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Mass. immigration activists join national reform push

Yawu Miller | 6/3/2009, 6:49 a.m.
Chelsea Collaborative Executive Director Gladys Vega speaks during a press conference at Boston City Hall on Monday, June 1,...
Chelsea Collaborative Executive Director Gladys Vega speaks during a press conference at Boston City Hall on Monday, June 1, 2009. Looking on are Faron McLurkin from Change to Win and Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. The activists are calling for an overhaul of federal immigration policies. Yawu Miller

The vast majority of the Chelsea Collaborative’s predominantly Latino clientele come to the social service agency seeking help with immigration issues — problems like stalled petitions to bring family members to the United States, expiring refugee status and long waits for citizenship.

So when activists in the Greater Boston area came together Monday to renew their efforts to enact federal immigration reform, Chelsea Collaborative Executive Director Gladys Vega was there, lending her voice to the national effort.

“These are people who are contributing to the economy,” said Vega, who was born in Puerto Rico. “They pay taxes. They send their kids to our schools. They’re working very hard on a daily basis.”

The press conference, held at Boston City Hall, was called by the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA) as part of a national push for immigration reform. Similar organizations across the nation held press conferences Monday.

Representatives from immigration reform organizations across the country were scheduled to convene in Washington on Wednesday to kick off a three-day conference aimed at building a national consensus on immigration reform.

The conference, sponsored by the Fair Immigration Reform Movement and the National Immigration Forum, was expected to draw nearly 400 participants, including members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden.

Topping the list of priorities for immigration reform activists is amnesty for the estimated 12 million workers in the United States without documentation.

The immigration reform groups are also calling for an end to the workplace raids conducted by the federal Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, as well as a ban on using local law enforcement agencies to enforce federal immigration law.

“You cannot be stopped legally by the police because you look like an immigrant,” said Alejandro Urrutia, an organizer with the New Hampshire Alliance of Immigrants and Refugees during Monday’s press conference. “But police are routinely stopping people and asking for IDs.”

The immigration reform activists are calling for the federal government to prioritize enforcement on those immigrants whose actions pose a threat to the United States — drug traffickers, terrorists, violent criminals — rather than on workplace raids and random traffic stops.

Unlike past attempts at implementing immigration reform, the current effort is being led by immigration organizations around the country. The last major push was a bipartisan effort helmed by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., that kicked off in 2005 before fizzling out in 2007.

Now, with the Obama administration committed to immigration reform and Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate, the stars seem better aligned for a change in the nation’s immigration policies.

“We have the right administration in place,” said MIRA Coalition Executive Director Eva A. Millona. “The president has made it clear that it’s a priority. And we’re better organized. We really think we have a strong chance this year.”

And as Vega of the Chelsea Collaborative sees it, the U.S. needs its immigrant population more than ever. She points to Broadway in Chelsea, where not too long ago most of the storefronts were shuttered. Today, the city’s commercial district is teeming with immigrant businesses.

“The people who are rebuilding our community are immigrants,” she said. “They are the people who are buying houses. The people who are keeping the sidewalks clean. The people who are proud to call Chelsea home and are keeping Chelsea vibrant.”