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  • Writer's pictureColette Pichon Battle

Free the People, Free the Land

Over the last few weeks, the term “freedom” has been present in various conversations with allies, friends and family. Like most years, this past Fourth of July holiday was a reminder of the freedom associated with autonomy and independence. But my annual celebration of America is also a time when I reflect on the many challenges that real people face in coming to or while living in the USA.

As we put our fish on the grill, laid our crabs on the table and took our crawfish out the boil, I offered a note of thanks and prayed for the health of the many bayous, rivers and estuaries that provide bounty robust enough to anchor some of America’s most unique cultural traditions. Moments of pride in America’s wetlands, however, are connected to acknowledging the threats to this unique land that has sustained South Louisiana’s cultures for generations. In the weeks leading up to the recent holiday, members of my community formally engaged in the fight to keep the land, water and air in St. Tammany Parish free from the dangers of Hydraulic Fracturing (also called “Fracking”),

As we visited the public beaches on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, I offered a prayer of thanks for all of the local residents and activists whose struggle connected to and went far beyond Freedom Summer Louisiana and Freedom Summer Mississippi 50 years ago. One success in the struggle to be fully free resulted in the desegregation of the very Mississippi beaches that I took my nephews to enjoy this independence weekend. Wiggling my toes in the sand, I thought about what freedom meant to civil rights activists and to those who never knew Freedom as mentioned in the Frederick Douglass speech “What to the Slave is the 4th of July."

As our fireworks went up in the sky, I offered a prayer for the safe journey of the thousands of children fleeing violence and abuse in Central America and seeking refuge in the US. The Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy has seen an enormous increase in number of children seeking our legal services. The rising numbers of young children and mothers fleeing from violence in 3 Central American countries reminds us that what happens in one corner of the globe affects us all. The unchecked power of gang violence, smuggling, and human trafficking in three countries–Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador–has sent unprecedented numbers of refugees to neighboring Panama, Mexico, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Belize and the U.S.

Despite being a nation of immigrants, and despite national polling that shows bi-partisan support, our immigration system remains broken because of the inaction by the U.S. of House of Representatives on immigration reform. Immigration reform can be part of the solution. About one-third of the kids who make it to the U.S. have a parent living here. Often times the parents came to the U.S. to work and left their young child in the care of a family member, like a grandparent. If immigration reform was passed it would do two things. First, the long family waiting times for a visa would be eliminated so people could get legal status faster—that would help families where someone already has a green card but has been stuck in a backlog. Second, if the parents don’t have legal status but can show that they qualify to legalize because they meet the requirements, such as being in the U.S. for a long time, working and go through background checks, they and their kids could get legal status. We commend the Obama administration for establishing the JusticeCorps providing legal services for these children and we are hopeful for action from the Congress to offer them benefits as refugee in our great nation. Experts have interviewed hundreds of children and found that the majority describe the fear of being killed as giving them no option but to run. Put simply, the current situation is about what they are running from rather than where they are running to, clearly defining this as a refugee issue.

It is not lost on me that today’s biggest human and civil rights struggles occur in places where the environment is also under attack. As we remember freedom this summer and all those who have sacrificed to give us what we have, let’s take with us as our new mantra “To free the people is to free the land”.

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