Although Aurora resident Laura Peniche is spending the week in Washington, D.C., she won't be doing much sightseeing. Instead, she's taking part in Fast for Freedom, an action designed to encourage Congress to include an immigration reform measure in the proposed bipartisan infrastructure package.
"I think it sends a message of how urgent this is," Peniche says. "There are some people who are willing to wait until an immigration reform is negotiated and it's passed, and that is all fine. But we know families are suffering right now. We know there is this opportunity for relief and that this is urgent, and we want them to include a path to citizenship."
Originally from Mexico, the 37-year-old Peniche is staying at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation, located about a block from the U.S. Capitol; ten other individuals are fasting with her. The eleven represent the estimated 11 million undocumented individuals living in the United States.
Nine years ago this month, President Barack Obama created Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, known as DACA. The executive action established a program in which immigrants brought to the U.S. as children could apply for DACA status, which would protect them from deportation and also allow them to get a work permit (the program does not accept anyone with serious criminal convictions). According to data compiled at the end of 2020, 636,390 people now have DACA status, including 14,380 people in Colorado.
"For the last 24 years, I've been calling Colorado home. I contributed to the economy of this country for that long. I've also worked in many essential jobs. Now that I have DACA, I've become a community leader," says Peniche, who works for the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition as the organization's ICE hotline manager. "I also have three U.S. citizen children, and they are the biggest motivation in this fast. It's not fair that they have to live every day in fear, not knowing if I'll be separated from them. It's important for me that their future and my future is secure."
Peniche and her fellow fasters want Congress to include a pathway to citizenship for essential workers, DACA recipients and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) holders in the proposed $1 trillion infrastructure bill that lawmakers are currently considering, rather than wait for the Biden administration to take on immigration reform.
"I don't see why we need to be waiting and putting people on hold when not having immigration relief is so urgent," Peniche says. "People without status are at so much risk every single day. Essential workers come out and put themselves on the front lines, and have been doing it through the pandemic, and it is the right thing to do to include them in any recovery plan for this country."
While trying to stay out of the heat and remain healthy during their fast, Peniche and the others did attend a DACA rally outside of the White House on June 15. But otherwise, they've spent their time talking about both local and national issues.
"We have the immigrant detention center in Aurora, so I've been uplifting that here a lot, too — about the need to close detention centers, because it's outrageous the number of people who are detained currently in Aurora, despite the positive cases of COVID that continue to surface there," Peniche says.
A total of 373 people have contracted COVID at the Aurora Contract Detention Facility, which is run by private prison company GEO Group through a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Three people now detained there have COVID, according to ICE numbers from June 14. According to a recent report from the office of Congressman Jason Crow, a Democrat whose district includes Aurora, 579 ICE detainees were being held at the facility as of June 4, in addition to dozens of U.S. Marshals detainees.
While Peniche started her fasting on June 14, some of the others started as early as June 9. And when Peniche wraps up her five days of fasting, someone will take her place to ensure that there are eleven people fasting in D.C. for immigration reform until July 4.
"Fasting has been, throughout the history of the world, a way to renew your faith, a way to get a deeper connection with the spiritual realm," Peniche explains. "And this is also why I'm doing it. I feel like I need to empower myself with faith. I've been in this movement long enough that I feel like I could lose hope sometimes. Every day that immigration reform gets delayed is so difficult, and I don't want to lose faith. I want to empower my community, as well, and my family, and everyone in the country who doesn't have status. I want them to also have faith."
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