L. Mireya Reith is being honored as a Champion of Change for her efforts as an Immigration Reformer.
Arkansas is home to a large and diverse community of immigrants, boasting the country’s fourth fastest-growing immigrant population. I am proud to call Arkansas my home. I grew up in Arkansas amidst the immigration boom in my state. As the daughter of a Mexican immigrant, I had a strong empathy and kinship with my new neighbors, and was deeply alarmed when I read those first editorials criticizing the growth of the immigrant community. I remember as a child confronting my own racist epithets in grade school and being aware that discriminatory groups, like the Klu Klux Klan, were still organizing around us. While my life experiences only made me more determined to demonstrate the value of diversity, I also knew that I would strive to prevent others from ever having to go through those same feelings of alienation.
I purposefully selected a career where I could champion for diversity and civic inclusion, and my early opportunities took me to five continents across the world, working in the field of democracy promotion. However, Arkansas remained my consistent home, and a family illness brought me back. What began as volunteering and trying to find ways to use my education and work experiences soon became a renewed life mission involving my neighbors, friends, and family, a mission that was spurred with urgency as I became aware of the grave injustices happening in my state and timely windows to resolve looming barriers both at the state and federal levels.
As I began to travel to all four corners of Arkansas, I learned that many immigrants still lacked the means to become full and active participants in the state’s economic, political, and social processes; a reality that negatively impacted all Arkansans. Instead, the swift demographic shifts, combined with a systematic lack of information, had relegated Arkansas immigrants into a second class. Among their stories was Lidia, who is an undocumented student and the eldest of her siblings. Because Arkansas does not have in place a tuition equity policy, her parents each work three jobs, seven days a week, to pay her university tuition. Unless laws in Arkansas change, her brothers and sisters may not get to go to college, and her parents will continue to confront unbearable choices between cancer treatment for the mother and Lidia’s education. Another story is Maria’s: she is a citizen who spent half of last year traveling ten hours to Louisiana’s detention center every weekend to fight to keep her family together and prevent the deportation of two of her brothers, who did not have the same opportunity as she did to legalize.
In 2010, I helped found Arkansas United Community Coalition (AUCC) to respond to these challenges, with a mission to empower Arkansas immigrants and their communities through organizing, coalition building, leadership development, and the promotion of civic engagement. My fellow incorporators and I were inspired by a vision of an Arkansas that could be elevated to its full social, economic, and civic potential through the development of inclusive and equitable communities where all multiethnic groups, newcomers, and native-born Arkansans could work together to enhance their collective quality of life. Committed to grassroots organizing and guided practice strategies, in our inaugural years, we have done many amazing things:
- We launched Change Agents, Arkansas’ first organizing program geared towards immigrants. This program identified and supported 23 individuals in unleashing their potential as community organizers. AUCC’s Change Agents have traveled to Washington, DC and Maryland to learn best practices from established immigrant organizations, met with elected officials at all levels of government, including the White House, completed community surveys to assess local immigrant needs, implemented series of local workshops where immigrants have safe spaces to garner information and voice their needs, and created active cadres of over 300 volunteers who are working on a daily basis to address immigrant concerns.
- We developed a network of organizations and volunteers committed to nonpartisan, immigrant voter registration and engagement. In 2010, this network contributed to the doubling of the Latino vote and, in 2012, it amassed 1,000 new voter registrations, made 22,000 calls, knocked 2,000 doors and hosted 2 Rock the Vote concerts, motivating the participation of almost 25,000 immigrant voters.
- We spearheaded a working group of 23 organizations – representing Latino, African-American, LGBTQ, women and faith communities – to advance prospects for the creation of a civil rights commission in the state. They have testified to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and have worked to improve relations between immigrants and local law enforcement.
- We fostered dialogue among Arkansas Latinos and public officials around the designation of a Latino majority-minority district during 2011 reapportionment processes.
- We supported local DREAMer organizations in seeking state and federal policy solutions for undocumented youth, including Arkansas’ first statewide summits, an in-state tuition equity bill campaign and an educational town hall with Arkansas’ flagship university that reached thousands locally and nationally.
- We developed community committees to host group citizenship workshops that resulted in over 400 new citizenship applications in one year.
- We joined four national coalitions (ya es hora! Ciudadañía, the Fair Immigration Reform Movement, Reform Immigration FOR America, and the Southeast Immigrant Rights Network) to facilitate Arkansas contributions to comprehensive immigration reform.
While Arkansas confronted twelve anti-immigrant measures in 2011 and still combats misconceptions about its immigrant population, Arkansas remains, as it once was, a land of opportunity. It is a proud commitment to our state that it has inspired this pro-active movement, of which I am humbly one person within, driven by the principles of acceptance and collaboration.
L.Mireya Reith is the Executive Director of Arkansas United Community Coalition (AUCC), Arkansas’ first nonprofit working at the state level to empower immigrants through organizing, coalition building, leadership development and the promotion of civic engagment.