to police, the attackers were chanting, 'go back to Mexico' after the two victims allegedly spoke with two girls who were friends with the attackers.

In response to the incident, Reverend Dana Worsnop of Atkinson Memorial Church and other local faith leaders formed the Clackamas Coalition for Justice. On Sunday the group held its first event, a community conversation on immigration.

'We see that this is a really huge and contentious issue and people need a place to take a first step, to dialogue,' said one of the moderators, Amy Dudley, of the Rural Organizing Project and the Northwest Workers Justice Project.

'What I find is that people with good hearts are becoming aware of this issue … but they don't feel like they know enough to speak out,' said Michael Dale, also of the NWJP and the leader of the conversation. 'What that leaves us with is some sense of feeling conflicted or bothered by some aspects of the immigration issue … What that has led to is people shouting across the picket lines and no real reason.'

Dale posed questions or stereotypical statements to the audience of about 40, listened to their response and offered statistics and explanations to flesh out the issues.

The first issue he posed was about illegal immigrants using social services and draining money from taxpayers. The audience was quiet, finally asking, 'Do they?'

'Immigrants do contribute taxes to the economy - immigrants contribute $66 million in property taxes, income taxes,' to the state he said. 'They're not entitled to social security, so their contribution is basically a subsidy.

'The best estimates we have is approximately about 70 percent of the folks that are undocumented are actually on the books as paying taxes.'

Members of the audience became more proactive then, bringing up the disparity between immigration from Mexico and from elsewhere.

'If you're from Canada and you want to come here you can do it - it used to be nine months [to get a visa], but now it's about two years because of the backlog - if you're from Mexico, it's eight years,' said Lucinda Hites-Clabaugh, of Forest Grove.

The audience then contested the notion that it's strictly a race issue, saying issues of class are more apparent.

'There's class issues - [immigrants] who've been there for generations don't like the newcomers because they don't have any money - they're worried about crime,' one participant said.

'I think it's pretty clear that one of the issues with jobs is … corporations make more money by sending them overseas,' said another participant. 'I think that's far more an issue than low-wage jobs being taken by immigrants.'

By the end the conversation had turned to the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Central American Free Trade Agreement. Jesse Luna explained that NAFTA required Mexico to buy American corn, running out local farmers.

'Mexican farmers were subsistence farmers, they made food to sell. But under NAFTA they are forced to buy American corn, so now they can eat their corn, but they can't sell it,' he said. 'When we talk about those immigrants coming, we better look at what we did to make this happen.'

And the idea that open borders might attract terrorism was quickly silenced. Only one suspected terrorist has been caught crossing the border, Dale said, and he was crossing in from Canada.

'Terrorism and immigration are an excuse to do these things - Real ID, license issues, [the suspension of] habeas corpus, it's easy to sell a blue-collared guy 'it's the immigrants,' but if 9/11 had never happened, if the immigration issue had never happened, they'd have found another way of doing it,' Greg Seghers said.

Worsnop said her faith had led her to an understanding of the issue from a perspective of compassion, and she wanted to try to spread that.

'This conversation felt very important,' she said. 'Part of our mission is to enhance the public understanding … so that we're not speaking out of fear, but out of more clarity. We have to operate not from fear but out of love and compassion.'

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