Why I Decide to Say “I Welcome” to RefugeesNovember 22, 2016
By Kit O’Connor, AIUSA Legislative Coordinator for Vermont
“I Welcome.” Think about that phrase for a second. It’s really the perfect thing to ponder this holiday season. How do we welcome? Who? Why? And who isn’t welcomed? Why? “I Welcome” refers to the global campaign from Amnesty International that focuses on the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. Now, more than ever, this campaign is crucial in the United States.
Stories about an increase in hate crime, the possible reintroduction of torture or the creation of a Muslim registry have my head spinning. One solution? Well-conceived, intentional action. Right now, while there are many people and organizations motivating and calling people to action, there are many Amnesty International USA (AIUSA) members taking action with our Legislative Coordinators (LCs) in individual states. I’m an LC in Vermont and, like my colleagues, I’m busy saying “I Welcome.”
I’m incredibly fortunate. The Legislative Coordinators with whom I work are an amazing group of people who work to connect AIUSA’s grassroots membership with state and federal policymakers to advance policy protecting human rights. We essentially train people interested in “lobbying” for human rights. We then connect them to issues from AIUSA. They then meet with their Members of Congress to, in turn, connect them to these AIUSA vetted issues.
We are currently lobbying our Members of Congress (MOCs) about the Refugee Protection Act of 2016- crucial and incredibly timely legislation by Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy (S. 3241) and California Representative Zoe Lofgren (H.R. 5851). As incoming US leaders give voice to sending some refugees and asylum seekers out of the country while also threatening to prevent others from even coming in, the Refugee Protection Act of 2016 enhances protections for these vulnerable populations.
Amnesty International USA members are active in working toward legislative change. Over 200 groups and member leaders from 27 states have signed up to lobby their Members of Congress in their home districts/states to urge them to co-sponsor the Refugee Protection Act of 2016. Sam Steed, a tireless LC from Virginia, in a National Day of Legislative Action (his creation) recently got 82 activists – a combination of high school and college students from Virginia, Maryland and Massachusetts – to go to 50 meetings on Capitol Hill advocating for the act. What’s more, Sam spearheaded that effort alone.
But not only student activists participate. From my colleague in Ohio, another superstar, Rachel Motley:
“I lobbied with Senator Sherrod Brown’s Office. I took a veteran Amnesty Member (over 30 years of involvement!) and co-chair of the Cincinnati Amnesty Group. She was able to speak to the staff member candidly about Amnesty’s dedication to human rights. It was so inspiring to see the staff member listen to her perspective on human rights, and really weigh her words heavily. The context she was able to provide about Amnesty’s work in support of refugees added weight to the Refugee Protection Act of 2016. By expanding on refugee rights to encompass more than what the legislation included, we were able to construct dialogue that shaped a narrative of refugee rights. I am continually inspired by the impact of speaking truth to power, both in making legislative change and empowering our members.”
In person lobbying isn’t the only means of creating change. A great example of a different action is happening right now in Burlington, Vermont. Our AIUSA membership has been working to pass a “Syrian Refugees Welcome” resolution (found in the “I Welcome” toolkit at AmnestyUSA.org) in the city council. This is local legislation that will proudly declare that Burlington, Vermont’s largest city, will not participate in hate or fear and will welcome Syrian refugees into our community-openly and compassionately. The Area Coordinator for Vermont, Carolyn Smiles, and I started this process last February. We held a public Q & A/Forum led by a professional facilitator in preparation for the introduction of the resolution. Finally, on Monday, 11/28/2016, we will hold a vigil and then go to the town council to bear witness to the resolution passing. Over 200 people are committed to attending.
There is more to do and multiple ways of taking action. Whether it is in-person lobbying, proposing a resolution, letter writing or making phone calls, Amnesty International USA members, in concert with Legislative Coordinators, are taking initiative in many ways every day. Contact an LC at [email protected] and join us in saying “I Welcome.” Help us turn it into “We Welcome.”