Ms. Paterno Goes to Washington: In Her Own Words

ROP Board Chair Kathy Paterno and Sen. Ron Wyden in DCI was one of the lucky ones to take part in the Reform Immigration for America Campaign Summit in Washington, DC last week on behalf of the Rural Organizing Project.  Ten of us from Oregon joined with delegates from 36 states. The strongest message I came home with is this: 

We (everyone of us) have to exercise our power, turn up the heat, get organized and put the pressure on!  Our elected officials can only act boldly if they believe their constituents are demanding it.   

One of my most meaningful experiences happened before I got there – on my flight between Denver and DC.  I found myself sitting next to a 60-something gentleman who was quite interested in my reason for visiting his home base.  When I mentioned immigration reform, he immediately began presenting his views about the “illegals.”  I could feel my stomach begin to churn. 

I wanted to avoid any conflict, close my eyes or just read my book.  But something made me take his comments and questions seriously, and I decided we were there together for a reason, whatever that might be.  There was nothing to lose by trying out my arguments in a calm and reasoned way.  An amazing thing happened.  He listened.  At one point he was actually quite proud to say, “Did you notice I just called them “undocumented people” instead of “illegals?”  Bless his heart.  One by one, friends, we can change hearts and minds. 

The conference speakers were dynamic and energizing.  Every session turned into a rally with close to 800 people applauding, standing and chanting “Si Se Puede!”   In my opinion, the most powerful speaker was Sister Mary McCauley of St. Bridget’s Catholic Church in Postville, Iowa.  With her snowy white hair, standing about 4 feet tall, she calmly and deliberately told the story of the ICE raid on the meat packing plant in her hometown of Postville.  She recounted the personal stories of devastating injustice that shattered the lives of so many families. But it was also a hopeful story of the humanistic spirit at work as people got the word out, got legal support, and helped one another.

The focus of the Summit, of course, was lobby day. We were briefed, we prepared, we knew what we were asking for, and off we went to Capitol Hill to meet with our representatives. Apparently, 700 plus immigration reformers swarming the halls and offices was noticed! 

We asked if they would support and/or co-sponsor the three pro-immigration bills that are currently in process:  1) Ag-Jobs  2) Reunification of Families  3) The Dream Act. And we asked if they support just and humane Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR).  I personally took part in the visits with Congressman Walden, Senator Wyden and Senator Merckley’s aid. They all listened with interest and attention and stated that they were very interested in CIR. Their elaboration usually began with, “First we have to strengthen border security…”  Ugh. Senator Merckley’s aid said she thought it was likely that the Senator would support the three bills, although he had not yet reviewed them. Senator Wyden said he didn’t think there was much hope of them passing since everyone was more interested in a comprehensive bill rather than piecemeal. Congressman Walden was noncommittal about the three bills, but was moved by the stories our group told.  All three reps were agreeable to meeting with us back in Oregon to discuss the issue in more depth. And that brings me to my final point…

Francisco Lopez, the leader of our delegation to DC and Director of Causa, is working in collaboration with ROP and others to organize large immigration gatherings to advance immigration reform, perhaps town halls with each member of our Congressional delegation, over the summer and fall.  Details are yet to be worked out. 

And, I cannot end without saying THANK YOU for the amazing opportunity to attend this extraordinary event. I was honored and proud to be a part of it. This Summit is just the beginning of an urgent campaign that we can WIN if all of us are working together.


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