Participants in today's Immigrant Day event at the Capitol are blogging about their experience with the event over the years. Here are two entries submitted to Capitol Alert:
From Stewart Kwoh, founding president and executive director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California:
Immigrant Day 2011 Retrospective
This month, we celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of Immigrant Day, a statewide advocacy day organized to champion immigrant integration in our community. Since the very first Immigrant Day in Sacramento, many things have changed, some for the worse and some for the better. For the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) immigrant community, the past 15 years have been marked by great victories but also great challenges.
To understand how far we've come, it's necessary for us to look back in time. 1996 was a challenging year for immigrants. The passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PWRORA) made many immigrants ineligible for federal welfare programs, gutting the safety net for low-income immigrants. Some in Congress tried to dismantle key family-based immigration provisions, a cornerstone of U.S. immigration policy, to further restrict the amount of family members that would be eligible to immigrate to the country. APALC was also embroiled in a legal battle on behalf of trafficked Thai garment workers, who were forced to sew behind barbed wire and under armed guard in El Monte, California.
In response to these challenges, advocates stepped up to the plate. The California Immigrant Welfare Collaborative (CIWC), made up of key immigrant rights organizations including APALC, was formed to advocate on behalf of immigrants. During its first few years, CIWC helped establish or expand a number of state programs to replace lost federal cash, nutrition and health benefits from PWRORA's passage - creating such programs as the California Food Assistance Program and the Cash Assistance Program for Immigrants. California became the first state to restore many needed benefits for eligible immigrants, seniors, children and the disabled, and ultimately restored more lost benefits than any other state.
APALC also won its battle against the trafficked workers' captors, and against the garment industry manufacturers and retailers for whom they sewed. Not only did APALC win in the courtroom, the workers won. These enslaved workers were allowed to remain in the U.S., and many even became U.S. citizens. And since this case, the U.S. government instituted the T-Visa, creating a path to citizenship for trafficked immigrant workers and ensuring that victims would not be placed into deportation proceedings upon being freed from their captors.
Now, 15 years later, some challenges remain and new challenges have emerged. Although advocates were able to stave off devastating changes to the family immigration system in 1996, today the system still remains fundamentally broken and in need of a major overhaul. Thousands of applicants are waiting in tremendous processing backlogs. For example, Filipino, Indian and Chinese immigrants must wait for more than 10 years to reunite with their loved ones abroad. Many Muslim, Arab and South Asian Americans have suffered rampant discrimination and hate following the attacks on 9/11. Consider the passage of SB 1070, Arizona's anti-immigrant law, which has spawned copycat legislation in more than 20 other states. And we have yet to achieve fair and just comprehensive immigration reform.
Despite these challenges, I know that AAPIs will only continue to grow and thrive, and become more integrated into the larger community. Since 1996, AAPI communities have burgeoned in size and in power. Recent Census figures show that our community comprises 15.5 percent of the state's population, growing by 33.6 percent in the last decade. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants have also become citizens, and many of them new voters. Looking to the future, it is unrealistic to believe that the country's immigration issues will be corrected immediately. But with Immigrant Days this year and in more to come, hopefully we will work together to create a better future for immigrants.
From Teresa Castellanos, Immigration Relation Services lead program coordinator for Santa Clara County:
Turning of the Tide - 15 years of Immigrant Day in California
To me immigrant day means a political space that was claimed, triumphant and recognized. I remember that California had passed Proposition 187, Pete Wilson had been reelected with his anti-immigrant rhetoric and the immigrant community felt under attack in 1994 so people were scared when welfare reform passed. In 1996, the US government passed welfare reform. At that point, welfare reform meant two things, 1) that the safety net was not longer a lifetime guarantee for children because there would be time limits for families receiving this assistance. 2) As a nation, we were making a distinction between the rights of the US born to a safety net and the rights of the foreign born. During the first couple of years of Welfare reform, the majority of the money that was "saved" was based on what was taken away from permanent residents mainly SSI, food stamps and the right to welfare. The sentiment of the time was that the people immediately impacted were not US citizens so national representatives had nothing to lose in supporting this anti-immigrant portion of the legislation.
I remember that as Santa Clara County, we tried to respond to the panic in the community and we had a citizenship day in which over 5,000 people showed up. Many people arrived in their hospital beds, or wheel chairs with their oxygen tanks. People were stressed and panicked about what the future held. Senior across the country were committing suicide because they would not be able to live without SSI. I remember at that time period, Catholic Charities struggled to finger print an elderly woman for a week who had severe arthritis and wanted to apply for citizenship. After a week of trying to get her fingerprints, they were finally able to get legible finger prints on Friday and she died on Saturday. It made all the service providers so sad that she had spent her last week of life anxiety ridden about fingerprints that would not be used.
After all that stress in the immigrant community for over 9 months, the first Immigrant day was held in Sacramento. My memory of that day was a huge mass of people that came together to lobby. Labor and immigrant communities organized a massive multicultural and multilingual march. At that point I had been and organizer for 10 years. I had participated in Watsonville with the canary workers strike, I had been involved with Justice for Janitors. So I had been in big marches in which there was diversity. But this time it was bigger...there were many languages being spoken not just two. I heard Hmong for the first time. The Hmong community from central valley was disciplined and militant. There were buses of Chinese seniors. Children, Seniors and union workers descended on the capital to demand justice. After so many months of individual fear there was a feeling of hope, commitment and demand for dignity. The halls of the state capital truly represented the ethnic and language make up of the state. Simultaneous translations took place as community members met with their representatives. Diverse communities realized that they had more in common than differences and that together they had power. There was a buzz of joy as people had their lunches on the capitol lawn and spoke about how they had met with their representatives.
To me the first immigrant lobby day was the beginning of turning the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment in the state of California. After that lobbying event and the follow up lobby events, the state of California created special safety net programs for immigrants that did not qualify for the federal programs, the federal government had to back track in regard to SSI and put back immigrants into the SSI, and communities began to actively promote citizenship and voting. But more importantly the immigrant community brought its knowledge of democracy, mobilization and people power to the state capital and California representatives had to listen. Immigrants once again made history by following the American tradition of the demanding to be included and they were heard. Of course, currently it is a hard time for everyone, and immigrants in particular face unique challenges in terms of understanding the system, accessing the safety net and dealing with language barriers, but in the state of California there is a diverse immigrant leadership that is organizing, mobilizing and providing leadership on the level that does not exist in any other state of the union. It is happening in every county of the state, rural & urban, small and large and this leadership has been growing and contributing for over 15 years. With this leadership that has now spread into the AB540 movement, there is no doubt that California will positively influence the development of immigrant integration, multicultural access, and the building of community within diversity in the rest of the country.