Despite gridlock, impasse and inaction in the halls of Congress, thousands of passionate supporters of immigration reform turned out for a rally, concert and march on Washington, D.C.'s National Mall Oct. 8. They were drawn by the chance to send an urgent message to the U.S. House of Representatives: The time is now to pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation like the bill the Senate passed earlier this summer, which provides a pathway to citizenship for 11 million.
At the end of the day, their march to the Capitol building culminated in civil disobedience and the arrest of nearly 200 people. Among them: AFT President Randi Weingarten and AFT Vice President Maria Neira, eight Democratic members of Congress, and other labor, community and faith-based leaders. Weingarten and Neira were released the next morning after spending the night in jail. (Watch video of the arrest.)
"There are times when injustice is so great that there is no other choice but to be civilly disobedient," said Weingarten as she was led away by D.C. police. "This is one of those times. From the students who have never known a home beyond the United States to the teachers who want all their students to have equal opportunities, our broken immigration system is a huge obstacle for AFT members, students and families they serve. That's why we are working to reclaim the promise for all who make America home—regardless of where they were born."
"Our nation was built on the strength and vitality of immigrants," added Neira, vice president of the New York United Teachers and a member of the President's Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. "It's time for Congress to recognize the contributions immigrants have made."
The arrested lawmakers were Reps. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), Al Green (D-Texas), Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), John Lewis (D-Ga.), Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.).
Earlier in the day, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told the crowd, "By and large, the blood of immigrants flows through all our veins." Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) noted the economic imperative of comprehensive immigration reform, citing nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that reform will shave $900 billion off the national deficit over the next 20 years. As Weingarten said in her remarks at the rally: "Immigration is part of the American DNA."
The Senate passed immigration reform legislation in late June. House Democrats introduced a similar bill on Oct. 1, but the House Republican leadership is overdue to take up a similar, comprehensive bill, say activists.
The event, called Camino Americano (The American Way): Rally and March for Immigrant Dignity and Respect, was sponsored by CASA in Action, the AFL-CIO, the AFT, Service Employees International Union, the Center for Community Change, the Alliance for Citizenship and other groups. It capped a week of mobilizations around the country—part of a strategy to escalate the push to see a comprehensive immigration reform bill passed by the end of the year.
In New York City last week, migrant rights activists took action centered on the United Nations General Assembly's "High-Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development" on Oct. 3 and 4. Hundreds rallied at Foley Square on Oct. 2, then marched across the Brooklyn Bridge.
Judith Hall, president of the Association of International Educators and a member of the United Federation of Teachers, spoke for so many frustrated professionals who are facing immigration roadblocks after being recruited for high-need positions in New York City schools. Hall, who is from Jamaica, called for justice:
"We demand that the United Nations put voices of migrants and unions at the center of their dialogue this week, so that we can see a more just approach to migration and development in the future. What these governments decide affects real families and real people all over the world—it affects communities and hospitals, and it certainly affects schools."
The opening day of the Oct. 4-6 AFT Civil, Human and Women's Rights Conference in Los Angeles also featured a march and rally in support of immigrants' rights. Chanting "up with education, down with deportation," attendees marched to Pershing Square, where they heard from speakers including Weingarten; California Federation of Teachers President and AFT Vice President Joshua Pechthalt; Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center; and Austin, Texas, teacher Remigio Willman.
Weingarten and several of the other speakers at the rally, some of whom were undocumented students and adults, called on President Obama to end the deportation of immigrants that is disrupting families. There should be a "moratorium on all deportation of DREAMers and their families," Weingarten said.
Montserrat Garibay, vice president of Education Austin, who has recently earned her citizenship, described the toll the threat of separation takes on families and the students AFT members serve. (Read more about her.)
"It's time we recognize that immigrants want better lives for themselves and their families, and we should stand with them in the fight for immigration reform," Pechthalt said.
Saturday, Oct. 5, was a national day of action for immigration reform. Mass mobilizations took place in more than 160 cities around the country.
For years, the AFT has stood in solidarity with immigrant workers and advocated to advance comprehensive immigration reform. You can lend your voice to the cause by acting now to ensure we achieve our goals.
[Barbara McKenna, Roger Glass, AFT press release/photo credits, from top, John Harrington, David Grossman, Armando Arorizo]