PASADENA, CA — Last Friday, Senator Kamala Harris, Former HUD Secretary Julián Castro, Senator Bernie Sanders and Governor Jay Inslee participated in a community forum about immigration. The program was organized and directed by CHIRLA (Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles). Angélica Salas of CHIRLA and Dorian Warren of Community Change Action were the moderators.
During the forum, each candidate was staggered back to back for about 40 minutes each without having listened to what the previous candidate had said. At least two members of the audience were previously chosen to tell their stories and ask a question regarding immigration. The program was not open to the general pubic, and the 400 or so attending were by invitation only—many of whom were community activists, with some as young as 16.
California Senator Kamala Harris was the first candidate to speak. The first story and question came from Lupita Rojas, a high school student from the San Fernando Valley. Rojas will be graduating with a 4.0 GPA and plans to attend Cal State University Northridge on an Equal Rights Scholarship. In her compelling story, she told the senator of her dad being detained by ICE during a raid when she was only seven years old. Rojas couldn’t hold back the tears, and at times couldn’t speak, to which the audience responded by cheering her on.
“The next day, I was at the school, ready to receive an award, and I expected both my parents to be there. I’d forgotten what had happen the day before,” Rojas said.
“I stand against family separations and want to ensure that the deportation machine is stopped,” Rojas added.
“Tell us your values and why you are here, tell us your immigration policies,” Rojas concluded.
Senator Harris responded, seemingly touched by Rojas’ story.
“I’m pleased to meet you. Congratulations on your graduation and scholarship and for your courage and for being a leader. I thank you and now I will answer your question,” Harris said.
“So I’m a proud daughter of California and a proud daughter of immigrants,” she continued. “I’m proud to be serving in the U.S. Senate because there I found the ability like all the leaders that are here in this room to fight for what is right, what is just and what is fair, and this allows me to run for President of the United States.”
“When this president [Trump] was elected, I was so upset the morning after because the candidacy of this president was built on vilifying immigrants and on the multi-billion dollar vanity so-called wall, and I know that the night of the election and the day after, there were children crying with their parents, with the fear that the next morning, the deportation force will knock on their door to take them away from their parents,” Harris said. “And I was so upset, that day after my election [as Senator], I was at CHIRLA’s office because I wanted to make a statement that we will fight, we and we will fight on behalf of you, on behalf of your parents and on behalf of the soul of this country.”
“When this woman gets elected president,” Harris said, pointing to herself, “I will re-instate DACA, and I also understand that DACA recipients have parents that deserve a path to citizenship. I also will reinstate TPS on day one, including extending it to Venezuelan refugees. Unless your are Native Americans, or your ancestors were kidnapped and brought here on a slave ship, your people are immigrants.”
Senator Harris concluded her statements with thoughts about why a mother will pick up a child, leave here home country in Central America with that child and go through the unknown peril of crossing Mexico.
“Why would she do that? Because she knows that the peril facing in her own country is far greater. And when you look at that child in the eyes and tell that child that the policy says you need to go back. That is absolutely immoral, nursing mothers separated from their babies. That is not border security That is a human rights abuse being committed by the United States government.”
Former HUD Secretary Julián Castro was the next candidate.
Grace Pai, an immigrant rights organizer from Chicago asked Castro the following question: “Would you commit to introducing immigration legislation during your first hundred days in office that strengthens the family-based immigration system and provides an accessible and equitable roadmap to full citizenship to all undocumented people?”
Castro replied: “Thank you, Grace, for your question and your activism. I would commit to that. This has to be top priority for the next president. What we found out in 2009, 2010, the lesson that we learned from that is: don’t wait.”
“On April 2, I released my People First Immigration Plan, which includes decriminalizing border crossing, keeping families together,” Castro added. “If we are pro-family, then we should be for family unification and for keeping families together. The plan also includes legal immigration… and adding visas to people from all over the world.”
“I don’t buy the BS narrative that this president puts out that these people [crossing the border] pose a threat. They don’t, they just are looking for a better life. What I do believe is that we need to get to the root cause of this. We need the equivalent of a 21st-century Marshall Plan for Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala to ensure that people will find safety and opportunity there, in their own countries,” the former San Antonio mayor explained.
“I tell people this, and some people can’t handle this, but it’s the truth,” Castro said. “We need these folks that are coming here. These people have the vitality for our country because they always have been a part of this nation to make it a stronger nation. It will be economic suicide not to have them…”
Jorge, a Workers Defense Action Fund activist from Texas who was born in Honduras, addressed Castro in Spanish and told him his plight of how he fought deportation on the grounds that he would be killed for being gay.
“While undocumented, I couldn’t be at my father’s funeral back in Honduras, and I had to watch my mother die via FaceTime,” Jorge said, as he fought back tears. “I was arrested in Austin in 2009. Police officers worked with immigration authorities and I was detained for the three months. I later got a job working on a food truck making 50 dollars a week. In Texas, employers are protected more than the employees. What would your administration do to reverse Trump’s anti-immigration policies?”
“Gracias por tu pregunta y gracias por venir aquí y por tu activismo en Texas. La verdad es que nuestro país necesita trabajadores como usted,” Castro first said in Spanish before moving on to answer the question in English. “You mentioned that this administration is cracking down on undocumented immigrants who are living in public housing. That will put so many children in deeper poverty and that is a tremendous mistake. I would oppose those type of actions, in fact, I released my People First Education plan where we should offer tuition-free universities and community colleges. People ask why. I tell them, first, because they are human beings. Secondly, because they pay taxes.”
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders came up next after rallying in Pasadena just hours before. Sixteen-year-old Diana Bautista, a high school junior representing CHIRLA, told her story to Sanders. Bautista lost the opportunity of becoming a DACA recipient due to not being 15 years old 31 days before the Trump administration ended the program.
Bautista told Sanders: “That day [when DACA was ended], I was devastated. I knew that my future was at a standstill. My family and I came to the U.S. when I was only three years old. My parents have faced many hardships, including sexual harassment, low pay and wage theft because of their immigration status. I became involved with RISEUP and CHIRLA for my parents. My first demonstration I attended was outside the office of Representative Kevin McCarthy’s office for his stance on immigration. I was chanting ‘undocumented and unafraid,’ but deep down I was very afraid. I called my mom and told her I was scared (pause, sobbing), hoping that she would tell me to come home, which to my surprise, she told me, ‘I need you to fight for me because I can’t do it myself. I need you to stand up for me and be brave for me.’ (Pause, sobbing, cheers from the crowd)
“Two months later, I was elected president of my school. I will study to become an immigration lawyer and fight for my community,” Bautista added. “Being undocumented puts me not only at an academic disadvantage but also on an emotional disadvantage. This situation takes a toll on our mental health. There are nights that I can’t sleep thinking that there are families being separated. I fear that that will be my family one day, but I will rise above these barriers because I want to honor my parents, for the opportunities they have given me… My community has been under siege even before Donald Trump, but last year, we were able to elect the most progressive house of representatives ever, that’s the change I know is possible in 2020.”
“Today we ask you if you would work with Congress and if you commit to immediately introduce immigration reform within the first 100 days of your administration?” Bautista asked Sanders.
Sanders stood up and after a long pause and the crowd cheering and chanting “Sí se puede,” he said: “I am not often speechless. I give a lot of speeches, but right now I am speechless… to answer your question, yes, we will introduce comprehensive immigration reform within the first 100 days… We will extend the DACA program so you won’t have to be afraid. We will protect parents of DACA recipients… and you are right, I can only imagine the tall that it would take on you for being afraid… people in this country who have lived and worked for a long time, should not be afraid to step out on the street, be fearful of being deported or having their family separated. This promise I will keep. There will be a path for citizenship. There will be protection for people that are here undocumented.”
Arlette Morales, 16 of York, Pennsylvania, and an activist with CASA, who also couldn’t become a DACA recipient because the program was rescinded 17 days before she was 15, also addressed Sanders. Morales said the issue that “we are now seeing climate refugees because of the global and local climate policies and how these affect, poor, brown and people of color… I recognize the connection between climate change and migration. This impacted me last year when in York, we received a large wave of climate refugees from Puerto Rico after Hurricane María. I heard firsthand of the island destruction caused both by climate change and inadequate resources… It made me so angry and jumped into action and joined CASA and helped register more than one thousand new Latino voters.”
“How can you address the issue that U.S. policy doesn’t include an avenue for victims of climate disasters with the exception of TPS, which is a reactive rather than a proactive program? How can you address this as a president. How can the fight for climate change include an immigration reform?” Morales asked.
Senator Sanders responded: “You know, its kind of fun to be here… because I hear more common sense from your question that I hear on the Senate floor for months.”
“The reason we have a government in Washington that ignores the problems that people face with crisis of climate change, is because we have a government at large that is owned and controlled by wealthy campaign contributors,” Sanders continued. “We also need to put on the table campaign finance reform, because if we don’t stop the ability to buy elections, then we are never going to see justice in this country… and the second thing we need to do, and I’ve been working hard on this, is to get young people involved… I’m so proud to say this, that your generation is the most progressive generation in the history of this country… Your generation understands what the president does not—that climate change is real. Your generation is anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic, anti-bigotry, that’s your generation… But wait a minute, you heard the good news, but here is the bad news: that this idealism and the decency of the younger generation doesn’t mean anything unless young people get involved in the political process.”
“I applaud you, for registering so many people… but here is the truth, for many, many years, younger people voted in a much lower percentage then older people… In 2018 we saw some good changes. We saw young people waking up to understand that is not good enough to complain. They got to get involved and vote… We had the highest voter turn out in 70 years, but we have to do better, and when young people vote for climate justice and economic and social justice, we will transform this country,” Sanders said. “Scientists tell us that we have 12 years, which is not a long period of time, to transform our energy system away from fossil fuels to efficient, sustainable energy, and if we don’t do that, there will be unrepairable harm to this planet, and that means that your children and your children’s children will live in an inhabitable planet”
“We all know that climate change is not just a U.S. issue, America cannot do it alone, but instead of seeing countries all over the world spending well over a trillion dollars a year on weapons to kill each other, I will bring the countries together to fight our common enemy, which is climate change,” Sanders noted.
Washington Governor Jay Inslee was invited to the stage next.
CHIRLA president Salas told Inslee: “Tell us why you are here.”
Inslee replied: “I believe that the basic genius of America, the basic values is within the Statue of Liberty, and is a spirit that should never extinguish in every corner of America. I believe that America is a unique country. It is more than a collection of dreams. It is more of a collection of people who make their home here intentionally rather than by an accident at birth.”
“When people said that refugees shouldn’t be welcome here, I was the first governor to say that is wrong,” Inslee continued. “When people even before Trump said that we shouldn’t take refugees from Syria, I said, they are welcome in Washington state. That is why when I heard about two Cambodians who had been here for decades and they had mild convictions, I pardoned them.”
“Washington state has the highest minimum wage in the country, don’t tell me that if you raise wages you’re going to have a weak economy. Look at my state” Inslee explained.
Thomas Kennedy, a Latino Rebels contributor who was born in Argentina and is now an activist with FLIC/Florida, was one of three people who got to ask Governor Inslee a question: “In 2018, my coalition restored voting rights to 1.5 million voters. In 2020, we want to go beyond the scope of that work to ensure that the next president does immigration reform, so today we want to ask you if during your first 100 days in office, you will work with Congress and introduce immigration reform to change our dated immigration laws to a more equitable policy. What would your reform look like?”
Inslee replied: “It’s gonna look like you, which is the hope for America, when I meet people like you, I think we are going to be ok in this country, vibrant, energetic, committed to their community… So I hope you will help me fashion this to give citizenship to 11 million people who have helped build this country. By the way, Trump wanted to threaten us and said, ‘If you don’t do what I want you to do, we will release refugees to the state of Washington’, and I said, bring them here to Washington, we welcome them here. I’d like to add that Dreamers couldn’t get in-state tuition and we changed that and we were one of the first states to offer tuition to Dreamers but scholarships as well.”
Jenny Martinez, a young woman from Washington state asked Governor Inslee: “I am a U.S. citizen and know the struggle our parents go through to create stability for us, as an activist. I was part of a committee that chose to endorse you in 2012. (Laughter broke out) I was a teen activist and advocated for the Washington State Dream Act, and I saw the bill being signed into law while “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” was playing. Now I’m a teacher. My parents instilled in me the need to help the community in spite of my legal status. Today I ask you to bring the work we’ve done in Washington state to a national level, pushing the country to follow the precedent for immigration reform that Washington state has set… How can immigration reform include addressing climate change?
“Thank you. We need to join the UN to create a response to climate change that is creating migration, but first, we need to have a president that believes in this, and I do… the president wants to instate merit immigration, and to him, merit means looking like Donald Trump,” Inslee said.
Being impressed by Jenny, he added: “Now as Governor of Washington state, I have the privilege of honoring the most inspirational Washingtonian I meet by giving that person the pin I’m wearing.”
The governor stood up and pinned it on Jenny’s sweater, while the crowd cheered.
The last person to ask the question was a janitor named Marta, a survivor from the Las Vegas mass shooting. She described her experience in Spanish.
“I was working, cleaning. All of a sudden I heard the gun shots, I got on my knees. We hid. The worst was when I came out of the building, saw all the blood, the bodies of the dead, the wounded, people running,” Marta said, as she cried.
Three days later, visiting a clinic for mental health, “something good came out of a bad thing,” Marta said. “I later became an activist and collected signatures for undocumented survivors to obtain work visas. The Las Vegas Sheriff refused to sign it.”
“There is one hope, I now have a work permit, but there are more than 11 million people without that hope,” Marta explained. “As president, how would you work for asylum seeker to be recognized as an International right and also to promote economic growth in the Central American countries?”
Governor Inslee first apologized for the little Spanish he knows, ”lo siento, mi español es muy pequeño, pero mi corazón es grande,” he said. “In school I was taking Spanish, but there was a girl in my class and was enchanted with her and I’ve been married to her for 46 years now.”
With the first question regarding rights, he replied with Benito Juárez’s quote, “El respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz” (The respect for other’s rights is peace, and went on to talk about human rights.
As for Marta’s survivor story, he said: “There is a breaking news, on my way here. It was reported that there has been a mass shooting in Virginia Beach, and I know that people say that when this type of tragedy happens, that it is not the right time to talk about the need to fight gun violence, to have common sense gun laws. I believe that’s exactly what we need to talk about, the time is now.”
Francisco Lozano is a freelance news photographer based in Los Angeles. You can follow him @FrancisLozano7.