Corvallis’ immigrant population lives ‘in the shadows’

2010-03-09T01:00:00Z Corvallis’ immigrant population lives ‘in the shadows’By Matt Neznanski, Gazette-Times reporter Corvallis Gazette Times

Despite Corvallis’ pride in celebrating diversity, immigrants both legal and illegal find just as much difficulty here as elsewhere, according to a panel of experts who spoke at the Corvallis City Club on Monday.

In part because of state and national immigration policies, a large proportion of people live “in the shadows” said Erlinda Gonzales-Berry, a coordinator for the nonprofit Casa Latinos Unidos de Benton County assistance organization.

“We pride ourselves as being an open and progressive community, but sometimes I think we’re blind to a segment of our community and blind to what their social position means to the long-term future of our community,” she said.

Mario Magana, who came to the U.S. illegally in the 1980s and was naturalized during the 1986 federal amnesty program, said that when he first came to Corvallis to attend Oregon State University, he felt out of place and even hassled because of the style of clothes he chose.

“I was a real cowboy; a vaquero,” he said. “In the first month in Corvallis, I was stopped (by police) twice. I just wished I had the freedom to wear my sombrero and boots.”

Magana now works with OSU Extension, specifically to bring young Latinos into the state’s 4-H programs. He said there’s a distinct lack of non-white children in extracurricular and sports programs in Corvallis, but not because they don’t have talent.

“The thing we don’t realize is that most of the Latino families don’t have the resources to pay the fees to get involved,” Magana said.

Iqbal Khurram worked for years in his native Afghanistan with soldiers in the U.S. Army. When Congress approved visas for Afghans whose work with U.S. troops made them targets, Khurram applied, was accepted, and arrived here in April. He didn’t pick Corvallis and agreed that a lack of ethnic families makes it difficult to feel at home here. He said his sponsoring family does provide some support, however.

Khurram and Magana expressed concern over a lack of skills training available locally, including language classes and basic things like banking.

Gonzales-Berry said federal and state money cannot be used to help undocumented people, so much of the training falls to privately funded nonprofits, but even those agencies are sometimes avoided by people afraid of being reported to authorities or misinformed about the services available or who qualifies.

Yema Measho, an Ethiopian-born attorney now practicing immigration law in Benton County said waiting lists for visas are especially long for immigrants from Mexico and the Phillipines. Immigration officials are now processing applications submitted a decade ago, she said.

“There’s really not much to do for them,” she said. “As community members, we need to get involved in the decision-making process.”

Matt Neznanski can be reached at 758-9518 or

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