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'Si, Se Puede': Episcopalians rally in support of immigrants

By Pat McCaughan

Jorge Torres
The Rev. Alvaro Araica (left), vicar of Iglesia el Cristo Rey, Chicago, with members of his mission congregation during the march through the Loop.   (Jorge Torres)

[Episcopal News Service]  The 'Day Without Immigrants' was anything but for Episcopalians and others who joined more than one million people across the nation to demonstrate their support for immigrant rights on May 1.

From Los Angeles to New York, from Washington, D.C. to Phoenix, demonstrators chanted "Si, se puede" (yes, it can be done) and carried signs bearing messages such as "ahora marchamos, manana votamos" (today we march, tomorrow we vote).

"It was joyful, it was hopeful, and it was where the church needs to be," said Bishop Assistant Sergio Carranza of Los Angeles, who offered blessings to passing marchers from the steps of St. James Church in the city's Wilshire district. Other clergy passed out bottled water and the church opened its doors to a steady stream of demonstrators for hourly prayers in Spanish, Korean and English. About 400,000 people participated in two separate rallies in Los Angeles, while an estimated 10,000 attended another rally in Orange County's Santa Ana.

In New York City, the rally in Union Square was amazing, declared Raquel Granda. "It was the turning point in this whole thing, it's only the beginning. Since my parents are immigrants, this is an issue close to my heart," said Granda, director of Cathedral Community Services, a social service agency of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

"There were lots of families, lots of kids, there was a sense that we really are here. We're a part of the fabric of this country and criminalizing us or not giving us an opportunity to have documentation is ridiculous. We're not terrorists. One sign I saw that I especially liked said: 'I cleaned your toilets and made your bed yesterday, but today Im a business owner and Im here.'"

The nationwide event, tied to the international holiday honoring workers, coincided with dozens of gatherings across the country, including prayer vigils in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere. An estimated 500,000 people rallied in Chicago's Grant Park to renew the call to legalize the nation's undocumented immigrants. The call for rallies and boycotts came at a critical time, when the House of Representatives has passed a bill that would make illegal immigration a felony and penalize employers who hire undocumented workers. The bill, sponsored by U.S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin), also would extend a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. The Senate, meanwhile, has resumed debate about whether to integrate illegal immigrants already in the U.S. Some senators want to grant them temporary work visas. Others want to give those workers a path to U.S. citizenship.

Rallies, cheers and haunting quiet

A call to boycott businesses, work and school rendered Phoenix's construction, landscaping and gardening industries hauntingly quiet, according to the Rev. Canon Carmen Guerrero, canon for peace and justice in the Diocese of Arizona. "Many businesses in the area where I live, West Valley, were closed, especially the construction companies," Guerrero said. "There was no building, no gardening, no landscaping going on that day."

She said that organizers in Phoenix held a march and a prayer service in Army Park in the center of Tucson on May 1, attended by about 500 people. Guerrero noted that the May 1 rallies were part of a series of rallies and demonstrations staged to raise public awareness about immigration-related issues, and that future events are planned.

For the Rev. Primitivo Racimo, vicar of St. Margaret of Scotland Church in South Chicago, participating in the downtown rally made him realize that the church must tie the struggle for immigrant rights to its 20/20 vision of welcoming the stranger. "We in the Episcopal Church say that we welcome everybody, but at the same time we must be hospitable," he said.

Similarly, the struggle for immigrant rights must assume a global context, he said. "The immigration issues we have here in this country become also an issue for our brothers and sisters in the Anglican Communion, who are in other parts of the world. There are many Anglicans who are here, immigrants both undocumented and documented, who really need looking to," he added.

Legal reform: beyond sound bites to a deeper conversation

In southern Pennsylvania's Kennett Square, near the Maryland and Delaware borders, the Rev. Patrick Seylor called for a new civil rights movement that includes not only a reasonable and comprehensive immigration law but also labor reform for the poor.

Kennett Square is known as the mushroom capital of the world and there are about 25,000 migrant workers there, although about 20,000 of them are here legally, said Seylor, 50, who is developing the United in Faith Episcopal-Lutheran Mission, an outreach ministry to area Hispanics.

"This county ranks 14th highest in income in the country and 11th in disposable income, yet many of those here who are legal workers are treated as if they were illegal by their employers.

"They cry out for justice but their voices go unheard. They haven't had a salary increase since 1979. Sometimes the treatment includes unsanitary conditions, salary issues, no health insurance or getting fired if someone has an accident. People get hurt and don't say anything because they know they will lose their jobs because the employers don't want to pay workers compensation, so they keep quiet."

The Argentina-born Seylor said the American public needs to get beyond sound bites to a deeper conversation about why the marches are occurring.

"There are a lot of misconceptions by the American public about what people are looking for and there's very little conversation about history. For many Mexicans, the border was changed on them; one day they were in Mexico and the next day they woke up in the United States. They have not forgotten it," he said. "For them the border is not officially made and they don't really feel that they're doing something illegal because of the history and people want to ignore that, just as they want to ignore the history of slavery as if that doesn't have anything to do with our present time.

In the Washington, D.C. area, the Rev. Simone Bautista, diocesan Hispanic missioner and assistant rector at Church of the Ascension, said a gathering in Gaithersburg drew about 1,000 people--twice the anticipated number. After the Gaithersburg demonstration, the local city council approved a day labor center that would offer improvement courses to undocumented laborers, such as English as a Second Language (ESL), as well as identification cards that would allow them to open bank accounts. It's not just a place to wait but a place to improve, he said.

"A reasonable comprehensive immigration policy would need, first and foremost, to stop regarding the undocumented as criminals, but as people," he said. Amnesty would also need to be incorporated into it.

Molly Keane of the Episcopal Church's Office of Government Relations said the May 1 demonstrations "very clearly send the message that we are out there, we have a strong voice.

"We're very optimistic that Congress will address comprehensive immigration reform and will bring it to a vote by Memorial Day," she said.

Meanwhile, Raquel Granda, at New York's St. John the Divine, hopes the country will come together over the issue.

"I was at the peace rallies organized on Saturday and there was a sea of white people, basically," she said. "Then, I went to the May 1 rally and it was a whole sea of people of color. My goodness, if we could get those groups together wed put a different face on it. Too many people are not seeing that immigrants are Americans, that were here as Americans."