State College

Immigration discussion an exercise in diplomacy for Penn State class

Haseeb Ali leads a discussion on immigration policy at the State College Municipal building on Tuesday.
Haseeb Ali leads a discussion on immigration policy at the State College Municipal building on Tuesday.

It began as a class project in January: organize a public deliberation surrounding an issue of the group’s choice. But for Haseeb Ali, just days after the travel ban, it became personal.

“I actually voted twice before my parents,” Ali, 18, said. “My dad had a sentimental moment when he realized 30 years later, his son is doing something he never could.”

Ali’s father, Muhammad, was tear-gassed in 1986 while living under martial law of Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, one of three military dictatorships he and his family lived through before leaving their native Pakistan. His protest for his rights, his son said, ended in violence.

“He almost died,” Ali said. “The military took to the streets. There were tanks. They used tear gas to try and disperse the crowd.”

Three decades later, on the day of the Virginia primaries, he texted his son moments before Haseeb walked into the polling place, Haseeb’s old middle school set in a quiet suburb about 45 minutes outside Washington, D.C.

“He reminded me that he had been tear-gassed for attempting any sort of political process,” said Ali, a Penn State freshman, “and that he was incredibly proud of me.”

When Ali voted in the general election in November, his mother called him as he was walking into the HUB-Robeson Center on campus. She was sobbing.

“She gave up her education for me,” Ali said. “Seeing that I could take part in a democracy was one of her biggest dreams come true.”

Tuesday night’s discussion was a continuation of Ghazala Ali’s dream. Her son, 10 of his classmates and a collection of students and community members sat in the State College Municipal Building, listening and deliberating the policy options surrounding immigration. Their exercise in diplomacy explored three approaches — regulated, restricted and unrestricted immigration — and however small, the act itself was not lost on Ali. For him, it meant more than a passing grade.

Kyle King, the instructor of the course, Rhetoric and Civic Life, said the goal of the exercise was to engage the first-year Schreyer Honors College students in learning how to moderate a discussion. Most significant, he added, was moving beyond thinking of it as a debate — or in binary terms of winners and losers.

“I think the real benefit of the deliberation unit is that it’s a test run for democracy,” King said. “The students get to see some of the possibilities but also some of the real difficulties: Is democracy possible? Can consensus be achieved? How can you make decisions when you can’t refer to some outside power? It’s not easy.”

Mabell Rivas, who hails from Nicaragua, attended to hear different perspectives.

“I’m an immigrant,” she said. “So it’s interesting to hear the kind of rhetoric here in the U.S., and particularly here in Pennsylvania, as to how we view immigration.”

As a food certifications manager for organic products, Rivas supervises a team of 11, which includes members based in Canada, Latin America and the West Coast. Her work has taken her around the U.S., Europe and Latin America.

“When we get together we’re always amazed by the richness of the discussions and the things we can bring to the table together,” she said.

For Ali, the son of immigrants, the discussion was a chance to not only practice diplomacy, but reconnect with his roots. This summer, after 26 years in the U.S., his parents will be able to apply for citizenship.

Currently studying political science and economics, Ali has dreams of becoming a human rights lawyer and one day working for the United Nations. He credits his parents for his life now, his life in America: “I look back at a lot of the sacrifices that my family has made to get me here.”

“They end every conversation with I’m proud of you and I love you,” he continued. “So for me to be able to vote before my father, it was a resounding, depressing but then happy moment at the same time. My grandfather told my father something before he moved to the United States in 1991: He told him, ‘You need to give your child a life better than the one you had,’ and my father has immensely done that for me. I’m incredibly grateful for that and I hope to carry that down to my child one day.”

Though the travel ban, which was blocked by a federal appeals court in February, does not list Pakistan as one of the seven predominantly Muslim nations from which people are barred from entering the U.S., Ali, who is Muslim, said his family was still worried.

“I want to help people,” Ali said. “Because growing up I saw the struggle my parents went through and people were there to help them. Growing up, I saw the stuff that I went through, and my parents were there to help me.

“But there are plenty of people in the world who don’t have somebody to stick up for them,” he continued. “I want to help them.”

Roger Van Scyoc: 814-231-4698, @rogervanscy