GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - Immigrant rights are human rights. That's the focus of a three day "unity" conference that kicked off Thursday in South Mississippi.
Civil rights advocates are tackling an issue that's already sparked a national debate.
The Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance, or MIRA, helped organize the unity conference. Promoting and protecting the rights of immigrant workers is the emphasis.
"And there's nothing more enlightening than to see our communities learn about each others cultures and about each others customs. And about how to respect each other. And that's what these conferences really are about," said Vicky Cintra, an organizer for MIRA.
James Crowell is president of the Biloxi branch NAACP. He says there are certainly similarities between the challenges facing immigrants and the civil rights struggles of the 1960s.
"If they're going to come here and support this country in the way that they have, especially here on the gulf coast in the aftermath of Katrina, then we definitely need to do all we can to be sure their rights, their civil rights, are observed," says Crowell.
Bill Chandler is executive director of MIRA. He says the local conference is part of a much larger national discussion.
"We've also joined in the national debate over the repeal of the existing immigration law and the enactment of laws that would be fair to everybody, that would protect workers rights," he said.
Socorro Leos is an immigrant from Mexico who's now a U.S. citizen living in Jackson County.
"There's a misconception that people come here and like to steal jobs," she said, "And I think that's wrong."
Leos says education and understanding can help overcome public prejudice and misconceptions about immigrants.
"I think that people need to be educated. This is a moment to be united, not to be against each other. And I think we can do a lot of good things if we get together," she added.
"And when people realize that being from Mexico and waiting on a visa can take up to 16 years or more, then people realize it's really not the person who decides to come here undocumented. It's the system," said Cintra.
The weekend conference is part of the ongoing conversation to help reform that system.
Lee Adams Jr. is the pastor at Little Rock Missionary Baptist Church of Gulfport, which is hosting the conference. He says he wanted his parishioners to learn about the issues facing immigrants.
"I feel that people are apathetic because they don't know what's happening," he said, "So my intent is they would learn what's happening. And then hopefully apathy will become empathy and empathy will lead to involvement and involvement to commitment to make things change."