WASHINGTON, D.C. — More than 40 immigration activists, labor union organizers, and faith leaders were arrested in two civil disobedience protests that took place on Capitol Hill on Thursday. The organizers held the event in response to House Republicans missing the August 1 deadline of producing an immigration reform bill. The event marks the beginning of national immigration rallies labeled “40 Days of Action” that will continue through the August recess when House representatives head back to their districts.
Prior to the first demonstration, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) was on hand to remind the crowd to urge House representatives to act on immigration reform. He told the crowd, “They’re frustrated. People are disillusioned. As we begin this month, as members of the US Congress, we will be here to bear witness and be in solidarity with your actions of civil disobedience. We must make sure that our voices are heard throughout the United States and it’s not just when they’re arrested, or when they’re talk to the manager of the hotel where they’re staying at, I want to make sure that that woman that puts that chocolate on their bed, that they will see and hear from her because she needs comprehensive immigration reform.”
The first of the civil disobedience protests took the form of a street sit-in. Protestors held hands and sat at the intersection of First Ave and Independence Ave in front of the U.S. Cannon House Office Building, while immigration activists cheered them on from the sidewalk.
People shouted a variety of catchy chants that even officers swayed to, including “Republicans, remember we’re voting in November,” “This is what democracy looks like,” “Undocumented, unafraid,” “Si se puede,” “When human rights are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back.” Police officers quickly arrived on the scene to arrest the peaceful demonstrators and packed them into four police squad vans.
The second civil disobedience protest took place inside the Cannon House Office Building on Thursday afternoon. Protestors marched to the offices of Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC), Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL), Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), and House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-OH). Protestors put up signs in the House bathrooms that read, “Employees must pass immigration reform upon returning to work.” Some were arrested along the way, and early reports suggest that there were a number of arrests.
Nestor Alvarenga, national immigration coordinator for the Communications Workers of America, voiced his support for the demonstrators risking arrest. As an immigration advocate and as a labor union organizer, he felt that immigration reform would create better wages for legalized immigrants. He said, “It’s important for the labor movement to be here because we’re going to have a workforce that’s going to have rights and a minimum wage salary and they will have the right to organize as well.”
Another supporter Jennifer Coken, director of development at U.S. Action, came to the rally because “we want to get our elected officials to stop being cowards and start being courageous. We have 500,000 members in 50 states…the overwhelming support is for a pathway to citizenship. They keep giving us an economic argument but as far as I can tell, once people become citizens, they will pay into the tax system.”
Although Coken did not participate in the sit-in, her boss Fred Azcarate did. Coken said, “I think it’s fantastic that my boss is getting arrested, as is Alan Charney, our program director. We’re making it an issue. We have members in 50 states…This is our way of demonstrating our support.”
Azcarate, the Executive Director of U.S. Action, is a first generation immigrant from the Philippines. He was moved to support immigration reform after attending his parents’ naturalization ceremony. “I want to make it clear that the time for comprehensive immigration reform is now. I come from an immigrant family,” he said. “The path to citizenship that my parents enjoy, I think we need to create for the 11 million that don’t have that. I’m proud and happy to [get arrested]. I’m honored to make this small action to help push along comprehensive immigration reform. I think it’s critical. I think people standing up for their rights and our rights is part of our democracy.”
Among some of the other prominent immigration organizers who were arrested, Frank Sharry of America’s Voice released a statement indicating that he was proud to join in the protest. His statement read, “It is time for Congress to do the people’s will and ensure that America lives true to its creed of ‘out of many, one.’”
Christina Chang of Minkwon Center for Community Action, is a participant in the second civil disobedience protest. Minkwon means “civil rights” in Korean. She anticipates that her participation to protest at House Speaker Boehner’s office will lead to her arrest. Accordingly, she wrote the phone numbers of people to bail her out on her arms. “We have tried the traditional avenues of setting up meetings, driving to their offices, but Republicans just aren’t hearing us. So we need to escalate, we need to be louder, and we are participating in acts of civil disobedience to get the message across that we want immigration reform now with a path to citizenship.”
She says that a piecemeal approach is “code for more border security. They haven’t introduced anything with a pathway to citizenship.” She ended by saying, “when I see all the people here who are ready to get arrested with me, I feel powerful.”
Forty-one protestors were arrested in the first demonstration. They are charged with “post and forfeit,” for blocking traffic. They have a choice of going to court or paying a $50 fine. At least three of the protestors are undocumented youths who were brought to the country by their parents.
The demonstrations on Capitol Hill follow other bold acts of civil disobedience that are taking place around the country. This week, thirty five Congressional members signed two separate letters asking President Obama to release nine undocumented immigrants being held at the Eloy detention center in Arizona. Humanitarian parole was denied for the nine immigrants after they crossed the Mexico border and were picked up by Customs and Border Patrol officers. They went on a hunger strike and six of them were put into solitary confinement.
Reps. Luis Gutierrez and Jared Polis’ letter urged President Obama to exercise discretion to allow the nine DREAMers to live in the United States. One particular point that they mention is “regardless of whether we feel their actions are the best way to affect the change they desire, we share their goal to allow DREAMers and others with strong ties to the United States and who were deported to return to the United States.”
Although the momentum for immigration reform could stop during the August recess, immigration advocates are hoping that events rolling through the month of August will show House Republicans that their constituents do support immigration reform. In fact, at least 59 percent of constituents living in Rep. Steve King’s (R-IA) district support legalizing undocumented youths who were brought to the country by their parents. King drafted and passed a bill that would deport that category of immigrants.