A vigil to galvanize opposition

July 12, 2010

For 19 days in June, hundreds of Boston immigrant rights activists participated in the nonstop Mass Hope 2010 vigil outside of the Massachusetts State House in response to the anti-immigrant proposal SA 172.1, which was added to the state's budget bill.

Proposed before the Massachusetts Senate in late May, SA 172.1 included a host of anti-immigrant measures, including the creation of an anonymous tip line to report people using false documents or businesses hiring undocumented people; denying access to assisted-housing programs for undocumented people; placing stricter requirements for housing, Social Security and health benefits for both documented and undocumented immigrants; barring undocumented students from receiving in-state tuition; and more.

During the 19 days, the vigil expanded to include rallies, teach-ins, drum circles, press conferences, soccer games, Spanish lessons and individual conversations. Eventually, the pressure led to most of the anti-immigrant amendments being eliminated from the final budget.

Lai Wa Wu, Lily Huang and Jose Palma, members of the Student Immigrant Movement (SIM)--the organization that initiated the call for Mass Hope 2010--talked to Madeline Burrows about the success of the vigil and next steps for the immigrant rights movement.

HOW DID SIM come up with the idea for the 24/7 indefinite vigil outside of the Massachusetts State House?

Lai Wa: It was purely organic. We went to the SIM retreat in early June, [the day before the vigil started], and one of the SIM members said that they had come up with the idea of holding a 24-hour vigil at some point. We found out about the Massachusetts amendments when we were in different group discussions.

We came back to the big group discussion, and someone had brought up this vigil. Everyone was really hesitant. At first, we were like, holy shit, what kind of idea is this? But then, slowly, some of the SIM members started raising their hands to participate and I think that once we saw people committing, the collective group started to commit to it.

CAN YOU talk a little bit about what the Massachusetts amendments were?

Lily: These amendments included creating a 1-800 hotline where anyone could report anyone else that they thought was undocumented, and then the attorney general would be mandated to investigate each case.

Members of the Student Immigrant Movement in Boston during their 19-day vigil
Members of the Student Immigrant Movement in Boston during their 19-day vigil (Ani Barua)

It would have included creating an E-Verify system for all organizations and groups that work with the state, and banning Social Security, unemployment, welfare and food stamps to all undocumented people (who don't receive it anyways), and it would ban basic health insurance to undocumented people, which they don't actually receive. It would ban state-assisted housing to undocumented people, which is already banned on a federal level.

HOW DID SIM build the vigil from initially being SIM's project to something bigger?

Jose: I think something that was very successful about the vigil is that we were able to motivate everyone in Massachusetts--not only organizations, but also individuals. Lai Wa was talking to individuals, and Lily was working with organizations, sending e-mails every day saying, "This is what is happening, this is what you guys can do." That's how we spread the word across Massachusetts, and we were getting a lot of help by the end.

Lai Wa: I also want to stress the community involvement. The beauty of having a central location and being there 24 hours a day, seven days a week, was that we were present, and if people had questions or wanted to find us we were always at the State House.

I think the first week, people weren't really understanding what we were doing, but by the second week, once they knew that we were consistently there, I think they started to take us seriously. I think that was really when a lot of community organizations galvanized around the Mass Hope vigil.

One of the things that I think was really successful with the vigil was not only on a macro level, but on a micro level, the individual conversations we had with people on the street--people from all spectrums of opinion, whether they were anti-immigrant or pro-immigrant. They all came together to this one location for the sole intent of engaging conversations and really truthfully and honestly doling out issues of immigration and our feelings--what our pain is around this topic and the reality of the broken immigration system today.

WHAT WAS your first reaction when you heard that the amendments had been repealed?

Lily: We were shocked. We stayed an extra two days because we weren't sure, and we wanted proof that most of these amendments were removed. I think we really realized that, like the Zapatistas say, you make the road by walking it. We made the road by walking it.

The day before the vigil, we were like, "We don't know if we can do this. We haven't talked to any organizations. We haven't talked to all of the group members. We don't have any materials. We don't have sleeping bags. We don't have posters. What can we do?"

And I think the rational side of us is always thinking, "Okay, we need to get everything ready." But really, when would it have been a good time, or when would we have been ready? When we had two organizations on our side? Five? Ten? Fifteen?

By the end, we had 42 organizations, and we met hundreds of people in the streets--tourists, people who have lived in Boston for a long time, Bostonians who never knew these amendments existed. I think at first, we were shocked when we heard about the amendments [being repealed], but then we felt really good because we had grown this organization around us and changed the space in front of the State House.

Lai Wa: And even now I don't think we're really fully cognizant of the power and the effect this vigil had. It kind of took on an identity of its own.

I think we're very grateful. At the same time, we recognize that somehow we need to contain this power so that we can move forward, because we know that this is just the beginning and that we have a much longer road ahead of us.

THE MASSACHUSETTS anti-immigrant amendments were part of a bigger attack on immigrants that is going on nationally, most famously in Arizona. What do you think are some of the next steps, in Boston for SIM, and nationally for an immigrant rights movement?

Jose: I think that what happened with the anti-immigrant amendments in Massachusetts just proves what we have been saying: That we need to have a victory in order to create a movement that can believe in what our organizations are doing, here and nationally.

There are people who don't believe that organizations in Massachusetts and nationally are doing a great job in our communities to win immigration reform. So the other thing we've been pushing in the Student Immigrant Movement is that we need to achieve something--for example, the DREAM Act. It's something that looks small compared to the bigger problem that we have. But it's also going to bring some new fresh air to our community to believe that if we really work together, we can achieve goals.

I think we learned something: Together is the only way that we are going to win. Something I always say is the Salvadorian saying that you never climb a tree from the top. You always climb from the bottom.

So we prepared the road by stopping the Massachusetts amendments. The next step can be the DREAM Act. And that way, we can climb the tree, and hopefully by next year, we can achieve immigration reform.

We proved that we have capacity to organize our community, and we also proved that together is the only way are going to achieve a goal. I was so inspired during the vigil to see the diversity: African American, Latino, Chinese, white--everybody was involved. That's the reality. And I think if we continue to work like that, we can definitely achieve immigration reform.

Lily: Hopefully we're building a movement that involves all kinds of communities--communities we were working with before the vigil and ones we're working with now. One idea of how the vigil and its success can revitalize, energize and create new ideas is the DREAM University.

The United We Dream Coalition is 22 or 23 different groups across the U.S. that are like SIM--undocumented, student-led groups across the U.S. Instead of a vigil, what is being created is DREAM University, a place where all students--undocumented, documented, all ages, all backgrounds--can come and learn, to have workshops to meet one another, to share ideas and also to push for the DREAM Act.

Beginning July 14, there is going to be youth in the streets [in Washington D.C.] until the DREAM Act is passed. There are going to be groups from North Carolina, from Arizona, from Florida, etc. SIM is going to go several times during the duration of the DREAM University. July 19-21 are lobby days and mock graduation days, and we're going to push the DREAM Act until it passes this year.

Lai Wa: I think one thing that Arizona is teaching us right now is the full capacity that the other side has and their manpower against us.

I think, all in all, what this vigil has taught us is that we're not here to wait for anyone to hand us our freedom. We're here to fight for our freedom ourselves. We are in solidarity with Arizona, we're in solidarity with people in Washington D.C., and we're going to keep fighting.

Further Reading

From the archives