Ricardo Aca, on the left in blue, before he speaks to the crowd outside the Federal Building in downtown New York City. Photo by Farnoush Amiri
Ricardo Aca swayed nervously behind a cluster of microphones before he disclosed to the group of protesters, counter-protesters and press that he was a DREAMer, a status that he could lose in 10 months if congressional action isn’t taken. Aca was speaking at a rally in downtown New York City today in support of a clean DREAM Act, as the third and ultimately final day of the government shutdown began.
Six years ago, Aca was an undocumented immigrant working as a busboy at the Trump SoHo Hotel. Today, he has legal status and an associates degree in commercial photography. He is working towards a bachelors in international affairs at Baruch College. But with less than a year of certainty left and with Congress using DACA recipients as a leverage between party lines, Aca has decided to use his voice as his defense.
“We are here today because we condemn Donald Trump and congressional Republican leaders who have forced a government shutdown by insisting on Trump’s racist border wall and other anti-immigration policies,” Aca said.
Approximately nine hours after the rally, President Trump signed a bill that would reopen the government, funding it for the next three weeks and simultaneously putting a delay on legislative action for the DREAMers. This uncertainty has created a limbo for most recipients of the program and also puts those who are close to their renewal period ending at risk for deportation, which is why many of them have laid low in recent months. But not Aca, who interns at Make the Road New York, a public advocacy group for immigrant communities.
“Because if I don’t fight for myself then nobody is going to do it for me. I need to fight not only for myself but also for my parents who have fought for me my entire life,” Aca said. “They deserve dignity and justice and so do those 11 million undocumented immigrants, and if I don’t do that nobody else is going to do it for me.”
Aca is one of the nearly 800,000 recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that was devised by the Obama administration in 2012 to allow for undocumented immigrants who entered the country as minors to defer deportation.
Under the current administration, the program has been used as leverage against the Democrats in exchange for reinforcing stricter immigration laws, ultimately leading to the government shutting down on Jan. 19.
“This is where I consider my home. I pay taxes over here,” Aca said. “This is where I go to school. This is where my family and my friends are and so for congress not to be able to come up with a fix that is more permanent is very upsetting.”
The 27-year-old came to the U.S. from Puebla, Mexico, when he was 14 years old. Aca’s mom had pursued legal routes to come to the country but when those failed she found a job as a seamstress in a factory in New York and later arranged for Aca and his younger sister to cross the border through Arizona.
“(Congress) doesn’t care about people of color or immigrants who come to this country to work hard,” said LaShonda Lawson, a speaker at the rally who works as a security guard at the Statue of Liberty. “America should stand for freedom and inclusiveness. That is what I think about every day when I go to work. I see hundreds of people come to the Statue of Liberty because she is a symbol of freedom.”
Most DACA recipients file for their renewal every two years in pursuit of that freedom. And at Monday’s rally, Aca shared what he and his fellow DREAMers have been doing since President Trump rescinded the program in September 2017.
“Instead of enjoying my life I have been constantly in the streets having to have my voice be heard because I know I deserve to be here,” Aca said. “This (amendment in the Senate) is only a temporary fix on a larger issue.”
Currently, the state of New York contains the third largest population of DREAMers, which has created a need for public officials and advocates to hold rallies, hearings and conferences in light of the recent attacks to the program. One of those officials leading the fight for young people like Aca is Carlos Menchaca, who serves as the city’s Chair of the Committee on Immigration.
“We are in front of Federal Plaza in New York City where New Yorkers from every corner of this city, like Ricardo, are saying one thing clearly: we want a DREAM Act now,” Menchaca said.
Muslims praying at the No Muslim Ban rally and vigil in Foley Square, New York today. Photo by Stella Levantesi
In New York’s Foley Square, Muslims, Jews, Christians and people not affiliated with any religion, came together tonight to rally for “No Muslim Ban Ever.” But behind their prayers and lamp-lit banners was so much more than just a policy protest.
“There’s that sickness of bigotry of thinking that you can keep somebody out,” said Rabbi Marisa Elena James at the Lower Manhattan protest. “Nobody is immune to being drawn into a hateful ideology.”
It’s three days before the latest Muslim Ban is expected to take effect. The executive order prohibits travel to the US from six Muslim-majority countries: Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Chad, North Korea and Venezuela were added to the list, while Sudan was removed.
Muslims living in the US are fighting a double battle, nationally, to secure their life and protect it from islamophobia, and internationally, in their country of origin, which is, in many cases, shaken by violence, conflict and terrorism by extremists of their very own religion.
The pattern the protestors see of prejudice towards Muslims is destruction on many levels.
“It’s counterproductive, because it alienates the only people who, if one really wanted to fight terrorism, you could turn to,” said Priscilla Read of the Westchester Coalition Against Islamophobia.
Today, Somalia was hit by one of the most lethal terrorist attacks of its history when a truck bomb in the country’s capital, Mogadisciu, caused more than 500 casualties.
Fadumo Osman, 21, the President of the College Democrats at NYU, is the daughter of Somali refugees who came to the US with nothing.
“I grew up in a post 9/11 world where I was viewed differently just because I wore a hijab in high school,” said Osman. “Now, my people are getting killed on their own land by those terrorists that a lot of people in this country are accusing them to be.”
For some, the ban is a reflection of the tendency to attach Muslims to the stigma of terrorism.
For others, national security prevails over human rights.
“This isn’t even a ban, it’s so people can be vetted properly, it’s not targeting Muslims,” said Karen Braun, a Trump supporter from New York. “There are two non-Muslim countries involved. This is the objective, to stop terrorists from coming in.”
For the activists of the mobilization however, the presence of two non-Muslim countries in the ban doesn’t invalidate its intrinsic anti-Muslim motive.
“This is a Muslim ban, regardless of other non-Muslim countries involved,” said Osman. “Beyond that, there’s a very deep, rooted issue when it comes to white supremacy, when it comes to what it means to make America great again.”
But today’s mobilization wasn’t only about a national conversation.
In Myanmar, Rohingya Muslims are being inhumanely tortured by the country’s military; villages are ravaged and burnt, children are set on fire, women are raped, gang-raped. The mass persecution has forced an exodus from their homeland to Bangladesh, a predominantly Islamic country.
“It’s ethnic cleansing,” said Begum Hosheara, a Bangladeshi woman who moved to the US 21 years ago. “They’re killing people, piling them up in open pits, covering them with petrol and burning them. They’re cutting people’s limbs, women’s breasts and letting them die.”
Amnesty International has accused Myanmar of crimes against humanity, but critics wonder if international law terminology makes a difference.
“I can’t sleep at night,” Hosheara said. “My nephew is in Bangladesh and sent me a video of a desperate man shouting ‘If they want to kill us, just send us a bomb and kill us all together’.”
Since August 25th, more than 400,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar and are now refugees living in barbaric conditions with nothing, often gravely injured and mourning the atrocious deaths in their families.
“These people are powerless, they have no voice, they are getting killed only because of their ethnicity, only because they’re Muslim,” said Begum. “We need to forget about religion, we need to be human again.”
Protestors said in the US, Trump’s policies have created a vicious cycle.
“The terroristic acts that are committed by Islamic extremists are being instrumentalized,” said Read. “For example, 9/11 fit perfectly into a neo-conservative framework and now we’ve got people absolutely terrified all the time.”
According to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey, 75 percent of respondents said, Muslims face a lot of discrimination in the US. Only 3 percent said it is easier.
The fear of being vulnerable to verbal or physical assaults is so high, some Muslims said they avoid reporting acts of hate towards them.
“One day I saw two girls push an old Muslim lady into the street, she risked being run over by a car,” said Begum. “‘She can’t wear this dress [the hijab] here’, the girls said. “Before, when anything happened we could call the police and report, but now we’re scared of being found and attacked again.”
But Osman said the twilight-lit crowd reminded people of hope.
“The thing that has kept me going is solidarity, in the form of showing up physically,” she said. “Just seeing you guys out here, reminds me that I shouldn’t give up.”