WASHINGTON – The day after President Barack Obama touched lightly on the topic of immigration in his inaugural address, a group of farm workers arrived at the nation’s capital Tuesday at the end of a 1,000-mile trip to urge action on comprehensive immigration reform.
Although they said they were disappointed by Obama’s lack of specificity on immigration reform in his speech Monday, the 13 activists of the Forward With Your Dreams Caravan also said it gave them hope that Washington might finally create a pathway to citizenship.
“Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity,” Obama said in his speech.
Traveling 1,000 miles from central Florida, the Caravan of citizen and immigrant farm workers came to Washington to hold the president accountable for his 2008 campaign promise to pass immigration reform legislation within his first year in office. Using the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., the activists said their fight is a continuation of the civil rights movement.
“Obama is proof in the flesh of how far the civil rights movement has come along,” Caravan spokesman Daniel Barajas said Tuesday. “But we’ve moved forward because we found a new group of people to exploit and oppress.”
During the hour-long press conference, Caravan members who were immigrants shared stories of discrimination and separation from families.
“I’ve witnessed [my roommates] coming into my house beaten, bleeding, and been robbed,” said David Benson, a member of Farmworkers’ Self-Help, a Dade City, Fla. grassroots organization. He lives with three Hispanic men who he said have been afraid to report physical and emotional abuse due to fear of deportation.
The Caravan left Clermont, Fla., on Jan. 3, crossing five states in the span of 18-days to arrive in Washington last weekend.
During their low-budget trip, they connected with immigrant communities and organized protests along the way. In North Carolina, they protested against Taco Cid, a restaurant with what Caravan members called a racially offensive logo, and in southern Georgia, they held a demonstration outside of the Irwin County Detention Center, where undocumented immigrants are held before deportation trials.
“The 13 of us stood outside with American flags and cardboard signs,” Barajas said. “But you would have thought we were on America’s Most Wanted with how many officers came out.”
They collected signatures for a six-line petition addressing mass deportations, discrimination and noncriminal detention of immigrants, calling on Obama and Congress to repeal all anti-immigration laws.
Ira Mehlman, media director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said in an interview Obama’s inaugural comments “were rather vague.” But he contended that Obama will try to admit “as many illegal aliens” as he can through legislation or executive orders.
Obama promoted the 2010 DREAM Act, under which only undocumented immigrants under the age of 35 could file for legal residency, but the bill did not pass the Senate. The last comprehensive immigration bill to become law was the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, under President Reagan.
In June, the president created a deferred action program to allow young undocumented immigrants to apply for temporary relief from deportation.
Although their language is broad, Tirso Moreno, a representative of the Farmworker Association of Florida, mentioned specifically reforming H-2A work visas, which allow non-U.S. citizens to enter the country for temporary agricultural work. He said workers in this visa program should be able to change employers and to establish a path to permanent residency.
“If we need them here, why can’t they stay here?” Moreno said.
H-2A workers may not remain in the United States under this visa status for an uninterrupted period of more than three years, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website.
With about 5,000 signatures, the Caravan will deliver the petition to the White House Tuesday afternoon, meeting with a Department of Agriculture liaison. The group also plans to meet with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
Ashley Balcerzak contributed reporting.
To see a copy of the petition, click here.