Pat Baker is not an immigrant. But as the mother of a Chinese immigrant and the daughter of an Irish immigrant, the Gloucester resident is passionate about the issues surrounding immigration policy in America.
For the 17th annual Immigrants’ Day at the Massachusetts Statehouse, Baker will join almost 1,000 immigrants and advocates today to celebrate the contributions of immigrants and to advocate for reform.
“Immigrants need to share their stories so legislators will know why immigration law reform is important,” said Baker, a policy analyst at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. “... It would be hard to find a family in America without a history of immigration.”
The event will feature a talk by Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who wrote about his life as an undocumented immigrant for The New York Times Magazine in 2011. Immigrants and advocates also will visit local legislators to lobby for immigration reform.
“About a thousand people are deported daily, which means families are being ripped apart every day,” said Alexandra Pineros-Shields of Salem, who came from Spain to America when she was 4. She is director of organizing for the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.
“The biggest myth about immigration is that being undocumented is a crime,” Pineros-Shields said. “It’s not, yet the consequences of being undocumented are drastic.”
Being undocumented, she said, is an administrative, not a criminal, matter. It refers to people who have entered the country without inspection or stayed in the U.S. with an expired visa. But the consequences are serious.
Undocumented immigrants can be placed in detention centers while immigration courts determine whether they should be deported or released, she noted, and they have no right to a lawyer or a jury. The average stay in a detention center is nine months in Massachusetts, she said.
“This is a really unfair system and the most pressing problem to fix,” she said.
One group from Lynn will be attending Immigrants’ Day to get the word out about the new Iraqi and Arab Community Association, a nonprofit started by Iman Shati. It’s the only such group on the North Shore or in Boston, providing services to 200 immigrants. Shati pays English as a Second Language teachers and funds the association out of her own pocket.
“I insist to keep going,” Shati said, adding that many Iraqi and Arab immigrants are moving to the area. As a refugee from Iraq whose family fled because of the war, she offers “feeling and emotion” and sees the Statehouse event as another way to draw attention to the need for support.
Among the policy changes that advocates are seeking are the Safe Driving Bill, which would make it easier to get driver’s licenses, and the Trust Act, which would make it easier to opt out of the federally mandated Secure Communities program, which requires police officers to check immigration status when making an arrest.
Supporters of Secure Communities say it’s a way to crack down on illegal immigration, but Pineros-Shields said families with members who are undocumented are afraid to attract attention by calling the police when crimes occur in their neighborhoods.