A whirring fan and scrambled chatter dominated the hot back room of Garden City’s The African Shop Sunday evening, where U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall held a town hall with over 70 local refugee and immigrant residents, a first for Marshall and many of the people meeting him.
The forum was the first of ideally many programs hosted by Kearny County Hospital aimed to give new citizens, those working to become citizens, and their friends and neighbors the tools to fully understand American politics and be civically engaged.
Garden City’s immigrant populations want to vote once they’re able, but language, exhaustive work schedules, transportation and other barriers often stand in their way, said program organizer Kendal Carswell, an associate professor at Fort Hays State University. The new series of programs will attempt to deliver that information to them in spaces they can access, he said.
The programs are ideally meant to connect immigrant residents with their federal, state and local representatives, who can explain the nature and scope of their jobs, field questions and meet locals face to face.
“It’s really to try to help them feel included in the community because that’s something they all desire, is to feel welcome,” Carswell said.
Marshall, a Kansas Republican, faced the room full of people originally from Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan and Myanmar, among other countries, and explained who he was, recalling his career as a doctor and life on a farm. A man stood next to Marshall, translating as he spoke. His job, he said, was to be the people’s voice in Washington, D.C., and he could only do that by listening.
“Certainly as I look around this room, immigration is a big issue and it’s certainly a top three of four issue in Congress,” Marshall said.
When considering immigration policy, secure borders are a priority, Marshall said, followed by a more efficient, faster-moving immigration and citizenship system. And immigration folds into statewide concerns, such as health care and workforce shortages, he said.
Near the end of his statement, he pointed to the four “pillars” of his life: education, faith, family and community — something he and the attendees have in common, he said.
Then the evening turned to questions. Most of the people who stood to speak to Marshall spoke through the translator, asking about large and local problems. Some asked for help to build a mosque in Garden City or resources to carry out traditional Islamic funerals. A woman asked for help with a pending green card she applied for two years ago; a man said he cannot attend English classes, and therefore cannot complete the citizenship process, because of work conflicts. Another woman, holding her young child, told Marshall her husband is stuck an ocean away, held hostage by a slow-moving, now four-year-old visa application.
Some of the attendees, desperate and unclear about the scope and limits of Marshall’s office, may have approached Marshall with questions he had no answer to, said Amy Longa, former site director of the now-closed Garden City International Rescue Committee office. But, she said, Marshall did not seem prepared to meet the needs of the people he came to meet.
Marshall directed multiple people asking questions about immigration processes to Bonnie Molz, a caseworker at his office in Garden City, and told residents that he and other legislators are trying to address certain immigration issues. When a man asked whether the U.S. would be able to allow in more or fewer refugees in the near future, he said that from his standpoint, the number will likely not increase “until we have a system in place that I can ensure the safety of the American public.”
“It’s not easy, but all we can do is keep trying,” Marshall said to the woman asking about her green card.
During the questions, Longa stood to speak to Marshall. She referenced what he had said about health care issues and labor shortages and immigration policies, and about his devotion to education, faith, family and community. All of those elements affected the people and families in that room, she said.
Marshall had spoken about the importance of family, then heard about husbands and wives and children and parents separated for years
“When you’re talking about the top issues of Kansans, this is Kansans. This is part of our community in Kansas ... I’m talking about the wives. I’m talking about the sons. I’m talking about the daughters. I’m talking about those who are here that are apart from their families overseas. How can you speak to that? How can you represent us when you’re there (in D.C.)? ... How can you speak on our part?” Longa said.
Marshall thanked Longa for her message and turned to his concerns about security at the southern border, including people entering the U.S. without background checks, and drug and sex trafficking. Until it was secure, he said, he did not know how to allow more refugees in at a faster rate.
Longa said she understood. But she asked that when Marshall returned to work he would not forget the people in that room and their families.
“When you talk about security and saying our borders are overwhelmed, you are telling this mother that your husband doesn’t matter,” Longa said. “How can we send a message that ‘You, you matter. You’re from Kansas. You’re from Garden City. We care about you. We’re taking care of the border, but we hear you.’ That is all I’m asking. How can we send a message that tells them that ‘You’re a part of us?' ”
Marshall said Monday that he had learned new things at the forum. He had learned more about Islam, Garden City’s ethnic diversity, the difficulties of accessing English language classes and the closure of the local IRC office, shuttered last summer in part because of national immigration policies. The stories he heard were heart wrenching, he said.
And he stands by his stance on border security and refugee access to America. Regarding Longa’s question, he pointed to his work as “one of the loudest voices for immigration reform,” including measures to help children protected by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and those holding agriculture guest worker visas.
“I think I’ve been speaking already for all of us, for all of Kansans. For them in particular ... I do feel like I’ve been representing them already and will continue to do so,” Marshall said.
Longa said the presentation probably wasn’t simple enough for a group of people still learning the basics of American civics and politics and Marshall’s message could have been more customized to southwest Kansas, Garden City and the people in the room. There could have been an understanding of the audience.
Attendee Abdulkadir Adde said that he felt that Marshall didn’t understand his and his friends’ lives — one revolving mostly around work. Another, Hassein Ahmed, a senior at Garden City High School, noted that it was significant that Marshall came to meet them.
Longa agreed, and she said she hopes other representatives working with Carswell follow suit. The lessons can focus maybe more on general education, roles of political offices and civic engagement. And maybe, leaders can take a meeting to only listen and understand, she said, then return later to respond.
Contact Amber Friend at firstname.lastname@example.org.