Approximately 40 students and activists attended a prayer vigil in solidarity with immigrants and refugees Tuesday night.
Recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Temporary Protected Status and a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo spoke to attendees during the candlelit vigil at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Fayetteville about how these immigration programs affected them.
The Barack Obama administration established DACA 2012 to allow people that came to the U.S. illegally before age 16 to receive work permits that must be renewed every two years. TPS allows refugees from countries identified as unsafe due to natural disasters or political unrest to remain in the U.S. temporarily, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ website.
The event gave people impacted by changes in immigration laws a chance to speak up and be heard, said Samantha Haycock, chaplain for St. Martin’s student ministry.
The Department of Homeland Security ended DACA on Sept. 5, 2017, although a decision made by a California federal judge has permitted DACA recipients to renew their permits again, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website. The Department of Homeland Security revoked TPS for refugees from El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua and Sudan, meaning that they will no longer have legal status in the U.S. within the next year and a half, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website.
“As a faith community that believes in standing with our neighbors, we wanted to stand with our neighbors,” Haycock said.
The event was organized in partnership with Canopy Northwest Arkansas, Arkansas United Community Coalition and Northwest Arkansas Workers Justice, Haycock said.
Canopy Northwest Arkansas is a nonprofit that aids in resettling refugees from a variety of countries, according to the organization’s website. Arkansas United Community Coalition is an organization that seeks to aid and educate immigrants, particularly Latino immigrants, according to its website. Northwest Arkansas Workers Justice is a nonprofit that advocates for low-income workers, according to the organization’s website.
DACA recipient Alex Montoya spoke about his struggles growing up without legal documentation. He moved to Rogers from Mexico when he was eight years old, Montoya said.
He went to high school in Rogers and graduated from the UofA with a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology and plans to open his own practice after completing chiropractor’s school, Montoya said. When he was at the UofA he worked as an athletic trainer for the Razorbacks.
Getting a work permit and a driver’s license through DACA was “the best thing in the world,” Montoya said. Because of the Department of Homeland Security’s decision to wind down DACA, he may be without a work permit again in the next few years.
“I feel like I am doing a lot of good, but in return I just get slapped in the face,” Montoya said.
TPS recipient Jose Santamaria came to the U.S. from El Salvador in 1995 at age 16. Now he has a job at Walmart, a wife and two children, he said.
Santamaria finds it hard to accept that in a little over a year he could lose his ability to work in the U.S. legally and have to find a different way to provide for his family, he said. He tries not to lose sleep over what could happen to him and his family if they are forced to return to El Salvador, a country where they have little to no connections.
“Going back is destroying everything we have lived for all this time,” Santamaria said.
Barbara Barroso is an immigrant without legal documentation and an AUCC volunteer who came from Mexico at age 5, she said. Barruso and three other women went to Washington D.C. in January to protest in favor of the Dream Act at the offices of Arkansas congressmen.
The Dream Act is a proposed congressional legislation that would allow DACA recipients to eventually become U.S. citizens, according to the text of the act.
Barruso thinks congressmen want to use the Dream Act as a bargaining chip to negotiate the budget plan, which she thinks is unfair to the people who are living in uncertainty about their future, she said.
Barruso was one of two women arrested in D.C. for obstruction of space, said AUCC Director Mireya Reith in an email on Jan. 23.
Watata Mwenda spoke at the vigil with the aid of a translator. Mwenda is a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo that Canopy helped resettle in Northwest Arkansas in the summer of 2017, he said.
The day he left a refugee camp in Malawi to come to the U.S., he and his wife were told that their son John would not be able to come with them because of rejected medical paperwork, Mwenda said.
“At least where it was unsafe (Malawi) I could be with my children. Here I am safe, but without all my children,” Mwenda said.
Senior Grace Lillis, president of the Registered Student Organization known as Students for Refugees and an intern with Canopy, attended the vigil. She felt a mixture of sadness, guilt and hope for the future while she was listening to the emotionally moving speakers, Lillis said.
“It is hard asking yourself how we got so lucky to be born in this amazing country and how cruelly unfair some of our neighbors have been and are being treated,” Lillis said.
Sophomore Katelynn Sigrist, vice president of Students for Refugees and also a Canopy intern, created an art installation for the event, which will remain in front of St. Martin Episcopal Church for a month, she said.
The installation is a table set with plates, glasses and silverware with the names of people that Canopy was supposed to resettle in 2017 but was unable to because of immigration restrictions, Sigrist said.
“I could not help but think that behind each name is a story, emotions and someone’s family member or friend,” Sigrist said.
The vigil and the installation put a story behind the political issues, Sigrist said.
Senior Thomas Morita, Students for Refugees’ fundraising chairman, attended vigil as an RSO leader but also “as a normal person who wanted to be there to show support” and learn about immigrants’ lives, he said.
Morita chose to come to the U.S. from Japan as a student “for a better life” and saw some of himself in the speakers, he said.
“The only difference is, by virtue of luck, I’m not in danger of being unfairly forced out of my home,” Morita said.
Morita thinks hearing the personal stories of these immigrants is essential to understanding these issues, he said.