Tag Archives: Immigration

Saying TTFN to Immigration Series


Dr. Laurie Hamen, MMU president, speaks Nov. 17, 2016 at final event of Fall Faculty Series in Chapel of Mercy.

The topic, of course, goes on. This past week was the end of the 2016 Fall Faculty Series on immigration at Mount Mercy University.

image-of-logo-colorThe series, called “Building Walls, Building Bridge: The U.S. as an Immigrant Nation” was well worth doing, I think. It brought out lots of information on an important topic.

And it was popular. As I noted Thursday night at the final event, my rough count is that, all told, more than 1,000 attendees were at series events this fall.

That’s not “unique” people—if a person came to two events, she or he was counted twice—but still, that’s a lot of people going to faculty talks and other events.

The penultimate event was the Barbara A. Knapp Business Series, given by Rue Patel, plant manager of General Mills. It was interesting to me, partly because I have an indirect personal connection—a family member who works at that plant.


Rue Patel speaks Nov. 16 at MMU.

Patel spoke of moving to the United States at age 12 in the late 1970s. In school, sometimes classmates would ask ridiculous questions, such as “did you ride an elephant to school today?” Children can often be cruel, and one concern that we have now is they often echo the cruelty of their parents and are influenced by the larger culture.

Well, anyway, the Sisters of Mercy University Center was packed for the event. Thanks, business, for making the business lecture dovetail so well with the immigration series.

Thursday’s program included a speech by Laurie Hamen, Mount Mercy president. She talked of how important events like this series are to giving students a chance to become engaged in important ideas. As I said at the event, I appreciate that President Hamen has been so supportive of the idea of a series all along.

Two students gave readings, I presented some thoughts on the series and then we had a panel discussion from several of the faculty speakers.

All in all, it was an interesting event. It was the first time I tried to summarize the content of the series this way, and it wasn’t a bad idea, although I think last year’s poetry reading session was good, too.

Anyway, while the immigration issue is particularly important now, I am glad that the series is over. I’ll miss it, but this may be the final one that I coordinate, at least for a while. I’ve asked if another faculty member could step forward, and I think someone very capable is seriously thinking of the idea.

Which I think would be a healthy thing—someone new can revisit the way the series is done and maybe inject the idea with new life.

So, so long, for now, Fall Faculty Series. But I think you have a bright future.

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The Bottom Line? It’s Complicated, but Good


Dr. Amyan Amer, associate professor of economics at Mount Mercy University, speaking Nov. 15 on the economics of immigration.

So, is immigration a net plus or minus for our economy?

It depends on who you ask and what you’re asking about. There is no single, simple answer.

“It’s complicated,” said Dr. Ayman Amer, associate professor of economics, who spoke Nov. 15, 2016 as part of the Mount Mercy University series on immigration. “You can’t just say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ ‘Yes’ or ‘no’ to what?”

Still, after an extensive analysis of the many winners and losers, both in the U.S.A. and other countries, I think Ayman reached a conclusion about this country.

“GDP is my proof,” he said near the end of the presentation. “Two hundred years of GDP growth.” The U.S.A. has become the richest nation in the world partly due to the dreams, desires, energies and aspirations of her immigrant peoples.


Two faces in the audience.

And, Ayman said, it makes a big difference where you start and stop your analysis. For example, if you are talking about immigrants themselves, their net economic impact seems to be either a wash or slightly positive. There are many who benefit and many who do not—for example, because of how taxes work and what the different levels of government pay for, the immigration population is a net plus to the federal government, but a drag on the state and local fiscal picture.

That’s the tax question, not net economic impact. As Ayman said, most analysis seem to indicate that immigrants themselves don’t have a huge economic impact one way or another—but that’s ignoring an important reality.

image-of-logo-colorYou also need to consider the next generation. The children of immigrants are parented by driven, motivated people who came across the world to make a new home and a better life—for their children. Those children tend to inherit their parent’s drive to work hard and succeed—and that first American generation is more educated than their parents or the population as whole, less likely to use social services than their parents or the population as a whole.

If you expand the analysis beyond the immigrants themselves to that first American generation raised by immigrations, it’s much harder to argue that America isn’t much richer due to the “teeming masses” that have been welcomed to these shores.

I felt that Ayman gave a very careful, balanced analysis. But he finished with poetic lines that cre carved in the base of the Statue of Liberty and an image of that statue. It was a fitting way to end. The bottom line may be complicated, but I think it’s still accurate to say that the U.S.A. has greatly benefited, and continues to benefit, from immigration. They don’t come here to take our jobs, they come here to build lives, and that life-building process grows our economy, and our culture.

And that’s to our benefit. As we argue over the right balance in our immigration policies, that’s a key point to keep in mind.


Dr. Amer answers questions–final slide was fitting, showed Statue of Liberty. He noted that immigration is more than an economics question, and is important from an ethical point of view. An immigration from Egypt himself, Dr. Ayman Amer is an example of how this country benefits from immigration.

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A Timely Immigration Reminder from Jesus


Dr. Bryan Cross, assistant professor of philosophy, Mount Mercy University.

Two days after the candidate who trumpeted he would “build a wall” won the American presidential election—to our country’s great shame, in my opinion—Dr. Bryan Cross, assistant professor of philosophy at Mount Mercy University, gave us a timely reminder.

As part of the Fall Faculty Series on immigration, Cross spoke about what the Catholic Church says about the ethics of the immigration issue. It’s no surprise that the church doesn’t exactly line up with Donald Trump.

For one thing, scripture is full of references, from Abraham serving passersby to the parable of the Good Samaritan, of the Christian obligation to treat all humans as having worth—of the “other” being also our neighbor. That “welcome to the stranger,” Cross said, is central to Christianity. He backed that point up with multiple quotations from Catholic saints, popes and scripture.

As it says in the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew:

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?” The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Mexicans included. And Muslims from Syria.

image-of-logo-colorBoth the global and American parts of the Catholic Church are very clear on several points, Cross said. Humans have a right to migrate when necessary for their safety or welfare, and families have a right to stay united. While a nation can control its borders and limit immigration for valid reasons related to the common good of that country, “emigration and immigration should not be impeded.” Especially not out of blind fear or needlessly.

In particular, the church specifically rejects categorical exclusion—the idea of banning all Muslim or all Syrians from the U.S.A. is simply against Catholic teaching. Catholics are instead required to practice hospitality. Welcome to the stranger is “an essential condition” of Christianity, Cross said.

“If you seek absolute security, you will not be able to engage in hospitality,” Cross noted.

Cross was careful to distinguish between patriotism—a healthy love of country that allows for other people to also love their countries—with nationalism, the insistence on promoting one’s own country over all others. A patriot may love her country, but she will aid the stranger. For example, the Good Samaritan was not a Jew, but recognized the need to aid a fellow human, a member of an antagonistic national group (the Jews) who was in need.

And countries, under Catholic teaching, have a particular obligation to not only treat migrants with respect, but to be especially helpful and welcoming to refugees.

Well, the crowd was larger for this presentation than some other recent ones in this fall series. I can’t but think we wanted some words of wisdom in the wake of the harsh new political landscape that is settling over this country. More than 50 people listened patiently to Cross. I wish you could have been there. Most of all, I wish DJT had been watching. It was quite a lot of material to absorb, and I’m afraid I am not doing it justice.

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But the crowd listened attentively. There was a subdued mood, a somberness to the group. Catholic teaching, it seemed to me, on this ethical point was both clear and balanced. And, sadly, our country has chosen a man as president whose campaign promises were often actively in the opposite direction—not welcoming to the stranger, not treating the least among us well at all.

“Build the wall,” he cried. And I couldn’t help but think of Gabriel, who spoke so eloquently in earlier events in our series—a DACA student at MMU who is facing an uncertain future. A gifted artist who has lived almost all of his life in Iowa and who is on the cusp of earning a bachelor’s degree—exactly what would we gain by exporting him to Mexico? Nothing. It would make us poorer as a country.

It’s crushing. It’s a travesty.

If I were to Tweet about Trump’s repeated calls for anti-Christian actions, for his approach to immigration that is directly opposed to central ideas of Christianity, I suppose only one word comes to mind, and it seems inadequate.


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What We Learned About Immigration


Art by Gabriel Acosta. The MMU student displayed many of his works that center on immigration.

Well, that was a quite a day.

Today, Oct. 15, Mount Mercy University held an event called “Our Immigration Stories: Coming to Cedar Rapids & Mount Mercy.” It was a series of presentations that began at 10 a.m. and went until about 4 p.m.

So I’m struggling a little on how to contain my reactions to one blog post. I have something like 6 pages of notes. A lot happened and was said today—my only regret is that I wasn’t quick enough to get everything nailed downs so that the event could be publicized more. We had about 25 people in the audience at the start of the day, and that dwindled to about a dozen by day’s end (it’s wasn’t all the same people, audience members could come and go, so the total number of people who attended any part of the event was more than 25, possibly 50 or so).

Well, live and learn. I’ll have to process what I think are lessons from the day from the point of view of how the series is organized. But logistical issues aside—what a day! Those who were there learned and experienced a lot. I was hoping to have interesting, multiple perspectives from many sources—and that’s what we got.

The day began with a keynote speech by Gabriel Acosta, a senior graphic design major from Monticello, Iowa, who sneaked across the U.S.-Mexico border with his mother when he was 6.

He noted that his father had to try to cross into the U.S. nine times before he made it—luckily, Gabriel and his mother only had to try once. His story of that crossing, and his adjustment to life in Iowa, was full of interesting details: How he was separated from his mother for 30 minutes during the border crossing, and it was the longest half hour of his life. How he planned to just get a job after high school, but a guidance counselor recommended college, and Gabriel contacted several, and first heard from Mount Mercy, which said it didn’t care about his status.

“Whoever called back from MMU said, ‘we’re not the border patrol and we’re not ICE,’” Gabriel said.


Gabriel Acosta speaks at MMU.

He made a point that was echoed throughout the day by others: it’s OK to call someone “undocumented,” but the term “illegal alien” is demeaning. “There is no such thing as an illegal human being,” he said.

From a legal standpoint, a later speaker, attorney Yer Vang, pointed out that crossing the border without a visa is considered a civil infraction under federal law—it’s not a criminal act, so the term “illegal alien” lacks legal correctness as well as political correctness.

Gabriel at one point ruminated on how there are two very conflicting stereotypes of undocumented immigrants: That they steal American’s jobs, and that they are lazy. “What am I going to do, steal your job and then just sit there?” he quipped. As for Gabriel, he noted: “I will be working hard.”

Under DACA, Gabriel is now here legally and has a green card. Bravo, I say—his presence certainly enriches MMU.

Anyway, after Gabriel gave his excellent keynote speak, students from a Latino-Latina literature course taught by Dr. Carol Tyx recited poems, accompanied by pictures. Carol herself also read a poem.

That somehow set the stage for what came next, which I consider the two highlights of the day. First, we heard from four students, who told of their personal immigrant experiences. Gabriel was one, and there was another student who was also from Mexico, plus a Liberian and a Salvadorian.


Student immigrant panel, Mauricio Diaz from Mexico; Philemina Towah from Liberia; Gabriel Acosta from Mexico; and Marlon Flores from El Salvador.

Gabriel gave yet another memorable line during this panel presentation, describing how when he first started school in Iowa: “I was the only burnt piece of rice in the bowl.”

After the student panel spoke, a group of faculty and staff (or spouse of faculty) shared their experiences. I was moderating both talks and asking questions, so I don’t have detailed notes, which is too bad because, as I said, I think these two panels were very important. It’s hard to denigrate immigrants as a faceless, scary “other” when you have eight of them sharing their compelling, personal stories.

Dr. Ayman Amer, for example, talked about how the Cedar Rapids community rallied around its Muslim neighbors to protect them from any backlash in the wake of 9/11.

Amir Hadzic described how, in his first nights in America, he wanted to go for a walk—but the cousin he was staying with lived in a sketchy neighborhood of Queens in New York City, and told him that a walk at 10 p.m. was not a good idea. He ended up the soccer coach at MMU almost by accident—he was in Iowa and saw an ad in the Gazette. He didn’t have a resume or any materials, but had been a professional soccer player in Croatia. The MMU athletic director liked what he saw and hired Amer.

Father Tony Adawu told of a priest in Baltimore, Maryland, who sight unseen invited him to be part of his parish. He didn’t have a work visa and couldn’t earn a salary, but could accept a place to live. Father Tony spoke of how there was tension in the parish when he arrived—but not “go away” tension, more like “who are you?” tension. “Together, we worked it out,” he said.


Faculty-staff panel: Ayman Amer from Egypt; Suresh Basnet from Nepal; Father Tony Adawu from Ghana; and Amir Hadzic of Croatia.

Father Tony spoke of some lower class white parish members, and how they had no choice but to live life “the hard way.” He says he thinks of those people when he hears others talk of “white privilege,” and said it’s dangerous to generalize too much about others. Some white people “struggle big time,” he noted. He echoed Gabriel, and noted he agreed with Gabriel’s point was that it’s always important to try to understand another’s point of view.

Interestingly, all of the faculty-staff panel members had their very initial experiences of the U.S. in New York City, while three of the student panel crossed the U.S.-Mexico border.

In the afternoon, Yer Vang, an immigration attorney, clued us in on the complexity of the U.S. immigration system. She described a system that is complicated, slow and not always logical. She also said that the U.S. already does extensive screening of anybody attempting to claim refugee status—“the screening process is very burdensome and involved multiple agencies,” she noted. To me, it sounded like we already have “extreme vetting.”

In Iowa, she noted, about 5 percent of the state’s population is foreign born. Close to 100,000 are not citizens. In a state that struggles with stagnant population and whose economic growth is limited by that factor, I would think we would be all about welcoming immigrants. We need them, even if we don’t always remember that.


Yer Vang, based in Decorah, is an attorney with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Dubuque.

After Yer, we heard from Paula Land of the Catherine McAuley Center; Monica Vallejo of the Young Parenthood Network; and Kassia Scott of Kirkwood Community College. All noted that many local agencies want volunteers who can work with immigrants—Land in particular talked about tutoring English at the Catherine McAuley Center. That’s something that’s been on my “to do” list for some time. Maybe if I can get someone else to coordinate next year’s fall series it will be time to try that out.

image-of-logo-colorThe day was capped off by Mark Stoffer Hunter of The History Center in Cedar Rapids. He described the patterns of immigrants coming to Cedar Rapids over time, especially the wave of Bohemians after the Civil War, and the early arrival of a Muslim population. Cedar Rapids, he said, was different from many other Iowa cities. While the Czech population did settle in an area that is still called “New Bo,” the city overall was less divided into distinct ethnic or religious neighborhoods. Partly, that’s attributable to the rather open minded attitudes of the Bohemian population that settled in Cedar Rapids—they often opened their social halls to any other group that wanted to use them.

So Russian Jews, Muslims and others became part of the fabric of this city.

Well, that’s just scratching the surface. There was a lot more said and learned today. I am grateful for all the fine speakers who contributed so much to the event today at MMU. More of my photos.

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A Heart Breaker Warms Our Hearts


“I wanted to break your heart.” Cristina Henriquez, author of “The Book of Unkown Americans.”

Cristina Henriquez, the author of “The Book of Unknown Americans,” is up-front about it. She says she was inspired to write the book because, when immigration became a horribly hot political potato several years ago, her mother remarked to her that “no newspaper is going to call your pop about his story.”

And, she thought, as a storyteller, a fiction writer with an MFA from the University of Iowa, she could do something about that—tell a story about people who live lives like her father’s, who immigrated to the U.S. from Panama.

So she wrote “The Book of Unknown Americans,” and sent a copy to her mother.

Who called her up and asked: “Is something wrong with you?”


The book.

I won’t spoil it if you haven’t read it, but the book does not end happily for all of its major characters. And many readers struggle through tears at the end as tragedy strikes.

But, Henriquez says, that means she did the work she wanted to do as a writer. She wanted to write a book that would make people feel the human experience that immigrants have. And, speaking for herself, she says she enjoys the emotional release that many works of fiction provide when the end isn’t sweet.

She says a happy ending wouldn’t have suited this story. And, she said several times during her appearance Oct. 6 at Mount Mercy University: “I wanted to break your heart.”

image-of-logo-colorThe English program at MMU sponsors an annual visiting writer series, and this year, chose a writer who is also part of our Fall Faculty Series: “Building Walls, Building Bridge: The U.S. as an Immigrant Nation.”

I was fortunate enough to attend both her author talk about writing at 3:30 p.m. in Betty Cherry, and her book excerpt reading at 7 p.m. in the Chapel of Mercy. My wife and I required the novel in a class we teach this fall, and we were thus invited to a dinner with the author, too.

Well, it was a pretty fantastic day, so full of interesting conversations, quotes and excellent points about writing that I almost feel at a loss to sum it up. But Cristina advised that she sometimes just writes not to tell the story, but to find the story—putting together one sentence at a time. I’ll try to take that advice and at least cover some highlights of her heart-warming visit to MMU.


Cristina Henriquez speaks in Betty Cherry Heritage Hall at MMU.

So, on with some random impressions and thoughts from the afternoon and evening:

The novel Cristina wrote is narrated by various characters, primarily Alma—a Mexican woman who has just come to the U.S. with her daughter Maribel and husband Arturo—and Mayor, a 16-year-old resident of the apartment complex in Delaware that the family moves to.

The novel is partly a love story between Maribel and Mayor, but Maribel has suffered a brain injury, and while she improves during the year the novel covers, Cristina said she didn’t think Maribel was ready to narrate her own chapter. Instead, she serves as the center of the story, the thing around which all of the other characters and plot revolve.

My wife was with me at the evening reading, and wrote down on my notepad something Cristina said of Maribel that she stated was in an early draft but didn’t make it into the final novel: “Life is a party, and she (Maribel) didn’t realize she had been invited to it.”

Cristina dedicated the book to her father and was inspired by him to write it, although the story it tells is very different from her father’s experience. During her evening reading, it became apparent it was partly personal to her life, too. Of the four excerpts she read, three were narrated by Mayor, whom she described as her favorite character—and the original character of the book, the one who narrates its opening line where the writing of the book began.


Mary Vermillion. At one point during the reading, the author struggled where to find a passage. “It’s on page 251,” Mary said. And she was right. An English Prof with super powers.

I’m paraphrasing here—I don’t have Mary Vermillion’s knowledge of the book, and the family copy my wife and I read is in her office somewhere—but Cristina said one excerpt from Mayor had what she considered the most personal line of the book. Mayor, it turns out, is stuck between cultures, an American boy who isn’t allowed by American culture to be fully American, a member of a Panamanian family who had too few memories from his early life in another country to really be Panamanian. “I wasn’t allowed to claim the thing I felt, and I wasn’t allowed to feel the thing I could claim,” Mayor sort of said (again, paraphrasing from notes without the book in hand.)

It turns out that passage, which sent a “jolt of electricity” through Cristina when she wrote it, described a key part of her life. Growing up the daughter of a Panamanian father, Cristina from an early age frequently visited Panama and even gained Panamanian citizenship. Nonetheless she was really a Delaware girl whose high school peers on the East Coast often derided and teased her for being “foreign” even though she’s as thoroughly American as Joe Sheller or Donald Trump.

Her American cohort teased her for being Panamanian. Her Panamanian cousin told her she was a “gringa.”

I suppose most of us in our teen years struggle with fitting in, with understanding who we are and what our place is in the world. But one reason to recognize that we aren’t past a few hard conversations about race and ethnicity in this country is simply this: In unsubtle ways, too many White Americans instinctively think of White as American.

Hence the unknown Americans.

Well, I don’t mean that the sessions about this sometimes sad novel were themselves heavy or sad. Quite the opposite—the voices that the book is written in are actually pretty bright and conversational, and, as it turned out, that seems to fit the speaking style of the author of the book, too.

It was easy to like Cristina Henriquez. I can tell her novel already won over my wife, because there are several other Henriquez books that suddenly showed up in our bedroom “read” pile—when my wife likes a book, she tends to find and buy other books by the same author, which is usually a pretty good strategy.

And my wife and I were both almost bubbly when telling our daughter of the day’s events after we got home. Cristina’s warm and genuine stories clearly appealed to both of us.

Henriquez had plenty to say about the writing process, too. Her book went through something like 20 revisions over the course of five years. When she wrote it, she didn’t clearly know what would happen in the story, and she says that is the way she does her best writing. If it’s all mapped out before the writing starts, the results tend to be a bit artificial and lifeless, she said.

She urged students to write not to tell stories, but to discover stories. She said it’s like having the courage to jump off a cliff, but the results are worth it.

She also noted that once you create something and release it into the world, it becomes the world’s.

“It’s not mine anymore,” she said of her book. “What happens to it now is beyond me.”

Well, one thing that happened to it is that the book did touch many hearts in Cedar Rapids, which explains why the events today at MMU were so packed. See more of my pictures here. Well done, heart breaker, well done.


Connor, an MMU student journalist, gets a copy of the book signed.

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Music & Previews of Coming Attractions


Bells ring in Chapel of Mercy–two members of MMU Hand Bell Ensemble.

Tonight was a combination event that had all kinds of interesting ingredients, like a fusion restaurant.

This is “Mercy & Mission Week” at Mount Mercy University, and events this week are meant to remind us of and tie us with our heritage as an institution founded by the Sisters of Mercy. And tonight there was a “Poems, Promises, Music & Immigrant Stories” event in the Chapel of Mercy which was both a Mercy Week event and listed as part of our Fall Faculty Series.

It was an interesting show. Music was provided by the MMU Hand Bell Ensemble—which was nice to hear, although it’s too bad I’ve had to give up my participation in that crew. Miss you ringers, you sounded great!

There was also Jonny Lipford, who plays and teaches the music of various wooden native-style flutes. Several of them were two-in-one or three-in-one instruments—meaning flutes with more than one body—which means he harmonized with himself and sounded like a flute group.

The local choir Ingenzi, made up of Africans from various countries performing in their native languages, was pretty amazing—and harmonizing—too. They had some trouble finding the Chapel of Mercy, and thus ended up being the final act, but it was quite a final act.


Members of Ingenzi, above and below.


And Father Tony Adawu, our MMU resident priest, spontaneously became part of the music, singing an African song and showing us a dance that goes with it.


Fr. Tony and audience dance.

I liked the music, but two speakers really stood out to me. Immigrant stories were shared by Gabriel Hernandez Acosta, a senior who is in his final semester, and Dr. Ayman Amer, our economics professor.

Dr. Amer told several compelling anecdotes—how his neighbors in Cedar Rapids acted instinctively to ensure his family was safe in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, how a wealthy business person in New York City—which he always had seen as the least friendly place on Earth—helped him the first day he was in the U.S., and also of his seeing snow for the first time that day.


Dr. Ayman Amer shares a few stories of coming to America from Egypt.

Snow! That story touched me personally. Dr. Amer described it as looking magical that first day in January in New York City. His story took me back to when I was a boy and our family moved from California to Iowa. Snow, if you had only seen it on TV, was indeed a magical and strange thing to actually see falling from the sky for the first time. (We moved in August, so it was a few months before I saw snow—but it still made quite an impression on me.)

Anyway, I think the whole night was most highlighted by Gabriel Hernandez Acosta, who told of his illegal journey to the U.S. as a 6-year-old. His story was well-told. It went well with the art he displayed, and both he and Dr. Amer are scheduled to speak again later as part of our fall series.


Gabriel Hernandez Acosta–speaker and also events staff for tonight’s presentation.

Hernandez Acosta will be a key speaker at the Oct. 15 “Our Immigrant Stories: Coming to Cedar Rapids and Mount Mercy,” a special community day that will feature multiple presentations. He will be a highlight of one of the highlights of our whole series, and hearing him tonight, he’s fully capable of pulling that off.

image-of-logo-colorDr. Amer will speak Nov. 15 on “The Dollars and Sense of It: What Immigration Does to our Economy.” He will also, as part of that presentation, share part of his personal story. And by the preview tonight, he has quite a few personal anecdotes to share.

About 70 people attended the concert tonight—a good turnout. I hope you were there—but if not, come to hear two of tonight’s speakers on Oct. 15 and Nov. 15. And check out all of the other events in our Fall Faculty Series.

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Oh That Crazy Amygdala


Dr. Dennis Dew gave a presentation that helped explain fear of immigrants from a social psychology perspective.

In East Africa, 3.5 million years ago, fear wasn’t the only thing to be afraid of. For our early human ancestors, the world was a harsh, dangerous place, full of all kinds of threats.

So it is not that surprising that our brains evolved with quick, subconscious reactions to stimuli. According to Dr. Dennis Dew, a psychology professor at Mount Mercy University, our almost automatic, hard-wired fears include fear of snakes, spiders and unfamiliar people.

Dr. Dew spoke tonight in the third forum of the Fall Faculty Series, Building Walls, Building Bridges: The U.S. as an Immigrant Nation. His presentation was called “Fear of an Immigration Nation: Prejudice, Stereotyping & Discrimination.”

He traced part of the fear to the ways in which are brains evolved. He also noted that humans have an innate tendency to be “cognitive misers,” and that it’s easier to quickly categorize people rather than think of them as individuals.

I liked the way he began, pointing out examples of fear of immigrants throughout U.S. history. For Benjamin Franklin, 20 years before the revolution, it was Germans who were a threat to the social order of Pennsylvania. Later, John Jay, an author of the “Federalist Papers” that helps push the convention that would write the U.S. Constitution, said that the new country needed “a wall of brass for excluding Catholics.” Well, Mexico is an overwhelmingly Catholic country. Has Donald Trump specified the building material he wishes to use?


Audience member, probably MMU student, poses a question.

Group cohesion has always been important, too, to humans, and that leads us to automatically think of an “in group,” our tribe that we’re comfortable with, and the “out groups” that we fear.

Those are just a few ideas Dr. Dew spoke of. He covered the classical conditioning and guilt by repetition that he wrote about in his Gazette guest column earlier this week.

The media came in for some of the blame, with Dr. Dew noting that there is an “if it bleeds, it leads” tendency in news reports. As an old newspaper editor, let me note that quote was originally descriptive of television news, but I think he had a point.

It all adds up too three ways of thinking that are detrimental to our approach to immigration:

* Stereotyping, which is our cognitive response, our internal picture of a class of people.
* Prejudice, which is our emotional response to the group we don’t like.
* Discrimination, which is our behavioral response.

Well, the situation is not all dire. Dr. Dew noted that while our brains our subconsciously hardwired to react to fear through our amygdala, it’s also true that we’re not strictly controlled by that region. We have higher brain functions and can recognize our pattern responses and whether they are rational.

And, he concluded, there are practical steps we can take. He suggested a few:

1) Mentally emphasize what we share. Enlarge our tribe, think of the “superordinate” group. For example, Dr. Dew said he is a middle aged white male, but in dealing with other faculty who are female and of a different age, he can think of “college professor,” the relevant, more inclusive group that both parties are part of.
2) Increase cooperative contact He noted that contact alone with immigrants may not change attitude—but it makes a difference if there is a positive task involved. It does tend to change ones outlook if one works with Habitat for Humanity with an immigrant to build them a house, for example.
3) Find out as much about each individual as we can. Reach beyond group identity. Once an individual becomes “personalized,” we aren’t so quick to mentally put them in the “in” or “out” group.

Once again, the event was well attended. The room seats about 100, and there were some people sitting at the sides. I don’t think every chair was taken, but I would estimate there were between 90 and 100 people.


Student takes notes during Dr. Dew’s presentation. Note packed room.

It was also a nice mix of faculty, administrators, students and community members. My hope is that this series, like some past ones, will build in popularity.


Dr. Dew makes a point while he looks at screen.

There are a few faces I’m starting to notice who attend each event. That heartens me—the topic at hand has not been in any way exhausted. There is much more to say—indeed, more to say than we’ll get to in the whole series.

So thank you Dr. Dennis Dew. I enjoyed your presentation.

Next week is Mercy Week at MMU, which means a brief break in the faculty forums, but there is a “Poems, Promises and Music of Many Nations” event next Tuesday at 7 p.m. in the Chapel of Mercy—part of both the Fall Faculty Series and Mercy Week.

image-of-logo-colorOn Sept. 29, Dr. Mohammad Chaichian will speak on the logic of border walls, based on his sociological research into a number of such historic barriers.

It’s proving to be a very interesting faculty series, Hope you can make it to some of our events—see www.mtmercy.edu/immigration for more information.

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The Parallels to Today


A few minutes before series starts–Betty Cherry Heritage Hall at Mount Mercy is filling up.

One thing about a history lecture—it can leave you mildly depressed, thinking “we’ve seen it before.”

In the wake of World War I, restrictive immigration rules were put in place in reaction to the Red Scare. A poster from that era proclaims “America for Americans.” The poster was made by the KKK.

Throughout America’s history, this land of immigrants has struggled with fear of the newcomer. In the 19th century, it as the Irish who were destroying the fabric of this country. Late in that century, we feared the “yellow menace” and banned Chinese immigration.

Now, we are worried about Hispanics, especially Mexicans.

It was interesting to hear MMU Assistant Professor of History Allison McNeese briefly cover the story of the U.S. and Iowa from an immigration point of view. She used many period images—quotes from letters, editorial cartoons and photographs.


Allison McNeese shows a World War I Ding Darling cartoon from the Des Moines Register showing fear of the state’s large German population during World War I.

image of logo-color.jpgThe 2016 Fall Faculty Series: Building Walls, Building Bridges: The U.S. as an Immigrant Nation got off to a good start tonight. Approximately 100 people crowded into Betty Cherry Heritage Hall to hear McNeese speak.

Afterwards, there were cookies in the library by a set of posters that display information on U.S. immigration. I suppose my one regret is we didn’t have more people come down to the library to view the posters, but the good news is they will be on display for some time.

If you missed the first event, don’t despair—there’s lots more to come. More of my photos from day 1 here. Check out the whole series at www.mtmercy.edu/immigration.

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I Felt Like the US Is Becoming Honduras

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The 7 million people of Honduras do not live in a poor country—because it is rich in natural resources—but in a country of extensive poverty, said Héctor Efrén Flores.

That poverty has many roots—Central American wars of the 1980s, supported by the United States, are one. Extensive drug cartels funded by drugs sales in the United States is another. An economy warped by the impact of, and money from, illegal immigration to the United States, is a third.

Flores outlined some realities of Honduras in a speech Feb. 23 as part of the Global Issues Series at Mount Mercy University. In his speech, Flores—a lawyer, poet and activist—said Honduras has six families that own most of the country—200 people who basically possess a land of 7 million souls. Lest we be smug, my fellow Norte Americanos, let us note that not only is our middle class imploding, but our politics is increasingly ineffective in a warped, dysfunctional democracy whose government seems to be for sale to the highest billionaire bidders.

“We don’t need your idea of democracy,” Flores said at one point.

Ouch. He is probably right, but I think we need our idea of democracy. In the current election cycle, our dysfunction has grown to the point where one of our two major parties seems torn between a neo-fascist business tycoon clearly not qualified to be mayor of a modest city, let alone president, and a far-right, extreme ideologue legislator haTED by his own peers. The middle, it seems, no longer exists.

Well, we’re not Honduras, yet. But I wish we were comfortably farther from that kind of political corruption rather than edging that way.

Anyway, Flores wasn’t calling for us to take to the streets in the United States, but rather to condemn the corrupt government of Honduras, to stop emphasizing the military in our foreign aid, and to, mostly, leave Honduras alone to find its way.

“If you tell everyone what you learned tonight,” he said, “that would help a lot.”

In our current presidential campaign, it’s become fashionable for Republicans to bash immigrants. Flores says he doesn’t really think immigration is the root of the problem—it’s our insistence on making immigration illegal. If Hondurans could come to the U.S. legally, he says, they wouldn’t have to work in the shadows for substandard pay.

He hinted that the thinks it’s a bit too convenient that the byzantine, ruthless United States immigration regulations force Central American workers to be marginalized and thus easier for American businesses to exploit and underpay.

I don’t know if that’s the whole story. Immigration is such a big issue that it will partly be the focus of a whole series of conversations at Mount Mercy this fall. But I do think Flores was making a valid point.

So, kudos, Dr. Mohammad Chaichian. The Global Issues Series at MMU, which you coordinate, brought an interesting, thought-provoking speaker to Mount Mercy.

Flores, whose speech was translated from Spanish to English by Kate Kedley, a University of Iowa language doctoral student, was introduced by Belkis Suarez, assistant professor of Spanish. Suarez noted that Flores works for Fe y Alegría, an international Jesuit group that promotes education and social justice in many countries. That group was started by a Jesuit priest in the Venezuelan town Suarez came from.

Flores said his work as a political activist is dangerous. He fears for his life “todos los dias.” But he maintains hope for a better future for Honduras, and he says aiming to achieve that better future is worthy of his voice and the risks he takes every day.

Honduras, he said, is the greatest country on Earth, a multicultural land of possibility. Peace and economic development, which would be brought on by true democracy, could help Hondurans realize those possibilities.

If felt myself moved by such optimism in the face of adversity. It made me think of us, the United States. If we, the people, don’t like the current state of our politics, it is up to us to speak out, to make our own future something that is worthy of our voices.

Fe y Alegría, faith and joy: these are not things that are easy to have in times of adversity. But they are more conditions of the heart than rewards from outside us. May we have enough faith in ourselves to work towards a more joyous future—for us, for Honduras, for todo del mundo.


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And for 2016 Our Series Is …

“No one was even looking in our direction, and I felt the way that I often felt in this country-simultaneously conspicuous and invisible, like an oddity whom everyone noticed but chose to ignore.” The Book of Unknown Americans.

I’m pretty excited for the 2016 Fall Faculty Series at Mount Mercy University. The theme was chosen Monday at our faculty meeting from among many ideas submitted by staff and faculty.

Joy Ochs, our faculty chair, was last year’s applause-o-meter, but decided the dignity of her office prevented her from doing that role this year. I, on the other hand, have no dignity that I am aware of, so I stood there, hands to my right, ready to sweep in an arc leftward to measure the applause.

There were a whole menu of ideas presented, but after brief discussion, the faculty settled on these finalists:

  • The Mercy Jubilee Year, declared by Pope Francis.
  • The Status of American Democracy.
  • Immigration to the United States.
  • Assimilation vs Identity Among the People Who Immigrated to the United States.

I’m not sure we exactly articulated the fourth idea that way—it was more like “the immigration and assimilation idea.” We got caught up in the interesting debate over whether to even use the term “melting pot,” which is mostly an analogy that works for white Europeans and not so well for everyone else.

But number 4 was a clear winner, the one that moved my hands most over to the left due to the volume of applause. I’m pretty pleased with that choice. The first idea was timely, and tied a larger Catholic theme to MMU, the second was certainly relevant and no doubt will be discussed in many class, and the third was likely to be a hot topic in this election cycle—but the fourth idea can incorporate many of the suggested themes as forum topics.

For example, the Sisters of Mercy come from Ireland, and one suggested theme on our larger menu of choices was to play off of the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Uprising—to think about Irish immigration and what it means. Two of the suggestions had to do with prominent 19th century prejudices that have not completely disappeared in 21st century America: Anti-Chinese sentiment and anti-Catholic sentiment. Another idea had to do with the roots of the nativist movement in 19th century America. And any or all of these could become event-forum topics in our 2016 series.

Also today, we have Donald Trump’s first commercial, an abysmal video calling for a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. “until we can figure out what’s going on.” One thing going on is a churlish attempt to create a religious test for immigration, something from which true Americans recoil in horror. But then, to be honest, “recoil in horror” is pretty much my default reaction to almost all things related to The Donald.

But, I digress. The Muslim-American experience is something that could be discussed in this year’s series.

We have a good theme for our 2016 series, one that taps into a universal American experience: The question of assimilation vs identity. It applies to all immigrant groups—and most of us are members of or come from various immigrant groups—as well as to Native Americans, who live in a country with an alien-dominated culture. No doubt all those good White Americans occupying a federal wildlife preserve in Oregon just want to return the West to its rightful, indigenous owners, right?

Sorry, another digression. I’m back on topic again.

Book cover

I’m about 2/3 of the way through this book. It’s a good read.

What the faculty selected is also a good theme because Christina Henríquez, the author of  “The Book of Unknown Americans,” is speaking this fall at MMU—so we already have an event set that can resonate well with the new fall series.

As a reminder, this is the third such series MMU has hosted. In 2014, we had a big conversation about the far-reaching cultural effects of World War I: “A Century of Glory and Shame: Mount Mercy Reflects on How WWI Made Today.” In 2015, we decided to try a Fall Faculty Series again, this time the theme was: “Stories We Tell: Legacies of the Vietnam War.”

Both proved very popular, drawing faculty, staff, students and community members to multiple events. The two previous series also touched on anniversaries: The 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, the 50th anniversary of U.S. combat forces entering Vietnam in large numbers and the 40th anniversary of the war ending.

This year is neither a war nor an anniversary, but I think it’s good to do something different. Plus, even if it is not an anniversary, the theme clearly touches on immigration, which is bound to continue to be a hot topic.

Anyway, now comes the dreaming and planning. We need to name this thing in a way that resonates, that can draw community members in. Candice from nursing suggested that “journey” should be part of the name. We fussed a while at the faculty meeting over whether “melting pot” should be mentioned, and I brought up the competing “quilt” analogy.

Here are my initial attempts at names for the 2016 series:

“Journeys to America: What is Native and what is New in a Patchwork Nation.”
“The Reality Behind the Melting Pot: Assimilation and Identity in the U.S.A.”
“What it Means to be U.S.: Reflections on Our Immigrant-Ethnic Heritage.”

Honestly, none of them exactly rolls off the tongue. I’m not feeling the naming magic, yet.

So, what are your thoughts? If you were to name a series of events about how immigrants and natives assimilate or remain culturally separated in the United States, what would you call it?

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