Dr. Kris Zentgraf leans comfortably back in a highback chair at Portfolio Coffeehouse. She is wearing a "Legalize L.A." immigration reform tee and her hands are folded in front of her. Her demeanor is undeniably calm and one can easily gauge that she is indeed a scholar.
Her partner in activism, Dr. Norma Chinchilla, is the perfect complement: warm, genuinely happy with her work, and determined—Chinchilla is the exuberant one of the pair; one can even venture to call her motherly.
These two Cal State Long Beach professors help head the Long Beach Immigrants Rights Coalition (LBIRC), a group dedicated to helping and empowering undocumented persons who've otherwise had little choice in the matter of their liminal existence.
"For people who may not be really aware, there is a face to the immigrants of Long Beach," Zentgraf said. "I mean, 27% of Long Beach['s populace] are foreign-born and I simply just don't think that people realize that. We need to engage in the ways we can make help to make these individuals visible."
Following the immigrant uprising in spring of 2006—where for three months, five million immigrants, mostly Latino, and their supporters demonstrated in over 100 cities throughout the country—Chinchilla encountered a group of people who held the same views she did with regards to immigration reform and rights.
"'You live in Long Beach, too?' we would ask each other," Chinchilla explained. "Maybe we can start something in Long Beach instead of always heading to L.A."
And with that, a small group of people started a coalition which offered services—ranging from legal assistance to accessing simple information—after discovering that such services didn't particularly exist in the area. Given the lack, the group approached various churches to act as havens and refuges for undocumented persons.
"We actually had a person in what we called 'sanctuary' at St. Luke's Church where we were protecting her from deportation," Chinchilla said. "She was a woman with a young citizen baby, a citizen husband—and because of our laws and because of simply bad legal advice, she was under deportation orders."
When immigration reform at the national level stalled—with President Obama was recently criticized on Univision by host Jorge Ramos who bluntly stated, "I want you to acknowledge that you did not keep your promise [on immigration reform"—the coalition decided that the focus needed to be honed in on the Long Beach community. In the words of Chinchilla, they aimed to simply create a space where "people can live without fear."
That "living without fear" does not come lightly. The coalition's focus on such an endeavor includes connecting with those in power—politicians and law enforcers mainly—in order to further realize their philosophy that, if undocumented persons weren't so fearful of the authorities, perhaps Long Beach could have safer, more efficient communities since the gap between the fear of deportation and the lack of communication with the police regarding crimes and danger would be bridged.
Rapidly, the group has gained notoriety as not only a trusted group, but one which is altering the way in which cities approach the perception of undocumented persons—and people are noticing.
Nancy Valencia, executive director of the popular Downtown Associated Youth Services (D.A.Y.S.) program in here in Long Beach, has opened up her home on the Eastside for the coalition's first major fundraising event, Medolia de la Noche, with their keynote speaker being none other than O.C. Weekly editor and immigrantsrights supporter Gustavo Arellano.
"Gustavo has been a really strong support of Dream Act students," said Chinchilla. "And he's always been actively involved in similar events so we're both thankful and blessed to have him appearing to discuss Long Beach's role within immigration reform."
The driving point of the event—to bring more knowledge about immigrants, their situations, and their rights in order to build a more stable community—will be accompanied by live music, Spanish-French cuisine, and array of individuals that span the socio-economic spectrum within Long Beach.
To register and purchase tickets, visit lbirc.eventbrite.com. You may choose to pay via credit card or Paypal, mail a check, or pay at the door, with additional instructions provided following registration.