NJ families affected by U.S. immigration policies bring their stories to Washington, D.C.
Ruthie Jablonsky and Diana Levy
AFSC’s Immigrant Rights Program in Newark, New Jersey works to achieve policies that respect the rights and dignity of all immigrants. Through advocacy and organizing, the program ensures that immigrant voices are heard in policy debates and in the national conversation about immigration issues.
On July 12, more than 40 clients, community members, and AFSC staff took part in an AFSC-sponsored trip to Washington, D.C. to meet with members of Congress and other government officials as part of ongoing efforts to call for humane immigration reform. Ruthie Jablonsky and Diana Levy, both advocacy and policy interns with the program, shared this recap of the day:
Advocacy is a growing, living organism that necessitates many caring hands, ready to care and cultivate an environment that supports life and connection. And advocating for change can take on many different forms. Sometimes it is a hunger strike, a sit- in, a walkout, a march.
For community members who work with AFSC Newark Immigrant Rights Program, on July 12, advocacy meant loading onto a bus and heading for Washington, D.C. to meet with legislators about issues affecting our community.
In advance of our visit, we strategized about meeting with members of Congress who sit on the House and Senate subcommittees that deal with immigration issues. This proved to be challenging, because our community members and client families were not constituents of most of the legislators we were contacting.
Was it pointless to try and prove that although our community is from New Jersey, the federal issues of immigration affect them on a daily basis? That the decisions of Texas Congressman John Carter, for instance, could dictate whether families in New Jersey are separated by federal policies like the immigrant detention quota? Our challenge was how to best frame the immigrant experience in a national context, in a way that would speak to influential legislators, even if they didn’t represent our districts.
Our plan for our day in Washington was ambitious. We had scheduled 23 meetings with Congressional members, one meeting with the Department of Homeland Security Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, and one meeting with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
My team met with the offices of Congresswoman Bonnie Watson-Coleman from New Jersey, Sen. Dick Durbin from Illinois, and Congressman Ken Buck from Colorado. The families with me were sharing painful, often traumatic, and indisputable knowledge that comes from living experience.
Salimata Coulibaly described how her husband’s arrest after an immigration interview affected their family. Her gaze never wavered, and I could feel the power of her statement as the different legislative aides often could do nothing more than nod in agreement and thank her for sharing.
Throughout the day, I was continually awed by our community. Some of the participants were young folks traveling without parents, either because their parents had been deported or because their parents were working tirelessly to support them. Some were single mothers—made single by the system of detention and deportation that separated them from their partners—traveling with their young children.
From the moment that I witnessed the community members telling their stories to legislators, the weight and importance of the work we were doing dawned on me. Not only did our visit bring the realities of the U.S. immigration system to the forefront of legislators’ minds in the form of mothers and children and unaccompanied minors and single parents, but it also provided space for each person to assume agency and action in a system that steals individuals’ autonomy and dignity.
The immigration system ruptures families, disrupts lives, and sows fear and uncertainty into millions of immigrants’ lives. What I learned from this trip is that out of this pain and uncertainty, we are strengthening communities and supporting a growing network of advocates who are working to change the future for themselves and the generations ahead.
I met with three legislative assistants, working for the offices of Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey, Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren of California, and David Young of Iowa. I was unsure how the meetings would go, as I had never met directly with legislators.
The stories of the individuals affected were an important part of reaching the hearts of these policymakers. During the first meeting, it was a relief to hear the legislative aid of Congresswoman Watson Coleman talk in support of these policies. She listened intently to the stories of the families, a moment I hope she brought back to the congresswoman.
The next meeting was similar, as the legislative aid of Congresswoman Lofgren was familiar with the policies we discussed and seemed determined to share our interest with the representative.
Walking into our last meeting, I was skeptical of the support the legislative aid of Congressman Young would have to offer, due to this lack of support for other bills. I introduced the group and began to go over the legislation we were advocating for. There were five policies that were focused on detention and deportation issues in the United States. With every policy came more questions, some that were difficult to answer. I wanted to give the right answers that would help support what we were advocating for, but I was nervous on the spot.
I was proud of the members of my group during this meeting. They were involved in the discussion and did not back down from difficult questions. At the end of the meeting, Isaac—whose family had struggled with immigration issues after arriving in the U.S.—pushed to know how we could follow up. After the intense meeting, he calmly stated, "I don't want this conversation to end here."
This powerful statement resonated within me. Changes in immigration policy will take days, months, and years to change, but the conversation must continue.
Meeting with legislators that do not have the same outlook on immigration reform is a must. It is clear that although some members of Congress will not support the policies we advocate for, it is important to try to get through to them. Not everyone knows the full extent of who is detained and why. If we can reach out and expose the truth—and help people share their stories about the real-life impact of these policies—it is possible to create the inroads needed to slowly make change.
Ruthie Jablonsky and Diana Levy are advocacy and policy interns with AFSC Newark Immigrant Rights Program.