Ashley Martin was one of the first students to weigh in on a forum on immigration and debt at Long Beach High School on Thursday.
Martin and 11 other students were in one classroom participating in Hofstra University’s Deliberative Democracy Project, which has been holding community forums across Long Island in high schools, middle schools and at the university to engage citizens in discussions on major issues facing the United States.
"Certain people believe that immigrants are helping the economy and others feel they're taking jobs away from Americans," said Martin, 17, a senior at the high school. "We're discussing the issues and it's not like a debate, which I like. No one is judging us. I learned today that we're not going to solve any issues [right now]. It's going to take time for the country to reach common ground, which may never happen.”
Fifty students who take the International Baccalaureate history of the Americas class at the school broke up into three groups to participate in the national issues forums, in advance of next week’s State of the Union address. Hofstra’s Center of Civic Engagement has held nearly 100 town hall meeting-style forums since last spring on issues facing the nation such as immigration, debt and education.
Etana Jacobi, a trained moderator with the center, prompted students to weigh carefully the pros and cons of certain policies and make their own informed judgments on, in this case, immigration and debt, while promoting civic literacy.
Jacobi said one of the points her group of students was in favor of was reducing the corporate tax rate as an incentive to promoting manufacturing, stem education, and research and development. Students also favored the idea of reforming Social Security and Medicare.
"They were very interested in the conversation on debt because they know that one day they're going to have to pay for it," said recent Hofstra graduate and Westbury native Jacobi, 22. "It's going to affect their futures and by the end of the discussion they felt more invested."
During the immigration portion, Jacobi found that many students were split on the issues, but found common ground with acquiring green cards, securing borders and racial profiling.
"Many like the idea of student visas as long as they look for jobs in the U.S. after college and pay into the system," Jacobi said. "And they favor securing the borders and keeping track of who lives here and they are definitely uncomfortable with racial profiling."
Ethan Sukonik's parents moved from Moscow to the United States about 30 years ago, so he found the immigration discussion enlightening.
"I'm split on many of the issues," said Sukonik, 17, a senior at the high school. "On one hand, I want to embrace refugees coming into our country, but it's also my ethical responsibility to care about the people who already live in this country and protect their interests."
As for the debt portion, Sukonik said talking about this subject with anyone is not easy.
"Honestly, it's what everyone tries not to talk about. It's like the rain cloud over all our heads," he said. "But we need to talk about it. It affects us all no matter where we live."
Andrew Smith, the high school’s International Baccalaureate coordinator and teacher of history of the Americas, said the goal is to bring national issues that are discussed by Congress to the students in a nonpartisan way.
"Often times, we don't get a chance to really discuss real life issues in class,” said Smith, 40, of Long Beach. “And this is their chance to be exposed to those issues that will affect their futures.”