Speakers told their tales of legal obstacles and life realities at a forum on immigration reform last week in Hood River.
“I came to this country when I was 14, and it was very difficult,” said Graciela Gomez of Hood River. “I worked in orchards, packing houses, cleaning fields by gathering rocks, taking care of children, house cleaning, caring for elderly people, and all these experiences were beautiful and very difficult. Now I have a family, and I came to this country to fight for my family, to give them the best, because sadly in my country, we don’t have these opportunities.”
The event was the “Strengthening Our ONE Community” forum at Riverside Community Church, held on day two of the week-long March For One bus tour for immigration reform (see Definitions box) and driver’s license restoration, sponsored by the Oregon immigration reform advocacy group CAUSA, and locally by Gorge Ecumenical Ministries.
In 2008, Oregon Senate Bill 1080 became law, requiring proof of citizenship or legal status to obtain an retain a driver’s license.
According to CAUSA, “restoring access to driver’s licenses for all will allow Oregon to promote Latino immigrants’ productive and purchasing power, protect public safety and law enforcement and provide for the continued economic recovery in Oregon.”
Other local speakers, and a member of the bus tour, spoke about how documentation and the right to legally drive a car would impact their lives and serve the community.
Deferred Action (DACA) — Federal ruling in June 2012 delays for two years any deportation proceedings on young immigrants; applicants must pay a $465 fee.
(In January 2013 Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles determined that Deferred Action recipients may also legally obtain Oregon driver’s licenses.)
CAUSA supports an end to the law.
March For One — Sponsored by Rural Organizing Project, Causa Oregon, PCUN Farmworkers Union, and the United Farmworkers Union, the goal of the event is “to unite rural communities in the vision of immigration reform, restoration of driver’s licenses and fair treatment for all immigrants,” according to a Causa Oregon press release
Immigration Reform, two views:
CAUSA — a statewide Latino immigrant rights organization — promotes “creating a rigorous registration process that leads to lawful permanent resident status and eventual citizenship,” on behalf of an estimated 12 million undocumented people living in the U.S., according to its website.
FAIR — Federation for American Immigration Reform, a national advocacy group, calls for “a temporary moratorium on all immigration except spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens and a limited number of refugees that at would allow us time to regain control or our borders and reduce overall levels of immigration to more traditional levels of about 300,000 a year.”
“We need to live as the other members of the community, with the feeling of a secure place,” said Tonia Sanchez of Hood River, who works with Hispanic families as a health promoter for The Next Door Inc.
“We need immigration reform? That is a question,” Sanchez said, eliciting a loud “Si!”
“And that is why many of us are traveling today — to ask for immigration reform,” Sanchez said, “and, even more, not just ask but demand, because we deserve it.”
The gathering filled the Pioneer Room of Riverside Community Church. Among the 100 local residents who joined the 45 bus riders at the forum, were Mayor Arthur Babitz, County Commissioner Les Perkins, Schools Superintendent Charlie Beck and Hood River Police Chief Neal Holste and Officer Sal Rivera.
“It’s one thing to read about this in a newspaper and another thing to hear their personal stories,” Babitz said. “I thought it was very moving.”
Beck noted that immigration and residency directly concerns many families of students in the school district, and said this school year he has formed a round table group made up of teachers, staff members and parents, to help the district better understand the issues.
“We need to unify as a nation in this era of globalization,” Sanchez said. “According to The Wall Street Journal, China is graduating more engineers and people with doctoral degrees than our nation. With emerging technology we need to be prepared.
“We need to have progress with education, and have education. And how? — because we don’t have the privilege to be legally here. Many families have young (people) who can be eligible to go to college, but very many, they are not eligible to go to college.
“One of the problems is our broken system. It is separating families. We have more single parents than ever,” Sanchez said. “One is here working two jobs and taking care of the kids because one of them is outside of the country. We need to fix our broken immigration system, all of this is because we have not been working hard to do that.
“Look at the local economy: we have an agriculture area. Our people are doing the work, it’s hard work, but they are doing it happily because that makes money to support the family. But some or many of them are afraid to be stopped in the street and put in jail and after that sent to Tacoma or Portland; then deported to Mexico.”
Holste called the forum “very impactful, to hear the voices of the people who are involved in it.” He acknowledged that arrest and deportation “is a fear for people here, hopefully we can change that, to view not every contact with law enforcement as one that leads to deportation.
“I’d say it rarely happens around here; it if happens it’s some other trigger, such as arrest and (booking at) NORCOR, not a local (contact).”
Graciela Gomez, speaking through an interpreter, thanked Holste and Rivera for attending, and said, “We have good, understanding police here. But it is so hard, so many families suffering, and that is why we need to unite to achieve immigration reform so now we can have driver’s licenses so we can have identification, that is all we are asking for.
“Because we know we are here working hard, we help move agriculture forward. But we don’t have any way of identifying ourselves at this time. It is so sad.
“We can stay always united and achieve this dream, that at least we can have identity in this nation,” Gomez said. “I assure all of you citizens of this country, that we are not here to hurt anyone. We came to this country to work, support, and unite our families, and that is what God wants of us, for us to be one family. I know many American people and I want to tell you with all my heart, thank you.”
“I’ve had the opportunity to be with people who are suffering now, people who don’t have residency but have to drive a car to work, to take food to their families, to get their kids to the doctor, to school,’ Gomez said. “Even though here we are working for a minimum wage but we have to have food to eat.
“We have to drive for so many reasons but you cannot imagine what it is to feel fear, that entire families feel who are here without residency. And have to drive in fear that if you are stopped by the police they will take your car,” she said, interjecting in English, “maybe, I don’t know.”
Luis Ortega was 3½ when he came to the United States with his mother, Maria, who later married Enrique Ortega of Hood River. Maria and Luis’ stepfather, Enrique Ortega, together have two children.
In Mexico, Luis explained, his birth father “was not responsible,” and his mother struggled to find a job to support her family. Luis obtained Deferred Action status (see Definitions box) but said growing up undocumented “made me stay up late at night, thinking.
“I was afraid if my mom or I got sent back, afraid because I didn’t know anyone in Mexico, and it made me feel like I didn’t have the same chances as all my friends did.”
Since qualifying for Deferred Action, he said, “I feel a lot calmer, and I feel like if I try hard I have a better chance to go to college, like I can try later on for full citizenship.
“I want to go to college and study to become a lawyer and I’d like to help out, because a lot of people I know helped me get Deferred Action, and I’d just like to give back to the community,” Ortega said.
Tour member Alejandra Lily of Salem also told her story.
“I came to this country when I was 28. I had just graduated from nursing school, worked for one year in Social Security program (in Mexico); there you have to buy your position; the time you dedicate didn’t count. I had three children, now four.
“Life was really, really hard and I was told with my profession I could make a living here, so I came to live the American dream. I crossed the border without documents and came to Oregon with hopes of continuing in my career.
“Once I got here I really started to realize what it meant to be undocumented. At first it was so painful because I had to leave my children alone. I got here and I realized you need a Social Security number for everything. But you have to survive so I had to give up my dream of continuing my profession and my studies.
“I suffered so much discrimination for being a woman, for being a Mexican, for being undocumented, and even for being short,” Lily said. “I’ve suffered all types of discrimination in this country. But I looked for organizations that defended immigrants. Since 1997 I’ve been participating in immigration reform.
“That year I bought these tennis shoes at Goodwill and in these shoes I have marched in every march to promote immigration reform since then. So many times I felt I walked alone. But when I started working with other organizations and saw all of you supporting us, I realized I was not in the shadows and that there are so many people who understand the need and understand the suffering,” Lily said, wiping tears from her face.
“Once someone asked me, ‘Why don’t you go back to your country and come back here legally?’ I said, ‘At that time if I had 50,000 pesos, which is about $5,000 I wouldn’t be here right now.’ People (in Mexico) have to have some money, and at least medium resources.
“People who come legally have never had to scrape through garbage cans to find something to feed their children, so I really hope that people who think we come here to be treated badly will think twice. Consider fasting for a week and experiencing hunger so you know what that is.
“I want to thank all of you here who are filled with the Holy Spirit. I want to thank you for being here for supporting immigration reform because we do deserve it.”