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A Day After He Takes Oath, Immigration Activists Send Message to Obama


Margarito Esquino and his wife, María, lit a small clay pot of medicinal herbs – sage, mira and copal – and, with a handful of eagle feathers, swept the smoke toward the gleaming office building at 500 SW 12th Street.

The service itself was not so extraordinary. It was a traditional indigenous ceremony – “a cleansing, to take away the bad spirits,” María Esquino told Diverse.

The target, however, was out of the ordinary. The purifying smoke was targeted at the headquarters for ICE, the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, charged with enforcing the nation’s immigration laws.

In the wake of the agency’s stepped-up workplace raids and deportations at the end of President George W. Bush’s administration, the Esquinos and about 500 other immigrants and immigrant advocates marched to the ICE headquarters Wednesday to urge Bush’s replacement, President Barack Obama, to put an end to both.

They came to Washington, D.C., from across the nation. Many, like Esquino, the U.S. leader of the National Association of Indigenous Salvadorans, live nearby in Silver Spring, Md. But all in attendance urged Obama to usher in comprehensive immigration reform, something Bush was unable to do.

“We are in front of ICE to cleanse ICE of eight years of repressive, Draconian Bush policies,” said David Thurston, anti-racism organizer and educator with Casa de Maryland, the state’s largest Latino and immigrant group. “This is a new day for America.”

Inside the building, people like ICE spokeswoman Pat Riley watched from the windows.

“From where I sit, it looked like many other demonstrations that I’ve seen over the years of people who don’t like what ICE is doing,” she said. “Frankly, what we say to people who object to what we’re doing is we are congressionally mandated to identify and remove, if appropriate, people who are in the United States illegally. But to say that by doing our jobs we have somehow offended U.S. citizenry, we don’t agree with that. We think we do our jobs professionally and humanely. We do what we do.”

Down on the sidewalk below, Carlos Lara, 32, of Alexandria, Va., was calling for the immigration reform that Obama promised on the campaign trail. Lara said it will help him reunite with the family he left behind in Honduras 14 years ago.

“We need reform,” Lara said. “I’d like to visit my parents, but I can’t because I don’t have status.”

Neither does his wife, Flor. She and their three U.S.-born children – Edwin, 8; Hensel, 4; and Ashley, 5 – all joined him at the march to call for a legalization plan.

Jessica Bonilla was there, too. Her parents crossed the border illegally with her when she was 9 years old, her sister was 8, and her brother was 3. Now at 25, she struggles to pay out-of-state tuition at Bergen Community College in Paramus, N.J. She and her friend, Vanessa Juárez, drove to Washington, D.C., just to be at the march to beg for passage of The DREAM Act.

The law, which Obama supported as a senator, would provide a legalization path for children like Bonilla, who were brought here illegally by their parents and then attended public schools, where legal status is not a requirement. But in most states legal status is required to pay in-state college tuition, and a few states will not let people without it enroll in college at all.

“We were top 25 in high school, but we couldn’t afford college because of our undocumented status,” said Bonilla, who was accepted to Rutgers but could not afford the out-of-state tuition there. She turned to community college and attends part-time on out-of-state rates. “For four credits, it’s $1,500. It would be half of that for in-state tuition,” explained Bonilla.

Marie-Therese Kodpo, 46, came to Baltimore from Cote d’Ivoire in western Africa. She said she misses her family there and would like to bring them here.

“Today is just to remind the new administration, we need to put together all of our families,” Kodpo told Diverse.

In support of their pleas, clerics from all religions came to show support: Christian, Jewish and Muslim.

Rabbi David Shneyer, director of the Am Kolel Sanctuary and Renewal Center, blew a shofar, a horn used at Jewish religious ceremonies. Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, outreach director of Dar al Hijrah Islamic Center of Northern Virginia, spoke about racism in immigration enforcement and expressed hope that President Obama – with the Muslim middle name Hussein – might be different.

“If your name is Muhammad, you’re discriminated against. If your name is José, you go to the back of the line,” Abdul-Malik said. “Now we have someone with one of those names in the White House.”

The Rev. Dr. Frederick Hancock, associate pastor of Gethsemane United Methodist Church in Capitol Heights, Md., presided over an African-inspired libation ceremony where he poured juice into the soil of a plant “to wake your ancestors.” Among the names he called out were those of Mexican-American labor leader César Chávez; civil rights activists Malcolm X and Rosa Parks; as well as that of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

And then came the Esquinos.

As María held high the smoldering pot of fragrant herbs and waved the smoke toward 12th Street with the eagle feathers, Mariano led the crowd in a chant in Spanish, clearly directed, again, at the new president, whose campaign theme was “Yes, we can.”

Sí, se puede,” they said over and over again.

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