Two weeks turned into seven years.
Amy Kele and her family moved from Fiji to settled in Everett, staying on their father’s student visa. Things changed when Kele’s parents left the U.S. to attend a wedding in Fiji.
“They were only planning on staying for two weeks, but then my mom’s visa got denied,” said Kele, the oldest of four children. Kele, now 18, was 11 years old the last time she saw her parents.
Stories like Kele’s that describe the toll on families because of the lack of immigration reform was brought to forefront last month, as she and other women made a 100-mile pilgrimage from York County Prison, a 2,500-bed detention center in Pennsylvania, to Washington D.C. to greet Pope Francis.
“100 Women 100 Miles” was organized by the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum as a part of the We Belong Together campaign, which encourages humane responses to human migration.
The women walked for eight days from York County Prison and culminated their journey with a vigil in McPherson Square in D.C.
The individual stories were different, but many involved an often marginalized demographic in the United States, undocumented immigrants.
“There was like different races and different cultures, but we were all kind of able to be very united. It was literally a community, like a big family of people and we were all able to tell our stories and uplift each other, encourage each other,” Kele said. Their goal was to put faces to the Pope’s message that human dignity and compassion must be restored through immigration reform.
When Kele’s parents left for Fiji, Kele’s grandmother came from California to babysit. When they weren’t able to re-enter the country, she picked up her life and moved to Everett to care for her grandchildren. “She’s the heart of this whole family. She’s kept us together this whole time. I don’t know where we’d be right now, maybe back in Fiji or in a foster home. I’m really thankful for her in our lives,” said Kele.
Though Kele’s grandmother has been living in the U.S. for almost 20 years she is also undocumented. “Because she’s also undocumented she can’t get benefits like Social Security and things like that. It kind of breaks my heart whenever I think about it.”
Kele, a student at University of Washington Bothell, says she has kept in contact with her parents by Skype and phone, but it has been difficult. Kele’s parents remained in Fiji for a year before moving to Surrey, B.C. “As far as them supporting us financially it was really hard for them because the currency in the U.S. is so much bigger than the currency in Fiji. So my parents decided to move to Canada to maybe help us out a little bit more. Since they’ve been in Canada they’ve been able to help us a little better.”
According to the Pew Research Center undocumented immigrants make up 3.5 percent of the U.S. population, roughly 11 million. The DREAM (Development Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act was first proposed in 2001 to create a way for undocumented youth to access education and health care. The DREAM Act met with staunch opposition from Republicans and was blocked for more than a decade.
In 2012 an executive order by President Barack Obama created Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). With the exception of Kele’s younger sister, who was born in the U.S., the Kele children have all enrolled in DACA allowing them to have a renewable two-year work permit that exempts them from deportation, but limits international travel.
“So right now as immigration reform stands there is no path to citizenship, there is no path to a green card,” explained Marissa Vichayapai, the Special Projects Coordinator for 21 Progress. “So what the process is usually like for a Dreamer is that they apply for their DACA status, they get their DACA status for two years and then they have to renew every two years to keep that status.” At any point, a new president can rescind the order, Vichayapai pointed out.
21 Progress sponsors monthly scholarships for Asian or Pacific Islanders to enroll in DACA and has started a Build Youth Dreams Program which evolved from a social lending circle to an interest-free microloan for the $465 necessary to apply for DACA.
The group also sponsored Kele’s trip to meet the Pope.
“It was cool because the first thing that he mentioned when he was speaking that day was that he said he’s an immigrant too,” Kele said. “So kind of right off the bat he was acknowledging us and saying I’m an immigrant, just acknowledging that a lot of us here in the U.S. were immigrants at a certain point.”
The Pope’s framing of immigration as a human rights issue may open the opportunity for a more compassionate discourse on how to proceed both within the Catholic church and in the broader communities impacted by these issues.
“There is displacement of people. There are people migrating and they’re migrating for all different type of reasons,” said Vichayapai. “And so I think that in combination with his stance around migration and how people as a whole need to act with more compassion around these issues. I think it really speaks to the movement of the 100 Women, 100 Miles.”
Kele said the journey also spoke to her personally.
“It was really a healing journey for me every step of the way. I was thinking of my family, my parents. Even though they’re not with me they are with me in spirit every step,” Kele said. “We were talking about restoring our dignity. And I really felt like during the walk every step was restoring a piece of our dignity that we may have lost throughout each of our journeys and each of our experiences as an undocumented immigrant or just an immigrant in general.”