Representatives from local organizations called on UR and its students to advocate for and work with the city’s refugee and immigrant population during a town hall this past Thursday.
The town hall, part of UR’s DREAM week—a week of events led by UR student groups showing support for immigrants—featured refugees, immigrants, and others who campaign for Rochester refugees and immigrants.
Luis Torres, who works at the Worker Justice Center of New York (WJCNY), encouraged students to put pressure on the University to do more “as you guys are thinking about what is your role in Rochester as part of one of the most powerful institutions in Rochester.”
Damian Gonzalez and Marcos Martinez, both undocumented farmworkers from WJCNY, came representing a group of immigrant workers campaigning for driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. Both spoke only in Spanish, and Carly Fox, who works with undocumented farmworkers and at WJCNY, translated as they spoke.
Gonzalez said that he arrived in the United States in 2000 and that he works from 4 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day with two days off every two weeks.
“That’s how my life’s been for 16 years since I ran to the U.S.,” he said through Fox, adding that there’s been no opportunity for him to get legal status. “I’m scared to go to the street, that the police are going to stop me and deport me.”
Gonzalez, Martinez, and others organize once a month at SUNY Geneseo. Martinez said that they depend on the support of the Geneseo students and hope UR students would also be willing to join their campaign for New York State to issue driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.
“The only reason we’re here is to help our families. We didn’t come to hurt anyone,” Martinez said. “We pay taxes towards this country. We’ll never get those taxes back.”
Fox and Getachew Beshir, a refugee transitional case manager at Catholic Family Center (CFC) and an immigrant from Ethiopia, underscored some of the difficulties that refugees and immigrants face in Rochester.
It’s not easy for people who do not know English and the city to become self-sufficient in three months, Beshir explained, but CFC tries to help refugees do just that. The center partners with Refugees Helping Refugees (RHR), St. Joseph’s Church, and other organizations to help resettle refugees in Rochester.
CFC is the only refugee resettlement agency in Rochester. They find and furnish housing, register children in school, refer refugees to support agencies and employment services, and try to help them become self-sufficient in 90 days.
Now, under President Trump’s administration, Beshir said that the number of refugees coming has dropped compared to last year. Trump’s executive order brought the number of refugees allowed to come in 2017 from 110,000 to 50,000. The agency’s funding is based on the number of refugees it resettles, so fewer refugees means less funding.
The order, too, affects refugees psychologically. Despite having the documents to stay here, Beshir said, “refugees have constant fear of being deported because of the uncertainty and confusion.”
Fox said that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers emboldened by the administration’s policies are becoming more aggressive, contributing to fear among immigrants. She emphasized the state’s potential ability to help undocumented immigrants, praising the sanctuary city movement and adding that UR has a social responsibility in the upstate New York region.
“What can we do as students to help you?” a student asked.
Driving immigrants and refugees would be a big help when they don’t have transportation, the speakers said. Raising awareness, English classes, sorting mail, and helping with fundraising could all help.