The message from more than 150 marchers who gathered in the streets of Riverhead Oct. 16 rang out throughout downtown, and perhaps, thanks to the internet, as far as the streets of Congress.
“Immigrants are Welcome Here,” they chanted loud and clear, but also, a message for the Senate Majority Leader: “Schumer, escucha, estamos en la lucha. — Schumer, listen, we are in the fight!”
Senator Chuck Schumer of New York had said publicly that he plans to include immigration reform in the Senate’s budget reconciliation for 2022, which would allow the reform to be passed by the Senate with a simple majority of 51 instead of 60 votes.
Immigration advocates are pressing across the country that this reform should include a pathway to citizenship for the Dreamers — an Obama-era program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) that allowed immigrants brought to this country as children to work, drive and attend college, and for immigrants with Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which is granted on a short-term basis to people from countries that are experiencing internal conflicts like natural disasters and civil wars, as well as for farm laborers and other essential workers who are often immigrants.
This message was at the forefront of the demands of marchers in Riverhead Saturday.
Political Associate Malik James of The New York Immigration Coalition, which organized the march along with numerous East End immigrant advocacy groups, said the coalition and its partners had been asking Mr. Schumer for the past month to provide a pathway to citizenship for essential workers, TPS holders and Dreamers.
“We are getting closer and closer every day to that goal,” he said. “Right now there are a few senators from West Virginia and Arizona who are trying to tell us that we don’t deserve citizenship. But we have a message for them: We are the immigrants, the mighty, mighty immigrants, and we’re not going to stop until we get citizenship. Period…. Senator Schumer made a promise to all of us that he would deliver citizenship this year with the Democratic Congress that we gave him this year…. There is no excuse to not deliver citizenship this year for the essential workers who have toiled day and night to give us what we need to be comfortable, to be safe and to be healthy. We are not going to stop. We are going to keep fighting. And if they don’t deliver for us, we will vote them out.”
DACA recipient Jade Stoute, originally from Trinidad, came to the U.S. when she was 2 years old.
“My journey with DACA has been tough,” she said, adding that at the beginning of this year she was unable to get her DACA status renewed, and instead was able to apply for another program called Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, which enabled her to get a Green Card only because her father had died.
“I know a lot of people personally who are affected by this,” she said. “Thank you all so much for showing up today.”
Jonathan Zelaya, a 26-year-old former DACA recipient who was born in El Salvador, said his parents brought him here to protect him from gang violence. El Salvador was added to the list of countries whose citizens were allowed Temporary Protected Status after two earthquakes in 2001. TPS status has been extended for citizens of El Salvador currently in the United States, along with five other countries: Haiti, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua, and Sudan, through the end of 2022.
“You don’t see the same opportunities of every other kid here,” said Mr. Zelaya of growing up without immigration papers, adding that he jumped at the opportunity to apply for DACA when the program was first launched in 2012.
“It just opened up great doors for every DACA recipient,” he said. “It opened up big doors, just being able to legally drive in this country and actually get a job and, for some of us, go to college. You can’t go to college unless you have papers.”
He added that he was able to get his Green Card through his wife.
“Not everybody has the same opportunity, but I’m here to fight for everybody, because it’s just fair for TPS recipients and DACA recipients to get their Green Card,” he said. “My parents have been here for over 25 years with TPS and there is no other way for them to get a Green Card. This is their home. This is my home. I don’t know any other home than this country. We built our lives here. We’ve been working here and we do no harm to anybody.”
“I want to express my goodwill to all the impacted people who spoke to us today, and told us why the path to citizenship is so important and why it needs to be done now,” said State Assemblyman Fred Thiele, adding that he’d supported state law allowing undocumented immigrants to get access driver’s licenses and educational opportunities. He urges his colleagues in the federal government to follow suit.
“It’s the right thing to do and it should have been done a long time ago,” he said. “We have a broken immigration system in this country that the federal government has ignored for decades, and our immigrants that are seeking nothing more than a better life are the victims of that failed and broken system.”
“Our country will be a stronger country by including them,” he added. “There’s two kinds of politics, the politics of division, where people use politics to set people off against each other, us versus them. It’s the politics of fear and we are lesser for that kind of politics. And then there’s the politics of inclusion, where we recognize that we are all better off when we work together to make this country, this state, our community, better for everybody. That is the kind of politics I choose.”
He urged Senator Schumer to chose the politics of inclusion, quoting Martin Luther King, Jr.: “In the end, we will not remember the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends,” and “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
His comments were met with a chant of “si se puede” — yes, we can — the English version of which is widely known from former President Barack Obama’s campaigns, but the original Spanish phrase gained notoriety in this country during the Farm Workers Movement led by Cesar Chavez in California in the 1960s.
OLA of Eastern Long Island Associate Director Sandra Dunn told the crowd that she had reached out to numerous local public officials, including the supervisors of all five East End towns, asking them to come to the rally. Mr. Thiele was the only one who said, immediately, “I will be there.” In the end, he was the only politician to show up.
“This is a very local issue,” said Ms. Dunn. “The families they represent are here, in their communities…. If local officials showed leadership, and did immigrant-friendly, common sense legislation, the federal officials would do the right thing.”
Sister Margaret Smyth of the North Fork Spanish Apostolate said she had some good news for the marchers, but it wasn’t good enough that they should applaud.
She said she had received a phone call from someone in Senator Schumer’s office the day before, who had promised the senator heard the marchers’ concerns and was working on them.
“In my office we have a saying — yo no creo si no veo — I don’t believe until I see, and ‘see’ means action,” said Sister Margaret. “Words of just saying ‘I support’ go nowhere until we see the results of what’s going to happen, and there’s not much time left.”
The marchers weren’t taking any chances that they’d be overlooked by the senator’s office. As the speeches finished up, organizer Ivan Larios of The New York Immigration Coalition asked attendees to use their phones to scan a QR code on a sheet of paper he’d handed out to the crowd, which took them to a website where they could send a message directly to Schumer’s office, by the dozens.