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SALT LAKE CITY — Because Liliana Bolanos’ parents brought her from Mexico to America at age 2, people often tell her that her parents are criminals. But she sees it differently.
“My parents are not the villains of my story — they are the heroes of my story,” Bolanos, of Salt Lake City, said Saturday during a rally promoting immigration reform at the Utah Capitol.
Now an immigration paralegal, and one of the organizers of local group Utah With All Immigrants, Bolanos said the Beehive State is only receptive to some kinds of immigrants. As a DACA recipient, Bolanos has a work permit and protection from deportation — rights that are not afforded to her parents, who live in Utah County.
“It’s very divisive, and it separates families to say that this member of your family deserves citizenship, and you do not,” Bolanos said. “Our group emphasizes the importance that all immigrants are deserving of being advocated for, and respect, because at the end of the day, we are all impacted if one of us doesn’t have the rights that the others have.”
Bolanos joined other Utahns Saturday in celebrating National Stand With Immigrants Day through their second annual rally calling for immigration reform, along with better education and community awareness of issues faced by immigrants.
The group’s mission, according to Bolanos, is “to empower all immigrants in Utah by fostering community, providing representation, promoting awareness, connecting with resources and sharing untold stories.”
She said after 22 years, she and her mother were finally given the chance to apply for U.S. citizenship — the same year her mother was diagnosed with stage three cancer.
“There are days where I wonder if she will live to see the day she gets a green card,” Bolanos said through tears. “So we have to raise our voice for those who can’t.”
Another local family affected by immigration policies is that of Taylor Heiner, who also participated in the rally. He and his wife, Maleny, went to Mexico in August to apply for her green card. But the immigration officer denied her access, meaning she is stuck indefinitely in Mexico.
“She grew up in the United States — this is her home. We’ve filed multiple expedites, and the only thing we can do is wait,” Heiner said.
During the rally, Heiner called for policy reform, and encouraged locals to vote for politicians actively working to improve immigration.
He said, “We need to humanize these laws and policies. We need to understand that this impacts individuals and families. Because my wife was impacted by this, my family is separated, and I’m working every day to get her back home.”
Saane Siale, another organizer of Utah for All Immigrants, also called for humanizing immigration laws, and pointed out that Maleny is just one of many impacted by U.S. policies.
“There are real families behind these laws and policies, and people forget that. We have to humanize it,” Siale said. “I want to challenge people’s perception of the immigration system, and to think about what can work better.”
She said she wishes more people would put in the work to become educated and aware of the immigration system, which she called “outdated, convoluted and confusing.”
“How are they supposed to navigate a system that’s not actually meant to help them come here legally?” Siale asked.
“I will fight every day until Melany is home, and every other immigrant who deserves to call this place home,” she added. “They did not choose the reality that they have to face.”
Alexander Bybee, who works in Utah immigration services, also encouraged listeners to become more educated.
“We all need to be radically curious about other people, we need to analyze our assumptions about groups of people,” he said.
He said even implicit acts of racism, such as promoting American exceptionalism, can harm people and contribute to a culture of anti-immigration sentiment.
“Let’s recognize that all immigrants are people, that they are more than their status. Let’s recognize that the immigration system often creates hardship for these immigrants, and excludes them from the resources they need,” Bybee said. “Immigration is a complex system…but there is a simple and clear goal: all immigrants are welcome to the U.S., no matter what country they come from.”