Immigrants and immigrant rights supporters commemorated International Migrants Day in the Mission on Friday night in a call to action to fight for comprehensive immigration reform legislation.
Guitarist Francisco Herrera opened the event with a song: “Here we are/we aren’t going anywhere/and if you throw us out/we will come back,” he sang in Spanish to an all ages, multi-ethnic crowd on the steps of Mission High School.
Community members wrote prayers for immigration reform on squares of cloth that were strung together in long, festive banners. “Take down these false borders… Save our families,” read one square. “No more broken families, no more broken promises, no more broken systems,” read another.
San Francisco Immigrant Legal and Education Network was the chief organizer of the event, which began with an interfaith vigil, followed by a town hall meeting that drew about 200 people. Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA), who represents Gilroy, and staff from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Rep. Luis Gutierrez’s (D-IL) offices also attended.
The meeting coincided both with International Migrants Day, which the United Nations established in 2000 to promote the human rights of migrants, as well as a reinvigorated debate on federal immigration policy. On Tuesday, Rep. Gutierrez introduced the first bill in what promises to be a complicated battle for comprehensive immigration reform.
Diana Rashid of East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, a co-sponsor of the event, conveyed the immigrant community’s impatience to see change. “We cannot wait. It’s not just on a legislative timeline. It’s on our timeline. And our timeline is now,” she said.
Rashid was joined on stage by Eric Quezada, executive director of Dolores Street Community Services, who added a sober reminder about the tense legislative fight ahead. “We are going to hear a lot of racist, xenophobic things about our community,” he warned.
The 13 organizations that make up the San Francisco Immigrant Legal and Education Network presented a unified platform on immigration reform that includes protecting immigrant workers, creating a path for undocumented immigrants to gain legal status, and making enforcement policies more humane.
Attendees were urged to sign cards pledging to make 100 calls to Congress to ask for new immigration legislation in the next 100 days.
“We are outnumbered 50 to one, 75 to one,” Rashid told the audience, a portion of which listened to a Cantonese or Spanish translator through a headset. “The anti-immigrant right is constantly calling, visiting legislators, writing letters against us and for anti-immigrant policies.”
Speakers from countries as diverse as Ivory Coast, Korea, China and Mexico gave personal testimonies about the hardship the current immigration system fosters. A woman named Ana told what happened when Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested her at her home. A 23-year-old named Nelly described graduating college only to be ineligible to work.
Event organizers announced that they had not yet adopted a position on Gutierrez’s bill, which is expected to be the most liberal of the comprehensive proposals. The bill, which provides a pathway for undocumented immigrants to gain legal status and does not include a temporary guest worker program favored by moderates and conservatives, is not likely to find broad support in Congress. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) of San Jose is expected to introduce a more moderate bill in the House and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) is also working on legislation.
After the meeting ended with a rousing cheer of “Sí se puede,” Quezada admitted that it would be an uphill battle to win immigrant-friendly legislation in the current political climate. But he said there are reasons to be hopeful that a grassroots strategy could have an impact.
“We play a key role in San Francisco,” he said, noting that key members in the House who could determine the fate of immigration legislation, including Pelosi and Lofgren, are from the Bay Area.
“The Democrats can’t discount the immigrant and Latino vote. There will be a political price to pay if they don’t deliver something meaningful,” Quezada said.
Edgar, 24, who immigrated six years ago from Yucatan, said he enjoyed his first immigrant rights meeting in the U.S. “But I don’t want to make calls,” he said with a smile.
His friend Santos, 25, who is from the same town in Yucatan, said he is particularly anxious to see stronger protections for undocumented workers. On Thursday he reported to his job at an Indian restaurant only to find that he had been replaced. “I’m still waiting for the pay they owe me,” he said.
Event organizers announced they are planning a second event on Jan. 5 at St. Peter’s Catholic Church.