When Janet Murguia left Lawrence to lead one of the nation's largest Hispanic rights groups, the illegal immigration issue was on the national back burner.
But Murguia, who served as Kansas University's executive vice chancellor between 2001 and 2003 before becoming president of the National Council of La Raza - the largest national Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization in the United States - knew a debate was brewing.
"Well, yes, I think it was inevitable," she said. "The demographics alone, I think, were pointing to a trend that this would be an increasingly important issue, and that the Hispanic community would be increasingly influential. : If you looked at the numbers, you could see this coming."
Murguia's national profile has risen considerably in recent weeks, as she has appeared on several television shows to proclaim the benefits of immigration. She is the daughter of Mexican immigrants; two of her siblings are now federal judges. And she holds three degrees - including a law degree - from KU.
She spoke with the Journal-World by phone from Washington, D.C. Some excerpts:
Journal-World: Do you want to see any changes to immigration law, or is the status quo just fine?
Murguia: Absolutely (we) need to have changes in the immigration laws right now. Our immigration system is broken, we're in a crisis right now, and I think in light of the 9-11 incidents, we recognize there has to be enhanced border protections and security measures. So we recognize that's the reality and that's important. Everyone, including the Hispanic community, wants to make sure our borders our secure.
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But what we need to do is make sure (when) we reform the immigration that it's comprehensive reform, that it's balanced. What I mean by that is we have to deal practically with the immigrants who are already here and with the future flow of immigrants. There we need guest worker provisions and provisions that would allow for some path to permanent citizenship if we're going to deal with this issue in a comprehensive manner.
J-W: There are many folks who say that immigration is fine, as long as it's done legally - and that's why they object to the bill that allows illegal immigrants who are already here to get on the path to citizenship. Why should they be allowed that right?
Murguia: We can see from the statistics that a lot of these immigrants have been here for years now. They're deeply rooted in different communities all across this country, they've been making contributions to this country on an economic level and on other levels. These are folks who have been paying taxes, who have been doing very difficult, back-breaking work that is sustaining, for instance, the economy in western Kansas and other parts like that.
J-W: Your own parents emigrated from Mexico and they had several children who are comfortable and successful in both the Spanish-speaking and English-speaking worlds. But in recent rallies we've seen many protesters waving Mexican flags - so there are concerns that the standards of assimilation now are different than they were a generation or two ago. What do you think about that?
Murguia: I just disagree with that. I think that, yeah, some people are waving Mexican flags, but I don't think it's as many as we see highlighted on TV every night. I think there are a lot of American flags as part of these demonstrations. And I think they more or less reflect a sense of pride, of cultural pride, but not necessarily a sense of loyalty.
J-W: The debate in some cases seems to have become intensely personal. You were on Lou Dobbs' CNN show a few weeks ago and he was pointing his finger in your face. Is that the worst it's become? Is that typical the reaction?
Murguia: I wish that were the worst it gets. The fact of the matter is, I get e-mails and letters every day telling me - I'm an American, I was born in this country, I graduated from the great University of Kansas - to go back to where I came from, to go back to Mexico, to go home. They're very mean-spirited e-mails and letters I get every day.
J-W: You talk about those mean-spirited letters. I'm curious: How much of this debate do you think is rooted in legitimate security fears, and how much of it is rooted in racism?
Murguia: I think it's both. I try to downplay it. : I understand it can be a wedge that can divide this country. I want to make sure we do everything we can to unite this country around its wonderful history, principles, traditions and values, as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants..