Immigration Reform: the Power of Narrative

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This article originally appeared at

word my mother told me about this country I believed,” said Janna Hakim, a
Palestinian-American college student from Brooklyn, with unwavering confidence
under the vaulted ceilings of Judson Memorial Church
in Manhattan on
Monday. Then, Hakim continued, “she was ripped away from me and my siblings.”
Her mother had been living in the United States for over 20 years
before she was taken from their apartment at 6:00 a.m. during the holy month of

was one of many immigrants who spoke on the devastating impact of U.S.
immigration policy on Monday. She was joined by immigrant activists and
advocates who announced the formation of a statewide coalition called New
Yorkers for Real Immigration Reform. The group includes immigrant youth and
families, workers and labor organizers, civic and faith leaders and community
groups. They came to make their demands for comprehensive immigration reform
heard and to amplify a call for action leading up to a nationwide mobilization
to be held on April 10 in Washington,

According to Jacki Esposito, Director
of Immigration Advocacy of the New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC), “The mass
mobilization will be the culmination of hard work, legislative advocacy and
mobilization of immigration communities. Today is the start of a relentless
campaign to pass immigration reform in 2013.” That same day, a bipartisan group
of senators released their plan for a comprehensive immigration reform bill;
the following day, in a major policy speech, President Obama publicly unveiled
his own plan for reform.

continued to speak of the hardship her family has undergone since her mother
was deported. She and sister have become the caretakers for their younger
siblings, all of whom are citizens. Their mother has since been permanently
barred from the United

feel like America is my
home,” said Michelle Aucapina, a 15-year-old undocumented immigrant from Ecuador. She
was detained when she and her younger brother Henry attempted to cross the
border by themselves in 2010. She added, “I want to study, graduate, seize the
opportunities this country offers me and prove to my parents that it was worth
all they have done for me.” Now, she and Henry face deportation orders.

Antonio Livio, proudly wearing an orange T-shirt with the name of his immigrant
rights organization, La Fuente, spoke of crossing the desert, a journey that
took him three months. Fifteen years later, Livio is calling on reform, he
said, “so that I can achieve my dream of being seen as ‘legal’ in this nation.”

Judson Memorial
Church has a history of serving immigrants
and refugees — from its inception amidst an Italian immigrant community to
taking in Central American refugees during the 1980s — making it a fitting
place for New Yorkers for Real Immigration Reform to announce their campaign
strategy. The event was held in coordination with the Fair Immigration Reform
Movement (FIRM), a national coalition of grassroots organizations in the fight
for immigration reform. On Monday, FIRM held a press conference in Washington, D.C.,
with similar events and “echo actions” occurring around the country.

is organizing the April 10 mobilization, in which groups from all over the
country will coalesce to make the voices of immigrant families heard. This
marks the foundation of a renewed push for immigration reform that underscores
the gravity of the issue by elevating the daily struggle that immigrant
families face merely to remain intact. FIRM’s new campaign, “Keeping Families
Together,” places everyday families at the forefront of the fight to demand a
clear path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, a reduction in the
backlogs of immigration cases that keep families apart, due process for all
immigrants and an end to mass deportations.

Coates, who is the lead organizer at Make the Road New York and who works
closely with FIRM, said of the campaign in an interview, “FIRM has a long
history of fighting for immigration reform and has built credibility and a
voice over the years. It’s a strong vehicle that is accountable to many
organizations who work with immigrants on the ground, as well as [having] a
great deal of capacity to work in Washington.”

emphasizes the strength that immigrants, particularly the undocumented, gain
from sharing their stories. “Participation in grassroots organizations,
speaking to press and generally getting involved is very helpful — it supports
people’s cases for being in this country and their confidence. It is the best
way to build power.”

has launched a website
where immigrant families can share how the immigration system has affected them
through pictures and posts — poignant tales of living in the shadows. The
campaign will also tour country this year; along the way, families will be able
tell and record their stories at vigils and rallies, which will later be
presented to their lawmakers.

we want to talk about family unity, we have to put families on the forefront
and develop mechanisms for them to share,” explains Coates. “We need people who
are directly affected by this issue to stand up and say what they want. If you
don’t speak for yourself, someone else will speak for you.”

advocates are largely pushing reform on moral and humanitarian grounds,
lawmakers cannot deny that immigration is becoming a defining political issue
for 2013. Latino and other immigrant voters came to the polls in unprecedented
numbers during the 2012 presidential election, shifting our political landscape
and sending a resounding message that immigrants will no longer be silenced.

asked why this campaign’s efforts will impact change in a manner fundamentally
different than past reform efforts, Esposito said, “This is a perfect storm.”
She cited a committed White House as well as the power that is building in
immigrant communities, which has prompted policymakers on both sides of the
aisle — and even conservative commentators — to show support.

his second inaugural address, Obama cited the lack of progress on immigration
reform as the greatest failure of his first term, and he reaffirmed his
commitment to repairing the immigration system. His promise comes as a slap in
the face to many, since under Obama approximately 400,000 immigrants per year
were deported for the past two years — more than under any previous
administration. The number of individuals detained by Immigration and Customs
Enforcement has doubled in the last five years. The U.S.-Mexico border has been
become militarized to a degree that was unfathomable under previous
administrations. And at least 11 million individuals in this country remain

than ever is at stake, and immigrant communities are becoming increasingly
unified, organized and outspoken. The coming months will be defining for them.
At the close of the event at Judson
Memorial Church,
Joel Ponder, a young Panamanian community organizer with Queens Community House
reflected on the calls for immigration reform by his fellow coalition members,
many of whom have lost loved ones to deportation. “We need reform now,” he
said, “or it will be too late.”

Image by Laurie

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