Immigrants make their demands heard at Nashua rally
By KIMBERLY HOUGHTON Sunday News Correspondent
Heliodono Callijas, left, of Nashua and Pedro Portillo of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition talk to a crowd gathered in Nashua on Saturday for the Keeping Families Together campaign rally. (KIMBERLY HOUGHTON/Union Leader Correspondent)
NASHUA - On a mission to fix what they call a broken immigration system, immigrant activists rallied on Saturday, demanding a clear path to citizenship for the country's 11 million undocumented immigrants.
"I am undocumented. I am an illegal," acknowledged Heliodono Callijas of Nashua.
Speaking with an interpreter, the 73-year-old man shared his desire to stay in the United States and continue working as a painter.
"I work as hard as a young person would," said Callijas, who has been in the country since 1996.
Authorities are already aware of his undocumented status, said Callijas, explaining he was in the wrong place at the wrong time when agents picked him up as an illegal immigrant.
"But I know we are going to continue to fight," he told the small crowd gathered at St. Louis De Gonzaga Church as part of the Keeping Families Together bus tour.
Several families who have been affected by existing immigration laws traveled to New Hampshire to share their stories and promote immigration reform. The national bus tour is visiting 90 cities in 29 states, while also making stops this weekend in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
"I know what it is like being rejected as an immigrant," said Belgica Garzon of Waltham, Mass. "Although I am not yet a resident, I am still a human being."
As an immigrant, Garzon said it is her obligation to participate in the bus tour and continue to promote immigration reform with a path to citizenship.
"I have seen the goodbyes," she said emotionally, adding several of her friends have already been deported.
Pedro Portillo of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition called on Congress to make a change.
"We have to demand that it is not about politics," said Portillo. " . We are entitled to feel safe."
Signs with the names and phone numbers of New Hampshire legislators were posted at the event, where participants were urged to pick up their cellphones and call New Hampshire senators and congresswomen to voice their concerns.
It is important to put a human face behind the tragedy of existing immigration laws, said organizers.
"Families are being broken apart. These are families that are looking for better opportunities," said Hugo Gutierrez of the Minority Council of Nashua.
While immigrant enforcement officers may be doing their job, Gutierrez maintains there are more humane ways to handle the sensitive issues.
According to Gutierrez, many Mexicans, Dominicans and Colombians in Greater Nashua are being faced with deportation, with some families already being torn apart.
Soraia Ferreira of Nashua moved from Brazil to the United States in 2002, about 17 years after her father relocated to the states. Her two sons, now 20 and 25, are still living in Brazil, she said.
"It is too difficult to speak about," Ferreira said through the help of a translator.
Her own visa expired in 2003, and she believes a paperwork error following the death of her father, in 2008, is causing her delay for citizenship. Ferreira's Green Card was declined in December, she added.
The Rev. Marcos Gonzalez-Torres said he opened his church for the event, knowing firsthand the struggles of immigrants.
"I am an immigrant, too," he said. ". We are good people. We are families, and we want to work together."
Joao Canto, 25, was born in Brazil and came to the United States when he was 13. Last October, he applied for the temporary Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA); he is still waiting for a response, he said.
Canto, of Everett, Mass., lives with his mother and sister, who were not able to apply for DACA.
"It is difficult for them. I feel like I got a lucky break and they didn't. It doesn't seem right," said Canto, who works in the audiovisual field. "I have friends and people that I work with who feel like they are already Americans. They really want to become citizens."
Keeping Families Together is a project of the Fair Immigration Reform Movement and is supported by the Center for Community Change.