NEW YORK — On Tuesdays inside the Make the Road office in Jackson Heights in the New York City borough of Queens, Lorenzo Montenegro usually needs his glasses.
That’s when Make the Road, an immigrant rights organization, holds meetings for the immigration reform and civil rights committee — a group of immigrant news hounds, activists and parents who want to share their ideas about policy or tactics to mobilize the overwhelmingly Mexican and Colombian migrant population that calls this area home. Make the Road is a nonprofit organization that works to engage, empower and protect the nearly 40 percent of New York City residents who live in the United States, but were born abroad.
But this week, lead organizer Daniel Coates converted the white board where the group usually collects its ideas to a projection screen, displaying Spanish-language network Univision’s live coverage of the State of the Union.
Montenegro walked in, shed one of the two parkas he wore for his 15-minute walk to the office and searched all four of his exterior pockets before finding his glasses. He was one of the last of a group of nearly 35 to arrive, and got his glasses on just in time to join a game of “name that political figure and their job.” Univision’s cameras panned the congressional chamber and stopped on Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
“She is Napolitano,” Montenegro said so somberly in Spanish that Coates did not hear him. “Head of La Migra.”
Coates explained that Napolitano’s agency oversees U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency commonly referred to as ICE or “La Migra.” Other faces, including those of first lady Michelle Obama; former Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the president’s new secretary of state; Sen. John McCain (R- Ariz.); Sen. Chuck Schumer (D- N.Y.) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) proved more readily recognizable to the group. An 8-year-old boy who had been busy making faces at a television news camera in the room identified Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Rep. John Lewis (D- Ga).
Montenegro, 43 and the father of four, works in a midtown Manhattan restaurant where entrees run at least $45. His culinary specialty, skinning and preparing nopales (cactus), helped him get a job and visa to come to the U.S. in the late 1990s.
But his pay is not enough to cover the cost of his eldest daughter’s books and classes at New York’s City College. So now, she too works part-time in the same restaurant. The job is a blessing, Motenegro said, because she’s had to leave other restaurants where bosses have propositioned her and even touched her thinking they could get away with it because of her undocumented status, he said.
Montenegro wanted to hear the president’s plan for young people like his daughter and undocumented adults like his wife. His three youngest children were born inside the U.S. He’s also interested in what the president has to say about gun control, particularly what can be done about the proliferation of handguns.
“I’m hoping to hear him say that he won the election,” said Motenegro, in Spanish. “The Republicans cannot ignore the will of the people. They need to listen to the president and do the right things. Guns, immigration, then schools and jobs, in that order, because you cannot thrive if you are not safe.”
Then, the president walked in to a prize fighter’s greeting, took the lectern and began to speak. Talk about deficits didn’t elicit much of a reaction, but Obama’s line about taxes and the wealthy did. One man sat forward when the president talked about protecting the environment and facing up to the reality of climate change. But when Obama turned to his attention briefly to immigration, Sandra Zamora sat up.
Zamora, 30, is a mother of one who works as an ambulance dispatcher. She is the only one of her siblings born in the U.S. but one of five who live in New York. As she listened to Obama, she unfolded her crossed arms and within a few seconds, started to cry. Her siblings, some of their children and most of her closest friends are undocumented.
“I am emotional right now, I think a lot of us are emotional,” Zamora said later in the hallway outside the meeting room. “The president said very clearly, send me a bill with these things and I will sign it. He seems very sincere. It makes me believe we may have a future. I just hope the Congress really heard him.”
Inside the room, people applauded. Several began to talk. An undocumented woman who would identify herself only as Rose said Vice President Joe Biden should stop making heartburn faces on national TV. But, it was the president’s comments about the paltry pay and poverty associated with the minimum wage that elicited cheers.
Zamora got up to leave. She had an early shift at work and needed to get to a morning Ash Wednesday service.
This is a room of mostly working people, Coates explained. At its storefront office on Roosevelt Avenue, Make the Road sits surrounded by small businesses, most of them owned by immigrants. Across the street at Decoraciones Lupita, a party supply store, the lights went off before the president’s speech began. When it is open, it sells, among other things, custom and print-at-home quinceañera invitations and 2-, 4- and 5-foot tall piñatas. But Veytta’s, a Mexican bakery, and J.T.’s Carwash, remained open and busy well after 10 p.m.
The minute the president’s speech ended, Coates asked for help putting up the chairs. By 10:19 p.m., the meeting space sat empty. Coates and another man locked up.