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11 Million Waiting for Social Change

By Martha Citlaly Mora Hernandez, Elon University (2016)

This summer I interned in American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in Greensboro, North Carolina. I went into this internship not knowing what to expect and whether I would truly be an asset to the organization during the short eight weeks that I would be there. I knew only that I would be working towards promoting social justice as an Immigrant Rights intern: an aspect of poverty so complex that it was hard to imagine what tangible change I could help effect during my time. At Elon, poverty and social justice are effectively incorporated into one single minor, my internship dealt with the social justice for immigrants in the community. My internship unlike any other that I have had because I consistently observed connections between effects of public policy and social justice and poverty. Although a non-profit, the AFSC made strenuous efforts to effect political change to correct unjust practices and laws in Greensboro and the United States that worsen poverty for the immigrant population.

Citlaly worked as an immigrants rights intern in Greensboro in 2015.

Citlaly, (Elon 2016) worked as an immigrants rights intern in Greensboro in 2015.

At AFSC, I saw work to change policy in order to reduce poverty. While direct service is effective in working with affected populations, AFSC focuses on community education and empowerment. I learned about the frustrating struggle to advocate for beneficial policies and combat policies detrimental to the lives of millions. Although not all immigrants are impoverished, a significant proportion of undocumented immigrants live in poverty. Restrictive and inhumane policies often keep them in poverty and deny them opportunities to advance economically and socially. By contacting legislators and doing research, I experienced this struggle on a daily basis, but there are also rewards in working for policy change rather stopping with direct service. As my supervisor emphasized, seek long-term resolutions for injustice and poverty. Change does not occur instantly; it might take months or years to advance social justice, but by speaking to legislators and demonstrating that we cared about improving lives, we made a difference. There are many issues we want legislators to address, but by pushing forward our goals relentlessly, we gain the attention of those who construct the laws that profoundly effect how immigrants live.

There are pros cons in efforts to diminish poverty by policy advocacy separate from direct service. On the positive side, I gained knowledge from research on legislative mandates that restrict opportunities for the immigrant community. What I had learned from courses policy and poverty was useful background knowledge, but I needed to understand fully the implications of such measures. My summer research sharpened my thinking on topics pertinent to immigration and state actions. Witnessing the perseverance and enthusiasm of program directors working for equality also inspired me and constantly reminded me that bringing about change requires a strong work ethic and persistence.

Working on different related programs focused racial justice, economic justice, and de-militarizing law enforcement enabled me to learn more about the interconnection of methods to accomplish change. Injustice is not about one single oppressive institution but about understanding inter-related factors that cause poverty: racism, classism, gender discrimination, and more. Policy change also entails tactics that provide space for victims to speak about unjust policies that affect them. We need to open ourselves up to the movements and those who need to be heard by becoming their true allies in combatting the myriad factors that they believe stand in the way of their advancement. While conducting research into ways to gain support for policies to end detention bed quotas–a clause in government contract with private prison companies that guarantees 34,000 beds will be filled and maintained with detainees awaiting an immigration trial hearing–I was encouraged to support the Black Lives Matter movement. In order to advocate for social change to diminish poverty and inequality, we need to listen to the words and sentiments of the victims of injustice.

Citlaly conducted surveys among local businesses about detention process.

Citlaly and other interns conducted surveys among local businesses about immigrant detention process.

Despite these advantages to focusing on policy advocacy at the opportunity costs of direct service, advocacy requires frustrating delays in alleviating the consequences of injustice. Focusing on policy change does not produce immediate results like direct service. We have to wait for both federal and state government to change laws and edicts. Even gaining the attention of laws makers and bureaucrats can be challenging. Appealing to the electorate takes time and patience. Many bills that were introduced preceded my internship will be debated long after my departure. Immigration reform is currently on the back burner, and we must still deal with the repercussions of that injustice while continuing to struggle to change policy.

To conclude, I learned not solely academic but real world experience and glimpsed into the effort put into advocacy work done to eradicate an aspect of poverty and promote social justice for immigrants. I learned from the work of indirect service through advocacy and experienced its positive results and shortcomings for achieving equitable treatment for eleven million undocumented immigrants, most of whom live below the poverty line. Dealing with time restraints, politicians, regulations, and a governmental hierarchy does not produce instant results or gratification. Yet, this work is necessary to get beyond band aids for poverty and to forge opportunities for immigrants to have a better life. It is necessary for reducing poverty and social justice. The mission of AFSC to promote global peace and equal justice through nonviolent means aligns with my beliefs and values and my aspirations for a career path. As a member of an immigrant family, I am acutely aware of the need for this steadfast commitment. I learned more about what it will take to achieve the long-term goals to which I am committed: social change that truly helps disadvantaged populations.


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