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Abena Abraham stood before nearly 2,000 people in Minneapolis on Saturday, saying she wants citizenship in this country — the only home she's known since age 4, when civil war drove her family from Liberia.
The teenager spoke at an event that was among more than 100 nationwide, all calling on Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reforms they say will strengthen the economy, family unity and worker rights.
Elected officials and educators were at the Hennepin County Government Plaza, too, along with advocates from social justice agencies, faith organizations, labor and business.
Many had marched from the Basilica of St. Mary, after an interfaith prayer service, to the plaza, hoisting flags and placards and chanting empowerment cries, including "Si se puede!" which translates roughly to "Yes we can!"
Abraham, 17, told of being on legal, but temporary, status here. She fears that she and others might be sent back to Liberia, which would split up her family, as her sister is a U.S. citizen. Abraham is among Liberians who have remained for at least six years on "deferred enforced departure" status with no chance of becoming a permanent resident or U.S. citizen unless Congress changes the law, she said.
"We need immigration reform so people like me, who are Americans in everything but our papers, can achieve the American dream," she said.
Elias Garcia, 34, who listened in a light rain, said he and others want the right to work legally and a chance to build lives for their kids in America. Garcia, of Minneapolis, said he wants to live with respect and with citizen status so he can travel back to Guadalajara, Mexico, to see his grandmother and then get back into the United States.
Officials ranging from Mario Hernandez of the Latino Economic Development Center to Larry Pogemiller of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education urged Congress on Saturday to allow a vote on the reforms.
In June, the U.S. Senate passed a bipartisan immigration bill and now the House must act, Steve Hunter, secretary-treasurer of the Minnesota AFL-CIO, told the crowd.
Hunter and Bill Blazer of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce said reforms could ease worker shortages for many diverse Minnesota companies as baby boomers retire at a rising pace.
"We gathered here today," Hunter said, "because it is time for all workers to be treated equally under the law, to be able to work in safe workplaces free from intimidation, to have wage and hour protections, and the right to organize and collectively bargain over the terms and conditions of employment."