TAMPA — Under the shade of the Immigrant Statue at Centennial Park, they gathered one by one Friday morning.
The statue was chosen as their meeting place. Installed about 20 years ago, it was dedicated to newcomers who, as the statue reads in stone, "came to this country in search of personal freedom, economic opportunity and a future of hope for their families."
About 20 local immigration reform organizers met at the statue for that same purpose. They gathered to hear U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor's call for immigration reform.
"We need to fix our broken immigration system," Castor told the crowd, "for the estimated 11 million people who currently live in the shadows."
Some changes have been implemented for undocumented immigrants in recent years. In 2011, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement began focusing deportation efforts on those with criminal records.
In August, the application process for deferred action was launched. The program allows young undocumented immigrants who don't have extensive criminal histories, arrived in the United States before age 16 and graduated from high school or served in the military or are currently in school, to remain in the country for two years. They will not be deported and are eligible for a work permit.
But reform needs to happen, Castor said without mentioning any specific initiatives.
Nanci Palacios, co-founder of United We Dream Tampa Bay, called deferred action a "Band-Aid" for the immigration system.
Palacios, 23, arrived illegally in the United States with her family at age 6. When deferred action became available, she applied. In November, she was approved and now has a work permit and driver's license.
But her life is still uncertain. Her parents are still undocumented.
"Even though I'm happy that I have been able to obtain that," she said, "I still live with that fear that I'm going to come home and my parents won't be there."
Lourdes Villanueva, from the Florida Immigrant Coalition, spoke to the advocates about migrant families often separated by deportation.
"They are families that are here to work and to contribute," Villanueva said. "They don't know if down the road, there's going to be a traffic stop and that immediately leads them to deportation."
The advocates represented several organizations throughout Tampa Bay, including Comprehensive Immigration Reform Now and Mi Familia Vota.
After Castor's words, they gathered in a circle and chatted about their upcoming events and plans to push forward their reform efforts.
About 50 advocates will meet Saturday at the West Tampa library to brainstorm ways to engage other local representatives on immigration reform.
"It's people power," said CIR Now organizer Edwin Enciso, "that is going to make a difference."
Laura C. Morel can be reached at [email protected] or (813)226-3386.