Pedro De Velasco Garza: NIEP community organizer highlight

Get to know one of the eight National Immigrant Empowerment Project, or NIEP, community organizers that are advocating alongside members of their community and empowering the immigrant community to take the lead in creating long-lasting, positive changes in their cities.

Pedro De Velasco Garza
Chicanos Por La Causa
Tucson, Arizona

Why do you enjoy working with the immigrant and refugee community?

Being an immigrant myself, I find it very rewarding to help other immigrants overcome difficulties and participate more actively in the discourse and activities surrounding our society. I believe in the fundamental right of every individual to live in freedom and to the pursuit happiness, wherever this may be. Human beings cannot ignore each other, but rather, they must look after one another with love, kindness and mercy.

What inspired you to enter this field of work?

When I decided to study law, I did it with the firm purpose of addressing injustices and disparity in our society and seeking to protect the most vulnerable. More than 10 years ago, I found my cause in migration, witnessing the vexations and abuses that several migrants suffer. Many cases face the near impossibility of defending their rights, whether it be due to a lack of knowledge or access to justice and representation. This is one of the main reasons I became an advocate for immigrant rights.

In your opinion, what benefits does integration offer your community? What strategies have you found most impactful when promoting integration? We all benefit from a plural and welcoming society, not only for the resulting cultural enrichment but also because of the strong ties created among their members, which helps build community resilience. Integration is beneficial for all community members, not only newcomers. I have found that explaining this and exemplifying it — in light of the current public health crisis — is an effective way of promoting integration. We cannot care only for ourselves. We all must support each other to overcome and prevail as a whole.

How have community organizing efforts impacted your community?

It is still a little early to measure the impact; however, within our integral community development efforts, we are now part of the Working Group to Reduce Poverty in Tucson, a multidisciplinary and multiagency assemblage, which wants to tackle poverty from its structural causes, to improve the life of Tucson residents. Moreover, as part of our immigrant integration efforts, we facilitated the creation of the Immigrant Empowerment Task Force, whose goal is to raise awareness on the importance of immigrants in our community, and to help them overcome the difficulties exacerbated by the COVID-19 health and economic crisis.

In what ways have immigrants and refugees been involved in grassroots organizing?

Our Immigrant Empowerment Task Force is an immigrant-led group, which include grassroots immigrants’ rights organizations, the city government and city council, county agencies, universities and community colleges, and health clinics. The group was set to define the most pressing issues by and for the immigrant community.

How has the immigrant community been empowered in your community? Why is it beneficial for them to feel empowered?

CPLC was born out of a grassroots social movement in 1969 by community members working to address the lack of resources and services available to low-income Latino communities in South-Central Phoenix and has been on the forefront in addressing social justice issues ever since.

The immigrant community in Tucson and Southern Arizona is now being acknowledged and their contributions recognized as essential for sustainable community development. Hispanic population accounts for 43 percent of the people in Tucson, and 34.5 percent in Pima (per U.S. Census.) However, this representation was not mirrored in public offices, boards of directors or college enrollment. This situation has recently seen a positive shift; nevertheless, this is an ongoing effort to which we cannot put our guards down.

Additionally, Pima County takes anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of all refugee arrivals to Arizona in a given year. These various ethnicities also need to be acknowledged and empowered. Fortunately, there are plenty of organizations that work along with refugees and have a hand-up and not handout approach, with whom we have partnered. Community empowerment allows every individual to access the resources and tools they need to improve their condition and that of those around them, which is beneficial not just for them but for the community as a whole. Empowerment gives a person the tools to overcome any obstacle they may face during their search for growth and development. ¡Sí se puede!

Can you briefly explain your project and what changes you are hoping to see over the next few years? What do you hope communities across the country will learn from the National Immigrant Empowerment Project (NIEP), your project specifically?

Due to the unanticipated public health crisis we are facing, we had to readapt and redirect our efforts, detaching ourselves a bit from our original project to provide much needed relief, to help immigrants overcome economic difficulties, exacerbated by COVID-19. From there, we will begin a rehabilitation process. We will seek to restore immigrants to the positive elements of their pre-crisis condition, moving away from doing things for them, and rather, working with them to take steps to improve their situation, our hand-up versus a hand-out model. Then, we can continue with integral development. A process of ongoing change that moves everyone involved closer to the right relationship with themselves, others, and their community. Like rehabilitation, development is not done to people or for people, but with them.

Arizona has a well-established history of hostile policies towards immigrant populations (e.g. SB1070), which leads these same populations to distrust institutions, authority and service providers. Fear of detainment and deportation keeps immigrants from reporting crimes to law enforcement, even if they themselves are the victims. Low levels of civic engagement resulting from a lack of faith in institutions, and their ability to influence them, which makes organizing these communities very difficult. Since connecting the immigrant community to services is a critical component of this project, helping them overcome these understandable fears is a critical component of our efforts.

Our vision for this project is an immigrant population confident in their knowledge of their rights and available services. Additionally, individuals will develop leadership skills, helping community members prioritize issues while developing a base of support. These leaders will influence public opinion and make substantive changes in local and regional policy. We also hope for these efforts to be replicated nationwide, for immigrant integration to be generalized in all communities, embracing its positive results.