By Judith Scherr
Calling Berkeley’s pedestrian span over the freeway “The Bridge to Citizenship,” a crowd of about 100 people rallied at the bridge on April 10 for fair immigration reform, joining their voices with hundreds of thousands of others across the country.
Berkeley City Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, son and grandson of farmworkers, spoke before marching across the bridge.
“For too long our undocumented sisters and brothers have been living in the shadows,” Arreguin said. “They are our neighbors, classmates and coworkers. They pay taxes and raise their kids here and they contribute to our local economy. Despite the fact that they are embedded in our community, there’s no easy way for them to become legal citizens.
“For far too long, rather than fixing this broken system, our federal government has been dividing families and communities through raids and deportations. This has to stop.”
People without documents that authorize them to live in the U.S. – there are 11 million in the country and 143,000 in Alameda County — are beginning to speak out about the trials they face. They’re unable to drive or work legally, or even open bank accounts. Some, particularly day laborers, are vulnerable to unscrupulous employers who don’t pay them, understanding that they fear going to the police.
Ju Hong, a San Francisco State graduate student who has lived in the U.S. since he was 11, spoke to the gathering. Stating he is “undocumented and unafraid,” Hong talked about the difficult economic situation that caused his mother to leave her home in South Korea and bring her two children to the U.S.
He didn’t learn about his own immigration status until he was in high school, filling out a college application. ”There’s a social security section where I didn’t know what to put,” Hong said. “So I asked my mom about it and that’s when she told me everything about our situation. We came here with a tourist visa and she renewed additional tourist visas. And during this period, my mom tried to adjust our immigration status. But it didn’t work out. And therefore, we became undocumented. At first I didn’t know what it meant to be undocumented. Until I learned that I’m unable to get a job, obtain a driver’s license, or receive any type of financial aid. And worst of all I was and still am at risk of being deported back to South Korea.”
Recent California legislation allows eligible students to obtain financial aid for college and university.
Representatives from the Alameda County Central Labor Council and a group of fourth graders from Jefferson School sporting “Bring Rodrigo Home” t-shirts led the chanting crowd across the bridge.
The students and their adult advisors have catapulted their deported classmate Rodrigo Guzman into the limelight as a poster child for immigration reform. Rodrigo had lived in Berkeley more than seven of his nine years. He accompanied his parents on a visit to Mexico at Christmastime, but coming home to Berkeley, was stopped at the Houston airport, where authorities determined the family’s visas had expired and deported them to Mexico.
The next day, April 11, some of Rodrigo’s classmates spoke to more than 200 people gathered for the Berkeley Celebrates Cesar Chavez event at the Berkeley Adult School, an event targeting immigration reform.
Kyle Kuwahara, 9, read his letter to President Obama: “….In school we are learning about all these important people like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks who fought for people’s civil rights and freedom. So what about Rodrigo’s freedom? Who is fighting for his freedom? This is our time to stand up like Cesar Chavez, Yuri Kochiyama and Dolores Huerta to fight for Rodrigo’s rights.”
Next month, the children will travel to Washington D.C. at the invitation of Rep. Barbara Lee to lobby for immigration reform and the return of their friend.