A coalition of more than 100 immigrants, activists and former inmates marched through downtown Austin on Wednesday, urging lawmakers to give them a break as they consider legislation aimed at punishing so-called sanctuary cities and rolling back “fair chance” hiring policies.
The crowd marched from the federal courthouse on Fourth Street to the Texas Capitol shouting “no justice, no peace” and carrying colorful signs demanding an end to prison profiteering and deportations.
The group made a pit stop along the way at the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center, where many attendees had been incarcerated and others feared they could end up if the Texas Legislature forces local law enforcement agencies to report undocumented immigrants.
Insis Bernardez, who fled violence in Honduras and came to the United States in 2015, said the proposed legislation could be deadly to people like her.
After she arrived in the states, Bernardez spent 14 months in detention, where she said conditions were so difficult that she and others staged a hunger strike.
“We didn’t have good hygiene, we could take showers and clean ourselves once a week,” she said.
Bernardez, 33, said she still worries that she could be killed if she ever goes back to Honduras.
Vanessa Garcia, a transgender activist who came to the United States 15 years ago, also escaped potential violence. She said she entered the United States under a legal visa, but stayed in the country when her time ran out.
She said she has felt welcome before, but now she doesn’t feel comfortable with the policies of the Trump administration or those proposed by the state Legislature.
“In my country, the transgender community is very persecuted,” she said, adding that she hoped to give a voice to people like her who could be directly affected by the orders.
The experiences of former jail and prison inmates are not always the same as those of immigrants who entered the United States illegally, but Sofia Casini, immigration programs coordinator for Grassroots Leadership, said there are many parallels to the challenges they face.
“There is a (cross section) between the same communities who are being exploited and oppressed for profit and for gain from these private prison corporations, and from those who would wish to push us down through these bills in the legislature,” Casini said.
Lewis Conway Jr., a towering man who spent eight years in prison and another 12 on probation shouted into a megaphone as the crowd rumbled through downtown behind a booming drum line.
“Make Some noise for no more prisons, no more deportations, no more ICE, no more police brutality, no more drug wars in our community,” he said.
Conway now serves as a criminal justice program associate for Grassroots Leadership, a group that seeks an end to mass incarceration, deportation and privately run prisons. He called the prison system a social control mechanism.
“Many of the members of our community are locked in that jail, and they keep making excuses for keeping them locked up. But we’re not going to accept any more excuses,” Conway said. “The same excuses they made for those jails they made for slavery. The same excuses they made for why black lives don’t matter (are) why that jail exists.”
Melvin Halsey, a Navy veteran with the Texas Advocates for Justice said he wants to promote unity between the LBGT community, immigrants and the formerly incarcerated, and band together against the challenges the groups face.
Halsey, who said he suffers from mental health issues and has been incarcerated four times for offenses related to drugs and alcohol, said he is looking for a chance to be a good father and grandfather.
“There are so many of us who are formerly incarcerated who need a job, who need housing, who need to take care of our children and grandchildren,” Halsey said. “To kill that would just be devastating to a lot of us.”