The congresswoman lead a discussion at Adelante Mujeres in Forest Grove on Monday, July 9.

U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., sat down with a group of community members and leaders in Forest Grove on Monday, July 9, to discuss the current state of immigration and its effect on the local community.

Adelante Mujeres, a nonprofit organization based out of Forest Grove that works to empower and educate Latina women and their families, hosted the discussion. Board and staff members from Adelante Mujeres, as well as leaders from sister organizations Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center, Unite Oregon, Bienestar and Unidos Bridging Community, joined in to hear from Bonamici and share their concerns on the controversial subject.

STAFF PHOTO: OLIVIA SINGER - Local leaders from Adelante Mujeres, Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center, Unite Oregon, Bienestar and Unidos Bridging Community joined in on Monday's conversation.

"As a leader in women's rights, education and labor, the congresswoman is highly aware of the impact of the current border issues on our communities, our counties and our state," said Maribel De Leon, director of microenterprise programs at Adelante Mujeres. "We welcome her participation, along with the Oregon Democratic congressional delegation, in stepping forward against this administration's brutal and (nonsensical) anti-immigrants practices on our southern border."

Bonamici represents Oregon's First Congressional District, which covers all of Washington County.

"As of 2010, District 1 was 14 percent Hispanic, so border and immigration issues are a prime concern to both the congresswoman and to everyone else here today," De Leon said.

Bonamici, a staunch opponent of President Donald Trump's immigration policies, discussed her efforts in Congress with the group. She also told them about the importance of speaking out and sharing stories of how the current policies are affecting them and the people they know.

"I benefit so much from hearing your voices and I appreciate your leadership and your advocacy, and this is an important discussion at a very challenging time," Bonamici said. "Since I've been in Congress, we have not, in the House, been given the opportunity to vote on a good bipartisan comprehensive immigration bill. Now there is this new sense of urgency and concern with the Trump administration's zero-tolerance policy that is separating families, and sending kids to prison, and incarcerating asylum-seekers. It's completely unacceptable. It's not what we stand for as a country."STAFF PHOTO: OLIVIA SINGER - Bonamici welcomed questions, concerns and comments from local Latino leaders on the current immigration policies during a discussion on Monday, July 9.

Under the so-called zero-tolerance policy announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in May, federal authorities at the U.S. border with Mexico separated children from their parents upon taking them into custody, classified them as "unaccompanied minors," and placed them under the care of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Thousands of children — the exact number is unclear — have been housed in shelters across the United States, in many cases without knowledge of where their parents are and vice versa.

Under mounting public pressure, Trump signed an executive order late last month ending the practice of forced family separation, which some administration officials had described as a deterrent to families seeking to enter the United States without legal documentation. A federal judge ordered the U.S. government to reunite separated families within weeks, but the process — and timeline — for doing so remains unclear.

Bonamici shared her experience visiting the Federal Correctional Institution, Sheridan — a federal prison for male inmates in Oregon, southwest of McMinnville — where more than 100 men are being held after being detained for entering the United States illegally. According to reports, some of them were separated from their children prior to being sent to Sheridan.

"We should not be criminalizing and incarcerating people who are coming to this country seeking asylum," Bonamici said. "Number one, they don't belong in prison — they should be given the opportunity to present their case for their credible fear hearing, and given support to do that. It's just heartbreaking."

Bonamici and Sen. Jeff Merkley, Oregon's Democratic junior senator, also tried to visit children separated from their parents under the zero-tolerance policy who are being held in Portland, she said, but they were quickly turned away.

"We will continue to work on getting information, but I tell you, it hasn't even been easy for us," Bonamici said. "It wasn't the local organization that said no, it was the Department of (Health &) Human Services that said no, and they gave us three inconsistent reasons why we couldn't get in to see those children. … Know that the separation of children from their families is something that we should all take very seriously, because it's completely wrong, there is no reason to do it, and it makes me outraged as a mother and as a policymaker."

Bonamici promised those in attendance that their voices are being heard, and that she will continue to share their stories at a higher level.

"This is an issue I am going to continue to fight going back to Washington, D.C., tomorrow, and continue to do everything I can to … get the children back with their parents and then to make sure that these people have the opportunity to make their case, to prove their case for asylum, because most of them are asylum-seekers, and the stories I heard, they are fleeing terrible, terrible situations," she said. "I want to the send the message that, as your voice in Congress, number one, we have to get these children back with their families, but we (also) have to continue to fight for a humane, comprehensive reform that respects the value of everyone in this community."

Miriam Vargas Corona, a board member of Unidos Bridging Communities — and one of the first people in Oregon to apply for protections under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program instituted by President Barack Obama — chimed into the conversation, stating that for her family and many others, immigrating is simply about trying for a better life.

"As a parent, when you decide to immigrate with your family, that's the biggest act of love that you can do for your children," she said. "So for us to come back and say, 'You know what, you decided to take this leap of faith and now we're going to treat you like a criminal,' that is so wrong. Our families who came as immigrants, they didn't come with bad intentions, they came here to try and seek a better life for us, for their children. So we just need to keep that pressure on to say our federal prisons should operate for their purpose and not to house folks that are coming here for more opportunities, to give their children a better life."'

Other leaders asked what more they can do to take action in reforming the current immigration policies, and Bonamici suggested they continue advocating for themselves and the people they serve by sharing the stories of immigrants, making it a human issue and not an abstract one.

"I think that the really important thing to do is to tell your stories, and I understand for some people that it's hard to be public with their stories," Bonamici said. "(But it's important) to be able to say to people, 'These are real people, and these policies are affecting them and their lives, and they are contributing to the community.' ... This is really about human rights and how we treat each other."

By Olivia Singer
Reporter, Forest Grove News-Times and Hillsboro Tribune
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Follow Olivia at @oliviasingerr
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