Jan. 3 2019 11:00 AM

Oscar Castaneda, Advocate for immigrants

Oscar Castaneda has been a resident of Lansing since 1998, immigrating from Guatemala on a far-reaching journey that included college in Mexico City and Japan, and later a successful career at Michigan State University. He chairs the Civil Rights for Immigrants Task Force at Action of Greater Lansing.

Castaneda has faced his own struggles within the United States’ immigration system, and they continue today. He’s an advocate for immigration reform, and through his role with the task force, he helps to provide direct services to immigrants as they navigate the complexities of the federal immigration machine. — KYLE KAMINSKI

Help me understand how your personal experience with immigration led you to advocacy.

I first came to the United States with a visa that required me to go home after three years. It’s plain and clear now, but it wasn’t really clear at the time. There was no Internet. I applied for a working permit and they gave me one. And then, boom, they said I was supposed to leave.

And then I started to litigate. I started litigating and fighting for my status here. Because of these things, I learned more about the immigration system and really understood how unfair and broken it is. Most likely, I will not get a green card. I will always be on work permits. It’s been over 10 years now.

How does your work with Action of Greater Lansing make an impact?

The long-term goal is total, full and comprehensive immigration reform. We break the work into a few things. Lobbying is one. We really want to change the structure, and find ways to make a real and consistent change. We work with many organizations around the country. A lot is broken within the immigration system.

For better or worse, there are 11 million people without legal status. So, what are you going to do? How are you going to fix it? Politicians are afraid of it. They just chicken out rather than make real decisions. But someone has to make these decisions. If they say, kick them out and send them back to wherever they came from? OK, do it.

I don’t think that they understand how much it would cost to send 11 million people back home. The fact is that these people are working. And they’re actually making a lot of things cheaper in this country. So, a full comprehensive immigration reform would try to lobby this and work to help people to realize the problem.

There are also a lot of people that don’t understand their rights, and we do training with them and teach them.

What do you think it’ll take to shift the tide on immigration reform?

It doesn’t make it to the news.

Nothing has the priority lower than immigration. Besides the real act of getting help to someone in desperate need, I think that this brings up the whole concept of creating awareness.

I was talking the other day about Donald Trump, who creates such chaos. Maybe that chaos would prompt people to take action. But with this, it’s not only him. It’s the whole system. During the Bush days, legislators didn’t want to take action then either. Other bills have been put forward but people aren’t talking about it.

What do you have to do to fix the system?

You have to act. The United States has been so ambivalent to immigration for many years, I think that some kind of crisis needs to come for the country to act on this. As I said before, it’s 11 million still here in this country. Something needs to be done.

What do you think about the hateful rhetoric from the Oval Office? Has it made an impact?

You know, there are a lot of people with dreams. We should pay more attention to them. It makes sense to look around for someone to blame. I tell people: If you get to know an immigrant, you will change your mind. Politicians are politicians. They are just saying what people want to hear and people need somebody to blame.

Many working-class immigrants come from countries where they’re told their whole lives: Keep your head down and you’re going to be fine. For the last 30 years, we have people who have just kept their head down. Now, in this foreign country, they feel that they have absolutely no rights at all. From that perspective, we want to help.

Any advice for people? If you get to know an immigrant as a friend, you will change your mind about immigration. Don’t listen to the rhetoric. Don’t place us in different categories. Listen to all of them, take a look and make your own conclusions.

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