For Thanksgiving, stories of hope, struggle and resilience in America
Damaris Velasquez, co-founder of Agencia ALPHA, was undocumented for 23 years. To those who still are, she said: “Don’t allow this broken system to try to define your identity.”
At Our Shared Table 2018, speakers urged immigrants and refugees to ‘dream big’ and define their own identity, while calling on elected officials to bring Massachusetts realities closer to its ideals.
BOSTON, November 20, 2018 – Iván Espinoza-Madrigal was 9 when he came to the U.S. from Costa Rica. His mother worked for minimum wage so he could get an education, and he was the first in his family to graduate from college, then from NYU Law School.
Now, as executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, he fights to ensure that millions like him can enjoy the same opportunities. Looking out at hundreds of immigrants and refugees gathered in the Great Hall of the State House, he praised them for “not just surviving, but thriving,” and he offered a call to action.
“It is important for all of us to join forces, because we are stronger together,” he said. “I know it can be exhausting, I know it can be demoralizing. But I also know that each of us has the capacity to protect ourselves and each other.”
Hope, unity and resilience were the central themes of Our Shared Table 2018, MIRA’s 14th annual Thanksgiving luncheon. More than 400 guests – overwhelmingly immigrants and refugees coming with their English classes – joined legislators and staff at the event, filling the room to capacity.
“This is America at its best: warm, open and welcoming,” MIRA Executive Director Eva A. Millona said. Yet the past year has been devastating – from the termination of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for thousands of families in our Commonwealth, to family separations, mistreatment of asylum-seekers, and attacks on legal migration. “As we celebrate this holiday together,” she noted, “we know that far too many members of our communities don’t know where they’ll be next Thanksgiving.”
Millona thanked state legislators who provided crucial support in the last session to boost funding for key programs and ensure the passage of several measures that will benefit immigrants. Looking ahead to the 2019–2020 session, she said: “I am confident that together, we can accomplish even greater things.”
U.S. Senator Edward J. Markey, who came to offer his support, also encouraged state officials to aim high. “We’re a shining city on a hill,” he said, “and we have to make sure we continue to be the leader.”
MIRA Executive Director Eva A. Millona with state Sen. Sal DiDomenico and Rep. Marjorie Decker, who led the Pledge of Allegiance. Both are valued advocates for immigrants.
State Sen. Sal DiDomenico, who serves as Assistant Majority Leader, reinforced the message that the Legislature is there for all the people of Massachusetts.
“Our Shared Table is symbolic in a lot of ways,” he said. “The fact that everyone has a seat at the table. Everyone should be here and understand that we are all equal, no matter what race, religion, sexual orientation, what part of the country you live in, immigration status…”
Espinoza-Madrigal, who is leading lawsuits to defend Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and sanctuary cities, offered several examples of ways in which state and local leaders can make immigrants feel safer and more welcome in Massachusetts. “It is important for us to catch up with the rest of the country,” he said. “Driver’s licenses, in-state tuition, a state Trust Act – this is what we need, and we need it now.”
Damaris Velasquez, director of programs at Agencia ALPHA, a faith-based community organization, urged elected officials to prove “that you do indeed see us and hear us, because documented or undocumented, we exist, and history has proven that immigrants make America strong.”
Velasquez, who came to the U.S. from Guatemala when she was 17, and was undocumented for 23 years, offered her own story as proof that immigration status doesn’t define your worth or potential. She was undocumented when she bought a house with her siblings, when she graduated from college, and when she founded Agencia ALPHA with her best friend, which now serves over 1,000 clients per year.
Rahmatullah Aka came to the U.S. at Thanksgiving three years ago, on a special visa for Afghans who worked with U.S. forces. Today, as a case manager at the International Institute of New England, he helps others adjust to life in a new country.
“Being undocumented showed me that it doesn’t matter whether we get immigration reform or not, we’re not going to change the toxic environment that we’re living in” she said, but also that “the majority of people are good, kind, and they want to help.” Now a U.S. citizen, Velasquez said her message to those who are still undocumented is: “Don’t allow this broken system to try to define your identity. Your story does not stop with this system. This might be the perfect stage for a miracle in your life” (full speech on YouTube).
Juliette Mayers, who was born in Barbados, who came to the U.S. from Barbados as a child and now runs her own consultancy, Inspiration Zone, advising major corporations and nonprofits, offered her own story as a beacon of hope for others who are struggling to thrive in America.
“I’m grateful that today I can stand here and truly say that I am living the American dream – and you, too, can live that dream,” she said. “Hold fast to your dreams, continue to fight, don’t give up. It’s hard, but you have so many people in this struggle with you… so take hope and continue to dream big.”
The event culminated with the second annual Young Champion of Justice award, in memory of Analisa Smith-Perez, who chose at an early age to devote herself to advocating for young immigrants, especially the most vulnerable. This year’s honoree is Rep. Juana Matias, 31, the first Latina immigrant to be elected to the Legislature, and House sponsor of the Safe Communities Act in 2017–2018. “In all her work, she has stood as a skilled, effective and impassioned advocate,” the event program notes.
Matias is also known as unstoppable, but a stomach flu kept her away, so her aide Victor Cruz accepted the award on her behalf (watch video).
“It was the honor of a lifetime to stand with you in the fight to make Massachusetts a safer place for immigrant communities across the Commonwealth,” he said. “And while we may not be serving the residents of the 16th Essex next year, I do promise you one thing. That we will be standing in the fight with all of you to make immigrants respected again across the Commonwealth and the country.”
Victor Cruz, right, aide to Rep. Juana Matias, accepts the Young Champion of Justice award on behalf of his boss. The award was presented by Matias' mentor and friend Rep. Paul Tucker, who represents Salem, where Cruz is a School Committee member.