The Boston Marathon bombings and their impact on immigration policy framed a discussion organized by Centro Presente Friday on police hostility, immigrant rights, and the necessity of grassroots and community organizing.
An immigrant rights organization based in Somerville, Centro Presente held the community conversation in partnership with the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities. NALACC is a Latino-led organization based in Chicago that works for betterment of the Latin American community in the U.S. and abroad.
The event reflected the anxiety among some in immigrant communities that the Marathon bombings would lead to a backlash against immigrants and possibly endanger legislation on Capitol Hill to overhaul the nation's immigration system and create a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million unauthorized immigrants already here.
Natalicia Tracy, executive director of the Brazilian Immigration Center, and Oscar Chacon, executive director of NALACC, expressed their sympathy and solidarity to those affected by the April 15 bombings and the aftermath.
“Of course what happened is not okay,” Tracy said Friday. “But to use an incident such as this one to continue to criminalize our community and portray us as those to be blamed for is not justifiable.”
Around 20 people attended the event, including representatives from other immigrant rights organizations of the area. Also present were Jacobi Francisco, vice-consul of Mexico's consulate in Boston, and Jose Aleman, general consul of El Salvador's consulate in Boston.
“For the past 25 years or so, in a very systematic manner, forces that are motivated by racism and xenophobia in our society have been constantly painting foreign nationals as threats to US society,” said Chacon. He condemned the hostility toward the immigrant community with the same emphasis he condemned the acts of terror against innocent people that took place in the Boston Marathon.
“Not only does the anti-immigrant hysteria run the risk of rising again, but we also become more complacent to accept practices such as the excessive use of police force,'' said Chacon, who likened the manhunt for the bombing suspects to a military operations.
He encouraged the audience not to be complacent to allow actions that violate rights.
Patricia Montes, executive director of Centro Presente, said during the discussion that the Massachusetts Trust Act, a bill to provide immediate relief from deportations by local law enforcement to immigrants held under the Secure Communities program of detention, is a step to protect immigrants and their families who are torn apart by deportation.
The Trust Act, if passed, would help discern between criminals and those who are in the state to live under the US laws.
Tracy said that the intense police presence in Watertown terrorized some of residents of the Brazilian community who live on the streets that were searched by law enforcement agents.
“Many of them are traumatized, many were told to go back home. They didn’t understand what was going on,” said Tracy, describing how she received text messages at 3 a.m. from Brazilian residents of Watertown asking for Tracy to alert other community members about the searches. Others sent her pictures of the National Guard on their street.
“We see how the police are getting more aggressive and more hostile when addressing members of the community,” said Tracy. It is important, Tracy said, to inform and encourage community members to report abuses or misuse of police power.
Mary Jo Connelly, a resident of Somerville, said she witnesses how her neighbors, who are immigrants from the Caribbean and Central America, live in fear.
“Our kids play together, we share many things -- we work hard and raise families,” said Connelly. “But my neighbors live in fear.”
“[Living in fear] doesn’t just hurt immigrant families, it hurts all of our families,'' she added. "It is unstable for the community.”
Some of the Watertown residents that experienced the searches on April 19 are still under stress and limiting their activities outside of their homes, said Tracy. ESL program students have not showed up to their language sessions organized by the Brazilian Immigrant Center in nearby Allston.
Jesus Romero, a member of the immigrant rights community, said he attended the Centro Presente event “to share ideas because as a group we are in the same fight” for a comprehensive immigration reform that covers different interests.
“We march together, we rally together,” said Romero, who is a member of Comite TPS, (TPS Committee).
TPS, or Temporary Protected Status, is a immigration status granted by the federal government that protects citizens of designated foreign countries from deportation and facilitates obtaining work papers for Salvadorian, Hondurans, and Nicaraguans, among citizens of Haiti and some African countries. TPS does not, however, pave the way for a legal permanent resident status, though immigration groups hope a pathyway will be included in the overhaul of immigration policy.
Chacon encouraged the audience to bring conversations of the sort that took place in Centro Presente to more communities, especially younger audiences, to safeguard the rights of immigrants.
Jose Palma, member of Centro Presente, said this event helped to clarify misconceptions of immigrants being equated to criminals. “This conversation will lead us to a common understanding that immigration is not linked to terrorism,” said Palma.
Centro Presente and NALACC hosted a nationwide week of action calling on President Obama to halt deportations in a campaign known as National Week of Actions Against Deportations from April 22-26.