A day without immigrants: Marching for justice in Grand Rapids

Hundreds of people took to the streets in Grand Rapids and Wyoming for the "Day Without Immigrants" march, joining individuals across the country who protested President Donald Trump's immigration policies. In our city, the peaceful procession emphasized the crucial role that immigrants play in the U.S. economy and called for the Trump administration to respect and protect our country's immigrants.
On Thursday, Feb. 16, the city of Grand Rapids witnessed a united effort from immigrants across the United States to protest President Donald Trump’s immigration policies.

The message that spread throughout social media, classrooms, restaurants, shops, and elsewhere was one of peaceful protest in an effort to have the rest of the nation experience how their lives might change if all immigrants were no longer part of the fabric of this country.

Trump’s most controversial immigration policies, including the aggressive enforcement of immigration laws that could lead to a massive increase in deportations, and attempting to at least temporarily ban refugees from the U.S., have targeted the Latinx community and many predominantly Muslim countries in Africa and the Middle East. In response, the message was simple and clear.

Do not show up for work. Do not show up for school. Do not open your business. Do not purchase anything. 

Across the nation, reports came in as students stayed at home or organized walkouts. Immigrant-owned businesses closed or ally-owned business shuttered in solidarity with immigrant workers. It was a mass effort to show the country the crucial role that immigrants play in the U.S. economy, as well as to call for the administration to respect and protect immigrants.

Grand Rapids was no exception to these efforts. Our city is home to immigrants from a great many nations, including: Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Cuba, Haití, Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Perú, Brasil, Vietnam, Laos, India, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Somalia, to name just a few.

Some left their countries to pursue the American Dream, while others fled to stay alive. Our city holds stories from all over the world, and the nationwide protests helped to retell those stories.

We can trace the arrival of West Michigan’s most prominent immigrants to a time not so far in our country’s history. In the late 1800s, large groups emigrated from the Netherlands to what is now Holland, Michigan. At the time, the Dutch fled religious persecution and settled in West Michigan. Fast forward more than 150 years later, and we cannot think of West Michigan without also thinking of Dutch heritage.

Although times change, some things certainly stay the same. Alongside fleeing religious persecution, immigrants now often also escape violence and destabilized economies.

In Grand Rapids, thousands of students, both immigrants and allies, joined the day of protest. Numerous local businesses also participated, including: The National Supermarket, Lindo Mexico Restaurant, Tamales Mary Tacos El Cuñado (the Bridge, Burton, and Grandville locations), Los Comales Restaurant, Sin Fronteras, El Globo, 34th Street Mall, El Milagro, El Pollo Loco, Taqueria San Jose, Cancun Restaurant , 7 Mares Restaurant, La Huasteca Restaurant, and Pupuseria El Salvador. 

Hundreds of people joined an evening march, which was mostly attended and promoted by the Latinx community. Organized by the Community Worker's Center of West Michigan, a project of The Micah Center; local Spanish language media; and grassroots community members,the march inspired about 600 people to take to the streets, bringing their message of solidarity to South Division Avenue and 28th Street.
I chose to join the protest for two reasons: I am a first generation immigrant to this country, and I wanted to cover the event for our publication.

Now, order here is important, since I protested first as an immigrant and second as a member of the media to cover the event. The decision to protest was, surprisingly, a decision. I struggled with an overwhelming feeling of subservience. I was raised to always be respectful, follow the rules, keep your head down, and work hard. Something that most immigrant children can recall being told at an early age. Everything could be achieved if you just worked hard and were quiet.

My family immigrated to the United States from Peru in the 1990s, and we were given permanent legal resident status. My mother naturalized, and it would be more than a decade before us children would find out that we could also naturalize as citizens as well. When we submitted all the forms and paid the fees we felt excited. It was one of the more eventful days of my life. A constant issue looming over my life had finally been resolved. Yes, it would save me some time with paperwork, since I no longer needed to add my legal resident alien identification number (a term that is still as weird to me now as it was when I learned it in high school), or I would no longer need to be retina and palm scanned every time I re-entered the country, but I did not truly feel any different.

I was in my mid-twenties and I had never drank, smoked, pranked, or even skipped a day of school in fear that it would somehow affect my chance at citizenship. My mother always reminded us kids that we were blessed to have come to this country with full legal status, and that she did not know what could disqualify us from citizenship. It was best for us to become model citizens, and nothing was worth losing that opportunity.

Fast forward to present day, and I find myself in a parking lot on South Division Avenue realizing that this event would not be a town hall style meeting on how we would protest; rather, it would be a marching protest. Within five minutes of arriving, the small parking lot was packed and the announcements were made, reminding everyone that we would be marching peacefully down the street. Reminders to not resist arrest and to respect police officers were given over the megaphone, and that is when I reached for my cellphone to give my mother a call.

The call was short and to the point; I knew what she would say. I told her that I was covering a protest and that I would also be marching in solidarity for immigrant rights. She quickly replied in Spanish that I didn’t need to do this, that I could get hurt and that there are bad people who want to hurt protesters. I told her I had to do this for myself and for our community. I would call her when I was done.

Before I could let it sink in the crowd moved to the street. I walked alongside the crowd and joined as I tried to take in what I was doing. Young and old joined the march, and it seemed like we tripled in size after a few blocks. Drums banging and voices chanting, I tried joining along. I had not yet found my voice to yell loudly and proudly in the street, but I marched on.

I walked alongside the edge near opposing traffic to be vigilant if anything were to happen, but nothing ever did. We were cheered on by honking horns and cellphone cameras.

We soon reached 28th Street, and I became nervous; we were now going to be affecting a lot more people by stopping traffic, but we kept marching. As we came to the 131 overpass, I heard my first complaint come from the traffic crowd: “We have places to go!” I thought about how much this march was inconveniencing drivers. I started to feel impatient and wondered if we would impede traffic for much longer; we were now in Wyoming after all.

I looked around at the crowd and saw whole families, teenagers and adult couples all smiling and chanting. A quote from Margaret Mead came into my head that states, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” Surely many of us were citizens, but some likely were not. Some were in the situation I was in before, permanent legal residents who are always careful not to hurt their opportunity for citizenship. Yet they were out here, marching to take a stand on what they believe to be an injustice to our country.

Our march soon doubled back and found its way up South Division once again. Walking up the street with the sun setting into the horizon, I realized that what we all just did was exactly what many citizens had done in the past. We exercised our voice, and we stood up for what we believed in. What I thought would once ruin my chance at citizenship was the strongest expression of it all along. With every step I took back home, I finally felt the change I was hoping for all along. I finally felt like a citizen.

Ken Miguel-Cipriano is Rapid Growth’s innovation and jobs editor. To reach Ken, you can email [email protected] or follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Photos by Tommy Allen
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