Protesters gathered on the Peconic Riverfront Saturday for a rally to demand immigration reform, including a pathway to citizenship. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Dozens of people marched and rallied in Riverhead Saturday to demand federal legislation to provide a pathway to citizenship for the millions of undocumented residents in the United States, calling on Sen. Chuck Schumer specifically to deliver on decades-old promises of immigration reform.

The group marched from the North Fork Spanish Apostolate offices at St. John the Evangelist Church to the Peconic Riverfront, where organizers, immigrants and Assemblyman Fred Thiele addressed the crowd.

Community members shared stories of their experiences living in the shadows without legal status or living under the protection of federal programs that provide a reprieve from the threat of deportation, such as Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

The embattled DACA program, established by executive action of President Barack Obama, provides work permits and deportation protection to people born after June 16, 1981 who entered the U.S. before June 15, 2012. DACA recipients must meet certain criteria, including a high school diploma or military enlistment and a clean criminal record.

President Donald Trump announced the program’s cancellation in 2017, but was prevented from terminating it by several federal court orders, culminating in a June 2020 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the termination was “arbitrary and capricious.” The high court but didn’t rule on whether DACA’s creation by executive action was legal.

In July, federal district court judge in Texas ruled in a case brought by Texas and other states that the establishment of DACA by executive action was illegal and ordered the Department of Homeland Security to stop accepting DACA applications and rewrite the program using procedures required by federal law. DHS on Sept. 27 released a proposed rule for public comment, for re-implementation of the DACA program. The Biden administration said it will protect Dreamers, as DACA recipients are known, and recognizes their contributions to the U.S.

Jonnathan Zelaya, an El Salvador native living in the U.S. since he was 10, described life before DACA. His parents have Temporary Protected Status. But life with DACA and TPS is rife with uncertainty, he told the group. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Jonnathan Zelaya, a DACA recipient since 2012, spoke at the rally about coming to the U.S. from El Salvador at age 10.

“DACA was a life-changing experience,” he said. “To be able to legally drive, to get a job, to go to college. You can’t go to college unless you have papers. You can’t get financial aid.”

Zelaya said his parents, who have lived in the U.S. for 25 years, have Temporary Protected Status. The Department of Homeland Security last month continued TPS designations for nationals of El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua, and Sudan through December 31, 2022. TPS could be terminated sooner under a September 2020 federal appeals court decision that allows DHS to terminate the program. However the court has not yet issued a directive to implement its decision.

“This is my home. This is their home,” Zelaya told the rally. “It is not fair to be treated this way. I don’t know any other home. It’s something we deserve. We’ve been working here. We work hard. We do no harm to anybody,” he said. “We call on Sen. Schumer to act. We cannot wait another 30 years.”

TPS recipient Miguel Flores said many people come to the U.S. on work visas but the situation in their home countries becomes too difficult and they cannot return. They obtain TPS. But they continue to live with uncertainty as the program is battered by lawsuits and politics.

“We have families, jobs, homes, communities. It’s time now to have full participation with the opportunity to become a citizen,” Flores said. “Sen Schumer, Congress, please listen to us. See how much we have contributed to our country to build it. Move, act, pass the laws. We are still waiting.”

Photo: Denise Civiletti

Congress has not passed comprehensive immigration reform since 1965. It has not opened a pathway to citizenship since a brief one-time amnesty period in 1986. Wait times for people who are eligible for U.S. visas can last decades for people from Central American and many South American countries. It is estimated that there are more than 10 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. and almost two-thirds have been here more than a decade.

“Immigrants are the backbone of our economy, especially in the last year and a half fo the pandemic,” said Shoshana Hershkowitz of the L.I. Social Justice Action Network, which advocates for immigration reform. “You deserve a pathway to citizenship because that’s what America says we’re supposed to be. And America keeps coming up short and letting you down,” she said. “We are a nation of immigrants and we will no longer allow 11 million undocumented immigrants to worry about heir next meal, to worry about their next day, and stay in the shadows. You belong here. This is your home.”

Sandra Dunn, associate director of OLA of Eastern Long Island, thanked Assembly Member Fred Thiele of Sag Harbor for attending the march and rally. Thiele was the only elected official to attend the event. Dunn said he was the only elected official who immediately responded to the organization’s invitation to attend to say he’d be there.

“I bring this up because we think of this as something only at the federal level, but all of us know it is local — it is very very local. It is a local issue because the constituents they represent, the families they represent, they are here in their communities, in their towns and in their villages,” Dunn said.

“We’ve had a broken immigration system in this country that the federal government has ignored for decades,” Assembly Member Fred Thiele told the crowd. Photo: Denise Civiletti

“I’m here …to express my support for a path to citizenship and to urge my colleagues in the federal government to pass legislation now that provides a path to citizenship for all our immigrants that came here who are in our country seeking a better life,” Thiele told the group.

“It’s the right thing to do and it should have been done a long time ago,” Thiele said. “We’ve had a broken immigration system in this country that the federal government has ignored for decades. And our immigrants that are seeking nothing more than a better life are the victims of that broken system,” he said. Fixing it is not just what’s right for our immigrants, he said, but will also make our country stronger.

“There are two kinds of politics,” said Thiele, who has held elective offices since 1988. There’s the politics of division, where people use the political process to set people off against one another — us versus them. It’s the politics of fear, and we are lesser for that kind of politics,” Thiele said.

“And then there is the politics of inclusion, where we recognize that we’re all better off when we all work together — the country, this state, our community are better for everybody by working together. That is the kind of politics I choose. I urge our federal officials to choose hope and inclusion, and not fear and division.”

People — especially our friends — must stand up and speak out, Thiele said. Quoting the Rev. Martin Luther King, Thiele said, “In the end we remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends. I urge our friends in the federal government to speak out for a path to citizenship and make this happen so we can finally be all one country together.”

The New York Immigration Coalition organized the march and rally with a host of groups from across the island, including OLA of Eastern Long Island, the North Fork Spanish Apostolate, the North Fork Unity Action Committee, Progressive East End Reformers, Rural and Migrant Ministry, SEPA Mujer, Suffolk Progressives, Long Island Social Justice Action Network, Neighbors in Support of Immigrants and the NYCLU Suffolk Regional Office, among others.

Near the end of the rally, organizers asked participants to scan a QR code on a flyer that had been distributed to send a message to Schumer, hoping to flood the senator’s inbox with demands for a path to citizenship.

“His office called to tell me he was aware of this rally today and he wanted us to know he is working very hard to accomplish our goals,” Sr. Margaret Smyth told the group. “In my office we have a saying,” she said. “I believe it when I see action.”

RiverheadLOCAL photos by Denise Civiletti

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.