As intervention into the crisis in Syria has been put on hold for the time being, some Southampton Town residents want Congress to shift its focus back to another controversial issue closer to home: immigration reform.
More than 100 people from throughout the town gathered last Thursday night, September 12, at the Church of St. Rosalie in Hampton Bays for a vigil to pray and rally for comprehensive immigration reform legislation to be written into law.
The U.S. Senate passed legislation earlier this year to create a path to legal residence, not full citizenship, for undocumented immigrants already in the country, but the bill has not yet been brought to the floor of the House of Representatives—something that vigil attendees want to correct.
Last week’s event was organized by Centro Corazón de Maria, a nonprofit organization run through the local Roman Catholic church, to help Hispanic immigrants learn English and obtain food, health care and legal assistance. The vigil featured live music, Biblical readings, shared prayers and testimonials from undocumented immigrants about their journeys, as well as their current lives in the United States.
“Due to the dire international events, this has been pushed off the radar,” said Sister Mary Beth Moore, one of the Catholic nuns who runs Centro Corazón de Maria. “But we think this is an important issue that Congress cannot lose sight of.”
With a population of nearly 4,000 Latinos, according to the latest U.S. Census data, Hampton Bays is an area where the desire for immigration reform is felt passionately, Sister Moore said. She estimates that one in six Latinos in the hamlet are undocumented.
One of the undocumented immigrants who spoke at the vigil shared, with translation assistance from Sister Moore, her journey over the Mexican border and across the deserts of the Southwest, suffering from thirst and hunger, unsure if she and her family would survive.
“We came here to seek a better life,” Sister Moore translated for the woman, whose name was not shared by vigil organizers due to her illegal status. “We didn’t come here to harm anyone.”
Another undocumented immigrant sharing her story was a self-described “dreamer”—the moniker given to immigrants brought to America by their parents at a young age—and she explained how she came to understand her legal status in the United States as she grew older.
“Since I was so little here, I didn’t comprehend what it meant to be illegal,” said the woman who also declined to share her name and read her remarks in both English and Spanish. “I only started to comprehend that when I was old enough to look for a job to earn some money and help out around the house.”
The 22-year-old is one of more than a half a million young undocumented immigrants now under the protection of a measure implemented by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security last year, called Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals, which provides temporary protection from deportation for individuals brought to the United States as children, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The woman said although she is grateful for this temporary protection, more needs to be done to help those who do not qualify for it. “Deferred action has helped me,” she said, “but I know there are many other people who need help, too.”
The vigil, which was conducted in English and Spanish and included a group walk around the church accompanied by songs in both languages, also provided attendees with postcards to be signed and sent to U.S. Representative Tim Bishop of Southampton—who represents the majority of Suffolk County in Washington, D.C.—voicing support for a path to citizenship for undocumented people.
Oliver Longwell, Mr. Bishop’s aide, said the congressman has long supported immigration reform and would vote for a bill that creates a path to freedom while shoring up border security and regulating the migrant workforce.
“He supports a comprehensive approach,” Mr. Longwell said of Mr. Bishop. “He thinks that’s the best way to get this done right.”
But Mr. Longwell also noted that leadership in the House of Representatives has made it clear that Senate version of the bill will not be brought before Congress, meaning a new piece of legislation would have to be drafted.