The Obama administration’s record 400,000 deportations in 2010 and last year were condemned by audience members. They said the deportations have caused devastating family separations.
“President Obama doesn’t know about all the injustices that have been committed,” Amherst resident Elena Mulholland told Kaptur. “We have no voice. You are our voice.”
Kaptur asked to take part in the forum as part of an effort to get to know Latinos in Lorain. Kaptur, who is running against Toledo Republican Samuel “Joe the Plumber” Wurzelbacher, will represent Lorain in January as part of congressional redistricting if re-elected in November. Kaptur, who took office in 1983 and is the longest-serving woman in the House of Representatives, is a heavy favorite.
Kaptur, who said she supports a guest worker program and a gradual path to citizenship for immigrants here illegally, was sympathetic. She called the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement “continental sacrilege” that has caused an economic race to the bottom as companies seek sweatshop labor in Mexico.
NAFTA caused the loss of nearly 683,000 American jobs through 2010 — including nearly 35,000 in Ohio — according to a report last year by the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank which analyzed data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Kaptur said a 2008 trip to Monterrey, Mexico, in response to a Mexican union leader’s murder allowed her to see how NAFTA exacerbated illegal immigration. She said Mexican farmers couldn’t compete with U.S. taxpayer-subsidized American agricultural corporations after pre-NAFTA tariffs were dropped. The economic chaos forced Mexicans — who comprise about 6.1 million of the 11.2 million illegal immigrants in the U.S., according to the Pew Hispanic Center — to seek jobs in the U.S.
“All of these people can’t feed themselves. What are they supposed to do?” said Kaptur, who has sponsored a NAFTA reform bill that calls for rectifying job and trade inequities. “They are a ready labor force willing to do anything to work. Unfortunately, anything can be pretty ugly.”
Kaptur said the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE, should focus on businesses that exploit the cheap labor illegal immigrants provide, rather than on deporting immigrants who don’t have criminal records.
“I need your help to get a legal flow of workers so that nobody’s exploited,” she said.
About 55 percent of immigrants deported in the last fiscal year had been convicted of felonies or misdemeanors, according to ICE. Kaptur promised to arrange a meeting between local Latino leaders and ICE officials.
The forum was at El Centro de Servicios Sociales, a Latino community center at 2800 Pearl Ave. Kaptur was greeted by about 100 people, many of them children, who marched to the center from the nearby Sacred Heart Chapel carrying signs calling for reform. Among the marchers was 17-year-old Jake Ramos of Lorain.
Ramos, who said he was born in the U.S., said he was motivated to march by the deportation of a close friend’s relatives.
“It’s very sad to see that happen,” Ramos said. “People are getting taken away from their families.”
Ramos said he supports a June directive by Obama that temporarily allows up to 800,000 young illegal immigrants to work and go to school without fear of deportation.
In 2010, Kaptur voted against the DREAM Act, which would’ve allowed a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants in good legal standing who came to the U.S. before their 16th birthday. However, she said on Wednesday that she co-sponsored a new version of the bill last year.
Kaptur also condemned Wurzelbacher’s Aug. 10 comments in Prescott, Ariz., that illegal immigrants crossing the border should be shot.
“It’s not because I’m bloodthirsty. It’s not because I want to kill illegal immigrants,” said Wurzelbacher, whose comments were recorded by a local television station. “It’s because I want my border secure.”
Wurzelbacher didn’t return a call Wednesday night.