Secret fears find voices in Saturday meeting at Centro Cultural

by: COURTESY PHOTO - Jose Jaime listens to city leaders discuss avenues to a better life for Cornelius Latinos during a town meeting Saturday.

The questions were blunt.

“If a police officer finds me and I don’t have my papers, are you going to deport me?”

“How can I report something if I don’t want to get involved further because I am afraid of suffering the backlash?”

“Are there any programs to keep our youth out of trouble?”

More than 50 Latinos packed into Centro Cultural Saturday morning to talk with Cornelius Mayor Jef Dalin, Interim Police Chief Ken Summers and other city officials. This was the second city-organized meeting in the past year between Latinos and local government leaders in Cornelius, where more than 50 percent of the population is Latino.

“If anyone has other suggestions on ways we can reach out to the Latino community — something we struggle with — let us know," Dalin said.

“We will fail as a police department if we don’t communicate," Summers said.

One big concern was how to get a driver license without documentation. A 2008 law requires proof of citizenship or of lawful presence in the country.

While Cornelius can't override state law, Dalin said he has talked to state representatives about the issue and he encouraged people to call or write to their representatives. Summers and Centro Cultural Director Jose Rivera promised to organize a committee to address license and identification issues.

'Don't want to, and can't'

Summers’ response to legal citizenship documentation was met with applause. “The Cornelius Police Department does not enforce immigration laws,” he said. “Not only is that not our mission but we don’t have the legal authority. We don’t want to and we can’t.”

As for some of the other concerns, city leaders stressed communication and citizen involvement were key to reducing crime and keeping the city’s young people out of trouble.

“The police department has to reflect the community and we cannot do that if we aren’t together,” Summers said.

Summers and Cornelius officer Joe Nofsinger stressed the importance of reporting crimes or suspicion of crimes because reports create patterns police can track. Anonymous calls are accepted if the caller is worried about the consequences of reporting a crime.

Nofsinger also encouraged citizens who are here legally and can pass a background check to participate in the police department's Citizens Academy, which educates the public on police activities and responsibilities.

The department is also organizing a Teen Citizens Academy through Centro Cultural this spring and summer, with programs in both English and Spanish for youth ages 10 to 15.

Academy sessions will explore police roles, crime investigation and firearm scenarios, and may include ridealongs and tours of the Washington County Jail or Juvenile Detention Center.

“We came to America looking for a better life," said Jose Jaime of the Washington County corrections department, "and that will be achieved with better relationships with the city and community and with participation.”

“Be involved in your community,” Summers told the group. “We’ll get over the language barrier if there is one."

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