Ben Mueller on what inspired him to be an advocate for immigrants
Ben Mueller is the Executive Director of Immigrants Services of Champaign-Urbana, or ISCU, formerly known as CU FAIR.
Here, Mueller explains the origins of his commitment to social justice:
I would say, “why?” I would go back to the issue of social justice. And I don’t think in our country we want to see any particular population, any particular minority, that doesn’t have the same opportunity as others. And so when those opportunities or those rights are not there for that particular group, such is the case with immigrants, it’s important to support them, and find ways to advocate for them, and find ways to help them have more opportunities and more rights and a better way of life. And so I’ve been involved here in Champaign County with a number of volunteer organizations, since I began at the University of Illinois. And through those organizations I’ve been working with refugees and immigrants.
Nathalie Stein, Narrator Upon his return to the United States, Mueller moved to Champaign-Urbana, working with the University of Illinois extension. Here, he used his Spanish-language skills to assist local Hispanic and Latino communities achieve greater access to legal and cultural resources:
And I went around and visited the different communities in this part of the state with significant Spanish speaking populations. And I learned, among other things, that they wanted a radio program, that they wanted a program that would speak to them about the issues. They didn’t want just a Chicago type of, more of a—music program with Puerto Rican and other types of music. They wanted a program that would educate them and talk to them about the issues that were important to them. And so we started this program called Nuevos Horizontes, which means New Horizons, which was specifically for newly arriving families. And we ran that program on a weekly basis for a number of years. And as I mentioned before we did these workshops, the rights and responsibilities of immigrants. We did support projects with the schools, a project called Padri a Padri, which was to help Hispanic immigrant families that were just having their first children, and their children were entering into their early childhood program. So we helped them to adjust to the issues of being parents here in town and living in the United States. We did a lot of different types of programs like that. I didn’t do exclusive work with the Hispanic population, but I did quite a bit of work with them.
Nathalie Stein, Narrator
Mueller is also involved in protests, as another means of achieving better rights for immigrants. These demonstrations seek to enact legal change at the local level:
Most recently we - did a series of protests trying to support some legislation in Congress for the DACA, or for the Dreamers. And so we did really three things in this recent period, in the last few months, when this was before congress. Unfortunately, it wasn’t passed, but we did a march downtown. There was a good crowd, I would say there was probably several hundred, considering it was wintertime, maybe three hundred people. So we marched in downtown Champaign. It was very similar to the days of the Civil Rights, we were singing and marching, we got some, I think, good reviews from the press and news articles. And then also divided up again with faith-based groups and went to visit Rodney Davis’s office, so we had a series of people who went to visit him and talk about their immigrant experience with Rodney Davis’s staff. And the final thing we did was a candlelight vigil in campus, and it was just bitter cold, it was windy, the candles wouldn’t stay lit, it was so cold. I was moderating that and holding up the foghorn—the speaker, and my hand was just freezing, so it was quite cold, but that was good. And then last Fourth of July, we have the parade that goes through town, it was called the Freedom Parade, and we had the largest parade in the history of the Fourth of July parades between our group, the—C-U Immigration Forum, and the Champaign County ACLU chapter, we had over five hundred people in that parade. And many of them were in fact, immigrants and refugees, but it was a wonderful scene, I think, to see that many people out with their signs, chanting and singing and marching. It was an important moment, I think, and it got a message across in Champaign-Urbana that we really are an immigrant-friendly community.
Nathalie Stein, Narrator
Finally, he works on a free medical clinic, offering multilingual services to local immigrants:
Talking about the clinic, Avicenna, we have an outreach team and we go to the mobile homes - not everybody’s aware of the fact that there is a free clinic or that there are free clinics in town and what services they provide. And so we’ve had some Uni High School students that wanted to be involved with our outreach team. And so they’ve gone out to Shadow Wood with us. We set up a table. And they spent all day meeting people and learning about what their healthcare needs might be.
Nathalie Stein, Narrator
And, for Mueller, anyone can be a part of these changes:
I guess I would just like to leave you with the thought that—you can make a difference. A lot of people will tell you, especially, I hate to say, young people, they’ll tell you “well you know you really can’t make much of a difference. D on’t really try to engage because you’re just going to waste your time you’re not going to accomplish anything.” I would you tell you that - just the opposite. You can make a difference in your life and you can do things that contribute to social justice. Everyday, really, everyday, opportunities come up where you can just perhaps put yourself in a position maybe that you wouldn’t normally be in because you want to experience and understand maybe a situation that is out of your comfort zone, but something that you want to learn more about and see how you can make a positive contribution. So I mentioned all those ways that you can do that, but I would tell you that it is very true that you get much more out of this than you give, you really do. Believe me. The rewards of helping other people far out-weight what you do, so just remember that and try to practice it and you’ll be the better person for it.
Nathalie Stein, Narrator
If you want to listen to the full documentary, learn more about immigration in Champaign-Urbana, and see all the people who made this project possible, go to will.illinois.edu/illinoisyouthmedia.
This has been Immigration in the Spotlight. Thanks for listening.
Ben Mueller of Champaign, Illinois discusses his journey as an immigrant advocate, during which he’s done everything from getting a Spanish-speaking radio program off the ground to organizing protests. Ben Mueller is the Executive Director of Immigrants Services of Champaign-Urbana. Mueller moved to Champaign-Urbana, working with the University of Illinois extension. Here, he used his Spanish-language skills to assist local Hispanic and Latino communities achieve greater access to legal and cultural resources. Mueller is also involved in protests, as another means of achieving better rights for immigrants. These demonstrations seek to enact legal change at the local level.
This is the fourth in a four-part podcast series students at Uni High called Immigration in the Spotlight that profiles residents of Champaign-Urbana originally from far away places, and the activists who support them. To listen to the full documentary, learn more about immigration in Champaign-Urbana, and see all the people who made this project possible, go to here.