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Immigration advocates shave heads to protest failure to pass citizenship for dreamers

As plans to pass a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants drag on in the U.S. Senate, people who could benefit from immigration reform and advocates shaved their heads to honor a historical tradition of Korean people that symbolizes commitment and protest. 

On Tuesday afternoon in Washington, D.C., Karina Ruiz, executive director of the Arizona Dream Act Coalition, sat with her eyes closed as a hair clipper buzzed above her head cutting chunks off of her black hair. 

She smiled, and sang. 

“What side are you on my people, what side are you on? We’re on the freedom side!” Ruiz chanted, while others watched and cheered. 

In total, more than 60 people shaved their heads, said Rachel Koelzer, communications manager for the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium (NAKASEC), an organization that advocates for Korean, Asian and immigrant communities. NAKASEC Action Fund organized the event. 

“Historically, South Korea has had a long tradition of shaving (the) head as a form of protest, rooted in Confiucian teachings, that all parts of the body are sacred and from your ancestors, so to voluntarily rid yourself (of hair) is a really strong statement,” Koelzer said. “Shaving our head has a long history, a lot of symbolism. It’s an action that folks can take to express commitment to a cause, in religious context is a symbol of devotion.”

Koelzer said the goal was for immigrant leaders of Asian communities to take part in this historical tradition to put pressure on Vice President Kamala Harris. Immigrant leaders from other cultural backgrounds, like Arizona’s Ruiz, joined in solidarity, Koelzer said.

Harris, who as vice president serves as president of the Senate, promised in July to provide young immigrants brought to the country as children, also known as dreamers, a pathway to citizenship “through reconciliation or other means.”

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Last week, for the second time in a month, the Senate staffer who oversees how the chamber applies its rules on legislation rejected a plan from Democrats to attempt to provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants through budget legislation. As they did with the first rejection from the Senate parliamentarian, immigrant advocates are asking Harris and Senate Democrats to ignore the recommendation from the staffer.

In an emailed statement, Jungwoo Kim, organizing director for NAKASEC Action Fund, shared the message behind organizing the shaved heads event.

“To shave one’s head is to say, clearly: ‘We reject the parliamentarian’s arbitrary recommendation. We refuse to be ignored or delayed again. Our communities need citizenship NOW. We are committed to this fight, we are committed to fulfillment THIS YEAR, and we will not be swayed by fear or political in-fighting,’” Kim said. 

Once Ruiz donned a buzz cut, she wore a headband with “Citizenship 4 All” written in back letters tied around her forehead. 

Ruiz is in D.C., she said, to make sure Democrats in Congress know that it is not acceptable for undocumented immigrants to be left out of legislative measures that can give them a pathway to citizenship. 

For months, local community groups and national organizations have through protests, letters, online ads advocated to get Sinema to take meaningful steps to get legislation strengthening voting rights and provide a path to citizenship for immigrants through Congress. Sinema has said she supports a pathway to citizenship for young immigrants like Ruiz, but is opposed to the initial plans Senate Democrats presented to get that done through a budget reconciliation proposal.

On Sunday, a group of activists with Living United for Change Arizona disrupted Sinema’s fundraising event and showed up outside her classroom at Arizona State University. Sinema called the ASU action inappropriate and illegal. ASU Police spokesman Adam Wolfe said university police are working with Sinema and “conducting a full investigation of the incident.” 

Ruiz disagrees.

“Us talking to our representatives is not inappropriate,” she said. “What is inappropriate is for us to be left out (of legislation) after decades of fighting. We just want to be heard. We are the ones who haven’t been able to cry in front of the graveyards of our loved ones. There is no comparison. She should hold town halls, answer our calls, and not send staffers that don’t give us definite answers.”

“We don’t need her resentment. We don’t need her to be upset at us,” Ruiz said. “We need her to hear our pain and do something about it.”

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Ruiz, who has temporary protections from deportation and a 2-year work permit through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, her father, Mauro, died last year due to complications from COVID-19. She was able to travel to Mexico, but her mother wasn’t. 

Every day, Ruiz’s sister and mother Facetime because they worry the mother could be deported any day and they won’t see each other again.

“I’m fearful for my mother,” Ruiz said. “Time is running out (for solutions to be implemented).”

While a House version of the reconciliation bill includes a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, farmworkers, essential workers and those with Temporary Protected Status, it’s unclear who the Senate plan would cover. 

Sen. Mark Kelly has said he supports a pathway to citizenship for dreamers through the budget reconciliation process. For other undocumented immigrants, Kelly backs a pathway to citizenship with specific requirements. 

“For members of our community who have lived and worked here for years, Senator Kelly supports an earned pathway to citizenship that requires individuals to pay a fee, pass a background check, and eventually gain status to live here and become citizens,” his office said in an email to Arizona Mirror.

Ruiz was on the same flight to D.C. this week as Sinema, who ignored her when she tried to speak with the senator. But she said she’ll continue to try to find ways to get to Sinema. With her new haircut, she wants to demonstrate her commitment. 

“I’d ask Sinema, ‘I have commitment, why can’t you?’ She has the opportunity right now to do it,” Ruiz said. “She can continue to victimize herself, she can continue to be upset at us because we are finding whatever means to get her to reflect on our pain, or she can turn around and tell the Biden administration to get this done.”

This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.


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Karina Ruiz, a leader of the Arizona Dream Act Coalition, took part in an action in Washington, D.C., where over 60 immigrant leaders and advocates shaved their heads in line with a historical tradition of Korean people to show their commitment to pushing for a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants, as plans that would do that stall in the Democrat-led Senate.

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