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Keeping Families Together is the Heart of Immigration Debate

Heejin Hwang,
Washington Legislative Office
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October 11, 2013

Few things evoke stronger emotion and action than divided families.

One hundred fifty years ago for the United States, it was the Civil War. Sixty years ago for my family, it was the Korean War, when my grandmother could never again see family and friends on the other side of the border. For my parents it was their wedding twenty-eight years ago, when they lived apart for two years and mailed love letters, as my dad waited for his green card. Now, for many American families, immigration reform is striking that chord again.

At yesterday’s “Camino Americano,” or “American Road,” the Rally for Immigrant Dignity and Respect on the National Mall, I watched as eight members of the House of Representatives were arrested for acts of civil disobedience in support of passing immigration reform. Despite the government shutdown, they were joined by thousands, who urged President Obama and Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship.

“Congress, feel the pain of the immigrant community,” Alicia Silva of CASA de Maryland said in Spanish, after sharing the story of her missing nephew, who had been deported and had attempted to cross the border to see his t8-year-old son. “Si se puede,” I heard the crowd begin to chant

Speakers and participants – from Rep. Nancy Pelosi to Los Tigres del Norte, the five-time Grammy Award-winning band of brothers and cousins, to Maria, a Pennsylvania resident who helped look after the American children of undocumented single mothers – turned the discourse to family, at times celebrating America’s immigrant heritage and contributions, at times lamenting lives lost and families separated, and, ultimately, raising a battle cry for immediate action. Starting with a solemn reading of the names and ages of individuals who had died or were deported while crossing the southern border, the rally closed with a march to the U.S. Capitol building, where protesters and members of Congress alike were arrested on First Street. Almost symbolically, non-furloughed Hill staff watched from the other side of the fence. “Obama, escucha: Estamos en la lucha,” ralliers shouted throughout the day, meaning, “Obama, listen: We are still in the fight.”

“They shut down the government, but they can’t shut down our dreams,” said Mehdi Mahraoui, a senior at John Jay College for Criminal Justice in New York at the rally. A DREAMer from Morocco, he had traveled to D.C. with members of his school’s DREAMers Club after just having participated in an October 5 event at the Brooklyn Bridge.

Sen. Bob Menendez, a member of the Senate Gang of Eight that drafted S.744 [see the ACLU’s Vote Recommendation for it here], spoke of immigration reform’s positive economic impact and cited the Congressional Budget Office’s report on S.744, including the creation of 121,000 new jobs per year over the next 10 years and an increase in United States GDP by 3.3 percent in the first 10 years. “Nothing we offered has ever had such a dramatic economic impact,” he said.

The arrests of the eight members of Congress and the rallying families should signal the importance of comprehensive immigration reform and bring members of the House together to fix our broken system. We need to avoid bills such as the SAFE Act, which would only further tear families apart and instill more fear into communities, and support alternative legislation, like the House bill proposed last week, that will help stimulate action and protect what is at the heart of all Americans—our families.

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