BOSTON — It was clear Monday as hundreds of immigrants and supporters congregated at the State House to push for state laws they said would lead to more insured drivers, affordable education and better relations with police what — or rather who — the immigrant community views among its greatest threats.
While immigrants are encountering difficulties advancing their legislative agenda on Beacon Hill, some of the most pointed comments voiced on Monday were aimed elsewhere.
"When people like Donald Trump and other extremists — yes, extremists — want to close off America to immigrants and refugees, what does that say? When they threaten to deport people, to build walls, to stop travel, to literally break up and break apart families, what does that say?" Attorney General Maura Healey said to the crowd at the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition's annual advocacy day. "That's not my idea of America, that's not your idea of America and that certainly is not what America is about."
Keynote speaker Junot Diaz, a Dominican Republic-born author who won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for his book "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," said the anti-immigrant rhetoric that has surrounded Trump and his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination is the latest example of immigrants being misunderstood and maligned in the United States.
"We have folks who are organizing actively and creating a political party aimed at our destruction, aimed at the destruction and the debasement of immigrant communities," Diaz, who also teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said. "Folks are talking about building a wall in this country and that wall is the enemy of who we are as immigrants and in many ways stands in as a concrete symbol for the hate that we immigrants face."
Diaz urged those in attendance to become engaged in the political process, to talk to their neighbors, to become more visible members of the community in order to provide a counterweight to Trump and others who view immigrants as a source of their own troubles.
"We must understand that voting is fundamentally important but it will not be enough. When people who despise everything that we as immigrants stand for are organizing against us, we must organize in turn," he said. "We must do it actively, we must do it organizationally and we must do it in a way that doesn't disappear just if Trump doesn't get elected."
MIRA Coalition Executive Director Eva Millona told the crowd in Gardner Auditorium that Massachusetts would have missed out on $22 billion in economic activity had it not been for the contributions of immigrant workers in recent years, and Healey said that only by supporting the immigrant community will America "stay the strongest, the freest, the most vibrant community, the most diverse ... and the strongest economy."
Healey called on her fellow elected officials — less than a dozen of whom attended the event — to always do more to support the immigrant community in Massachusetts.
"Particularly in the midst of what we've seen over the last year in terms of the anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiment across this country, it is more important now that we double down on our commitment to you and our work together with you to get to the right place to be the state, the nation, the country that we should be," the attorney general said.
[Watch: Sen. Creem, AG Healey Remarks from Annual Immigrants' Day]
Sen. Cynthia Creem called for a rejection of Trump's views and suggested that only by re-connecting with and engaging the immigrant community will America be made great.
"Despite what you might hear — don't believe it — we are the greatest nation in the world and we will continue to be the greatest nation in the world," Creem said, referring to Trump's "Make America Great Again" slogan. "That will happen if we stand together and we hold hands and we work to continue to be inclusive, diverse, strong and the kind of community that we all want to live in."
Diaz cautioned the immigrants and supporters in attendance to not counter Trump and his supporters by attacking them, but instead by describing a vision for a country that welcomes and supports immigrants in order to become a more connected and integrated society.
"If folks want to organize politically around building a wall, we must organize politically to build a bridge. Let the agents of fear and hate talk endlessly about their walls and we who have given so much to this country, we who are the essence of this country, we who are this country, will talk about the bridge," Diaz said. "And we shall see whose vision will survive into the future. We shall see what the future really needs, wall or bridge."