Chicago Students for Immigration Reform head to D.C. in protest

Immigrants and activists carrying banners, signs, and American flags filled five blocks of the National Mall in what organizers referred to as the largest gathering on any issue since President Obama took office.

By Chelsie Sluyk

Members of the RSO Chicago Students for Immigration Reform joined over 200,000 activists in a march and rally in Washington, DC on March 21 demanding comprehensive immigration reform.

Immigrants and activists carrying banners, signs, and American flags filled five blocks of the National Mall in what organizers referred to as the largest gathering on any issue since President Obama took office. The rally took place in view of Capitol Hill, where Congress was concluding final debates on the historic health care legislation.

The protesters called for the president and Congress to turn their focus to immigration reform, citing President Obama’s campaign promise to enact comprehensive reform by the end of his first year in office. They hoped to demonstrate the urgency of the issue through their large turnout.

First-year Lizzette Melo-Benitez was one of several Chicago students leading the march, waving a “Change Takes Courage,” banner alongside the Reverend Jesse Jackson. “It felt very empowering because it was just a bunch of young people taking the lead,” Melo-Benitez said, “and we had Jesse Jackson right there, so there was a unity across the age gap.”

Melo-Benitez is one of 50 student activists—around 24 from the U of C—who traveled 13 hours to DC on a bus that departed from Reynolds Club the evening before the march.

During the rally, activists chanted the labor and civil rights slogan “Si Se Puede,” which Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign echoed with “Yes We Can.” In response to an upsurge in deportations (to about 400,000 in the first year of Obama’s presidency—more than the yearly average under President Bush), they called for a path to legalization for undocumented workers living in the United States.

Undocumented youth and student activists in Chicago staged at protest on March 10th, and worked with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) to arrange for 200 buses to bring almost 9,000 immigrants and their allies to Washington, DC to join the march.

Most of the students were from the University of Chicago. Others were from DePaul, Northwestern, Loyola, and Dominican. On the bus before arriving in DC, the students shared their experiences. Many had parents or grandparents and close friends who were undocumented, and told stories about the difficulty of getting well-paying jobs or affording the high tuition fees required to attend college without the support of financial aid.

Melo-Benitez, whose parents and grandparents were immigrants, became the first generation in her mother’s family to attend a four-year university after earning a full scholarship to attend the University of Chicago last year. She brought her mother and younger sister along to join the rally.

“I am so very proud of my daughters,” said her mother, Rosalba Benitez, 52, of DuPage county. “I’m proud to be Hispanic, and that my daughters are sharing this opportunity to show their roots and their belief in what we have gone through to get here in the United States. It’s a great country… the land of opportunity.”

Advocates at the rally chanted, “The Time is Now,” and said they didn’t want to wait for change.

“Every day without reform is a day when 12 million hard-working immigrants must live in the shadow of fear,” said chairwoman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Representative Nydia M. Velázquez (D-N.Y.).

President Obama addressed the crowds in a taped message displayed on large video screens flanking the main stage. He reaffirmed a commitment to fixing the “broken immigration system,” and repeated his support for the contentious immigration framework drawn up recently by Senators Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Graham (R-S.C.), which focuses on securing borders and creating a path to citizenship for undocumented workers that would involve paying a fine, paying back taxes, learning English, and performing community service.

“I pledge to do everything in my power to forge a bipartisan consensus this year on this important issue,” the president said, but re-emphasized that change would not “happen over night.”

Advocates hope Representative Luis Gutierrez (D-I.L.), whose comprehensive immigration reform bill failed to past last year, will be able to initiate future reform. “We’ve been patient long enough,” Gutierrez told the crowds at the march. “It’s time to let immigrants come out of the shadows into the light, and for America to embrace them and protect them.

With unemployment numbers continuing to look bleak, many politicians are trying to balance immigration reform with concerns about American jobs.

“I think that the march made it clear that people will keep fighting until they get comprehensive immigration reform,” said third-year Cindy Agustin, a bus captain for the University of Chicago’s ICIRR bus. “It has shown the United States that this is not just an issue that will easily go away if it’s avoided but rather that there are many, many people from different backgrounds who support a bill that will grant rights to millions of people in the country.”

Some students, including second-year Jonathan Rodrigues, stayed behind in Washington Monday to march on the Republican National Committee’s Headquarters, demanding a meeting with leading anti-immigration leaders in Congress. This move marks a new step in the current movement, broadening the political pressure beyond calling for leadership from Democrats already supporting immigration reform to all policy-makers.

At the U of C, student group Chicago Students for Immigration Reform is in the process of collaborating with students at other universities to host a teach-in on immigration issues, focusing on undocumented students and their situation. They will join a national effort to take action during Congress’s Easter recess, including sit-ins, vigils, and call-ins to encourage their senators to support comprehensive immigration reform.

Agustin said, “It is important that we get everyone involved to let Congress know that we will not stop after this rally.”