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Change doesn’t come easily

September 8, 2006

Yesterday, I and the other leaders of the Day Without an Immigrant
Coalition to Washington, D.C., to participate in a national immigration
reform rally.  Accompanying us on our bus were 30+ immigrants from
the Philadelphia area, most of whom are undocumented.  During the
4-hour rally and march, I had the opportunity to speak with several of
them about their experiences in the United States and their thoughts on
the actions that our group and others have been holding over the past
year to call for comprehensive reform.

Early in the day, I hit it off with Luis, an Argentinian who has lived
in the USA for five years, since I had been to his native Buenos
Aires.  Luis was eager to unload his frustration with his employer
in Philadelphia, for whom he works overtime every week but from whom he
barely receives enough pay to cover a 40-hour work week.  He
emphasized how unfair it is that employers take advantage of
undocumented immigrants by paying them less than other workers, or
paying them late, or sometimes not paying them at all.  He said he
doesn’t need much because he’s not concerned about his own quality of
life in the USA–he’s here to send money home to his wife and kids–but
that he deserves to earn the same pay that an American worker would get
for his labor. 

Another immigrant who called himself the monster (“monstro”), from
Mexico (he wore an Emiliano Zapata t-shirt), shared his misgivings on
the rallies and marches he has attended, commenting on how all of the
speakers were legal immigrants and therefore didn’t understand what the
reality on the ground was like.  He said he
wanted to be up there speaking, or at least to be listening to other
undocumented immigrants who know what this struggle is really about and
what the stakes really are.

As we rode the bus home late yesterday evening, I contemplated the many
conversations I’d had and overheard during the day.  I thought
about how right “monstro” was:  that the organizers and speakers
at these rallies are supporting this movement based on principle,
whereas those who are attending the rallies are there to fight for
something that may ultimately mean the difference between life and
death for them.  In the end, it will make little difference in my
life if comprehensive immigration reform is not passed, but to those
surrounding me throughout the day, it will make an extraordinary
difference, especially if stricter enforcement measures are
passed.  To Luis, it will mean either being deported and returning
home to his wife and daughters empty-handed; or never being caught, but
also never being able to return home to visit his family until he’s
earned enough money to not have to return to the United States, for
immigrants without documentation risk never being able to return if
they leave to visit their families.

Today I read the following statement by House Speaker Dennis Hastert in
the Washington Post:  “We’re at war, and we need to act like it.
We need to close the borders.”  But why does everyone focus on the
Mexican border when the 9/11 terrorists crossed the Canadian
border?  And why doesn’t the Republican leadership realize the
logic in expanding legal ways
for immigrants to come to our country so that it’s easier to catch the
few that still try to come illegally?  And why does nobody, nobody
mention the havoc that our nation’s past policies have wreaked on Latin
America, thereby prompting the flood of immigrants seeking to become a
part of our economy?  Why do we not recognize the responsibility
we had for creating the current immigration “crisis”?

Our leaders are continuing to foster a climate of fear in the United
States, and fear, I believe, is at the root of so much of the racism,
sexism, classism, and other “isms” that already exist in our
country.  Fear, unfortunately, also causes people to cling to
their leaders, which is just what the Republicans (and some Democrats)
want–but it’s not what our country needs.  Our country needs to
be easing tensions, not
creating new ones.  We need to be fostering feelings of empathy,
compassion, and togetherness in order to make us a truly powerful
nation, for a nation divided is much more susceptible to all kinds of
threats, terroristic and otherwise. 

On the bus ride home yesterday, I also thought a lot about human
life.  As I watched the immigrant couple in the pair of seats
across from me holding each other and talking lowly in sweet voices, I
felt moved by the struggle these kind, hard-working people live through
day in and day out; I felt moved to speak, moved to write, and moved to
continue to act.

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