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An immigration reform vigil held in Honolulu's city hall. Photo by Gary Chun

Campaigners hold fast for immigration reform

Gary Chun

Immigration reform is not only a hot-button topic on the U.S. mainland, but here in Hawaii as well.

One such planned nationwide action to urge lawmakers to pass comprehensive immigration reform has been “Fast for Families,” organized by On Wednesday, a vigil was held in the courtyard of Honolulu Hale, attended by members and supporters of MoveOn’s Honolulu Council, the Hawaii Coalition for Immigration Reform, and Faith Action for Community Equity (FACE). Participants made the symbolic gesture of only drinking water during the six-hour vigil.

They met with City Councilman Joey Manahan, who agreed to sponsor a requested resolution supporting federal immigration reform. This is part of an overall call by the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans for Congressional House members to abide by a “Demand a Vote” petition to take action on a bill already introduced in the Republican-led House.

Besides the national demands, the resolution also asks the city council to recognize that “immigration reform must protect the rights of all workers and families and provide safe and efficient channels for migration in the future (and) support administrative action to suspend any further deportations of unauthorized individuals with no serious criminal history.”

Retired pastor and FACE co-founder Stan Bain said that Asian and Pacific immigrants in Hawaii face the same dilemmas Latinos deal with on the mainland. He hopes that the reform movement will continue to build momentum. Bain mentioned that other city governments on the mainland — Los Angeles, Seattle, and Flagstaff, Arizona, in particular — have had similar resolutions brought before them.

Streamlining the process of visa applications is an important part of the movement’s demands. “Lawmakers need to realize how difficult and how long it takes for immigrants to gain legal status,” he said. Fellow FACE member Veronika Geronimo and Melba Bantay of Catholic Charities Hawaii both emphasized how these waits for visas — sometimes taking as long as 20 years, at times surpassing the lifetimes of applicants — are too long and ultimately unfair.

Geronimo said “the population that is affected the most here are undocumented (Mexicans and) Filipinos, who still live in the shadows for fear of deportation.” According to up-to-date records from Hawaii deportation proceedings, of the 20 cases reported, none show any kind of criminal record.

At the vigil, Mahe Vakauta, a young man who came to Hawaii with his family from Tonga, told his story of being in-and-out of immigration court once he turned 21 and for four years afterwards, even though his parents had earlier received their green cards. But thanks to President Obama’s executive order in January to halt deportations of those who came into the U.S. as either children, caretakers of children or law-abiding people, he’s been able to stay and is currently working at a security company.

But he and the vigil participants worry that once Obama leaves office, so, too, will the executive order will be eliminated by the next administration.

At one point to rally themselves, they all stood and softly sang the South African protest spiritual “Freedom is Coming.”