It looked like the Fourth of July had come early to New London’s Parade Plaza as a crowd of more than 300 people, many holding American flags, stood to sing the National Anthem. But there was no mistaking the purpose of the May 1 rally when the crowd took up the chant, “Si Se Puede!” “Yes We Can!”
The United Farm Workers first adopted “Si Se Puede” as its motto in 1972 during the migrant workers struggle for equal rights. In 2006, immigration reform advocates adopted it as their rallying cry. This rally, which was conducted in both English and Spanish, was one of many held across the country on May 1--celebrated around the world as international workers day--in support of equality and justice for immigrants.
“We are a nation of immigrants. This nation is what it is today because of immigrants. This is our nation too!” said Rev. Daniel Martino of New London’s , one of the founding members of the Alliance for Fair Immigration Reform Movement (AFIRM), which organized the rally.
Founded only a few months ago, AFIRM is a coalition of local church and religious leaders and cultural organizations that serve the Hispanic community. “Although we represent many different groups there are some things we all agree on,” said Carolyn Paterno of the New London Clergy Association, which is part of AFIRM. “All the people of faith believe that everyone should be made to feel welcome, so we stand together in this struggle.”
Although nationally, immigration issues have fallen out of the spotlight since the 2007 immigration reform bill failed to pass, on a local level the issue hasn’t gone away. “There’s nothing going to happen nationally for two years, but there’s a very important need to keep people’s hopes alive,” said AFIRM founding member Father Robert Washabaugh. “There’s a lot of misinformation and a lot of despair within the immigrant community.”
Fueled in part by increased immigration, the latest U.S. Census data shows that the Latino population has grown by 50 percent in the last decade but many Latinos are struggling. The census found that 17 percent live in poverty, 22 percent have no health insurance, and 17.7 percent of Hispanics in Connecticut are unemployed. That’s the third highest unemployment rate in the nation. Even those who are working struggle to make a living wage. Immigrant laborers make 70 cents for every dollar made by white workers.
“This is alarming information,” said Werner Oyanadel, acting executive director of the state of Connecticut’s Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission. “We must do all we can to change that.”
The outlook for the children of immigrants is especially bleak. Although Latinos make up 16 percent of the student population, only 59 percent graduate from high school and only 16 percent of them are prepared for college. Even then, tuition costs put college out of reach for many in Connecticut, because if they or their parents are undocumented, they have to pay high out-of-state tuition fees.
Change may be afoot at the state level, however. A bill known as the Connecticut Dream Act proposes to allow the children of undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates for state colleges and universities. “This bill is right now working its way through the system,” said state Rep. Ernest Hewett (D-New London). He told the crowd he plans to sign it and urged everyone to encourage the state Legislature to pass it.
“We are here to encourage you to get involved,” said Sister Mary Jude Lazarus of the Norwich Diocese. “We hope for a change of heart, that elected officials will have the courage to enact immigration reform. It’s more than a political issue; it’s a justice issue and therefore a moral issue. Hope must guide us as we stand in solidarity with our brother and sisters who continue to live in the shadows.”