AMHERST — Eduardo Samaniego was student body president of his high school in Georgia and graduated with honors. His next step was college.
But his visa was expired and as an undocumented immigrant, Samaniego said, he could not gain admission into any college in Georgia.
A scholarship at Hampshire College for undocumented students accepted into the school brought Samaniego to Massachusetts.
On Saturday, Samaniego told his story to a crowd of nearly 300 people, filling the Grace Episcopal Church in Amherst, where the Amherst Sanctuary Committee held a community-wide meeting.
While Samaniego could not get into his “dream” school, he said is mind is focused on other undocumented immigrants — those who have lived in America for decades, paying taxes, and the children who pledge allegiance to the United States flag every morning, but cannot call the country home due to fear of abrupt deportation.
“We need to organize and take action,” he said, referring to the series of executive actions on immigration enforcement issued recently by President Donald Trump.
Among those actions, the Department of Homeland Security will hire 10,000 Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers and agents as well as 5,000 border patrol agents.
At Saturday’s meeting, plans were developed for a safe harbor network to protect residents from possible ICE raids.
At the end of the meeting, the people gathered into groups to focus on three tactics:
Defend: Establish a warning system if there is an incursion by federal immigration enforcement officers aimed at vulnerable communities and create a safe harbor network for people needing sanctuary.
Resist: Mobilize the community to oppose incursions, pledge to resist a Muslim registry, and serve as a witness at detention centers if neighbors are taken.
Build: Advocate for passage of binding laws at local and state levels.
State Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Marlborough, has been working to pass a Safe Community Act which would make Massachusetts a “sanctuary state.”
“We don’t want our local or state police enforcing federal immigration law,” Eldridge said.
On a local level, about 1,000 signatures have been collected asking Town Meeting to adopt a bylaw that would make Amherst a sanctuary community.
“We are a nation of immigrants ...We need to reclaim our country,” U.S. Rep. James McGovern said. “And let’s be honest, we need to stand up to a dangerous bully.”
And the only way to fight bullies, the Worcester Democrat said, is to stand up and push back.
And by telling stories like Samaniego’s, McGovern said it can make an impact.
Marco Correia grew up in Amherst and is now a student at Massachusetts College of Art and Design.
Although his father started out flipping burgers at a Burger King, Correia said, the potential opportunities and what he could provide for his family were better in America than in Cape Verde.
Farah Ameen spoke of her perspective as a Bangladeshi-American in Amherst.
“Though I’ve been in the U.S. for 25 years, I don’t feel American,” Ameen said. “Even here I feel like an outcast.”
But in the current political climate, Ameen said she is more afraid than she has ever been.
Her daughter, she said, is a beautiful shade of cocoa brown. Ameen said she worries about her child’s future in “Trump’s America.”
“She wishes she had lighter skin no matter how often we tell her she is beautiful.”
Ameen has seen discrimination at the playground, saying she has seen little light-skinned girls turn their backs to her dark-skinned daughter in the sandbox.
“Children are sponges,” she said. “Behaviors are learned.”
Caitlin Ashworth can be reached at email@example.com.