It's a story as old as humanity itself. Newcomers arrive in town. Perhaps they look different, talk differently, worship in a different way. The locals look at them askance, and a line is drawn: We belong here, you don't. We are part of the group — you are the others.
It's a story that is being retold even in 21st-century Portland. The newcomers are immigrants from all over the world — Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Pacific, Eastern Europe. The locals are Americans of all colors and backgrounds. Some welcome the newcomers warmly; others look at them and wonder: Are they a threat? Will they take my job?
Closing this gap — between ignorance and understanding, between welcoming and fearing — is the goal of the Refugee and Immigrant Solidarity Education Workshop, or RISE. The workshop is being led by the Center for Intercultural Organizing, an immigrant and refugee advocacy group.
The four-week course is designed to build a common understanding in the community about the history and politics of U.S. immigration policy. The course also will "inform community members on how they can become good allies in the struggle for immigrant and refugee rights," according to the center.
TheCenterfor Intercultural Organizing — formerly the Community Language and Culture Bank — was formed in response to the anti-immigrant backlash that swept much of the nation in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, said Stephanie Stephens, the center's communications director. The group works on four fronts: community education, which includes such things as the RISE workshop; policy advocacy; community organizing and mobilization; and intergenerational leadership development.
"We recognized the need of cross-cultural community organizing to address the issue that immigrants and refugees are facing," Stephens said.
The RISE workshop arose out of a program run by the center at Portland State University. After consistently receiving high praise from PSU students, the center decided to take a version of the program to the general public.
"We thought we should take what we had been teaching for three years, put it into the community and use it to build support for immigrant and refugee rights," Stephens said.
Immigrants are often used as unfair scapegoats by Americans who are dissatisfied with their prospects for economicadvancement, Stephens added. This sentiment is fueled, she said, by common erroneous assumptions: People may think immigrants represent a disproportionate drain on public resources — they don't — or that most immigrants are here illegally — most aren't.
"I think you're beginning to see that (anti-immigrant) hostility really boiling to the surface, with mid-term elections coming," Stephens said.
"Immigration is becoming a really big wedge issue. … These sorts of misconceptions from the public are very difficult and very damaging, especially for kids."
Correcting these misconceptions is the goal of the RISE workshop. By the end of the course, students will be expected to convey a personal perspective on immigration, understand the history of immigration in the United States, be aware of specific needs and challenges of immigrants and refugees, be able to evaluate public immigration policy and develop the skills needed to participate in discussions about immigration in their neighborhoods.
Students will research their own ancestries, talk about the racial and cultural components of anti-immigrant sentiment and discuss the political and economic interests that shape public immigrationpolicy, Stephens said.
Stephens said that over the course of the PSU courses, about half of the students have been immigrants and half have been American citizens — a ratio that she said is an encouraging sign: It is the misconceptions of longtime Americans that need to be corrected, after all.
"It is very encouraging," she said of the number of Americans who have shown an interest in the courses. "We didn't expect it. There are very few places where people from different cultures can get together and talk about this, and that's what we try to provide."
The next course, taking place this month, is full, Stephens said. However, more workshops are in the works for the spring and summer months. For more information,visit www.clcbank.org.