Solidarity at its Best: But Need to Stay the Course
Three days before Christmas I witnessed the power of solidarity at its best when a very diverse community came together in a park in Chelsea to celebrate what Francisco Rodriguez called a “Christmas Miracle.” The basic features of Francisco’s story are well known: Six months ago, Francisco was arrested and detained by ICE because his petition for asylum had not been renewed. He had come to the U.S. in 2006 from El Salvador after his colleague was assassinated, fearing he was the next to be attacked. He subsequently married and started a family here and was employed as a custodian at MIT since 2011. While imprisoned, his wife gave birth to their fourth child, an event he was barred from attending. On Thursday, to his great surprise, he was released just in time to spend Christmas with his family.
While these basic features of Francisco’s saga and his release were well covered in the media, what is less understood and appreciated are the collective efforts of the coalition of powerful groups that heretofore had never worked together that made it happen.
That story starts with Francisco’s unbreakable spirit. He started his comments that morning by first thanking God and attesting to his faith. He went on to describe, in both English and Spanish (for the benefit of TV crews from Spanish- and English-language stations), how he kept his spirits up through this ordeal by keeping busy – cleaning the clothes of his cellmates, translating for those who didn’t speak English, and dreaming about various Spanish dishes he might cook if he was still there on Christmas. But he had his dark days as well, especially as he thought about his children and new baby. Yet he persevered, convinced that in America justice would prevail because, as he said, he had broken no laws. And, his hopes were bolstered by what he saw as the broad, dedicated, and influential mix of people working on his behalf.
Francisco even took the time to praise his guards as good people who treated him well. As I listened, I thought just maybe I was witnessing a contemporary small scale Nelson Mandela, a remarkably unbitter, forgiving, and pious example of why we gain so much from those with the courage to immigrate to our country.
Aside from hearing Francisco’s inspiring words, what was so remarkable about the Friday event was the diversity of those who came to celebrate his release. It epitomized the original meaning of solidarity – working together for the common good. I can’t ever remember being at a gathering in which an immigrant and his family, MIT, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Jobs with Justice (an NGO that advocates for immigrant and worker rights), and one of Boston’s most prestigious law firms, Goodwin Procter, celebrated something they accomplished together. Fittingly, Francisco expressed his appreciation to all both in English and Spanish.
SEIU Local 32B and Jobs with Justice (JWJ) carried the torch for Francisco and his family since he was arrested. They organized rallies, engaged politicians to support his cause, set up a “go-fund-me” site for contributions, and stayed in constant contact with Francisco while attending to his family’s needs in his absence. Their mantra, voiced by Lily Huang, Co-Director of Mass. JWJ, spoke volumes, “immigrant rights are worker rights”: organizations that represent immigrant workers cannot separate out these two areas of law and politics.
MIT helped mobilize the legal team that successfully petitioned the court first to stop ICE from moving Francisco to an out-of-state jail and then convinced government attorneys that he could not be held for more than six months without having a hearing on his case. And about 200 MIT faculty, through personal contributions, raised over $30,000 to support the family in its time of need. MIT President Rafael Reif often uses the term “One MIT” to describe how the Institute values all members of its community – students, faculty, and staff alike. True to its word, MIT translated it stated values into action.
The lawyers who worked on Francisco’s case, led by John Bennett from Goodwin Procter, donated their time and expertise to Francisco’s cause. Their only regret, as Bennett said, is that there are many others still detained by ICE who also need assistance, but have not gained as much public awareness or support as Francisco. They should not be forgotten, a point that Francisco also made in his remarks.
And the fight for justice for Francisco must go on. His petition for asylum is still before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, so his coalition of supporters will need to keep working together as the case moves forward.
It is important not to declare victory yet, but to keep this case firmly in the public eye until justice is served and the family can be assured it can remain living together in this country.
Perhaps, as Francisco said, this was a Christmas miracle for him and his family. But there is a larger message here for all of us: If this diverse set of organizations and people can come together in solidarity to support each other in this family’s time of need, perhaps we can do so as well by standing up for what is right and fair on other divisive issues facing our country and our society. An old labor song calls for “Solidarity Forever.” I don’t know about forever, but now is as good a time as ever to build on this extraordinary example of solidarity at its best.