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Generations of Struggle

Lawrence Benito shares the story of his family's struggle in their immigration to the United States.

Lawrence BenitoLawrence Benito is being honored as a Champion of Change for his efforts as an Immigration Reformer.

As community organizers, we know first-hand that democracy is not a spectator sport.  Change can only happen with an engaged citizenry willing to take action. At the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR), our mission is to promote the full participation of immigrants in the political, social, cultural, and economic fabric of our diverse society. Over the last decade, we have marched, registered voters, and turned out people to vote for our candidate: comprehensive immigration reform.

When I see immigrants today, whether at naturalization ceremonies as they take the oath to become United States citizens, or aspiring citizens organizing for fairer immigration policies, I am reminded of my family’s story. When my grandfather arrived as a teenager in northern California to work in the fields, he was welcomed by signs on buildings that read “Positively No Filipinos Allowed” as well as anti-miscegenation laws stating that the races could not mix. When the depression hit, the jobs dried up and my grandfather went home, but he had dreams for his own children, who came to America several decades later.

As a second-generation Filipino-American, in many ways I am the product of an American dream. My parents came to America in the late 1960s for the same reasons as earlier generations of immigrants: in search of a better life for themselves and their family. Seeing their early struggles for acceptance and respect as immigrants to this country, and my own attempts to navigate the two worlds, was not always easy. I chose to become a community organizer because I saw my own family’s struggles reflected in the latest generation of immigrants to our country.

My commitment to immigration reform is born out of my family’s experiences, as well as witnessing the challenges and struggles of thousands of immigrant families in Illinois. The families that I have seen are hard-working, welcoming, and have a deep sense of faith and dignity. Their values and contributions to Illinois and to our nation are inspiring. These same families are tested with the ordeals and pains of family separation; mothers and fathers being taken from their children, or a sister who is made to wait twenty years to see her brother.

The fight for immigration reform has been a long battle.  However, the demographic changes, along with the growing political recognition of Latino and immigrant voters this past election has led to a breakthrough this year, and hopes are high for immigration reform legislation to be passed in 2013. In Illinois, the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) has led efforts to promote citizenship, immigration reform and immigrant integration, as well as voter registration, mobilization, and broader civic engagement.  Through grassroots organizing efforts, public education, and electoral work, ICIRR has worked across party lines to advance policies and initiatives that welcome immigrants and recognize their contributions to all aspects of our society.

Nationally, ICIRR plays a leadership role within the Fair Immigration Reform Movement to advance just and humane immigration policies, and with the National Partnership for New Americans to promote citizenship, volunteerism, and immigrant integration.

I am honored and humbled to be one of the Cesar Chavez Champions of Change awardees because of the work of our many member institutions and the collective work of the many organizations working on immigration reform nationally. This recognition is the work of many fearless leaders who have refused to give up, and have continued to organize regardless of their immigration status, and to speak truth to power. Their passion and commitment is an inspiration to us all.

Lawrence Benito serves as the Chief Executive Officer at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR).