Photos by Christopher Patronella, Jr.
Demonstrators blanketed the streets around Burnett Bayland Park as they flowed together in a united sea of workers, students and immigrants, legal and illegal, merging chants for workers' rights and immigration reform.
"We are the DREAMers, the mighty mighty DREAMers, fighting for justice and an education," chanted demonstrators led by the Immigrant Families and Students in the Struggle (FIEL) organization in Houston. "Up, Up with education, down, down with deportation!"
FIEL fights for the rights of families to stay together and for the DREAM Act, FIEL member Thailandia Alaffita told Hair Balls.
"This is something that we've been doing every year since 2006, after H.R. 4437 first came about," Alaffita said. "When the largest number of Hispanics first came out and mass mobilized as a means of showing the community, and the country, that we're here and we're here to stay."
H.R. 4437, or the Illegal Immigration Control Act, would have criminalized undocumented immigrants. After it was passed in the House, the bill was halted in the Senate following the nationwide protests in 2006 which gained the attention of Congress and of the nation.
"I'm a DREAMer so I'm here to support the DREAM Act," Alaffita said, who is also a student at Texas A&M. "I'm graduating in the next two weeks and I'm not going to be able to work. I'm a teacher but I can't work, and like me, there are thousands of students in the same position."
The DREAMers are advocates of the DREAM Act, a piece of legislation that would allow for undocumented students who graduate from college and those who are in the military legal and permanent residence in the U.S. to work and begin their path towards citizenship.
Alaffita, 23, has been in the United States for 14 years, attending middle school, high school and college in the state of Texas.
"We worry about getting deported everyday, but it doesn't stop us from living our lives, Alaffita said. "We're Americans, we want to fulfill all of the American dreams and all of the American values -- that's why we're going to school and why we're graduating, and now we just want to work and to contribute."
Houston United, a local community activism group, led the organization of the rally.
"In order to build an effective social program we need to have six steps in place," Houston United spokesperson Victor Castillo told Hair Balls. "The first is to recognize the problem and make sure that others recognize the problem...there are various immigration laws being proposed in the Texas state legislature, over 80, and only two protect our community. The second step is to unite with others in collective action, such as this march. Third, a letter writing campaign to let our elected officials know that we disagree with the proposed laws, and that we want them to support laws that protect our immigrant community.
"Fourth, the phone call campaign to make sure that their offices hear our voices. Fifth, to visit those offices, like the advocacy legislative visit we did in January, and our in-district visits this month before the session ends, so they can see our faces and humanize the issue. Sixth, to get ready for elections. It ultimately boils down to elections and getting people to vote for the correct candidates that will support you."
"We are working with Governor Rick Perry, Speaker of the House Joe Straus and Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst," Castillo said, "and we are motivated to continue putting pressure on the state legislature to stop any anti-immigrant law."
The call for workers' rights and immigration reform in Houston coalesced into a palpable energy on the streets, one that is being echoed throughout the United States, but not with one favorable tone.
Frank Villanueva of Houston, supporter of Americans for Zero Immigration, has had family living in the U.S. for five generations. His relatives have seen three generations of war, including WWII, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.
There's a lot of illegals who apply for citizenship and have gotten it, Villanueva told Hair Balls, but you don't just demand it, you earn it.
"We assimilated ourselves -- we learned the culture, we learned the language, applied for citizenship, and had nothing but respect," Villanueva said. "We were very grateful that we were given the opportunity to come to this country compared to what Mexico had offered us...I feel insulted, and now to have these generations come over and demand amnesty, well we had to work hard ourselves.
"Now they can't understand why I feel so insulted -- other illegals went through the process of becoming a citizen, only to have that taken away, only to demand amnesty," he said. "No, I'm sorry, I'm of Hispanic descendants and I will not stand for it, I will not, and I love my people...it's not about showing that you're a patriot, freedom is something that we all have to work for. If you want a voice, become an American citizen, pay taxes. Help us pull the wagon and don't just ride in it."
Those who came out in opposition to the rally said that not only are we overburdening our system and our economy through continued illegal immigration, but that crime is also a major factor.
A report released by the Federation for American Immigration reform estimates the costs to U.S. taxpayers to be about $113 billion per year, and claims that amnesty would only increase the burden as those who become legalized would qualify for Social Security and social assistance programs.
Members of the Stolen Lives Quilt initiative were among those in attendance to protest against the rally.
The SLQI is a nationwide initiative of The Remembrance Project, Remembrance Project Director Tim Lyng told Hair Balls, and the quilt is dedicated to providing a voice to and honoring those Americans whose lives have been stolen at the hands of illegal immigrants.
"We are part of a national movement to stand up against the illegal invasion from our southern border. Illegal immigrants in Houston, across Texas and the U.S. have killed thousands of law-abiding citizens," Lyng said. "Sneaking across the border automatically makes that foreign national a criminal.
"Mayor Annise Parker and previous Houston mayors have made Houston a 'sanctuary city' where city police officers are not allowed to inquire about the legal status of persons whom they take into custody for probable cause. This policy led to the killing of Officers Canales and Johnson of the HPD, and untold numbers of other citizens. We are fighting for this to change and will continue to take our concerns to our state and local officials who so often turn a blind eye to the rampant crime."
The SLQI initiative stands for closing the borders, apprehension of illegal immigrants presently in the U.S. and their repatriation to their countries of origin, new legislation that imposes long-term incarceration for illegal re-entry and new legislation that forces illegal criminals to remunerate their victims and the taxpayers through work-for-minimum wage jobs while incarcerated.
There are laws in place, and there is a right way to do it, Maria Espinoza of the SLQI told Hair Balls.
"I'm a first-generation Hispanic," Espinoza said. "My dad applied through the visa process.
"What immigrant parents are teaching their children by coming here illegally is doing them a great injustice. You have to respect other countries, and if these demonstrators held this rally in Mexico, they would be jailed."
You don't go into someone else's home and tell them how to run things; there are laws in place here to protect the citizens, Espinoza said, and that's what we have to do...there are a lot of dangerous elements coming through those borders, and the Federal government has to do what it's supposed to in order to protect them.
Groups like Houston United, though, do see a long-term solution to the problem, and they say they are doing it the right way, according to the law and in an effort to contribute to American society, not take away from it.
We are working within the legislative process to create an awareness of the issues and fix them, Castillo said, informing people through our organizations of how to apply for American citizenship, but we also recognize that the process is broken and it's impossible for certain individuals who have worked so hard in this country.
"The DREAM Act is a very viable source of students that have been trained and educated in our country, we have already invested in them, and we need to go ahead and get our return investment on those students and that knowledge," Castillo said. "Our country is not going to increase its power unless we have qualified, educated individuals...they will be contributing and providing net revenue to our economy, and that's what we need."
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According to a study by UCLA's North American Integration and Development Center, passage of the DREAM Act could provide a boost to the economy by trillions of dollars in contributing thousands of college graduates to the pool of higher-income earners.
The study estimates that if 2.1 million undocumented youths were to become legalized, $3.6 trillion in income would be generated for the economy over a 40-year period.
We need to take those individuals out of the shadows, Castillo said, they are ready to get into the system, apply to the processes and pay their dues, but they lack that ability because of current laws.