Jennifer LuddenMost Kentuckians are probably aware of an influx of people from south of the United States border who have come to work on tobacco or horse farms. But, few residents would consider the Commonwealth a “border state.”

Jennifer Ludden, a national desk correspondent with National Public Radio, may change that thinking of those present for the annual Danford Thomas Lecture at Georgetown College. Her talk, “The New Immigration Debate: Why Every State’s a Border State,” is free and open to the public at 4 p.m., Tuesday (Feb. 20) in John L. Hill Chapel.

Why should Kentuckians care about what’s happening with immigration? Ludden, whose pieces can be heard on all NPR News programs, including All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition, wrote in an e-mail Wednesday: “The immigration debate isn’t just about immigrants. It’s about the national economy, the rule of law, human rights, and – really – who we are and will become as a nation.”

Ludden, who covers immigration and immigrant issues, filing stories that reflect the changing demography of the U.S., continued: “In 1965 President Lyndon Johnson signed what is the basis of our national immigration law today, declaring that it would have no great impact. In fact, he was wrong. That law led to a sharp rise in immigration and to the multicultural society we see today, despite administration predictions that neither of those things would happen.”

Previously Ludden covered the Middle East for NPR, reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the collapse of the decade-long Oslo peace process. In between breaking news, she also traveled from Egypt to Iran, reporting on cultural issues such as the dying tradition of storytellers in Syria or the emergence of Persian pop music in Iran.

Before taking up the Middle East beat, Ludden was based in Paris, reporting on France as well as traveling to Turkey, Kuwait, and India, among other places. From 1995 to 1997, Ludden covered West and Central Africa for NPR, coverage that included chronicling the devastating effects of civil war in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Her reports from Mali, Ghana, the Ivory Coast, and elsewhere also provided slices of everyday life in a region that is little covered by the international media.

Ludden won the Robert F. Kennedy award for her coverage of the fall of Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko and the rebellion of Laurent Kabila (who changed the country’s name to the Democratic Republic of Congo). Ludden was also part of the NPR team which won two awards for coverage of Kosovo in 1999: the Overseas Press Club Lowell Thomas Award and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi Award for Excellence in Journalism.

In the Q-and-A below, Jennifer Ludden gives insight on some of the international stories and countries she has covered:

Question: Georgetown College has a partnership with the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School for Diplomacy and International Commerce, and student team (called Project Compassion) that is involved with the U.N.’s World Food Programme and is a key player in a new, grassroots student organization, Universities Fighting World Hunger; we also have one interdisciplinary major called Commerce, Language & Culture and just announced another called Security Studies. What would you tell these students, who are beginning to study and understand what it might take to be a significant player in the global marketplace or the world humanitarian scene?

Answer: The U.S. immigrant population very much reflects what’s happening in the rest of the world. When people speak about getting to the “root causes” of immigration, they mean the poverty, war and other upheavals that drive people from their homes and lead them to seek refuge (or a better life) in Western nations. The U.S. is also far from alone in confronting a polarized and emotional debate over immigration these days. Many European countries and Australia are going through the same thing, as people in poorer African and Asian countries flock to their shores.

Q: Georgetown College is a Baptist-affiliated institution that sends a number of students on missions abroad. What would you have THEM know?

A: (see above!)

Q: What would you hope students who are NOT involved in any of these programs would come away with?

A: The main problem is that our current immigration system is broken. The government has simply not funded and not enforced its immigration system for several decades. While it’s true that millions of those here now “broke the law” by entering illegally, it’s also true that they’ve come with the near-certain knowledge that U.S business will give them a job. Successive administrations, Congresses, and industry are all complicit in the immigration problem today, yet it is largely the undocumented workers themselves who get the blame.

Q: Since these current students have been in college, the War in Iraq has been center stage and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has unfortunately taken a distant back seat….almost a footnote most nights (if at all) on the nightly network news. So….based on your experience reporting on that Middle Eastern conflict, what should our students keep in mind?

A: While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has fallen from our headlines, it’s still very much an issue across the Middle East. The Israeli barrier – while highly controversial – has seemed to reduce the number of terror attacks inside Israel. But the situation in the Gaza Strip and West Bank has only worsened since my time there, with open warfare between Hamas and forces of the Palestinian Authority. While it’s easy to dismiss “peace talks” and diplomacy that can drag on for years with marginal benefits, it sure seems to produce better results than the virtual stonewalling of the Bush administration.

Q: We see that you have reported on the emergence of Persian pop music in Iran. Given that the current administration is eyeing Iran as a threat….and is accusing Iran of supporting the insurgents in Iraq you have any insights on Iran?

A: Iran is a much more complex country than the sound-bites and actions of its president Ahmedinejad would suggest. When I was visiting there between 1999 and 2001 I always thought of it as two countries, really – the hardliners and the reformers. There are many who disagree with the conservative religious mullahs who are in charge, but they have little public voice. It’s only been two and a half decades since the Islamic revolution, and underneath those long black chadors and beards is a vibrant, opinionated population, many of whom have great admiration for the United States. Geographically and militarily speaking, Iran is also a completely different story than Iraq, whose state forces faded away in the face of the U.S. “cakewalk” to Baghdad. It’s a grave mistake to think the U.S. could prevail in a military assault on Iran.

Q: From your exposure to Persian pop music, do you have a favorite group or singer? Any that could pop up on OUR charts, if given the opportunity?

A: Houman Javid was a delightful young artist who’d just had his first album recorded when I interviewed him. I have no idea if his work is available in the U.S., but he does a mean imitation of Elvis!

Danford Thomas was a professor and a part of a family with lengthy ties Georgetown College, including several generations of faculty, most recently Dr. Horace Hambrick, emeritus professor of history. The lectureship was endowed in 1920, and past speakers have included Commander Richard Byrd, Daniel Schorer, Justice William O. Douglas, Congressman Brooks Hays, Elton Trueblood, Sam Donaldson, Alex Haley, Edwin Newman, and John Esposito.

Photo by Debbia Accame