October 6, 2008

Conference Focuses on Immigrant Children

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Academics, social workers and agency members from all over the state flocked to the University this past weekend to attend the Family Life and Development Center’s conference, “The Immigrant Child: Past, Present and Future.
“FLDC works with young people and families throughout the state and throughout the world,” said Patty Thayer, administrative assistant to the director at FLDC. “This just fits in with our mission to help people and learn about people who are the most vulnerable population.”
The bulk of the conference occurred on Saturday, as various forums were held throughout the day in Statler Hall. On Friday night, there was a showing of The Namesake, a 2006 film about a first generation immigrant learning about his Indian heritage. The film was followed by a small panel discussion featuring several Cornell professors who are familiar with immigrant experiences, as teachers and in their personal lives.
“This movie focuses on one family that is particularly privileged,” said Prof. Maria Cristina Garcia, history, a first generation American and daughter of Cuban immigrants. “That does not mean it’s easy.”
Saturday’s discussions included topics such as health-care for immigrants, bilingualism and the problem of undocumented workers in the United States. Each panel discussion featured a historian who provided historical context to the topic, as well as a respondent, who was usually a professional in the given field.
The multi-faceted features of the conference related to the multidimensional nature of immigration.
“The conference is unique because it’s so interdisciplinary,” said Prof. Emeritus Joan Brumberg, history. “It includes people who are in the trenches working with immigrant children.”
According to FLDC director John Eckenrode, the event is a culmination of a growing issue for the center, which is associated with the center, which is associated with the College of Human Ecology.
“We do a lot of work in the state around youth development, so we’ve increasingly become aware that there is a changing face … in Upstate New York,” said Eckenrode. “Immigrant children are one of the largest growing groups of children in New York.”
According to Eckenrode’s opening remarks on Saturday, over 40 educational institutions were represented at the conference, as well as more than 20 organizations serving immigrant children and families.
“I pretty much came with an open mind, and am just interested in learning what they put together,” said Mary Jo Wood, an Ithaca City School worker who teaches English for Speakers of Other Languages students wishing to learn English and obtain an American education. “My sense is that here in Ithaca, [immigrant children] benefit a great deal from a really nice, cohesive system.”
At lunch in the Statler Ballroom, conference diners were treated to an ethnic buffet. At the front of the room, a small panel discussion group took place amongst immigrant Cornell students. The students discussed their experiences with language and assimilating into American culture, as well as their parent’s experiences and responses to America.
“[The panel discussion] puts a face to immigration,” said Tomas Castellanos ’10, a participant in the discussion. “People don’t usually put the issue of immigration with actual stories.”
Outside of the Statler, information about various interest groups working for rights for immigrants was distributed.
“It’s a civil offense to not be documented, but they’re treating it like a felony,” said Gonzalo Martinez de Vedia, president of the Cornell Farmworkers Initiative.
De Vedia noted the myriad issues facing undocumented immigrant children, citing his experiences working in a migrant school this past summer. About half of the registered children came to school on a given day, since many parents feared their children would get picked up by federal government agents often parked threateningly outside of school grounds.
“I’ve seen a different face in the way that immigrants can be treated in this country, and I think a lot of it has to do with education,” said de Vedia.
The event culminated in a reception in Mann Library, where photojournalist Spencer Tulis unveiled his photography exhibit for the library, “The Immigrant Child.” The Paw Family Singers, a collective of Burmese refugees living in Ithaca, sang several songs about their refugee experience and new American life.
The positive response from attendees leaves hope that change may be on the horizon in the form of immigration legislative reform. This could include increased support for the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM) Act, which allows illegal immigrant children to gain citizen status if they attend college or have two years of military service.
Though the FLDC will continue to fight for immigration reform and education, the group was ambiguous in speaking about the future of the conference.
“We might do another conference, we haven’t decided yet,” said Eckenrode. “I think it was very successful. Cornell is a logical place for this, given our land grant mission.”