NKY Supporting Our Neighbors Immigrant Rights Workshop

Heyra and Jose lead discussion on next steps attendees can take to protect and promote immigrant rights.

Heyra Avila, an animated young woman from Florence, addressed a group of us fellow northern Kentuckians on a Wednesday night at the end of long day. Her energy was infectious. Her story made a deep impression. She opened up about a precarious, hard-to-imagine trek that she and her family made over a decade ago between Mexico and the U.S.

Her parents, wanting to give their children a more solid future, had chosen to leave their small, metal sheet roofed home not too far from the U.S. border and try their luck over here. Heyra described herself as “lucky.” The dangerous journey they made across the dessert when she was four was safer than it was for most pursuing the same route. Her family had the good fortune of finding a car, providing them with overnight shelter and preventing them from complete exposure to the desert elements or predators—likely both animal and human.

Si_A2A3668nce arriving in the U.S., Heyra and her family have made a home in Florence. In fact, it is the only home she has known since leaving Mexico. She’s an activist and a student, fighting for the long-term goal of achieving comprehensive immigration reform so that she and her parents can have solid status. She also fights for the shorter-term goals of simply maintaining current safeguards against deportation, such as the protection offered by President Obama for childhood immigrants via DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals).

Heyra and her cousin José, both active members of YES, the Youth Education Society, spent much of Wednesday evening helping our group to understand exactly what life is like for the undocumented and other immigrants in our community, the types of struggles and uncertainty they face on a daily basis. One huge revelation came in the form of the Immigration Board Game, a sort of quasi-Monopoly, focusing not on real estate, but the immigrant experience. (The game and other resources can be downloaded at www.ncchurches.org/immigration-curriculum/.)

You start by choosing an immigrant character and then move that character around the board by rolling a die. The characters, each with their own unique set of circumstances and paths of entry into the US, mainly survive, but also glimpse the occasional possibility of achieving actual citizenship. Each character spends a lot of time living, experiencing life’s major milestones like marriage and childbirth, but also succumbs to the frequent pitfalls experienced by most immigrants, such as being accused of lying on their green card application or becoming the victim of a theft or violence that they don’t dare to report due to their precarious status.

_A2A3677And, if they don’t get sent to a detention center or back to their country of origin, they might, as many immigrants do, simply keep circling the outer loop of undocumented limbo, which most characters in the game do.

Our workshop participants were split into four groups. In my group, none of our characters held the coveted safe position at the center of the board. 

Throughout the remainder of our session together Heyra and Jose helped us to understand the options that have been available to help immigrants to maintain a safer status in the U.S., and the recent erosion of those options by the Trump administration.

I had been familiar with the status of DACA and the Dream Act, but I had not been aware of the priority levels enacted during the Obama presidency. The priorities that his administration created assigned different levels to various types of undocumented citizens. The highest priority category grouped undocumented individuals who had committed crimes as well as children who were on their own in the country. They were considered highest priority for deportation. At the lowest priority level were those undocumented individuals who worked and went to school and were simply trying to live normal lives without the advantages of citizenship. These individuals were afforded the opportunity to keep reporting to authorities and showing up at deportation hearings. As long as they complied they could continue to stay.

Now, under Trump, there is longer a system to designate deportation priority levels. Any level of comfort provided to those undocumented citizens raising families and contributing to their communities has been pulled out from underneath them.

Heyra and José inspired me. Heyra calls herself a “realist” and José describes his mindset as “day-to-day.” Yet both were empathetic and enthusiastic workshop leaders. I would have thought they would feel crushed by the weight of all the uncertainty they have to live with. Yet both were hopeful for their communities, not just family and friends, but their entire community here in northern Kentucky and Cincinnati.

_A2A3673At the end of our workshop Heyra and José told us about the ways that they are fighting against the ever-tightening restrictions being imposed on them and other immigrants in northern Kentucky. One key way that non-immigrants can help is to pressure legislators, churches, law enforcement and others in the community who aren’t understanding the need for comprehensive immigration reform. We can put pressure on authorities for shorter-term relief measures as well. For instance, in Cincinnati the police and community have reached an understanding whereby local undocumented immigrants who are stopped or ticketed for violations, will not be reported to ICE if they are carrying a MARCC (Metropolitan Area Religious Coalition of Cincinnati) ID card. We can push for measures such as these to be adopted in northern Kentucky, too. They aren’t a permanent solution, obviously, but they are a step towards keeping undocumented immigrants safe in Northern Kentucky.