Holding wooden crosses that read “Education for All” and “Take our Country Forward,” the group spoke out about the struggles immigrants face. Afterward, in varying bursts of song, laughter and silence, the group walked the 2.6 miles through Chapel Hill to Carrboro’s El Centro Hispano, a Latino resource center.
But the walk through Chapel Hill was only one portion of the group’s pilgrimage.
A group of advocates visited cities across North Carolina last week for the Pilgrimage for Justice and Peace, a 25-year tradition that raises awareness for issues like workers’ rights, immigration reform and fair trade policies.
During the past 10 years, the focus of the pilgrimage has turned toward the treatment of Latin American immigrants.
“They’re criminalizing immigrants,” said Gail Phares, founder of the pilgrimage. “If we don’t do something, it’ll just get worse.”
One-eighth of Carrboro’s adult population is Latino, and the town has been central to these struggles. Many area undocumented immigrants work as day laborers to support their families and are often paid below minimum wage or not at all.
Phares said U.S. trade policies like the North American Free Trade Agreement have led to many of the problems that Latin American immigrants now face.
“Our trade laws bankrupt small farmers in Latin America, and that’s why they’re coming here,” she said. “Politicians use immigrants as scapegoats. We have some serious economic problems, but (Latino immigrants) aren’t the ones that caused it.”
Pilar Rocha-Goldberg, president and CEO of El Centro Hispano, said the biggest struggle local Latinos face is laws that leave many undocumented immigrants in fear.
Legislation like the 287(g) program gives local law enforcement the authority to enforce immigration violations.
“Recently it’s become a way for sheriffs to make a lot of money,” Phares said. “They’re filling our jails, and they get money for putting these immigrants in jail.”
Rocha-Goldberg said undocumented immigrants are often targeted by police officers for small infractions, leaving them vulnerable to arrest and deportation.
“They’re afraid because every time they go out they might be sent to jail,” she said. “They have to work, and every morning they go outside they’re scared to do it. Under this legislation, there is no progress.”
Although the pilgrimage does help to raise awareness of these issues, Phares said she thinks it will be hard to change them.
“Right now, its going to be really hard,” she said. “We’re going to need people who care enough about the issue to do something about it.”
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