Rep. Peter King to immigrant: ‘You should thank God for ICE agents’

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WASHINGTON, D.C.— On Tuesday, dozens of immigrant advocates took to various congressional offices calling on Republican lawmakers to hold a vote on an immigration bill that would grant a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children.

At the onset of the event, organizers with more than 30 advocacy and human rights groups around the country visited multiple congressional offices to ask their representatives to take a vote on immigration legislation that would grant eventual citizenship to undocumented immigrants who fulfill certain criteria. The visits were mostly peaceful, with organizers either meeting with congressional members or their staff members. But one interaction stood out. Walter Barrientos, an organizer with the immigrant advocacy group Make the Road NY met with Rep. Peter King (R-NY) who told him, “You should thank God for ICE agents.”

Barrientos did not respond in kind. After college, he had encountered U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents near the Canadian border on his Amtrak train. He was detained for two days and released on $10,000 bail, according to a 2011 WNYC radio news report.

After the congressional office visits, the groups took to the South Lawn to chant “si se puede” and “undocumented, unafraid.” Speakers included faith leaders and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) beneficiaries, who were granted temporary work authorization and deportation relief under an Obama-era initiative that has since been rescinded by the Trump administration.

Earlier in September, President Donald Trump gave Congress the responsibility of creating a permanent fix for DACA recipients to gain legal status in the country. Since then, congressional members have pitched various immigration bills that would help DACA recipients. This week, Republican Sens. James Lankford (R-OK), Thom Tillis (R-NC), and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) introduced the SUCCEED Act, a restrictive immigration bill that would grant citizenship after 15 years and includes various criteria like being gainfully employed for 48 out of 60 months, passing a background check, and have had to enter the country before the age of 16 and before June 15, 2012. That bill has earned the president’s approval, Lankford said at a press conference, but the Republican lawmakers also insisted that the bill be tied to a larger immigration package that includes border security measures.

JP Palacios, a DACA recipient from Grand Rapids, Michigan, at a rally in Washington, D.C. on September 26, 2017. CREDIT: Esther Yu Hsi Lee

Organizers took to the lawn area between the U.S. Capitol building and Cannon on this unusually warm late September day, to speak about their own stories of being immigrants in the United States. JP Palacios, a 17-year-old DACA beneficiary, had come from Grand Rapids, Michigan to the rally because he wanted to meet with his congressman, Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) to tell him about DACA’s benefits to him. Amash wasn’t at his office, although his staff was “very nice,” Palacios told ThinkProgress.

“I have dreams and ambitions and goals to succeed and to get a clean DREAM Act passed,” Palacios said, clutching to a notebook that he used earlier during his congressional office visits. For him, a “clean DREAM Act” would include provisions to legalize DACA recipients without being tied to a border security bill. “I also want to talk to our representatives to make sure that they know we will be their future constituents whether they like it or not.”

As a young child, Palacios and his family had crossed the border into the United States from Mexico in part because his brother needed a medical operation. Now as a DACA recipient, he has been able to pursue higher education, get a driver’s license, and get a job. But with DACA’s rescission, Palacios is afraid that he may no longer look forward to having a future career as an astronomer in the United States.

“I’d lose my ability to drive. I would have to work under the table, which is risky, something I would never want to do,” Palacios said. “I would like to some day become an astronomer. That would go out the window.”

Jorges Fuentes, a DACA recipient from Mobile, Alabama, at a rally in Washington, D.C. on September 26, 2017. CREDIT: Esther Yu Hsi Lee

Jorge Fuentes, a 20-year-old organizer from Mobile, Alabama, came to the rally because he had hoped for congressional members to pass a bill that would not prohibit his mother from gaining legal status one day. Fuentes is a DACA recipient who fears that the program’s rescission would result in his employment authorization being revoked. He has already taken off one semester to work and hopes to become a physical therapist one day.

“We don’t want to put our families on the line for our benefit,” Fuentes told ThinkProgress. He said that it was “not negotiable” for Congress to pass legislation that would harm parents like his mom who have worried tirelessly to support their families. For Fuentes, his mother who worked night shifts with him to clean restaurants late at night, was equally deserving of legal status one day. They had both come from Mexico in search of a better life.

“A clean DREAM Act is to protect everyone,” Fuentes said. “We do not want a wall. We don’t want them to deport our parents just so we can have a pathway to citizenship. That’s just not negotiable and I’m not going to agree with that.”

The various proposed bills in Congress would all help DACA beneficiaries, but many would keep their undocumented parents vulnerable to deportation.

Sister Patricia Rogucki, a nun and organizer with Sisters for Christian Community, was wearing a black “Deport me instead” shirt at the rally, chanting alongside other rallygoers. She was there because she wanted congressional members to know that Central American immigrants aren’t leaving everything behind to break the law willingly. It’s because of gruesome violence that she’s seen firsthand.

I feel strongly I would rather be deported than have my suffering brothers and sisters who came here from these three Triangle countries to avoid the gang violence.”

“I’ve spent 28 years going back and forth to Central America,” Rogucki said, her voice swelling with emotion. Rogucki said that since 1989, she has been going back at least once or twice a year to visit a parish that operates in the Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, known as the Northern Triangle. “I’ve seen the carnage in El Salvador and Guatemala. I’ve seen the impunity and corruption in Honduras. I’ve seen how the U.S. policies have failed people and they’ve massacred people. I feel strongly I would rather be deported than have my suffering brothers and sisters who came here from these three Triangle countries to avoid the gang violence that the United States has exported in the last century.”

Given an audience with Trump, Rogucki would ask him to look at how he would pass on a better world to future generations by asking him to not discriminate and “to overlook color and religion.”

“People are coming for survival,” Rogucki said. “They have a right to life just as we do. We all have that right. Let us not discriminate based on who has it and who doesn’t.”

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