Monday, April 8, 2013

Locals Celebrate Immigrants’ Day at the State House

Iman Shati, executive director of Iraqi and Arab Community
 Association, (l), and administrative assistant Sarah Ouadghiri (r).


By Tala Strauss
Gordon College News Service
April 5, 2013
(This story appeared April 8, 2013, in the print and online editions of the Salem News.)

Pat Baker of Gloucester, MA, is not an immigrant. But as the mother of a Chinese immigrant and the daughter of an Irish immigrant, she is passionate about the issues surrounding immigration policy in America. For the 17th Annual Immigrants’ Day at the Massachusetts State House hosted by the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA), Baker will join almost one thousand immigrants and advocates today (April 8) to celebrate the contributions of immigrants throughout the Commonwealth and to advocate for reform.

“Immigrants need to share their stories so legislators will know why immigration law reform is important,” said Baker, who is a senior policy analyst at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. “I’m going to Immigrants’ Day (on Monday) because I feel very strongly about how important the fabric of immigration is to American society. It would be hard to find a family in America without a history of immigration.”

The event, which will take place in the Gardner Auditorium from 9:30am until 12:30pm, will feature Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who wrote about his life as an undocumented immigrant for the New York Times Magazine in 2011. After Vargas’s talk and other presentations, groups of immigrants and advocates will speak to legislators about immigration policy and law reform.

“About a thousand people are deported daily, which means families are being ripped apart every day,” said Dr. Alexandra Piñeros-Shields of Salem, MA, who came from Spain to America when she was four years old and has been appointed MIRA’s director of organizing, starting today (Monday). “The biggest myth about immigration is that being undocumented is a crime. It’s not, yet the consequences of being undocumented are drastic.”

Piñeros-Shields clarified that being undocumented means to enter without inspection or stay in the U.S. with an expired visa. In fact, she said, being without status is not in the criminal code. It is an administrative violation and immigration lawyers do not go to federal courthouses but to immigration courts, which are under the executive branch, not the judicial branch, of government. Nevertheless, being undocumented can have serious and often extreme consequences under the current immigration system, said Piñeros-Shields.

“Because of their status, undocumented immigrants placed in detention centers before being deported or released have no right to a lawyer or a jury and are kept in prison for an average of nine months in Massachusetts,” said Piñeros-Shields. “This is a really unfair system and the most pressing problem to fix.”

One group from Lynn, MA, will be attending Immigrants’ Day to get the word out about the Iraqi and Arab Community Association, a nonprofit started by Iman Shati. The Association celebrated its first anniversary last month, and Shati said it is the only one representing Arab and Iraqi immigrants and refugees on the North Shore and in Boston, providing services to 200 immigrants from diverse immigrant communities. Shati pays ESL teachers and funds the association out of her own pocket.

“I insist to keep going,” said Shati, adding that many Iraqi and Arab immigrants are moving to the area. As a refugee from Iraq whose family fled because of the war, she offers “feeling and emotion” and sees the State House event as another way to draw attention to the need for support in communities like hers.

Piñeros-Shields said the most important changes in reform would benefit not only immigrants but also the economy and the safety of all residents. For example, most immigrants work two to three jobs at minimum wage, providing labor needed in America, and do not pose a threat to society.

But the consequences of current measures such as the Secure Communities program, which was supposed to target criminals, has meant many hardworking, innocent immigrants are being deported instead, said Piñeros-Shields. The Secure Communities program requires police officers to check the immigration status of anyone they arrest. For this reason, families with members who are undocumented are afraid to attract attention by calling the police when crimes occur in their neighborhoods, said Piñeros-Shields.

In response to these and other issues with current immigration policy, MIRA advocates for important law reforms such as the Safe Driving bill, which would make it easier for all residents of Massachusetts to receive licenses, and the Trust Act, said Frank Soulter, communication director at MIRA.

“The Safe Driving bill will make roads safer for everyone,” said Piñeros-Shields. Soulter and Piñeros-Shields both said that the Trust Act would restore relations between immigrant communities and law enforcement officials by allowing them to opt out of the Secure Communities program.

Yet incremental changes are not enough, according to Samuel Tsoi, a program coordinator at the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ Office for Refugees and Immigrants and the Executive Office of Health and Human Services.

“The problem with incremental changes is that they satisfy particular interest groups but do not lead to change on controversial issues such as creating a pathway to citizenship and ensuring worker’s rights,” said Tsoi. “Comprehensive reform would address the needs of the most vulnerable."

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