Local and state officials conveyed their support for issues regarding immigration, employee wages and the criminal justice system at a meeting in Peabody that garnered a diverse group of over two hundred attendees from over 25 religious congregations on the North Shore.
The Essex County Community Organization (ECCO), a congregation-based group that aims to help communities in areas like job training, health care, youth development, housing, and safety, hosted the event, which addressed immigration reform, criminal justice reform and raising minimum wage.
At the “Action Assemly,” which was held at St. John the Baptist Parish, residents gave testimony on what it’s like to make ends meet earning minimum wage, adapting to society after being in prison, and the expensive cost of applying for legalization, which can cost up to $4,000 due to fines and fees, testifiers said.
“It’s immensely gratifying to hear the wonderful support we got tonight,” said Sam Silverman, a member of the board of directors at ECCO. “I think we will be able to make some real progress knowing that we have their support.”
State Sen. Joan Lovely, state Rep. Ted Speliotis, and a spokesperson representing US Sen. Elizabeth Warren, agreed to advocate for the many immigrants, minimum-wage employees, and residents struggling to find jobs and to stay out of trouble after incarceration.
Lovely said she was especially shocked by how people manage to live off of minimum wage, which is $8 per hour, or $16,000 per year if working full-time.
“It’s next to impossible for people to be able to really support themselves in this economy on minimum wage,” Lovely said. “We just need to take a hard look at it. Sometimes it’s a disincentive to work. People say ‘I don’t want to go out to work,’ and then what do they do? They end up on public assistance and we want to avoid that.”
The senator added that she plans on attending a minimum wage hearing at the State House today to get as much information on the issue as possible.
Once Lovely does “all the homework,” she will take the next steps in pressing to raise minimum wage.
Brenda Paredez,16, testified on the suffering of her parents, who immigrated from Paraguay about 12 years ago, and have yet to find stable jobs. Paredez’s father works as a painter in Boston, while her mother cleans homes on the North Shore.
Despite her family’s struggles, the sophomore at the Salem Academy Charter School has hopes of attending Tufts University and becoming an accomplished businesswoman.
“To me it was a blessing because for years there was nothing good happening for immigration,” Paredez said. “To see this support, it’s amazing.”
Paredez added that it gives her hope knowing elected officials support immigration reform and lowering the cost of the application process to becoming a legal citizen.
Chris Lange,, Sen. Warren's regional director, read a statement regarding immigration reform on the senator’s behalf.
“Today 15 percent of people in Massachusetts were born in a foreign country,” Lange said. “Immigration is who we are as a people and we’re stronger because of it. Senator Warren will work with her colleagues for an affordable path to citizenship. I think we all agree that this is a good starting point.”
The third issue addressed at the assembly was the need for reforming the current criminal justice system.
According to a recent report endorsed by the Massachusetts Criminal Justice Coalition, incarceration has a lasting impact on the economic potential of ex-offenders with real implications for their families.
The coalition, which is made up of prominent attorneys, justice officials and former prosecutors, said in the report that on average, former inmates earn 40 percent less annually than they would have had they not been sent to prison.
Based on this national estimate, formerly incarcerated workers in Massachusetts lose about $760 million in wages annually, which in turn reduces tax collections by $20 million per year.
In order to improve these conditions, ECCO is advocating for increased funding for evidence-based diversion, in-prison training programs and reentry programs for when incarcerated workers are released.
“People make mistakes, but people do change,” said Cassandra Bensahih, a Lynn resident who said she served a short stint in prison after committing a drug-related crime. “The way our criminal justice system is set up today seems to just perpetuate the idea of incarceration.”
Bensahih added that she felt unprepared to endure life outside of prison when she was released and that no one showed her the way to find a job with a criminal record.
Lovely said in determining what needs to be done with the criminal justice system, she plans on talking to judges, district attorneys and other officials with “boots on the ground”.
“It’s clear that we need some type of reform,” Lovely said. “Exactly what it is, the devil is in the details, so we’ll see.”
Despite a slight disappointment in the number of legislators that attended the meeting, ECCO leader Sam Silverman said that last night’s event was a huge success.
“What this evening has shown is that we can take people of diverse backgrounds, race, class, religion, identify common social justice issues, and have them come together to work and influence our elected officials to support these issues,” Silverman said. “That’s a significant accomplishment.”