New group mobilizes on immigrant justice issues
Published: Monday, December 2, 2013
Updated: Monday, December 2, 2013 02:12
Issues surrounding immigration and its reform are back in the spotlight, both on the national level and at Tufts. On Friday, President Obama paid a visit to activists who have been fasting on the National Mall for weeks in an effort to move progress on an immigration reform overhaul, which would provide a pathway towards citizenship for undocumented citizens. On the Hill, a new student group called United for Immigrant Justice (UIJ) has sprung into action this semester to reinvigorate the discussion of these issues on campus.
UIJ held a rally at the lower patio of the Mayer Campus Center on Nov. 20 to display solidarity with undocumented immigrant students at University of Texas Austin. The rally responded to a game called “Catch an Illegal Immigrant,” which was hosted by the Young Conservatives of Texas at UT Austin. The game was eventually canceled after the university condemned it as “out of line with [its] values.”
UIJ also joined around 700 other people in a mass rally calling for immigration reform and justice in Boston last spring, and it joined the Tufts Labor Coalition and Tufts Democrats in hosting the “Raise Up Massachusetts: Rally for a Higher Minimum Wage” rally in Davis Square on Nov. 9.
The group, led by sophomores Liz Palma and Rebeca Pessoa, came into being after the two attended a national conference last year organized by the Student Immigration Movement (SIM). SIM is an organization that works to mobilize youth on immigration issues in Massachusetts.
“Before the conference, starting a group was something that was already on our minds, because although there are a lot of political clubs and a lot of social justice clubs [on campus], there really aren’t any that encompass immigration,” Pessoa said.
According to Pessoa, the conference was attended both by undocumented immigrants and allies, such as herself. Hearing the immigrants’ stories firsthand empowered her to make the club a reality.
Pessoa herself came to the United States from Brazil as a baby. Palma noted that her parents’ emigration from Mexico, as well as her upbringing in a predominantly Latino community where undocumented worker immigrant issues were prevalent, made her want to join the group.
UIJ, however, includes a wide variety of Tufts students, including junior Zobella Vinik.
“We’re a diverse group of individuals from all years who are excited about bringing an awareness of, and movement toward, immigration justice on our campus,” she said.
UIJ, while new, is replacing a former Tufts group called Students at Tufts Acting for Immigrant Rights (STAIR). According to the Africana Center, STAIR sought to focus on labor and foreign policy issues in relation to immigration, such as rights to freedom from discrimination. Palma, however, noted a lack of discussion on immigration issues at Tufts.
“I think some people are just afraid to bring up these issues, and it’s unfortunate that that is the case,” Palma said. “Also, once the DREAM Act didn’t go through in 2010, a lot of people just gave up.”
However, UIJ is making strides towards filling that silence. Pessoa spoke highly of the Boston-wide immigration rally the group attended last spring, which was organized by chapters of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Massachusetts Jobs with Justice and MassUniting.
“As UIJ that was our first event, and it was really awesome to be walking in solidarity with them,” she said.
The group’s “Raise Up Massachusetts” rally showcased the close relationship of labor issues and immigration issues. In addition to a performance by Tufts B.E.A.T.S., the event included speeches by Lecturer of Economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Douglas Cliggott and Paula Castillo, an immigrant worker on the Tufts staff from El Salvador. Having worked at Tufts for 17 years, Castillo told her story as an immigrant from El Salvador.
“She was a great example of how workers are really dedicated,” Pessoa said. “She has so much respect for Tufts and for Tufts students, and she is very dedicated to her job — and she definitely deserves more than what she is making.”
At the event, Cliggott spoke about how most people think raising the minimum wage would be detrimental to the economy and that it is not an affordable option, but that in reality, it may be much more beneficial for society.
“He used the 1930s and the Great Depression as a parallel example,” Palma said. “He said that someone earning minimum wage would take 2,000 years to earn what a baseball player earns in a year. Hearing those kinds of stats was really powerful.”
According to Pessoa and Palma, he also argued that in economics classes at Tufts, professors do not necessarily teach those principles; contrary to his claims, professors generally say that lowering the minimum wage would not help the economy, which only exacerbates the problem.
The effort was part of the “Raise Up” campaign in the United States and specifically in Massachusetts that received strong support from Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). After the speeches and performance, the members of UIJ spread out to collect signatures for two petitions: one to raise minimum wage in Massachusetts and the other to give workers paid sick leave.