Arkansans March for Pathway to Citizenship in D.C.

Advocates shared their stories to highlight the struggles of the nation’s immigrants.

Arkansas United advocates holding posters at a citizenship rally
Photo courtesy of Arkansas United.

José Palma Torres considers himself very patriotic. The Little Rock resident wanted to be in the military from a young age. 

“The whole reason that I wanted to get into the military was basically to fight for my country, to serve my country and to also help out in any way that I could,” Palma said.

When Palma wanted to enlist in 11th grade, he realized he couldn’t because of his immigration status. The Shorter College graduate is now 21-years-old and a DACA recipient. Through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, immigrants who were brought to the United States as children and meet certain criteria are given temporary legal status and the right to work.

On Tuesday, Palma joined thousands of protestors in Washington D.C. who called on lawmakers to create a pathway to citizenship for immigrants like himself. This was the first time Palma had participated in a rally of this size and he said it was a surreal experience. 

“Once that rally actually started and you were in the crowd, you could just feel the emotions of everybody, of how powerful the crowd was,” he said.  

The Welcome Back Congress – March for Citizenship, Care, and Climate was organized by CASA, a grassroots immigrant advocacy organization based in the Mid-Atlantic. The march was part of a nationwide effort to demand that Congress ensures a pathway to citizenship stays in the budget reconciliation package. Additionally, event organizers called for investments in the care economy and green infrastructure that will help fight climate change.

Immigrant advocacy group Arkansas United helped organize the three-day trip to D.C. for 11 people including Palma and 15-year-old Yxallana Chavez. Like Palma, this was her first time on an airplane and the first time she’s participated in an event of this magnitude.

“I was proud of myself how it got to that point to be in a big march like that,” Chavez said.

The Dumas resident was born in the U.S. and her family is originally from Mexico. She participated in the rally on behalf of her parents who are farmers with worker visas. If they were citizens, Chavez said they would have access to better paying jobs, work fewer hours and have more flexibility to visit family in Mexico.

“They work every day. They work hard for me and my siblings to get a great education and give us everything we want,” Chavez said.

In addition to participating in the march, the group did some sightseeing and shared their stories with the staff of U.S. Senators. Palma’s story in the U.S. began at the age of three when his mother brought him to the country from Honduras. It wasn’t until five years later that he learned he was not a U.S. citizen. 

“I didn’t know that I wasn’t an American until I was 8 years old when my dad was deported,” Palma said. “That actually hit me pretty hard because when I was younger, I thought that I was an American citizen. I never knew that I wasn’t even from here.”

While Latinos are often the face of immigration rights in the country, the issue impacts people from several countries. It was surprising to Palma to see more than just Hispanics at the rally — there were Africans, Indians and Koreans, among others — and seeing so many people from different backgrounds left an impression on him.

“I know that my family has suffered a lot, I can’t even begin to imagine how their families [feel] because they come from even further, further places than my family,” Palma said. “So I can’t even imagine what they’ve been through.”

The importance of sharing the story of immigrants, Palma said, is to help lawmakers understand why taking action on the issue of immigration should be a priority.

“They need to know the stories of immigrants. They need to actually put themselves in our positions because this has been an ongoing fight for over three decades now,” Palma said. “We need to have something, that’s what we’re demanding. At least give us something. We can’t go home empty handed.”

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.