April 10, 2006 marked what were likely the largest immigrants rights mobilizations in the U.S. history, when immigrant communities turned out in mass numbers in over 70 cities to express dissent over the anti-immigrant “Sensenbrenner Bill.” Exactly seven years later, on Wednesday, advocates took to the streets again, this time to demand that Congress pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill.
Tens of thousands of individuals representing civil rights, labor, faith, business and LGBT groups from across the country came together in Washington, D.C., with echo events held in at least 20 states. We packed the offices of our congressional representatives and rallied in front of the U.S. Capitol. There, keynote speaker NAACP President Benjamin Jealous and Senator Robert Menendez (one of the bipartisan ‘Gang of Eight’ senators drafting a reform bill) shared the podium with immigrant families, domestic workers and undocumented teen activists known as Dreamers.
I took a bus of immigrants from New York City to D.C. to take part in the “Rally for Citizenship” that included families, children and seniors, many of whom are undocumented and have been living in the shadows, so to speak, for decades. They pay taxes — I’ve helped some of them file — and work 60 and 70-hour weeks while taking English class.
The day I announced the trip to the immigrant students where I work, a single mother named M. came to my office and asked if she could tell me her immigration story. She spoke of the violence she experienced in her country that propelled her to flee. She told of crossing the border and being separated from her child, and the threats she still faces here. M. feels shame, and she still fears for her safety. She struggles daily with the weight of supporting her child as an undocumented immigrant. Hers was a story she had told no one outside of her family, and yet it was one she was ready to share.
One month later, I accompanied M. to a meeting with Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, who leads the Gang of Eight. He listened to immigrants share how U.S. immigration policy has impacted them — from day laborers and farm workers denied basic labor rights, to individuals whose family members were deported or were detained for years, merely for being undocumented. The senator assured some that forthcoming reform would ameliorate their struggles; to others, he emphasized the need for compromise in order to make progress with Republican lawmakers.
Earlier that day, M. and a small group of young students met with staff from the offices of Senator Gillibrand and our congressional representative, Carolyn Maloney. Tired of being identified as statistics, they said, the students had traveled to D.C. to put faces on the 11 million undocumented living in this country. They made it clear that they represented their friends, families and classmates — namely, those who were unable to take even a day off of work to join us, or who feared traveling out of the city because of their status. The students spoke eloquently about their concerns over labor conditions, of the lack of due process for immigrants and of the rising number of deportations that rip families apart. They posed thoughtful questions, and they asked their congressional leaders not to forget them. We were told the Senate was slated to unveil a bill as early as the end of this week, which has passed without a bill being formally announced.
When the students and I joined our larger group outside later that afternoon, I was moved to find a sea of immigrant families that had flooded the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol. Amidst the cherry blossoms that had just begun to bloom, voices boomed from the podium in different languages, highlighting the diverse but unified people calling on Congress to act now. Dreamers, dressed in their caps and gowns, demanded opportunities to access higher education. Ben Jealous gave a moving historical narrative, drawing from slave rebellions and the civil rights movement to remind us that in America, there are no second-class families. Children marched with signs that said “Do not deport my parents.” The energy and conviction of the event was palpable, and it was clear to me that we were living an undeniably historic moment.
At one point, a television crew approached and I was asked to translate for a young female student from Ecuador. A reporter asked her why so many Americans do not support reform. She looked around and held out her arms to the crowd, and replied without pausing that there is mass support for reform. The rally was a testament of that support, she affirmed. When the reporter opened his mouth to speak again, chants of sí, se puede! (yes, we can!) nearly drowned out his voice.