Jessi Jaramillo knows the fear and frustration created by current U.S. immigration laws.
Some of her family members are undocumented immigrants, said Jaramillo of Guilford, N.Y., who is traveling across the state in a caravan that is part of the "New York Road Trip for our Future." The event — aimed at calling attention to the need for comprehensive U.S. immigration reform — was organized by the national Reform Immigration for America campaign, the New York Immigration Coalition and various New York activist groups.
"Deportation is not an option for us," said Jaramillo, who also is the grassroots organizer for the Reform Immigration for America campaign. "We can’t lose people close to us. And my story is one of millions."
On Feb. 17 Jaramillo and 30 other local immigrant advocates and caravan members stood in bitter cold winds and temperatures at two Monroe County rallies to demand immigration reform. The rallies were held at the offices of Congressman Eric Massa in Pittsford and Congressman Chris Lee in Greece.
Earlier in the day, more than 80 people rallied at the caravan’s stop at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Sodus, which included statements in support of reform not only from workers and farmers but also from a representative of the Wayne County sheriff’s department and staff members from Catholic Charities of Wayne County, said rally participant Dr. John "Lory" Ghertner. The caravan’s last stop on Feb. 17 was the Federal Immigration Detention Center in Batavia.
Although Massa and Lee were not on hand at the Monroe County rallies, their staff members met with advocates to talk about the possibility of reform legislation.
Jared Smith, Massa’s communications director, said most of the congressman’s energies right now are focused on economic stimulus and health care, although Massa wants to see immigration legislation proposed.
"We’ve heard from constituents; it’s an emotional and difficult issue," Smith said. "We’re united that something needs to be done. What that is? We’re not at that point yet."
Staff members at Lee’s office referred questions to the congressman’s communications director, Andrea Bozek, who provided the Catholic Courier with a Feb. 18 statement from Lee.
"I appreciate the group taking the time to discuss their concerns with my office," Lee said in his statement. "I believe that our immigration policy should be based on the rule of law and those who are in our country illegally should not be rewarded with taxpayers funded benefits. I look forward to working to strengthen and improve our immigration and border policies to uphold the rule of law and protect Western New York’s economy and agricultural sector."
During the caravan’s Feb. 17 stops at Massa and Lee’s offices Gary Pudup, director of the Genesee Valley Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, presented a letter from the organization to the congressmen’s representatives. Pudup said about 12 million to 15 million undocumented immigrants currently live in the United States.
"Congress must take action to adopt practical solutions to fix our nation’s broken immigration system and uphold the values that all Americans hold dear," he stated.
Ami Kadar of Albion’s Centro Independiente de Trabajadores Agricolas (CITA) said if comprehensive immigration reform included an option for immigrant workers to become legal residents or citizens, those workers would pay additional taxes that would help the country’s economic recovery. Kadar also was part of training sessions held in Washington and New York where the caravan idea developed.
"The state of affairs as it is now is untenable," she added. "We can’t leave it (U.S. immigration laws) as it is."
Saul Linares of Hempstead, N.Y., said more than 100 people met up with the caravan during its first two stops in Carmel and Syracuse on Feb. 15 and 16, respectively. The caravan took off from New York City on Feb. 15.
As he held up an American flag in front of Massa’s office, Linares noted that the groups that have joined the caravan organizers’ efforts have included religious leaders as well as migrant workers.
"This is the time to send a strong message with unity to our representatives … for immigration reform," said Linares, a native of El Salvador.
The Rev. James L. Swarts, who formerly served at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Stafford, Genesee County, and is now an independent minister, spoke in front of Massa’s office. He compared the symbolism of the immigration caravan to the Gospel of Luke account where Jesus sends 70 disciples in pairs to every town and place he intended to visit. He noted that Jesus was clear that these disciples were to be welcomed.
"But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this, the kingdom of God has come near,’" Rev. Swarts quoted from the biblical passage.
"The lesson is clear that the laborers must always be welcomed and taken care of," he added. "Or, the society is condemned to God."
Peter Mares, an outreach worker for Catholic Charities of Wayne County and manager of La Casa — a temporary-housing program for migrants in Sodus — said the caravan campaign serves as an important method to highlight that the U.S. immigration system needs to change as soon as possible.
"Even President (Barack) Obama said the system is broken, so why are we using it?" Mares asked. "What happened to all the (campaign) promises to fix it?"
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Reform Immigration for America campaign is organizing a national rally in Washington, D.C., on March 21 and has set 100,000 supporters as a goal. For more information or arrange to be part of a local delegation planning to participate in the rally, call Ami Kadar at 585-615-9860.