University students are marching in support of immigrants' rights, rallying in downtown Chicago Wednesday to kick off a national awareness week that will end in Washington.
The group, Chicago Students for Immigration Reform (CSIR), marched from Union Park to Federal Plaza with other immigration reformers from across Chicago and will participate in a Washington, DC rally on March 21 with activists from across the country.
Third-year Cindy Agustin joined Wednesday’s rally. “I think that we have to support our peers. If we’re not there to help them out, who will?” Agustin said. “These students are not criminals, as they have been portrayed. They want the right to an education, to get a job when they receive their degree, to a normal life. These students are not causing trouble, they are leaders, tomorrow’s leaders.”
Agustin is one of CSIR's two main organizers. She is mobilizing students to join “March for America," which will be held next week in Washington. More than 40 University of Chicago students will drive 14 hours to demand comprehensive immigration reform. The students will take a bus overnight the day after finals ends to arrive in time for the 100,000 strong march on the Washington Mall.
Fund raising has been difficult, according to CSIR's other organizer, fourth-year Mayra Lopez, but they have been able to raise about $950 to subsidize the cost of buses for students attending the march. The money has come from donations collected at movie screenings, informational talks, solicitations from local businesses, a karaoke night, and selling tamales in front of Cobb Hall. They will join 10,000 other Illinoisans making the trip; Illinois will make up 10 percent of those participating.
Wednesday's rally, entitled “Coming Out of the Shadows," was held to attract donations and participants for the Washington march. Chicagoans rallied in support of undocumented youth whose parents brought them to the United States as children illegally, or who have overstayed their visas. The event was organized by the Immigrant Youth Justice League (IYJL) and included speeches by eight students who publicly revealed they are undocumented. Their goal was to raise awareness of the issue’s ubiquitousness and demand the rights of "hard working people and students who have lived in the shadows of a broken immigration system," according to IYJL's flier advertising the event.
The primary concern for those marching is that the issue is being pushed to the back of the legislative agenda. “Many see this rally as the last opportunity this year to get any sort of action from Congress towards immigration reform,” Lopez said on Tuesday.
Both President Obama and Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) have put their legislative energies into health care and the economy, but Obama seems to be responding to pressure to act. On Thursday, ten days before the march's scheduled date, he met with immigrant advocates and leaders, including ones from Illinois. Following the meeting, he met with Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) who are working to deliver a new bi-partisan immigration bill.
Durbin has been a long-time proponent of immigration reform, and the group considers him an ally. Almost one year ago, Durbin and Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) introduced the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act that would allow a path to legal residency for certain undocumented immigrants who have grown up in the U.S. and attend college or enlist in the military for two years. Durbin sponsored similar legislation since 2001, and it has been presented in Congress over the years by a number of senators and representatives.
Durbin first introduced the DREAM act himself in 2007 and again in 2009. It has failed every time. The bill has been a rallying point for many immigration activists, especially the immigrant youth movement. Durbin has supported the legislation since 2001, but his push for reform has seemed to fizzle over the last year. Activists have been sending Senator Durbin e-mails and calling for another active push to putting immigration back on the agenda in 2010.
“Senator Durbin supports the same goal as the marchers – enactment of comprehensive immigration reform legislation, including the DREAM Act,” Durbin spokesman Max Gleischman said in an e-mail.
Durbin’s office attributed the failure thus far to pass comprehensive reform primarily to Republican resistance, and suggested that any new bill had little chance in Congress. “With the current composition of the Senate, immigration reform requires bipartisan support and unfortunately, there is not enough Republican support at this time to pass legislation,” Gleischman said.
Students are hopeful, however, and believe that biding their time until the atmosphere is more conducive to immigration reform is not sufficient. “Nationally, we want to bring attention to the immigration issue once again,” Agustin said.
Lopez agreed. “Congress needs to see that people are legitimately interested in Immigration Reform and thus, through the rally we hope to send that message,” she said.
Susan Gzesh, the director of the U of C’s Human Rights Program, supported the students, leading a recent organizational meeting and panel discussion on March 3 at the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs. She suggested in a phone interview that a major reason for previous generations’ failures was widespread racist attitudes. “I think that this generation of students has a different take on race issues, and hopefully a generation that is more comfortable with a diverse student body, diverse work force, a diverse society is going to be able to figure out good solutions for the immigration issues that aren't crippled and filtered by racism," Gzesh said.
“Many compare this movement to the civil rights movement in the 1960s," Agustin said. "University of Chicago students have the tools to fight discrimination, demand justice, and take action. We should be willing to make our voices be heard for all those that are afraid to speak out for fear of putting their lives in jeopardy.”