CITIZEN GREEN: Latinx in NC, on a dream and a promise

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Members of NC Latino Power gathered at Marvin United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem on June 29. (photo by Jordan Green)

The American Dream and Promise Act of 2019, which passed the Democrat-controlled House on June 10, establishes a pathway to permanent-resident status and protection from deportation for certain immigrants, including those previously eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals before President Trump canceled their status, and those with temporary protected status.

With the backdrop of Republican lawmakers and a White House callous to horrifying conditions in detention camps at the border, it’s hard to imagine the Republican-controlled Senate taking action on the bill. It’s hard to imagine North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis, running scared from charges of “supporting open borders” in his upcoming primary, signing on. If that miracle were to transpire, it’s even harder to imagine a president who launched his re-election campaign with a warning that Democrats “would strip Americans of their Constitutional rights while flooding the country with illegal immigrants” signing such a bill.

But on [a recent] Saturday morning, about 60 Latinx leaders, including pastors, business owners, at least one union activist and at least one student, met in the fellowship hall of Methodist church on the north side of Winston-Salem to plan a lobbying trip to request Tillis’ and fellow Republican Sen. Richard Burr’s support for the American Dream and Promise Act.

“We are part of this society,” Pastor Sonya Vaca Zuniga told me. “We know that we have different levels, and we need to work on all levels and with all people, organizations, churches, business, unions because all of us are living here, and we have the same goal: to live with dignity, and to have peace and justice for our families.”

The coalition of Latinx leaders, who get together once a month and organize under the banner of NC Latino Power, has already met with Winston-Salem police Chief Catrina Thompson and reached an agreement to honor protections granted under the U-Visa, which allows non-immigrants residents who have been victims of mental or physical abuse to stay in the country if they provide assistance to the police. They’ve held productive discussions with Forsyth County Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough. And they have a meeting scheduled with NC Attorney General Josh Stein on July 9. As one member of the coalition said, “We don’t go and yell in front of the Governor’s Mansion; we want a dialogue and a conversation.”

Reyna Rodriguez, a Salvadoran immigrant, is among those who stand to benefit from the passage of the American Dream and Promise Act. She paid $1,200 to apply for temporary protected status when she came to the United States in 2001, and has paid $500 to reapply every 18 months. “Every single time they are checking my records, my background and they check my fingerprints,” Rodriguez said. “If everything is okay with my case, they renew my card.

“I came to this country with my daughter when she was six months old,” Rodriguez continued. “She applied for DACA. She is working and she is taking classes. Because she has DACA she can do that. Because I have [temporary protected status] I can have a driver’s license. I can work. I’m working in this country as a health educator. I am a single mom. Because I have TPS, I can work and provide for my kids, and I can do something good for my kids, plus the community. Because I love to help the community. This is my passion. I’m trying to do my best. Because I have TPS, I can do everything that is possible. We are asking the senators if they can help us with this to continue being good persons and continue doing everything legally.”

Dr. Edwin Garcia added, “We are part of this country. We have been part of the progress of this country. In fact, there are many areas that really depend on the Hispanic labor. We are close to 50 percent of the labor force in construction in this state. In the tourism, food, many other areas we are part of the progress of this country. So, it’s not only 2.5 million Dreamers, but recipients of TPS are going to benefit from this…. We are part of the progress of this country, and we want to continue to be part of this country.”

It’s hard to know what goes through Tillis’ and Burr’s minds, and whether they will hear the heartfelt petition of these Latinx residents of North Carolina when they go to Washington on July 26. It’s hard to know whether the people’s voice will reach the governing class in any meaningful way. It’s hard to know whether they will see their Latinx constituents from Forsyth County as actual people, as opposed to pawns in a larger political game. 

What is clear is that the Latinx residents of Forsyth pleading their case to the two senators from North Carolina embody the American ideal of participation and process, rights and responsibilities far more than those whose fearful and cramped identity is premised on whom they can exclude.