Changing the conversation on immigration

Published: Saturday, June 2 2012 11:00 p.m. MDT

Diane Portnoy, founder of the Immigrant Learning Center and a vocal advocate for immigrant rights talks about her family immigrating to the United States after surviving the holocaust during World War Two, Monday, March 26, 2012, in Park City, Utah.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

She's fair-skinned, blonde and speaks English with a solid Boston accent. But Diane Portnoy argues she's no different from the Latino immigrants — documented and undocumented — who have become the center of a firestorm of debate in state legislatures across the country in recent years.

The daughter of two Polish Holocaust survivors, Portnoy, 63, came to the United States as a 3-year-old. She grew up in a largely immigrant community in Malden, Mass., where the people spoke Polish and ate Polish food. She and her family struggled to learn English and make sense of their new country's culture.

"When I look at (current immigrants), I see my mother and father," she said. "They can be from Algeria or Mexico, but they are no different from my mother and my father and their friends."

The founder of a nationally recognized, award-winning adult education center in Malden, few would dispute Portnoy's contribution to her community. Since the Immigrant Learning Center opened in 1992, Portnoy has helped more than 7,000 immigrants from 109 countries learn English. But even though her students have gone on to find jobs, go to college and start businesses, Portnoy points out with sadness in her eyes, people do question their contributions to American society.

The immigration debate in the United States focuses disproportionately on illegal immigration, crime and the plight of poor immigrants, according to a number of media analyses conducted by think tanks and university researchers. Little attention is paid to the positive impact of immigration. In an attempt to change the conversation, Portnoy recently teamed with George Mason University to launch a research center that will study how immigrants affect their local economies.

"I love this country," Portnoy said. "This country has been incredibly good to my parents, to me and to my children. I honestly, deeply, passionately know that immigrants are good for the country."

Talking immigration

As a new immigrant, Portnoy remembers her teacher picking her up, cuddling her and helping her make sense of her strange new world. By building the Immigrant Learning Center in 1992, she hoped to create a similarly welcoming place where immigrants could come to get a leg up on English. A soft-spoken, but direct woman with an elegant, no-nonsense air, Portnoy has spent the past couple of decades working for free to make that dream come true. Now the ILC, which has been recognized as a "gold standard" by the U.S. Department of Education, educates more than 900 immigrants per year. There is a waiting list 750 students long.

Portnoy was jarred when her students confided in her about the bullying and verbal abuse they encountered in the community, she said. People would shout derogatory things at them and tell them to "Go Home!"

The national conversation about immigration favors restricting legal immigration and cracking down on undocumented immigrants, said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a professor at the University of California, Riverside, who studies media coverage of immigration. In the media, there is more support for mass deportations than policies like the Dream Act, which would give undocumented immigrant children who go to college a pathway to citizenship.

"Generally speaking, the tone of media coverage — even mainstream sources — tends to emphasize the cost of immigration or the political controversy surrounding immigration," he said. "Negative stories tend to outweigh human-interest stories that might be more sympathetic to immigrants."

Undocumented immigrants represent less than a third of the nation's foreign-born population, but talk about illegal immigration dominates immigration coverage in America's newspapers, talk shows and television news stations, according to a Brookings Institute study. Other popular topics include criminal behavior by immigrants and incompetence by immigration officials.

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