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Nuns stir Charlotteans to call for immigration reform

The Nuns on the Bus rolled into Charlotte Friday night and were already on their way to Greenville, S.C., by noon Saturday. But they didn’t leave before stirring Charlotteans to speak out for immigration reform.

To raise awareness about the importance of how immigrants affect the local economy, and the need for reform, the nuns got off their bus Saturday morning and stopped at Fiesta Jalisco Mexican restaurant on Independence Boulevard. There they held a forum (co-hosted by Action NC) with local business owners and activists.

The eight Catholic nuns (there will be 29 who participate) were traveling on their Immigration Tour, which started Tuesday in New Haven, Conn., and ends June 18 in San Francisco.

Five Charlotteans joined the sisters onstage and about 30 people came to listen and ask questions.

Dan Roselli, the founder of Packard Place, which houses business startups and entrepreneurs uptown, spoke at the forum. He said when politicians ask him and other business owners what they’d like to see happen, most first say, do no harm.

“Right now our current immigration policy is doing economic harm,” Roselli said. “It needs to be fixed.”

The nuns passed out postcards to sign to send to members of Congress, and also told the crowd to call their senators and representatives to tell them they want reform.

‘Where’s the family unity?’

Charlotte immigration attorney Cynthia Aziz said she knows of a Mexican worker who, for 19 years, has followed the law, has worked seasonally for a North Carolina farmer and travels back and forth from Mexico to support his family.

“Where’s the family unity there?” she asked. “That’s a broken piece of our system we need to look at.”

Sister Rose Marie Tresp, a Sister of Mercy in Belmont, called on local Catholics to learn what the faith teaches about immigration. “Many people in our pews haven’t heard it,” she said.

Two people with immigrant backgrounds also spoke.

Zhenia Martinez tearfully talked about how immigrants of all kinds keep her Mexican bakery on Central Avenue in business. Her parents, from Mexico, opened the bakery 16 years ago and she and her husband took over managing it two years ago.

“If immigrants weren’t here, our bakery wouldn’t be here,” she said.

Frank Lleras came to the United States legally from Colombia 15 years ago and now is an asset manager in real estate. He said that even though he was documented, adjusting to life as a foreigner in Charlotte wasn’t easy.

In the forum’s conversation about the economy, Aziz said an elected official recently questioned why she shouldn’t be more concerned about getting jobs for unemployed citizens. As an immigration lawyer, she works frequently with people who employ immigrants.

“I don’t like to hear that Americans don’t like to work, but that’s what employers tell me,” she said.

Lleras agreed and said he rarely gets job applications from nonimmigrants to work on houses. “People say that immigrants come here to take Americans’ jobs,” he said. “They’re coming to do jobs that other people don’t want to do.”

Immigration has been a hot-button issue in the area. Mecklenburg County has a growing Hispanic population, and the county was one of the earliest participants in a program in which the sheriff’s office screens all arrestees for their citizenship status. Those found to be in the country illegally can be referred to federal authorities for deportation.

Jim Pendergraph, who served as Mecklenburg County sheriff for 13 years and is now a county commissioner, was the first to bring the program to the East Coast in 2006. He expressed ire last summer when the Undocubus, which carried several undocumented immigrants, came to Charlotte for the Democratic National Convention.

Aziz said she’d like to see more public dialogue between Charlotteans on opposite sides of the issue to try to better understand one another and move forward.

Roselli said he’d like to see Charlotte business leaders come together on a bipartisan front and confront the state’s politicians. “Business leaders need to come together and say, enough, we elected you and you need to solve these problems.”

Ruebens: 704-358-5294; Twitter: @lruebens
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