Gabriella Diaz, 8, and already a veteran of several immigrants’ rights marches says. “I get scared when I hear about other kid’s parents being taken away.”
Senator Norm Coleman’s house in St. Paul has been host to many protests over the years. Sunday afternoon, however, was possibly the first time that the protesters making fiery speeches on his front lawn were mainly elementary school children. They were part of a “children’s march” organized by local churches and immigrant rights’ groups to raise awareness of the issue of Minnesota families being torn apart by immigration raids.
Gabriella Diaz, 8, is already a veteran activist, having attended several immigrants’ rights marches in the past. “I feel good being here today, because I think kids need their parents,” she says. “I get scared when I hear about other kid’s parents being taken away.”
The crowd included several children who recently had parents taken from them in immigration raids, including Joanna Avendano, 14, of St. Michael whose mother Sarah was arrested June 27. With chants of “The children united will never be defeated!” in both English and Spanish, the youth, their families, and supporters led a crowd of around 200 down the sidewalks of Grand Avenue to Coleman’s house pushing strollers and carrying balloons, banners, and pictures of family members that had been deported.
“We targeted Senator Coleman because we were told that several years ago he mobilized to help prevent an African immigrant’s deportation order,” says Alondra Espejel of the Minnesota Immigrant Freedom Network. “We also wanted to build a relationship with him to get him to understand the Latino community better.”
The catalyst for the march was the arrest of community activist Juana Reyes, says organizer Irineo Mojica of St. Stephen’s Church. Mojica worked closely with Juana on immigration reform issues, participating together in the May march to the state capitol following a 10-day religious fast for federal immigration reform. Reyes was arrested earlier this month by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers for having overstayed her 1993 visa and is currently being detained in Elk River, MN while awaiting deportation to Mexico.
Unlike many of the recent immigration cases that have attracted media attention in the Twin Cities, Juana was neither picked up in one of the increasing worksite enforcement raids, nor as part of a criminal investigation. Some feel that her arrest was politically motivated—a result of her high profile immigrant activism. In a news profile on the participants of May’s fast, she was the only member to give her real name and publicly announce her undocumented status.
“It’s weird—she’s lived in this country 14 years and never had a problem until now,” says one of her daughters. “She’s been working under her real name; she hasn’t been hiding from anybody… She deserves a second chance.”
But ICE spokesperson Tim Counts says her arrest was standard procedure.
“Juana Reyes was arrested because she had been ordered deported by a federal immigration judge back in 1996 and had defied the judge’s orders by remaining in the country. It’s a priority for ICE to locate and remove the estimated 630,000 fugitives remaining in the United States. She’s one of the fugitives.”
Fugitive or not, the effects of this type of separation are most noticeable in the children they leave behind. The Pew Center for Hispanic Research estimates that three million children in the United States have at least one parent without citizenship. Juana’s daughter Betty is one of them. The youngest of four, her siblings have noticed a change in her behavior they attribute to the arrest of her mother.
“She used to run to the doorbell whenever it rang, no matter who it was,” says an older sister. “Now she tells us, “Be careful—don’t let them in. She wakes up at night now whenever there’s the smallest noise.”
As the Reyes family wades through legal channels in an attempt to free Juana, community members vow to carry their campaign for immigration reform into the schools, churches, and streets.
“We need a way for people to become citizens, a way for people to sleep without fear, and we need it done in a way that respects the rights of workers,” Mojica concludes. “We’re going to try and educate the American public and the Hispanic community through the churches about our rights and about what is happening to immigrants in this country.”
Dan Gordon is a free-lance writer in the Twin Cities.