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Coalition Hits the Streets

Last Thursday, in the heat of a New York City summer’s day, staff and volunteers from the New York Immigration Coalition, its member organizations, and other partners, armed with clipboards and pens, stopped to talk to passers-by and get signatures for the Coalition’s ‘With the Stroke of a Pen’ campaign. From Staten Island to Queens, from Brooklyn to Union Square, on the street and in churches and mosques, volunteers galvanized supporters in a kick-off to a month-long street and online blitz, demanding that President Obama begin to repair our broken immigration system and provide immediate relief to families.

I was one of the Coalition staffers who hit Union Square in Manhattan, a hub of activity, attracting New Yorkers of all backgrounds and walks of life. “Would you like to sign a letter to President Obama asking him to stop unjust deportations?” I asked approaching passersby. The response was overwhelming. In a matter of two hours, we got 150 signatures on letters, and this was just in one of our 5 locations throughout the city that day. (More such pen-signing events took place over the holiday weekend, and will continue in the weeks ahead.)

In Flushing, Queens, home to a wide range of immigrant communities, canvassers from NYIC’s member group, MinKwon Center for Community Action, gathered 151 signatures.

In Midwood, Queens, NYIC member Catholic Charities collected 200 signatures.

And at the Albanian Islamic Cultural Center in Staten Island, advocates gained nearly 300 signatures from community members.

In Union Square, I spoke to a woman in her mid-30s who told me that her children’s father was undocumented and was at risk of deportation; an elderly woman and her daughter who had immigrated from Honduras and had seen the impact of deportations on their community and neighbors; and young DREAMers who eagerly signed on to the letter. Everyday New Yorkers, upon hearing the staggering statistics (nearly 800,000 people deported in the first two years of the Obama administration, a record number, some 1,100 people a day), were quick to pick up the pen that I handed them to sign the letter.

The campaign, launched at the end of 2010, aims to collect thousands of signatures on letters to President Obama asking him to use his executive authority to end unjust deportations. With every letter sent to the White House, the campaign is also sending a pen, so that the President can sign an executive action.

In the wake of the many stories that are emerging about the lives of hardworking individuals trapped in a system that provides them no path to legal status, the Coalition’s campaign has taken on a renewed sense of urgency. As we got signatures on the street, I kept in mind the stories of individuals like Jose Antonio Vargas, Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist who made the stunning revelation last week that he is an undocumented immigrant; Elisha L. Dawkins, a veteran of who served in both Iraq and Guantanamo Bay; and Gaby Pacheco , a young DREAMer who came to this country at the age of 7 and was one of four undocumented youth who walked 1,500 miles from Miami, FL, to Washington D.C. to advocate for the DREAM Act. It is for these everyday heroes in our communities, for ourselves, and for the nation at large, that we wage this campaign.

Some people asked me, “Well, what do you want the President to do? He can’t do anything without Congress.”

True, we need Congress to pass legislation that reforms our immigration system. But while we wait for that to happen—given the reality that Congress is at a standstill, paralyzed by partisan politics—there are steps the President can take now that can begin to undo some of the damage his own administration has caused. He can take executive action—with the stroke of a pen — to put an end to the senseless deportations of hard-working immigrants, the very people he says should be allowed a chance to come out of the shadows.

For these actions, he doesn’t need Congress. All he needs is a pen.

These are some of the actions that President Obama has the authority to do:
  •  Halt the deportation of students who would be eligible to earn legal status under the DREAM Act and other immigrants currently facing deportation whose removal from the country is not in the public interest.
  • End Secure Communities and similar programs that erode community policing by co-opting local law enforcement officers as immigration agents.
  • Allow immigrants currently in the U.S. to complete the process of becoming legal residents here in the United States; forcing them to go to their home country to obtain the visa for which they are eligible often results in a ten-year bar to re-entry.
  • Expand alternatives to detention nationwide, and allow detention only after the Department of Homeland Security establishes its necessity
  • Focus workplace immigration enforcement on exploitive employers who flout our labor laws and profit from our broken immigration system.

By the end of the day on Thursday, advocates had gathered almost 800 signed letters from concerned New Yorkers. Many more signed our letter online. These letters make up thousands that have been collected thus far over the past few months, and more that will be collected in the coming weeks, to be delivered to the White House. The letters urge the President to halt his administration’s disastrous enforcement-only approach to immigration, and instead to take common-sense steps that respect human dignity, target resources wisely, and serve the public interest.

If you haven’t signed a letter to the President yet, I hope you will do so HERE.



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