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Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
CULTURAL SENSITIVITY: Rep. Mike Honda consoles Ana Rosales, whose husband was deported last year, during a rally at St. Victor's Church in San Jose.

Border War Continues

Congressmen, speakers ask the president to focus on immigration reform

By Jessica Fromm

MORE than 300 members of the Silicon Valley interfaith community came together Saturday evening to ask President Barrack Obama to fulfill his campaign promises to overhaul America's immigration policies. Many attendees, however, left the event feeling disappointed.

The town-hall-style rally took place at St. Victor's Church on Sierra Road in San Jose, and featured speeches by Mike Honda, San Jose's congressional representative, and his colleague, U.S. Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.).

Though Obama is expected to begin making decisions on immigration policy in May, many activists fear that the economy has eclipsed the topic.

The event, part of a 20-city nationwide outreach tour by Gutierrez, aimed to raise awareness of the urgent need to fix the country's broken immigration system. As chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus's Immigration Task Force, Gutierrez has been spearheading the immigration reform agenda in Washington, putting a religious and moral spin on the issue.

Gutierrez has traveled coast to coast every weekend for the last few months, trying to build grassroots support in the fight to keep immigration reform on people's consciousness. At each event, members of the community are asked to share testimony of the suffering they and their families have experienced because of current policies.

San Jose was the 19th stop on Gutierrez's tour, and was the first event to highlight the voices of Asian immigrants, with testimonials given by Filipina and Thai Americans.

Community, religious and nonprofit leaders from all over Silicon Valley were in attendance. San Jose Councilmember Kansen Chu sat in the audience wearing a peach-colored traditional Chinese shirt, and Assemblymember Paul Fong was seated next to a male couple sitting hand-in-hand, wearing shirts that read "United by love, divided by law."

The rally was kicked off by members of the local religious community, including Jewish, Catholic, Buddhist and Protestant representatives. Inside the stuffy church community room, the group of male and female clergy members took the podium and led the crowd in song and prayer.

Honda and Gutierrez then took the stage alongside the seven speakers. They listened to the stories of separation, hardship, fear, bureaucracy and injustice. The second speaker, Ana Rosales, broke down in tears as she told her story of struggling to take care of her disabled son alone, after ICE deported her husband back to Mexico last year. As Rosales started to cry, Honda got up from his chair and put a supportive hand on her shoulder, and she struggled to give the rest of her speech.

"Right now there are thousands of cases where a father or mother goes to work, and doesn't come back to see their children because they are held by immigration and then deported," Rosales said. "For the love of God, Congressmen Honda and Gutierrez, tell President Obama and other members of Congress to stop these arrests and deportations, and to keep families united." After she concluded her statement, Honda and Gutierrez rose to hug Rosales before she took her seat.

Tim Tararug, a De Anza College student, gave a testimonial on behalf of his friend, a Cambodian refugee. Though she graduated from UC–Santa Cruz recently with a degree in computer science, he said, she cannot find work because she is not a legal U.S. resident. Tararug said he thinks the Asian community is underrepresented in immigration policy.

"Whenever we talk about immigration policy, it's the Mexican thing," he said. "We don't really think of it as an Asian problem. So I'm here tonight to share 'Hey, it does happen to our communities.' It does happen to refugee communities; it does happen to Southeast Asians."

Tararug said that he fells threatened because general society's view of immigrants is so negative.

"Whenever you hear 'immigrant,' there is a negative connotation that sticks to that word," he said. "America is full of immigrants; we're built on immigrants. Yet still, when you hear 'immigrant,' everybody cringes. That needs to change. How we think about immigrants needs to change."

Following the testimonials, Honda and Gutierrez spoke to the crowd. Honda stressed the importance of hearing the voices of San Jose's Asian community in the debate on immigration. "Of the 12 million who are undocumented, 12 percent are Asians. So, we need to have people understand that this is not a brown issue, it's not a white issue, its all of our issues," Honda said.

"We need to engage the Asian American community on the issue of comprehensive immigration reform. All too often in major issues, our presence, our voices, our input are assumed, or not even thought of. So, this is a comprehensive effort to hear from communities like the Filipinos, the Vietnamese and other communities, to hear from them on the kinds of issues they have."

Gutierrez, who strode to the podium to a standing ovation and shouts of "You da man," gave an energetic, well-practiced speech, vowing to bring the voices that he has heard throughout the country back to Capitol Hill. He also stated that the Hispanic Caucus had met with Obama last March, and that they expect an official statement from the president on immigration reform in the first week of May.

"The fact is that Barack Obama tomorrow could end the raids. He could do that all on his own, he could say, 'I'm not going to separate another family,'" Gutierrez said.

Following the event, Gutierrez expressed disappointment that there were not more people in attendance at the San Jose rally.

"I think San Jose could do better," he said. "I've been in cities that had 3,000 people. I've been in cities that had 1,500 people. I've been to cities that had 4,000 people. It's a great beginning. You have to learn how to walk before you run, and it's great that we had three, four hundred people. This was a good beginning here in San Jose. It was a good night, but we must tell ourselves that we need to continue to grow," he said.

"Hopefully after today, there are 350 more people committed to this fight. And tomorrow, it is my hope that they were touched in a special way tonight, to recommit to comprehensive immigration reform, and to organize the hell out of it until the president signs," Gutierrez said.

Alicia Carvajal, a councilor who volunteers at the Legal Aid Society of Santa Clara, also said that she wished there had been more people in attendance at the event.

"A lot of people showed up, but I wish there were more people. Seventy percent of the people here were people I know who work in the nonprofits. I would like to see more people from the community, not only these people like me who work in different agencies," Carvajal said.

"I was moved by what Mr. Gutierrez said, and it's true. I love President Obama, I voted for him, but it doesn't mean that I can forget that he said that immigration reform has to be this year. It is imperative, we cannot wait another four years. We can't wait any longer. We have to remind Mr. Obama that 'Hey, we love you, but please, where is the immigration reform?" she said.

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