This article is cross-posted at Asian Pacific Americans for Progress.
Washington, DC – Over 200,000 people filled the National Mall on Sunday, March 21, to send a message of political strength and unity about the imperative to keep immigration reform at the top of the President and Congress’ agenda this year. On the main rally stage, Korean Resource Center youth organizer Hayeon Lee spoke from her personal experience as a former DREAM student who knows what it is like to live without full rights and full access to realize her potential. With her new legal status, she will not abandon her brothers and sisters in the fight to create a country that allows all of its members regardless of ethnicity, status or income to have the opportunity to thrive and pursue happiness. NAKASEC executive director EunSook Lee addressed the crowd as well, knowing that this day was a milestone to remind ourselves of our strengths as key actors in a decades-long effort to reform immigration for America.
EunSook shares that it is a rare opportunity to stand in front of tens of thousands of people. It was reminiscent of the 2006 marches and the MayDay rally in Los Angeles of a million people. Strangely, she wasn’t nervous; she was calmed by the scene in front of her. There were an incredible number of speakers all representing the important work communities and organizations are doing locally and nationally; the show had to be tight.
A few hours before the March, Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) immigrant communities gathered for a rally at Franklin Park. The AAPI program created space for incoming marchers from community groups such as the Korean Resource Center (KRC), Korean American Resource and Cultural Center (KRCC), and the Asian American Institute and many more. Speakers from several AAPI communities across the nation shared personal stories and reminded us of why immigration reform is deeply important to each of us. Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus Chair Honda and Representative Chu encouraged the crowd with remarks that respectfully acknowledged participants’ dedication to immigrant rights.
NAKASEC and affiliates’ Korean cultural drumming troupes stood by to reaffirm our support for and to help the larger movement, by leading a pre-rally march from the White House to the National Mall. Olivia Park reported that people danced with us in the nation’s capital, and many social justice groups were celebrating in the streets. After the main event, we had been asked to help lead the post-rally march, and were humbled to learn from the event organizers that the march was “not in our control” – it was in the hands of the people.
Throughout the day, we felt the absence of a core group of 8 people who had been driving from Los Angeles but got as far as Amarillo, TX before snow storms and icy road conditions forced them to turn back. Though they did not get to the destination, the journey left the group stronger as a result of intense decision-making meetings and insightful conversations. Drivers were transporting students who couldn’t necessarily fly due to their status; it was amazing to try to get to this rally. Said KRC’s HAP team organizer Robyn Shultz, “We had time to share stories; we learned from David and Ju about why they are so involved in this work to get comprehensive immigration reform. We had deep discussions that made me want this to happen; we all wanted to be there but it would have been more disappointing to arrive and have the event be over, missing it completely.”
David had been preparing for the AAPI program by looking up information about Judy Chu and Mike Honda, thinking he might have had to emcee the event; and later was nervous and excited to prepare his planned speech. Some folks realized that reality would not allow them to make it to DC, others still felt it was worth trying to go. The effort to tease out tensions at 4 am when everyone was tired reflected the incredible passion and made them realize that “it was hard to not get the students to this final point.”
Meanwhile, Robyn didn’t know David that well, but in 40 hours of driving time, finally had an opportunity to talk about issues of importance. Robyn learned about CIR; others learned about Korean adoptee issues. They discussed the parallel of the movements and drew intersections. One movement in Korea for adoptees is to get dual citizenship status – “we didn’t give that up when we were babies going to America or Europe – we are trying to reclaim part of [our] country”; while in the United States, immigrants too are saying we have a right to be part of American culture with rights to healthcare, similar to what adoptees are trying to say in Korea. Even though Robyn and David came to America in different ways, now as an adoptee and as an immigrant they are both trying to reclaim their status and position in society and get rights.
Becky Belcore, formerly of KRCC, helped kick off the AAPI program with Meredith Higashi of Asian American Justice Center, while Inhe Choi of KRCC co-emceed with Rebecca Shi of the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community. Community members also shared their perspectives, including Elmo Siap, a Filipino American from Chicago who is separated from his wife due to immigration backlogs, Monami Maulik from Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM) of NY, and Many Uch, a Cambodian refugee from Seattle facing deportation order.
For NAKASEC and affiliates’ part, we reached out to Korean Americans far and wide, including SUNY Stony Brook students poongmul troupe. For the AAPI program rally, we also reached out to a broader community that included students, seniors, associations, friends, family members, colleagues, former NAKASEC and affiliate staff and founders, board members. As staff who worked to make the event a success, it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture and we know the experiences were different each person. We invite you to continue to reflect with us on the significance of the March for America.