Homero Mejia's schedule suddenly became full when congressional representatives and the president separately announced their plans to overhaul the nation's immigration laws.
Now, he and others working or volunteering for the Modesto-based Congregations Building Community are tasked with getting the word out.
They must explain to local residents the ins and outs of this proposed federal legislation, which includes pathways to citizenship for most of the 11 million people living in the United States who entered the country illegally.
This doesn't mean Mejia wasn't busy before. As executive director of Congregations Building Community, he has advocated on the behalf of residents on a variety of issues.
He has spoken out on the few resources available to seniors, the disabled and families adapting to climate change. He has worked with other community groups on practical improvements in neighbor- hoods overwhelmed with crime.
Mejia works closely with the Tuolumne River Trust, a group focused on improving areas along the river's path and raising public awareness. In the fall, he helped galvanize voter support for Proposition 30, a state tax initiative to increase education funding and block spending cuts.
But it will be immigration reform that dominates Mejia's schedule in the near future.
Q: What message are you sharing with residents in this latest community outreach effort concerning immigration reform?
A: Our families deserve to live free of the fear of deportation and abuse that comes with living in the shadows. These are hard-working people who contribute to our communities and our schools and who deserve the full rights of citizenship. As people of faith, we believe that we have an inherent right to live with dignity and to fulfill our God-given purpose, and believe that a pathway to citizenship is the right and just step toward achieving that.
Q: How do you plan to carry out this message in the upcoming weeks and months?
A: Our clergy and community leaders have been meeting with their members of Congress, both in D.C. and at home. We believe that we must hold our elected officials accountable to respond to the priorities of their community and are praying that they will engage in meaningful and thoughtful conversation about how we achieve a pathway to citizenship. In March, we will bring together at least 100 community leaders for a two-day training, where we will learn about the various proposals, develop outreach and communication strategies and pray together, all with the objective of obtaining a pathway to citizenship for the aspiring 11 million Americans.
Q: What misperceptions do some residents have about the proposed reform legislation?
A: There is a misperception that undocumented immigrants are unworthy of citizenship. In fact, immigrant families are hard-working, pay taxes and contribute meaningfully to their churches, communities and our country. Aspiring Americans want what every previous wave of American immigrants has sought to make life better for their families and to live in the freedom and opportunity this country offers.
Q: What reluctance or uneasiness do some immigrants have about the proposed legislation? Has some of that always existed?
A: There is much unease about additional enforcement and the amount of time that it will take to become a citizen. There has been much rhetoric about securing the border, and it's our belief that the border is secure. Last year, our country had a record-high number of deportations, and for the first time in many years, illegal immigration has decreased.
Q: How do young immigrants perceive immigration reform when compared with their parents and other elders in their community?
A: Just the other day, I heard the testimony of a young man, who is a citizen, sharing his story. His father was deported when he was a young boy, making his mother a single parent. The mother had to work more and was less able to provide supervision for her children. This young man is extremely bright, but lost his way once his dad was taken, and his mother had no choice but to work around the clock to make ends meet. Young people live the devastation of a family separation, and they absolutely understand why this fight is necessary.
Q: What kind of impact did the announcement of the proposed legislation have on immigrants and community groups seeking comprehensive immigration reform?
A: We applaud the president's decision to stand up for citizenship and make it clear to Congress and to the American people that now is the time for immigration reform with a road map to citizenship. Immigrant Americans work in our communities, raise their children alongside ours and worship with us. We are pleased that the plan laid out by the Senate includes a road map to citizenship and pray that the House plan does so as well.
Q: What kind of effect do you see on the Modesto area, in terms of the economy or education, if the proposed legislation becomes law?
A: We believe this will have a tremendously positive impact. Families are the cornerstone of our society, and with real opportunity, all of our families can focus on achieving the American dream, bolstering the level of education in Modesto and increasing our productivity as citizens.
Q: A collaborative local effort late last year helped hundreds of young people apply for a federal program that offers illegal immigrants a chance to stay and work in the U.S. What can you tell us about any results from that effort?
A: We have seen young people become involved in our community like never before. Last year, many Dreamers (applicants for the DREAM Act program) helped us pass Prop. 30, committing their time and energy to making sure that education and other vital services were not further cut.
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2394.
Homero Mejia, executive director, Congregations Building Community
Modesto native, has worked for the Modesto nonprofit since 2007
Focuses on community outreach and advocates for residents in Stanislaus County's disadvantaged areas
The nonprofit serves members of all faiths to improve quality of life by empowering people and supporting unity in diversity.
Congregations Building Community is part of a national network of faith-based organizations called People Improving Communities Through Organizing.