Miami immigrant rights group to host annual awards dinner with hopes for immigration reform

Every year for the last 15, the Miami immigrant rights organization Americans for Immigrant Justice, formerly Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, has held an annual awards dinner to celebrate accomplishments helping immigrants and honoring those who help its cause.

This year’s event starting at 6 p.m. March 6 at the Hotel Intercontinental in downtown Miami will follow the same format, but amid a mood of uncertainty about a key goal of the group: comprehensive immigration reform.

Efforts to legalize the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States have stalled in Congress.

Optimism reigned at last year’s awards dinner, which showcased Democrat-Republican bipartisanship in efforts to push immigration reform in order to legalize undocumented immigrants.

The keynote speaker in 2013 was San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, a Democrat, and the group -- known as AI Justice -- honored Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Miami Republican Cuban-American who has backed immigration reform for years.

Last year’s optimism has morphed into pessimism after House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ill., refused to go forward with his initial offer to legalize the undocumented – albeit without a path to citizenship.

“It’s been such an emotional roller coaster for our clients, and for immigrants in this country, who were so hopeful last year at this time,” said AI Justice executive director Cheryl Little. “Last year there was a real sense that Congress was finally going to get its act together and do the right thing on immigration.”

Despite current pessimism, Little said she’s still hopeful immigration reform will eventually go forward.

“I’m keeping hope alive,” she said. “There’s such a broad diverse coalition of folks coming to the table saying it’s time for Congress to fix our broken immigration system.”

Little’s hopes are embodied in the title of this year’s dinner: Upholding the American Dream.

At the dinner, AI Justice will honor Hollywood film director Jonathan Demme and prominent Miami entrepreneur Manny Medina.

Medina will receive America’s Immigrant Spirit Award and Demme the Holly Skolnick Human Rights Award.

“These are two people who deserve a lot of credit,” said Little. “Jonathan has stepped up to the plate time and again to help call attention to human rights abuses. He has even visited with immigrants in local jails to learn first-hand of their plight. He’s always been there for us.”

Little said that Demme’s friend, Hollywood actress Anne Hathaway, is expected to attend and address the AI Justice event.

As for Medina, Little said: “Manny came to the U.S. as a child when his parents fled Cuba. He is deeply appreciative of the opportunities he’s had since arriving on our shores and throughout his career has created opportunity not just for him and his family, but for the community at large. Manny exemplifies the significant contributions that immigrants make to our country every day.”

AI Justice’s immigrant clients also will take part in the program but details of their participation are not yet available.

Over the years, the organization has helped immigrants from all over the world and pioneered efforts to pre-empt the deportation of young immigrants whose parents brought them to the United States as children.

The group has also represented four young immigrant students – Gaby Pacheco, Felipe Matos, Juan Rodriguez and Carlos Roa – who walked from Miami to Washington D.C. in 2010 to push for immigration reform. On the day they arrived in the U.S. capital, AI Justice held a new conference and released its report, Unleash the DREAM: End the Colossal Waste of Young Immigrant Talent.

In 2012, AI Justice helped more than 4,000 immigrants including 622 who were survivors of violence and human trafficking, as well as 511 unaccompanied children who were in detention, according to Little.

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