STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — The impassioned chant rising from a crowd of nearly 200 last night on the steps of Borough Hall spoke to the frustrations of hardworking Americans — people who are separated from their families, whose children are not entitled to work or get financial aid for college, or who live in limbo, worried that at any moment, the government could order them back to a country they left decades ago.
"What do we need? Immigration reform! When do we need it? Now!" came the cry from dozens of community and spiritual leaders, youth organizers and concerned citizens, all of them residents of Staten Island and Brooklyn who arrived in this country from Latin America, Africa, Europe and the Middle East.
"For the first time, you are seeing the communities of Staten Island and Brooklyn coming together to make sure immigration reform passes in 2010," saidJavier H. Valdes, of Make the Road NY, the not-for-profit that organized the rally as part of a 50-state mobilization by the Reform Immigration FOR America Campaign, a broad-based national effort to fix immigration through legislation.
"The system is broken and it needs to be repaired," said Valdes, ticking off statistics showing how loosening the restrictions on the country’s immigrants would help stimulate and stabilize the economy.
Speakers from places as diverse as Liberia, Poland, Albania, Mexico and Ghana urged Washington to tackle the politically charged issue of immigration law, even as lawmakers move on a heavy agenda including health care reform, a recasting of the financial system and new environmental regulations.
"When election time comes, we want people to know this is important," said Olu A. Ajayi, of the Nigerian American Community Association, who like many others at the vigil is a citizen but understands the struggles of those who cannot get a toehold on legal status here.
"Being immigrants on Staten Island, we contribute positively to this economy as well as support the community," said Maria Morales, the owner of Los Portrillos restaurant in Port Richmond, who became involved in the movement for immigrant rights after her store was vandalized in an anti-Mexican hate crime in August 2008.
"We are doctors, we are construction workers, and as everyone knows, we have children and it’s for them we need reform," said Urszula Cyszkienicz, representing the Polish community and speaking about how young adults and standout students, who arrived here as babies without legal immigration paperwork, are now unable to work or get financial help for college. "We need reform, not tomorrow, not today, yesterday!"