At 4 p.m. on Monday, September 20, five students and three youth leaders from the UnidosUS Affiliate Centro Romero climbed on a bus in Chicago at the offices of another nonprofit organization, Casa Michoacan, to take an all-night journey to Washington, DC. Once at their destination, they joined a massive Citizenship 4All Rally sponsored by organizations such as the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and another group named CASA, the largest immigrant advocacy organization in the country’s Mid-Atlantic region.
The goal of the march was to demand that Congress use reconciliation to pass comprehensive immigration reform, a plan that would create a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients, TPS recipients, and essential workers who have supported American society and its economy, often bearing some of the heaviest brunt of the coronavirus pandemic.
Centro Romero is a longstanding nonprofit organization that provides youth programming and other culturally relevant direct services for our North Chicago Latino community. All of its delegates to the rally are participants of its UnidosUS own service learning program, which is also called CASA and is aimed at youth tools to grow into civically engaged leaders. We can tell that the program is having an impact. The delegation, which was sponsored by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR), required that students miss a day of school, and spend two nights on a bus, and five students enthusiastically made the commitment.
Just as the bus was loading, two students bravely agreed to on-camera interviews with a Univision news crew to share how their lives as immigrants could be changed if a direct pathway to citizenship became available. As the bus pulled away, we could see that the sense of community and anticipation was mounging. Everyone took a moment to introduce themselves and share the reason they chose to go to DC. Based on these interactions, it was clear that we were all in this together.
At 11 a.m. on September 21, the bus rolled into Washington’s Benjamin Bannaker Park, where students immediately joined the rally with thousands of representatives from immigrant rights groups across the country. There, they heard speeches from leaders such as Representative Ilhan Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota and refugee from Somalia, and and Illinois’s own Representative Jesús G. “Chuy” García, a Democrat serving the state’s 4th district.
“We can’t stop until we get a ‘yes,’” Representative Garcia told the crowd. “This is not a moment to give up, but it is also a moment for leadership not to back down.”
As the demonstrators filed onto the streets of the nation’s capital and began to march, the students united their voices with the masses shouting “citizenship for all,” “abolish ICE,” and “la gente unido, jamas será vencido” which means “the people united cannot be defeated.”
“I thought it was breathtaking! It was awesome because thousands of people gathered today to make a change in peoples’ lives and I’m proud of that,” said 16-year-old CASA Centro Romero student Aylin Toro.
“I feel so proud and relieved that people like me are here to fight for change, and we are here to get what we deserve because we have the right to get a pathway to citizenship because we are human beings too,”added her 17-year old sister Zully Toro.
The rally made a stop outside of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) building in downtown DC to demand the agency be abolished. While ICE’s official mission is to protect the United States from cross-border crime and illegal immigration that could threaten public safety and national security, it has separated families and deported millions of undocumented immigrants who commit no major crime and posed no such threat to the country.
We continued our march until we were positioned in front of a stage facing Capitol Hill. Several more speakers shared their stories, messages of solidarity, and promises that they would continue fighting until the U.S. government enacts massive immigration reform.
“Our people have been living in the shadows for too long and it’s time for our people to rise and them to take action for what we’ve done for this country,” CASA Michoacan student Analili Mora, 15, told members of our delegation.
While the rally officially ended at 3 p.m., the sense of elation over coming together to demand justice for the undocumented prompted someone in the crowd to blast the song “Payaso de Rodeo” (Rodeo Clown) by Mexican country band Caballo Dorado on a loudspeaker. Instantly, the students lined up to dance, leading the way for the Mexican flashmob in front of the U.S. Capitol Building.
It was an awesome sight to see, and the whole day is a memory the students will carry with them as they continue to find ways to lead their community and their generation forward. As we tiredly climbed off the bus following our all-night trip back to Chicago, the students received a warm welcome home from another participant of the march who was also on her way home but with a different organization.
“Never stop fighting for justice,” she shouted to them in Spanish. “Thank you, girls, for helping our community!”
Back at Centro Romero, the students presented photos to their peers and talked about their experiences from the march, and how they could continue working together on the fight for immigration reform from Chicago. Witnessing the students on that trip and their commitment to the longterm struggle left me inspired and hopeful of the power that service learning and civic engagement programs like CASA can have for our community.
-Author Jackie Seward is an instructor of the UnidosUS service-learning program CASA at the UnidosUS Affiliate Centro Romero in Chicago