BURLINGTON — As Pope Francis prepared to pray at the US-Mexico border in a show of faith with migrants, Angela Arce picked up a bullhorn 2,400 miles away in Burlington on Wednesday afternoon and told her story.
Arce fled the violence of Paraguay at 30, a law student with an infant daughter, and began a new life as a cleaner in Massachusetts. Now 47, she runs a North Shore business that employs two others and pays taxes.
Her infant daughter has become an honors student at Clark University; her younger two children are native-born US citizens.
One other thing: “¡Soy indocumentada!” said Arce, waving a hand in the air as cheers erupted from protesters gathered outside the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s New England field office for enforcement and removal operations. “I am undocumented!”
The roughly 120 protesters, representing an array of faith-based and community-organizing groups, gathered to demand a nationwide stop to the deportation of immigrants who have children and are in the country illegally.
Timing their rally to coincide with the Pope’s visit to Ciudad Juárez, the group underscored the anxiety of undocumented parents and their children — some citizens, some immigrants with uncertain status themselves — living under threat of deportation and separation.
“If my dad were to get deported, I don’t know what I’d do,” said Kevin Rojas of Brockton, just 15 but holding the bullhorn steady in his right hand. “Without him it would be hard to live life. I just couldn’t bear the idea.”
Rojas said his father left Mexico at 19, more than two decades ago. Ever since, he has labored six days a week as a mechanic, to provide “a better life” for their family here and to wire money to relatives back in Mexico. “Let me explain to you what his daily life is,” the teenager said. “Work, work, work, work, work” — with the added strain of fearing deportation.
Arce felt similar fear but decided to declare her status in the parking lot of the deportation center, with half a dozen ICE officers watching. “I can’t be in the shadows anymore,” she explained afterward.
With her 9-year-old daughter Angie nearby holding a hand-drawn sign (“Stop Fighting/More Love”), Arce told the gathering, “I live with fear because I am divided. I have not seen my mother for 17 years. My brother died, and I was not able to see him, hug him, or pray with him.”
“I live in fear that one day I will be deported and my kids will be without parents,” added Arce, who said she came on a visa and stayed after it expired, lacking the money or connections to immigrate legally. She asked for “mercy for my family and for all the immigrants in this country.”
The protest mixed 10 speakers with bilingual chants, including “money for jobs and education, not for raids and deportation!” and “stop the raids, stop the raids. . .” — set to the tune of Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name.”
Citing both Pope Francis’s border visit and the heated rhetoric of some presidential candidates, the Rev. Gerald Souza, a Catholic priest from the Boston Archdiocese, quoted the pope.
“Migrants are not political pawns,” he said. “Migrants are people who have an innate dignity which comes from God. They need to be welcomed and treated as such.”
Rabbi Margie Klein Ronkin, spiritual leader of an Ashland synagogue, shared her experience as a granddaughter of immigrants — “at a time of more open immigration policies” — and the Jewish experience of starting over as a “stranger in a strange land,” noting the biblical story of the Jews in Egypt.
“Today it seems like many people in this country have become like the pharaoh who did not remember Joseph,” she said. “It is not enough that we are shutting our doors; we are actively throwing ‘the stranger’ out.”
With her 4½-month-old daughter Uriel bundled in her arms, Klein led a group of protest-trained children, including Arce’s daughter, from the parking lot to the steps of the mirrored-glass ICE building, passing the armed officers. “We will sit in solidarity,” she said, “with all the families who fear separation.”