Gustavo Veliz came to Bend from Mexico as a 6-year-old, but he didn’t know he was living in the country illegally until he was ready to graduate from Summit High School with a 4.0 grade-point average and wanted to apply for a scholarship to Gonzaga University.
Because of his status, he did not apply, and he didn’t go to college.
“It’s been really intense,” Veliz said Tuesday during the Bend Chamber of Commerce’s monthly What’s Brewing event that focused on immigration. “I always just went to school, and I wanted to have a career. Still to this day, I work 60, 70 hours a week helping out my family.”
Veliz, 26, is authorized to live and work in the U.S. through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, one of several immigration policies that President Donald Trump could change.
Three panelists at the Bend chamber event said anti-immigration policies will hurt Central Oregon’s economy because it relies on immigrants for everything from manual labor to business startups. In addition to ordering construction of a wall along the Mexican border and banning travel from seven Middle East and African countries, Trump is considering new requirements for H-1B visas, which are supposed to be reserved for people with special skills doing jobs that couldn’t otherwise be filled.
“These are not business-friendly moves being made right now,” said Preston Callicott, one of the panelists and CEO of Five Talent software.
H-1B workers are not common in the local tech sector, Callicott said, but he thinks anti-immigration policies in general will hurt startups across the West.
Many in the audience shared the concerns of panelists Dan Larsson, a Bend immigration lawyer, and Brad Porterfield, executive director of the Latino Community Association. The audience applauded Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel, also in the audience, when he said Oregon law prevents local police and sheriff’s offices from enforcing federal immigration laws and detaining people solely for their immigration status.
“We’re not rounding up immigrants at the behest of the federal government,” Hummel said.
He added the Bend Police Department has tried to cultivate a welcoming attitude toward immigrants, who are often victims of theft, sexual assault and domestic violence. When dealing with immigrants in the legal system, Hummel said, “I don’t even want to know your status.”
Jamie Christman, chamber executive vice president, said opposing viewpoints were represented in the audience of the forum, held at Deschutes Brewery Public House on NW Bond Street.
“I don’t believe everybody in this room agreed with everything that was said,” she said afterward.
With the forum underway in the Deschutes pub, protesters gathered across the street, outside the office of U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, to demand he meet with constituents in person on the topic of immigration.
At the chamber forum, Larsson, who emigrated from Sweden, said the question is how the Trump administration will treat all immigrants.
“The immediate problem we have is really an attack on the country as most people have known it for a long time,” he said. “We’re expecting the possibility of mass immigration raids. It’s fearful for people.”
Larsson and Porterfield, of the Latino Community Association, said a significant portion of Central Oregon immigrants are living in the U.S. illegally. They said the U.S. economy encourages people to work illegally.
Contrary to popular belief, Larsson said, a Social Security number is not a legal requirement to work in the United States.
Social Security cards are easy to falsify, Porterfield said. He thinks the U.S. could easily stop illegal immigration by creating a secure form of the card, the document most commonly used to verify a worker’s eligibility.
“You don’t even need a wall,” he said. “There must be higher forces that really don’t want to fix our immigration system.”
Immigrants in the U.S. without legal permission often work for lower wages, and they’re the first to lose their jobs in a downturn, Porterfield said. That labor provided a cushion to the rest of Central Oregon’s workforce during the Great Recession, he said. “Our economy would not have survived nearly as well without them.”
Latinos are not the only immigrants who find jobs or start businesses and start families here, all the while knowing they could be deported, Larsson said. “I’ve run into illegal Swedes, Canadians,” he said.
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