GLEN ELLYN - U.S. Rep. Sean Casten, D-Downers Grove, knows all too well how fear can emanate from stories of immigration.
Casten kicked his Dec. 15 town hall meeting in Glen Ellyn by sharing what he called a hypothetical story in which a young Mexican couple falls in love, gets married and moves to the United States for work.
“A couple years in, they have a kid,” Casten said. “The kid is given the option to either be a citizen of the United States, a citizen of Mexico or dual-citizenship status. They stay for a few more years. No one accuses the kid of being an anchor baby. No one accuses the parents of doing this for some nefarious reason. After a few years, [the father is] offered a job back in Mexico. They leave. They go back home. They have no concerns about being separated from their kid at any time. Life goes on, and the kid becomes a member of the Mexican government.”
That story of immigration actually belongs to Casten himself.
“That is my life,” Casten said told the crowd gathered at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. “I wasn’t born in Mexico, I was born in Ireland. My dad got offered a job to move to work in Ireland. I was born here, and all the rest of that is true, except that I became a member of Congress.”
Casten said he shared his life’s story to give people something to take into consideration when they view the current state of the nation’s immigration crisis.
“Take that exact same story I just told you and think about how jarring that is,” he said. “We are at a point right now where we’ve massively cut down on the visas for those who are living here. The H1-B program we have to go by, temporary work visas and non-citizenship pathways for skilled workers are declining.”
At the same time, the country’s immigration numbers are down, which Casten said is not something to celebrate.
Casten referenced data showing the nation’s undocumented population amounted to about 12 million in 2007. That figure dropped to 10.7 million in 2019.
The same trend holds true of the country’s refugees.
In 1980, a reported 200,000 refugees were accepted into the country, a figure Casten said has declined on a bipartisan basis to 22,000 as of June.
The numbers shared during the town hall do not justify the immigration crisis the country is facing, Casten said.
Casten criticized President Donald Trump’s immigration agenda during the 90-minute gathering.
“There’s an effort by the Trump administration to eliminate the ability for spouses of people coming on an H1-B visa to be able to come and get a visa while they’re here,” Casten said. “There’s an effort by the Trump administration to create a public charge rule that says that if you are willing to come to our country and use public services, we’re going to stop you from coming here. There’s an amicus brief to try to stop this in the courts, which I’ve signed onto.”
Elizabeth Cervantes, co-founder and director of organizing for Southwest Suburban Immigrant Project, said she can speak from experience about the fear many people face amid the immigration crisis. She recounted a conversation she shared recently with a journalist.
“I was once asked recently while in D.C. for the Supreme Court hearing on DACA if I was scared to go back to a country that I didn’t know and to have to adapt to Mexico,” Cervantes said. “I said to this person, this journalist, I’m not afraid to go to Mexico—to a country I don’t know. In the same way, I’m actually more scared living right here every single day and knowing that my family or my parents any day could end up in indefinite detention.”
Cervantes said she wants a commitment from Congressional leaders to ensure that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials do not receive funding without accountability measures.
“Nobody’s trying to eliminate police,” she said. “What we’re trying to eliminate is fear. An agency that has been emboldened and empowered by xenophobia and that with money are able to go out, round people up and put them in indefinite detention. That’s unfair because that’s taxpayer money going into inserting fear into people’s lives.”
Congress’ ability to provide oversight is hindered is also part of the problem, Casten said.
“It’s not so much about whether or not we put the appropriate strings on the bills,” he said. “I trust that my colleagues will place all the appropriate strings, and then we’ll see what gets through the Senate, and we’ll see what gets signed by the president. There’s an awful lot of constraints we could put on sitting right now waiting for the Senate to bring to a vote.“
Casten touted the legislation he’s signed onto to address immigration issues. Those include the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which provides pathways to citizenship, protects wages and uses immigration to fill the skills gap; and the American Dream & Promise Act, which provides pathways to citizenship for dreamers and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients.
The town hall made for Casten’s 21st meeting with constituents of Illinois’ 6th Congressional District.
Wheaton resident Christi Kane said she is glad Casten devoted the town hall to immigration issues.
“I feel it’s important to have empathy, even when it doesn’t impact you,” Kane said. “The downward direction the nation is going in causes concern.”
Kane said she stands by Casten and what he’s done to address immigration issues, but wishes more could be done.
“The problem is our House tries to make a positive impact, but without the Senate and Trump, not much can happen,” she said. “I feel Congress would do more. It seems futile. We need to vote some of these people out. I don’t feel the check is there.”
Kane said she believes Casten is working to make a difference.
“I’m glad to see Casten actually representing our district and having town halls,” she said, noting that his predecessor did not. “To see so many people coming out shows they care.”