Over 50 students gathered at the Ford School of Public Policy to discuss immigration policy and controversies surrounding the topic on Monday. The dialogue was hosted and facilitated by WeListen, an organization dedicated to encouraging open conversation between conservative and liberal students on campus.
WeListen was co-founded last September by Engineering senior Sonia Thosar and Public Policy senior Gabriel Lerner. Frustrated by the partisan divide and “echo chambers” they noticed on campus and across the nation, Thosar and Lerner launched the organization with the goal of giving students a chance to address political differences in a constructive way.
WeListen’s administrative board, which Thosar describes as a “50-50 split of liberals and conservatives,” has since facilitated a number of discussions on topics such as gun control, the refugee crisis, the death penalty and the right to protest.
Public Policy junior Alli Berry, one of WeListen’s co-presidents, said the purpose of WeListen discussions is to expose participants to differing viewpoints and to establish commonalities.
“The ‘why’ behind someone’s disagreement is often more important than what they’re disagreeing with you on because a lot of the time our disagreements actually come from shared values,” Berry said.
According to Thosar, WeListen makes a particular effort to reach out to conservative students.
“It is a really liberal campus, so what we’ve been really trying to do is market to conservatives and make sure they know about us, and they know that it’s not a place that they’re going to get attacked for their viewpoints,” Thosar said. “We’ve actually had about 30 percent conservative attendance, which is pretty good considering this school.”
WeListen gauges the political leanings of participants by asking them to sign in and fill out a survey at the beginning of each event. Attendees rank themselves on a scale of one for most liberal to seven for most conservative. Participants also answered a question about the subject being discussed.
To kick off Monday’s session on immigration, WeListen’s leadership team presented a few introductory slides. Berry and her co-president, LSA sophomore Nick Tomaino, outlined WeListen’s mission and offered suggestions on how to engage in considerate, productive conversation.
Other board members gave an overview of the discussion topic, reviewing immigration policy under the past four presidents, presenting common liberal and conservative viewpoints on the issue and highlighting recent news pertaining to immigration.
The students were then broken up into politically diverse groups of six or seven. The groupings, based on responses to the entrance survey, were determined using a sorting algorithm developed by WeListen’s vice president of technology.
Handouts with immigration facts and statistics, as well as guiding discussion questions, were distributed throughout the room.
The groups spent about 10 minutes chatting casually, then the co-presidents asked them to start discussing immigration. The groups delved into topics such as merit-based immigration, assimilation, Trump’s border wall, humanitarianism, visa expiration and the role of the United States government in protecting its citizens. Another common theme was “brain drain,” the phenomenon of highly-trained professionals leaving developing nations for countries like the U.S.
Some of WeListen’s board members participated, structuring the conversations and bringing up counterpoints to spark debate.
Business freshman Elan Arnowitz said the wide array of perspectives allowed him to dive into his own opinions and explore why he felt the way he did about immigration.
“I really enjoyed hearing people’s viewpoints,” Arnowitz said. “It just forces me to either strengthen my own or to change my opinion.”
Arnowitz described the dialogue as democratic and respectful.
“I haven’t had any negative experiences in terms of discussions, which I think is a true testament to this club and to the quality of students that are present,” Arnowitz said.
The groups talked for nearly 40 minutes. Afterwards, Berry and Tomaino held a debriefing session, asking participants to share what they had learned, what they found challenging and how they planned to continue the conversation outside of WeListen.