“Every word my mother told me about this country I believed,” said Janna Hakim, a Palestinian-American college student from Brooklyn, with unwavering confidence under the vaulted ceilings of Judson Memorial Church in Manhattan on Monday. Then, Hakim continued, “she was ripped away from me and my siblings.” Her mother had been living in the United States for over 20 years before she was taken from their apartment at 6:00 a.m. during the holy month of Ramadan.
Hakim was one of many immigrants who spoke on the devastating impact of U.S. immigration policy on Monday. She was joined by immigrant activists and advocates who announced the formation of a statewide coalition called New Yorkers for Real Immigration Reform. The group includes immigrant youth and families, workers and labor organizers, civic and faith leaders and community groups. They came to make their demands for comprehensive immigration reform heard and to amplify a call for action leading up to a nationwide mobilization to be held on April 10 in Washington, D.C.
According to Jacki Esposito, Director of Immigration Advocacy of the New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC), “The mass mobilization will be the culmination of hard work, legislative advocacy and mobilization of immigration communities. Today is the start of a relentless campaign to pass immigration reform in 2013.” That same day, a bipartisan group of senators released their plan for a comprehensive immigration reform bill; the following day, in a major policy speech, President Obama publicly unveiled his own plan for reform.
Hakim continued to speak of the hardship her family has undergone since her mother was deported. She and sister have become the caretakers for their younger siblings, all of whom are citizens. Their mother has since been permanently barred from the United States.
“I feel like America is my home,” said Michelle Aucapina, a 15-year-old undocumented immigrant from Ecuador. She was detained when she and her younger brother Henry attempted to cross the border by themselves in 2010. She added, “I want to study, graduate, seize the opportunities this country offers me and prove to my parents that it was worth all they have done for me.” Now, she and Henry face deportation orders.
Luis Antonio Livio, proudly wearing an orange T-shirt with the name of his immigrant rights organization, La Fuente, spoke of crossing the desert, a journey that took him three months. Fifteen years later, Livio is calling on reform, he said, “so that I can achieve my dream of being seen as ‘legal’ in this nation.”
Judson Memorial Church has a history of serving immigrants and refugees — from its inception amidst an Italian immigrant community to taking in Central American refugees during the 1980s — making it a fitting place for New Yorkers for Real Immigration Reform to announce their campaign strategy. The event was held in coordination with the Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM), a national coalition of grassroots organizations in the fight for immigration reform. On Monday, FIRM held a press conference in Washington, D.C., with similar events and “echo actions” occurring around the country.
FIRM is organizing the April 10 mobilization, in which groups from all over the country will coalesce to make the voices of immigrant families heard. This marks the foundation of a renewed push for immigration reform that underscores the gravity of the issue by elevating the daily struggle that immigrant families face merely to remain intact. FIRM’s new campaign, “Keeping Families Together,” places everyday families at the forefront of the fight to demand a clear path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, a reduction in the backlogs of immigration cases that keep families apart, due process for all immigrants and an end to mass deportations.
Daniel Coates, who is the lead organizer at Make the Road New York and who works closely with FIRM, said of the campaign in an interview, “FIRM has a long history of fighting for immigration reform and has built credibility and a voice over the years. It’s a strong vehicle that is accountable to many organizations who work with immigrants on the ground, as well as [having] a great deal of capacity to work in Washington.”
Coates emphasizes the strength that immigrants, particularly the undocumented, gain from sharing their stories. “Participation in grassroots organizations, speaking to press and generally getting involved is very helpful — it supports people’s cases for being in this country and their confidence. It is the best way to build power.”
FIRM has launched a website where immigrant families can share how the immigration system has affected them through pictures and posts — poignant tales of living in the shadows. The campaign will also tour country this year; along the way, families will be able tell and record their stories at vigils and rallies, which will later be presented to their lawmakers.
“If we want to talk about family unity, we have to put families on the forefront and develop mechanisms for them to share,” explains Coates. “We need people who are directly affected by this issue to stand up and say what they want. If you don’t speak for yourself, someone else will speak for you.”
While advocates are largely pushing reform on moral and humanitarian grounds, lawmakers cannot deny that immigration is becoming a defining political issue for 2013. Latino and other immigrant voters came to the polls in unprecedented numbers during the 2012 presidential election, shifting our political landscape and sending a resounding message that immigrants will no longer be silenced.
When asked why this campaign’s efforts will impact change in a manner fundamentally different than past reform efforts, Esposito said, “This is a perfect storm.” She cited a committed White House as well as the power that is building in immigrant communities, which has prompted policymakers on both sides of the aisle — and even conservative commentators — to show support.
During his second inaugural address, Obama cited the lack of progress on immigration reform as the greatest failure of his first term, and he reaffirmed his commitment to repairing the immigration system. His promise comes as a slap in the face to many, since under Obama approximately 400,000 immigrants per year were deported for the past two years — more than under any previous administration. The number of individuals detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement has doubled in the last five years. The U.S.-Mexico border has been become militarized to a degree that was unfathomable under previous administrations. And at least 11 million individuals in this country remain undocumented.
More than ever is at stake, and immigrant communities are becoming increasingly unified, organized and outspoken. The coming months will be defining for them. At the close of the event at Judson Memorial Church, Joel Ponder, a young Panamanian community organizer with Queens Community House reflected on the calls for immigration reform by his fellow coalition members, many of whom have lost loved ones to deportation. “We need reform now,” he said, “or it will be too late.”
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