24-year-old Florinda Bequiri of New Jersey is an outspoken advocate for immigration reform.Photo: AFSC / AFSC/Carl Roose
Immigration and Customs Enforcement raided Florinda Bequiri’s home in New Jersey on a cold, dark October morning just before the family rose for school. Florinda and her younger brother were sleeping in the basement of the house where they lived with their aunt, uncle, and cousins, when the stairway filled with police officers searching for her aunt and uncle.
This rude awakening was just the start of a much longer struggle that pulled apart the family for the better part of the year. They’re back together now—at least for the next 12 months—thanks to Florinda and her cousins’ willingness to confront lawmakers about the reality of living in the United States as the dependents of undocumented immigrants.
Not one to shy away from what she believes, Florinda says her motivation to be an outspoken advocate for immigration reform has deep roots—she loves her uncle. They share a special bond that goes back to the moment of her birth, and he raised Florinda and her brother for much of their lives.
"I'm going to keep going until he finds a way."
From left: Florinda with her uncle and aunt at a
recent family wedding.
Listen to ( or download ) Florinda speak about
( Right click download link and select 'Save As' )
After the raid, Florinda’s life changed. Her uncle was arrested. It was nearly 25 years since he arrived in the United States in search of a better life in the country he’d heard was “The Land of Opportunity.”
For two decades, it was. He went from being an ethnic Albanian leaving behind nationalism and conflict in Macedonia to a taxpaying New Jersey small-business owner who runs a corner butcher shop. On hot summer days, bus commuters waiting on that corner are invited inside to huddle under the air-conditioning unit in his shop. His five sons are on track to graduate from college, with dreams of working in business management and engineering. Still, he is unable to obtain legal status.
The morning the ICE officers showed up at the front door, they held photos of Florinda’s aunt and uncle from when they first came to America; the vulnerable 15-year-old and 20-something versions of the people she knew as guardians for much of her life.
"They were holding a picture of my aunt and uncle..."
Florinda at an AFSC-led lobby
trip to Washington, D.C. in June
Listen to ( or download ) Florinda
speak about the raid of her house.
( Right click download link and
select 'Save As' )
During the seven months her uncle was held in detention, her aunt was nursing a baby and had to wear an ICE ankle monitoring device. Florinda remembers sitting in the living room one night, feeling her uncle’s absence from the room as she looked through family pictures they’d taken shortly before the raid. “It felt like he just disappeared, like he fell off the face of the planet,” she says. “I don’t think anyone should go through that.”
Florinda accompanied her aunt to briefings with lawyers as they struggled to keep her uncle from being deported. It was on one of those visits that she met representatives of AFSC’s Immigrant Rights program. Soon, she was speaking about her family’s plight not just in private meetings, but also in press conferences and Congressional testimonies about families affected by deportation policies.
"Our dreams are now in the shadows"
Watch Florinda speak about the challenges of current immigration policies:
Shortly after Florinda and her cousins lobbied for change during a visit to Washington, D.C., in June 2012, her aunt and uncle were granted a one-year stay of removal, allowing the family to stay together for the immediate future.
But like thousands of people with this tenuous standing, they must re-apply yearly and wait each time to hear if the particular officer reviewing their case decides to let them stay another year. In the current system, there is no way for these families to secure permanent immigration status.
Chia-Chia Wang, who works for comprehensive and humane immigration reform as civic participation coordinator of AFSC’s Immigrant Rights Program in Newark, sees this stressful process firsthand as the office provides legal counsel to over 1,200 people a year.
For them and millions of immigrants, Chia-Chia calls for permanent relief—a formal program with standard processes rather than a haphazard handling of each individual case. “We need fairness, equity, and dignity in this process,” she says. “This is about the human right to stay together.”