By Hannah Esqueda
Image by Hannah Esqueda
MERCED, Calif. — Dozens of local community activists and faith leaders gathered in Merced recently to request President Barack Obama grant clemency to federal, low-level drug offenders this holiday season.
“We’re here as part of a national effort to urge President Obama to show compassion and pardon our loved ones that have been incarcerated as a result of the war on drugs,” said Crisantema Gallardo, community organizer with the Merced Organizing Project (MOP).
“These are people who are nonviolent and low-level offenders and we want to reunite them with their families,” she continued.
On Monday it was reported that Obama granted pardons to 231 individuals, the most ever in a single day for a president. Most of those pardoned were imprisoned on low-level drug offenses. Over the course of his presidency Obama has pardoned 1,176 people, the most of any president.
MOP and regional group Faith in the Valley helped organize the press conference in part to help bring attention to a petition from the advocacy group PICO (People Improving Communities Through Organizing) National Network urging Obama to grant clemency and do more to protect minority communities that are fearful of the repercussions of a Donald Trump presidency. All three organizations are dedicated to grassroots-level community change and supporting families.
Event organizers and demonstrators braved the cold and rain last Thursday to stand outside the Merced County Administration Building, where they shared powerful testimony regarding the impact current sentencing laws have on local communities and families.
“Today, we as the faith community are doing what Congress has so far failed to do — protect our families,” said Irene Armendariz, chair with Faith in the Valley. “As the holidays draw near, our hearts are drawn to those who are kept apart and live in fear.”
Formerly incarcerated herself, Armendariz said she sees a strong need for healing within the community for families impacted by the criminal justice system. She also called attention to efforts by the PICO National Network to spark change and said the group has already gathered more than 30,000 signatures for its presidential petition.
The document was delivered by PICO leaders to Obama on Dec. 16, and local members hope the letter will also do more to help families threatened by the incoming Trump administration.
Faith leaders at the event cited Trump’s repeated threats of mass deportations and negative rhetoric towards the undocumented, LGBT and Muslim communities as cause for particular concern, saying they hoped to urge local, state and federal leaders to provide sanctuary for those in need.
“PICO is asking for immediate action on this,” said Curtis Smith, pastor at Destiny Christian Center in Stockton and member of Faith in the Valley. “We’re calling on our political leaders to resist the normalcy of hate and do more to protect our neighbors.”
“The sacred texts call for a resistance to a false hierarchy and reminds us of our particularly sacred obligation to protect all people,” he continued.
While the national petition is a good start, MOP organizers said they also hope to inspire change at the local level by having Merced County and it’s cities officially declared as places of sanctuary.
If adopted by the county and local city leaders, this designation would protect undocumented residents from being prosecuted locally solely for violating federal immigration laws. Other minority groups targeted by Trump would also be welcome and reassured of their value within local communities, said Armendariz.
The creation of such safe spaces in the community is essential given the growing fear among many minority groups, said Arlette Flores, a community activist and member of Faith in the Valley.
“I am one of the millions of people undocumented in this country,” she said. “Some of my experiences here have been horrible and I have been treated [without] dignity. But I want to say, I shouldn’t have to beg for dignity. Everyone was born with the same right to dignity and respect no matter where they come from.”
Through tears, Flores also shared the story of her 11-year-old son’s reaction to Trump’s election-night win, saying the boy couldn’t sleep due to fear of what may happen to him and his family.
“I thought he wouldn’t understand what was going on but he did and he was afraid,” Flores said. “I stand here today because I am afraid too, but I don’t want to let my fear be bigger than me.”
Along with the local sanctuary ordinances, MOP and Faith in the Valley are working to create a regional network of sanctuary congregations, 40 of which are in the Merced-area, said Trena Turner, a local pastor and leader with Faith in the Valley.
“Faith in the Valley will stand firm and we will not let our people be targeted. Not on our watch,” she said.
Her words were echoed throughout the event, with various speakers and supporters repeating the pledge not to stand by when words of hate turn into action.
“Not on my watch and not on our watch,” Turner said.