WASHINGTON — More than 200 immigration advocates were arrested in front of the Capitol yesterday during a non-violent act of civil disobedience to advocate for comprehensive immigration reform. Those arrested were handcuffed, searched, and detained by Capitol police officers after they stood silently in a line, sat down, and linked arms in the middle of the street that borders the Capitol lawn, blocking traffic. As police handcuffed the demonstrators behind their backs and led them away, a crowd pressed in, chanting, “Let them go!”
Those arrested include eight members of the House of Representatives, clergy members, immigrant organizers, labor union leaders, and DREAMers — unauthorized immigrants who quality for the Obama Administration’s deferred action initiative. The 216 demonstrators were detained overnight and released with bail this morning. They will be scheduled to appear in court.
In a storm of Twitter posts, critics questioned why the demonstration was not canceled during the government shutdown and cited a double standard for not allowing a group of veterans to visit a memorial in the same mall the previous week. The arrests came shortly after the rally, with an estimated 20,000 supporters of an immigration overhaul gathering in the middle of the National Mall. A concert held there featured Tigres del Norte, who performed 15 favorite songs including “Somos Más Americanos,” “Un Día a la Vez,” and “America.” Many songs were ballads involving themes such as dangerous border crossings, new life, divided hearts, temptations, deportations, longing for family reunification, hope, and faith, taking life “one day at a time.”
At least 1,000 parishioners from St. Camillus Parish and the Langley Park Catholic community from Silver Spring, Md., took off from work to participate. Parishioner Selvin Lopez thanked the Church and the Franciscans for their support.
Buses from St. Paul Parish, Wilmington, Del., St. Michael the Archangel Parish, Georgetown, Del.; and stores in Easton, Ocean City, and Salisbury, Md., transported more than 200 participants from the Wilmington diocese to the event.
First-time rally participant Jorge Casteneda of Wilmington was particularly moved by “the many children who suffer.” He was glad that he, his wife, and son could “witness and experience this together as a family.”
St. Paul bus captain and lay partner Alicia Dominguez stated that “every march or rally is special in its own way because of the sacrifices many people make to help push for immigration reform… [At this rally] one of the many motivating experiences was that half of our group was participating in a protest for the first time. Their courage enlivens and strengthens me to keep fighting for justice and dignity of immigrants.”
I marched with three Capuchin friars from the Washington fraternity and with parishioners from the Capuchin parish, Sacred Heart, in Washington.
The rally was a taste of heaven, anticipating the fiestas and great joy that will be experienced when the border becomes responsibly porous, immigration detainees are set free, and families are reunited. The civil disobedience was a sacred act of self-giving and risk for the love of neighbor, echoing methods of Catholic Workers, Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and generations of non-violent demonstrators.
Several children wore white T-shirts with messages such as “Don’t deport my dad” printed in big black letters. They gave moving testimonies: “My name is Steve. I am nine years old. My dad got deported. My uncle is waiting to be deported.” “My name is Angel. It’s been 10 years since I’ve seen my father.” A Jesuit priest called upon the crowd to listen to the voices of the children.
Immigrant Alicia Silva wept as she spoke about her nephew who died while crossing the border after a deportation. He had three children. He qualified for deferred action status. Alicia screamed, pleading for politicians to “feel our pain. We are not criminals. We are humans. We have feelings.”
The speakers included clergy, union leaders, House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, and Rep. John Lewis of Georgia. Gutierrez and Lewis were later arrested.
Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey and the Gang of Eight senators who authored the immigration reform bill passed by the Senate said that comprehensive immigration reform “is in the interest of national security, supports economic growth, and recalls that we are all immigrants.” The crowd responded with thunderous applause.
Before his arrest, Rep. John Lewis, who spoke about fighting peacefully for civil rights since 1963, animated the crowd: “We cannot wait. We cannot be patient. Now is the time.”
— Fr. Christopher, a resident of St. Paul’s Friary in Wilmington, Del., is chair of the Province’s Hispanic Ministry Committee.