Last Thursday, a delegation of visitors from various parts of Germany arrived in San Antonio to learn about myriad issues currently engaging public debate in the United States. Staffers and a member of the German Parliament, the Bundestag, as well as a European Parliament member and a member of the German press were all in attendance. Through nine separate appointments and countless professionals who volunteered their time, the delegation gained a better understanding of how various problems effect South Texas and what local groups are doing about them.
One issue that the State Department and their International Visitor Leadership Program outlined for the program was homeland security. St. Mary’s University School of Law has a Center for Terrorism Law which delves into the legality and methods of terrorism investigations and prosecutions. Senior Research Fellow, Paul Cooper, explained the delicate balance between civil liberties and effective counterterrorism measures in modern law enforcement.
Given the millions of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa that have come to Germany in recent years, there was a particular interest among our visitors with regard to issues of immigration and integration. Paula Walker, Director of Refugee and Immigrant Services for Catholic Charities of San Antonio, along with their President and CEO, Antonio Fernandez, met with our delegation to discuss their efforts to provide necessities for refugees that come to the United States like housing, food, education, and jobs, while comparing the differing experiences of Germany and the United States.
In discussing economic development as well as health and social services, the meetings the German visitors had with Councilman Nirenberg and Congressman Castro were invaluable. They were able to learn about Councilman Nirenberg’s efforts to keep coal tar sealants from San Antonio’s drinking water, while also fostering a transition to a city of twenty-first century education and jobs. Congressman Castro was able to talk with the visitors about foreign policy, but he also explained his goals to create a fairer economy and a more welcoming society.
Another important topic was the environment, especially as it related to energy production and consumption. Southwest Workers’ Union showed their efforts to prevent the formation of “food deserts” in San Antonio by providing fresh produce from their urban garden. CPS Energy, the largest municipally-owned electric utility in the country, was an ideal fit to talk about energy use in South Texas and the United States. Kim Stoker, Senior Director of Environmental Planning, Compliance and Sustainability spoke about their efforts to improve efficiency in fossil fuel plants, increase use of renewable and clean energy sources, and decrease consumer electricity consumption.
Along with immigration and refugee services, another theme that particularly interested the German delegation was the role of religious and cultural diversity in the United States. As part of this complex discussion, SACIV hosted an Interfaith Roundtable to discuss the role of religiocultural diversity in San Antonio. Jacqueline Walter, Director of Women in Church and Society for Our Lady of the Lake University; Sarwat Husain, Founder of the Council on American Islamic Relations of San Antonio and National Board member for CAIR; as well as Ellen Ollervidez and Pat Calmans of the Jewish Federation of San Antonio. Together this group held an engaging dialogue with the German delegation about the boundaries of church and state in the United States as well as the role of assimilation and civil rights in religious preservation.
Lastly, the German visitors were able to learn about the challenges of modern policing especially with regard to race relations and community policing. Dr. Sonja Lanehart at the University of Texas San Antonio explained the origin of recent tensions between minority communities and police officers and her take on the Black Lives Matter movement. The San Antonio Police Department then explained what they are doing to ensure they are making inroads in the community they serve and treating all citizens with respect routinely.
Throughout all of these appointments, the delegation from Germany learned about the current issues facing the United States and what engaged citizens throughout the San Antonio community are doing to tackle the challenges that lie ahead.