Above: 6-year-old immigrant rights leader Sophie Cruz speaks in Los Angeles Saturday with her family at the “I am an Immigrant” celebration. Photo by Lightmary Flores.
A crowd of over 400 gathered Saturday at Holman United Methodist Church in downtown Los Angeles to mark Immigrant Heritage Month. The gathering was also intended as a message rejecting the increasingly hostile political rhetoric targeting immigrant communities.
Titled “I Am An Immigrant: A Celebration of Our Stories,” the gathering came just a week before the Supreme Court ruled on President Obama’s signature program providing temporary relief from deportation for millions of undocumented immigrants.
“Given the national landscape and the toxic rhetoric around immigrant, Muslim and LGBTQ communities we wanted to come together to resist hateful speech,” said Evangeline Reyes, program manager with The California Endowment, which co-sponsored the event alongside Welcome.us. “We want to celebrate one another through music and storytelling and come closer together.”
Celebrity activists including ABC star Guillermo Díaz, comedian and producer Cristela Alonzo, actor Esai Morales, podcaster and satirist Tanzila Ahmed and others shared their immigrant stories. There was also music performed by the LGBTQ band Mariachi Arcoiris de Los Angeles.
Holocaust survivor Henry Oster held back tears as he reflected on his experience in America and spoke of his vision for the country. “We have to make decisions, presidential decisions,” Oster said. “I am confident with the freedoms that we have that we will not allow a fence to be built around this country.”
The celebration also recognized the people native to the Los Angeles area – the Tongva – through African drums and dance and the stories of other groups, such as the Japanese forced into internment camps during World War II.
Noted journalist and activist Jose Antonio Vargas co-hosted the event.
“Tonight we will make history,” he told the crowd. “We will do something that the media, political class and something that mainstream Hollywood with it’s Oscars, it’s history books, with it’s popular literary canon have not been able to do; that is to tell a more inclusive, more honest story of our country’s immigration history.”
In 2011, Vargas made headlines when he revealed he was undocumented in a New York Times Magazine article. He has since then advocated for reforms on immigration policy and launched media campaigns to highlight immigrant stories. In 2008, Vargas was part of a team from the Washington Post awarded a Pulitzer for breaking news coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings.
Speaking of the anticipated SCOTUS ruling, Vargas said, “We wait in solidarity for this important executive decision that will impact thousands of families and lives across the nation.”
The split 4-4 decision announced early Thursday effectively upholds a lower court ruling blocking two programs announced by Obama in 2015.
Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) would have granted temporary work permits and relief from deportation for undocumented parents of U.S. citizens or permanent residents. An expanded version of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) would have erased the age cap on eligible applicants while extending the period of work authorization from two to three years.
The original DACA program remains in place despite the court’s decision.
In response to the ruling, Vargas tweeted a scan of a check for $48 thousand in taxes he paid to the IRS, which he wrote, “is more than happy to collect $ while DHS/ICE wants to deport us.” DHS is the Department of Homeland Security. ICE refers to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The decision is expected to impact the more than 800,000 undocumented immigrants who now reside in L.A. County, home to the largest undocumented population in the state, as well as the estimated 11 million across the country.
In a closing speech, Paola Mendoza screened her documentary “Free like the Birds,” which tells the story of 6-year-old Sophie Cruz, who became a notable immigrant rights leader in her own right after she crossed the Pope’s motorcade security and handed him a pressing letter, which then led to a meeting with President Obama.
Both Sophie and the Cruz family took the stage Saturday to a standing ovation.
“If the court approves DAPA that would be the best gift for us children, because weekends, vacations and our Christmas celebrations would be different,” said Cruz. “We would celebrate together as a family without feeling scared of being separated.”
She continued, “There should not be any walls that separate families.”
For more on the #IamanImmigrant campaign, visit www.iamanimmigrant.net.