Local and state officials conveyed their support for issues regarding immigration, employee wages, and the criminal justice system at a meeting in Peabody Monday that attracted a diverse group of over 200 attendees from over 25 religious congregations on the North Shore.
The Essex County Community Organization (ECCO) — a Lynn-based group of congregations that aims to help communities in areas such as job training, health care, youth development, housing, and safety — hosted the event.
At the “Action Assembly,” held at St. John the Baptist Parish, residents gave testimony on what it is like to make ends meet earning minimum wage, adapting to society after being in prison, and the cost of applying to become legalized citizens, which can cost up to $4,000, they said.
“It’s immensely gratifying to hear the wonderful support we got tonight,” said Sam Silverman, a member of the ECCO board of directors from Temple Ahavat Achim in Gloucester. “I think we will be able to make some real progress knowing that we have their support.”
State Senator Joan Lovely, state Representative Ted Speliotis, and a spokesperson representing US Senator Elizabeth Warren agreed to advocate for the many struggling to find jobs and to stay out of trouble after incarceration.
Lovely said she was especially shocked by how people manage to live off minimum wage, which is $8 per hour, or $16,000 per year if working full time.
“It’s next to impossible for people to be able to really support themselves in this economy on minimum wage,” Lovely said. “We just need to take a hard look at it. Sometimes it’s a disincentive to work. People say, ‘I don’t want to go out to work,’ and then what do they do? They end up on public assistance, and we want to avoid that.”
Brenda Paredez, 16, spoke about her parents, who immigrated from Paraguay about 12 years ago, and have yet to find stable jobs. Paredez’s father works as a painter in Boston, while her mother cleans homes on the North Shore.
Despite her family’s struggles, the sophomore at the Salem Academy Charter School has hopes of attending Tufts University and becoming an accomplished businesswoman.
“To me, it was a blessing, because for years there was nothing good happening for immigration,” Paredez said. “To see this support, it’s amazing.”
Chris Lange, Warren’s regional director, read a statement regarding immigration reform on the senator’s behalf.
“Today 15 percent of people in Massachusetts were born in a foreign country,” Lange said. “Immigration is who we are as a people and we’re stronger because of it. Senator Warren will work with her colleagues for an affordable path to citizenship. I think we all agree that this is a good starting point.”
The third issue addressed at the assembly was the need to reform the criminal justice system.
According to a recent report endorsed by the Massachusetts Criminal Justice Policy Coalition, incarceration has a lasting impact on the economic potential of ex-offenders, with harsh implications for their families.
The report states that on average, former inmates earn 40 percent less annually than they would had they not been sent to prison.
ECCO is advocating for increased funding for in-prison training programs and reentry programs for when those incarcerated are released.
“People make mistakes, but people do change,” said Cassandra Bensahih, who grew up in Lynn and said she served a short stint in prison after committing a drug-related crime. “The way our criminal justice system is set up today seems to just perpetuate the idea of incarceration.”
Bensahih said she felt unprepared to endure life outside of prison when she was released and that no one showed her the way to find a job with a criminal record.
Lovely, who is in her first year of office representing Beverly, Danvers, Peabody, Topsfield, and Salem, said that in determining what needs to be done with the criminal justice system, she plans to talk to judges, district attorneys, and other officials with “boots on the ground.”
“It’s clear that we need some type of reform,” Lovely said. “Exactly what it is, the devil is in the details, so we’ll see.”