Making their voices heard
By Kalyn Belsha firstname.lastname@example.org August 31, 2013 1:48PM
About 45 protesters staged a sit-in outside U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam's West Chicago office Thursday in an attempt to press a vote on a comprehensive immigration reform bill. | Kalyn Belsha~Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 3, 2013 6:17AM
As the congressional summer recess winds down and representatives prepare to head back to Washington, D.C., immigration activists staged a protest at U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam’s West Chicago office recently asking him and other House members to vote on legislation that would provide immigrants who entered the country illegally with a pathway to citizenship.
“We’ve been here the last eight days asking for a meeting,” said Monica Trevino, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, the group that organized the most recent protest.
About 45 protesters, many from Chicago and a handful from Kane and DuPage counties, staged a sit-in outside the office of Roskam, a Republican whose district includes Wheaton and parts of St. Charles, Naperville, Lisle, and Downers Grove.
Activists have staged protests outside Republican House members’ district offices all summer in the hopes of pressuring a vote on the comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the Senate in June.
The massive legislation includes measures to tighten border security and provide a 13-year path to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants.
Activists said that Roskam was a protest target because of his high-ranking position as chief deputy majority whip, a role in which he helps gather votes, in the Republican-led House.
“Peter Roskam, majority whip, let the House vote on citizenship,” protesters chanted, holding signs that said “Roskam, remember November,” calling attention to the 2014 congressional elections.
After about 40 minutes, the protesters left the space they occupied outside Roskam’s office in the DuPage Airport.
“Peter Roskam isn’t coming, we get that,” said Erendira Rendon, an organizer with the Chicago-based advocacy organization the Resurrection Project, which is part of the coalition that staged the protest. “We’re going to keep coming back.”
Roskam has said he supports reforms to immigration law and in a statement Thursday said the current system is “broken and must be remedied.”
The House is working on several, shorter immigration bills, he said, and feels securing the border first is the top priority.
“Once the border is secure, we can then begin to address high-skilled visas, guest worker programs and give the people who are currently here the chance to get right with the law,” Roskam said in the statement.
In mid-July Roskam told the Sun-Times that the economic growth argument to support immigration reform is “really compelling” and is helping pave the way to compromise on the issue.
He reiterated that again in his Thursday statement.
“From a growth perspective, reforming our broken system and replacing it with an effective, legal immigration system just makes sense as we work to ensure a strong and vibrant economy,” he wrote.
Cristobal Cavazos, a Wheaton resident who lives in Roskam’s district and is an organizer with Immigrant Solidarity DuPage, said he sees groups increasingly organize in DuPage County in favor of immigration law reform.
But he doesn’t support Roskam’s piecemeal approach.
“We feel we have an invisible leader,” Cavazos said. “He’s playing party politics.”
Activists and Roskam’s office disagree about how the protest played out.
Organizers said Roskam’s district office closed after hearing from police that there would be a protest and that staff refused to give them a meeting with the congressman.
The district office said while the police did alert staffers of a protest, they did not close the office and that Roskam could not meet with protesters because he was at an event. Staff talked to protesters in the lobby, the office said, and protesters were asked to leave by airport officials due to the noise.
The office said staff did not decline to meet with protesters and that a staffer has met with the coalition on other occasions to discuss immigration reform.
“Congressman Roskam is interested in having an open, constructive dialogue about remedying our broken immigration system,” Meagan Holder, a spokeswoman for Roskam, said in an emailed statement. “That’s why he has met with more than 20 groups of constituents, immigration reform advocates and small business representatives to discuss their ideas for reform.”
She added that anyone looking to share views on immigration can go to Roskam’s website and submit comments electronically or call the office to set up an in-person meeting.
Rendon said that despite the fact the group decided not to carry out its planned acts of civil disobedience — members would have been arrested on airport property, not the congressman’s office, and faced higher charges, she said — that the protest achieved other goals. Namely she said, drawing attention to Roskam and House leaders.
Standing in a circle on a grassy patch outside the airport, protesters were undeterred.
“To the people who wanted to do an act of civil disobedience, should we try again?” Rendon asked. The answer was a loud: “Yes.”