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Immigrant advocates tell stories behind their struggles

Immigration reform advocate Hendel Leiva speaks with guests

Immigration reform advocate Hendel Leiva speaks with guests and advocate speakers Dulce Rojas, left, Eliana Fernandez, middle, and Mise Pluviose, right, during an Immigrant Solidarity Day conference at St. Joseph's College in Patchogue, May 3, 2016. Credit: Johnny Milano

Young immigrant advocates shared stories of struggle amid clashing cultures at a Patchogue gathering, saying they hope to go beyond the policy debate that has stalled due to political wrangling.

Though they attracted a small audience of over a dozen people to their Immigrant Solidarity Day at St. Joseph’s College, organizer Hendel Leiva said this will be the start of an effort to share immigration stories directly with residents in an attempt to change the narrative.

Leiva offered his tale of taking sides on the issue before he had made any attempt to reflect on it. He told of being a teenager, going on a joy ride with other high school peers in Brentwood, and yelling “for a cheap thrill” at day laborers, telling them that they should go back home, despite being himself the child of Guatemalan and Ecuadorean immigrants.

“Immediately, I knew what I had done was wrong,” recalled Leiva, 27. “I had picked on some of the most vulnerable members of our community.”

That realization nagged Leiva until years later he decided to become an advocate. He’s since worked with various groups.

Dulce Rojas, 25, a St. Joseph’s graduate and advocate with immigrant women’s advocacy group SEPA Mujer, told her story of coming from Mexico as a 5-year-old and living in one room where she, her parents and a brother “slept on one mattress.”

She recalled a day, after her family had settled in a house in Selden, when a group that opposed immigrants protested outside their home, telling them to get out of the country.

“Nobody came out” to defend us, Rojas said. “We were basically alone.”

And Eliana Fernández, 28, of Patchogue, told of her struggles to fit in, learn the language and apply and pay for college as an immigrant here illegally.

“There were a lot of people who didn’t believe in us” as children with a future here, Fernández said.

She’s due to graduate soon with a sociology degree from St. Joseph’s and is an immigrants’ advocate with Make The Road New York.

Mise Pluviose, 21, an accounting student in her senior year at St. Joseph’s, said the presentations inspired her to share more of her story as a Haitian immigrant who’s worked to fit in.

“Unfortunately, a lot of people who are not in the immigrants’ position don’t think about why immigrants would come here, whether it would be legally or illegally,” Pluviose said. “When you are more aware . . . you have the power to make a conscious decision” at the ballot box.

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