Over 100 immigration reform advocates, many from uptown communities, gathered outside a Lower Manhattan court building this past Fri., Oct. 25th, for a candlelight vigil commemorating families affected by deportations.
Armed with signs and candles, the group formed two single-file lines on Varick Street, just outside 201 Varick Street, a building in which hundreds of deportation hearings are held every year. They sang songs, shared stories, and observed two minutes of silence for those who died on their journeys toward America.
Health care, the debt ceiling debate, and the 16-day government shutdown have overshadowed talks of immigration reform this fall, but since Congress resumed, the issue has jumped back into the political spotlight.
The Senate passed a comprehensive immigration bill back in June that would help give the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. a clear path to citizenship.
But talks have since stalled in the House, with Republicans more in favor of supporting individual bills targeting the issue’s many components.
With just days left in this year’s legislative session, President Obama has urged Congress to act quickly.
In a speech delivered from the White House on Thurs., Oct. 24th, he reiterated his call for a comprehensive immigration bill. “It’s good for our economy.
It’s good for our national security. It’s good for our people, and we should do it this year,” he said.
At Friday’s vigil, organized by the advocacy group Make the Road New York (MRNY), activists chanted, “Congress, listen; we’re in the fight” in Spanish before sharing their personal immigration stories.
“The candles represent families broken by the current immigration system,” said Luba Cortes, who crossed the border into America with her mother when she was five years old.
She told the crowd, “We need Eric Cantor and John Boehner to put a vote for immigration reform and we need to keep families together.”
Magdalena Barbosa, a Washington Heights resident and MRNY employment attorney, said attending the vigil was her way of honoring her grandparents, who immigrated to America from Nicaragua.
“Our government should acknowledge people like my grandparents, who came to the country over 50 years ago, wanting a better life for their children,” she said.
Victor Rosario, who emigrated from Brazil when he was five years old and has been a MRNY volunteer for the past 12 years, said that many Americans undervalue immigrants’ economic and cultural contributions to their communities.
“I’ve known people who have got deported,” he said sadly. “There’s always a chance it might happen.”
For 19-year-old Antonio Alarcón, the risk became a reality when his family members were deported back to Mexico two years ago. He lives on his own now in Jackson Heights, Queens, not yet permitted to visit his far-away family.
Alarcon now rallies youth to join him in the push for immigration reform, and traveled to Washington on Wednesday for a similar vigil with a group of advocates from Arizona.
“It’s incredible to see that it’s not an issue that affects just New York; it affects everybody in the nation,” he said.
It took Leandra Requena 15 years to become a citizen, having come to the U.S. from Peru 30 years ago. Though the Senate-passed bill legalizes illegal immigrants, it would not shorten the process of becoming a citizen for most in that position.
Requena said immigrant families have been unfairly ostracized.
“They are real people,” she said. “They are not criminals.”
Immigration reform would affect every New York City neighborhood.
The Bronx, the third most densely populated county in the United States, is the only city borough with a Hispanic majority. In 2000, the Bronx reported some of the nation’s highest percentages of Dominicans (10%), and the 2009 American Community Survey reported that 31.9 % of the Bronx’s population was foreign-born.
Washington Heights, for example, has one of the largest immigrant populations in the city, according to a report in 2000 by the Department of City Planning.
“When I grew up, Washington Heights was predominantly a Dominican neighborhood,” said Barbosa.
“But throughout the years I’ve seen the neighborhood change and now there is a large Central American community. There are people who don’t have status.”
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