“How can anyone take the Democrats or the Republicans seriously if they continue to break apart our families?” asked Jose Vera, an organizer with Southwest Suburban Immigration Project in Illinois. As immigration reform legislation begins to take shape, immigrant rights activists continue to insist that any legislation that divides their communities will not work.
If Washington wants to address the very real challenges of immigration in the United States, people like Vera believe that it needs to start listening to undocumented people themselves. To him, for instance, a good place to start for fair and just reform would be to stop all deportations and create a single pathway to citizenship for all 11 million undocumented people living in the country.
Missing from Washington’s proposed plans is serious consideration of the root causes of modern migration, including free trade agreements such as NAFTA that have crippled local economies and fueled the demand for cheap immigrant labor. Further complicating reform efforts, too, is the rise of an immigration-industrial complex — led by the for-profit prison industry — that has reaped tremendous profits from the criminalization and deportation of undocumented migrants.
In the eyes of immigrant activists, the immigration plan recently leaked from the Obama White House falls short of even the 1986 Immigration Control and Reform Act, signed by Ronald Reagan, which granted amnesty to more than three million undocumented immigrants. Unlike the current proposals under discussion, Regan’s plan did not create separate provisions for groups like workers or students. While some argue that the administration’s leak is merely a decoy to bolster the bipartisan Senate committee known as the “Gang of Eight” tasked with creating a framework for reform, both the White House and Congress are finding their plans to be a tough sell to immigrant rights organizations and undocumented communities.
“You can’t talk about legalizing people if you are talking about deporting them at the same time,” said Jacinta Gonzalez from the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice. More than 400,000 people were deported in 2012, more than any year in U.S. history. The current policies require Immigration and Customs Enforcement to meet monthly deportation quotas.
Calling for a moratorium on deportations as a constitutive element of immigration reform, more than 250 domestic workers from the United Workers Congress met in Washington, D.C., during the State of the Union address to demand more labor protections and the right to organize for immigration reform. The United Workers Congress, representing throngs of workers who are excluded from the right to organize, has released guiding principles for what an inclusive roadmap to citizenship might look like.
Gonzalez, one of the organizers of the United Worker Congress event, said that the purpose of the gathering was to bring together low-income workers to lift up the voices of those directly affected by the current polices of deportation and enforcement. Of particular concern is the targeting of leaders involved in organizing for labor and civil rights such as the “Southern 32,” a group of immigrant organizers in Southern states who were arrested and face deportation as a result of their activism.
On February 14, activists disrupted a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on immigration chaired by Sen. Patrick Leahy to protest the massive volume of deportations that continue amidst the Obama-led immigration reform process. The action coincided with Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano’s comments and resulted in 14 arrests — including arrests of undocumented persons. Letty Ramirez, from Puente Arizona in Phoenix, chose to act because of how federal deportation policies are tearing apart families.
“[The politicians] talk about undocumented people like we are criminals, but we are not,” Ramirez said by phone. “We are just human beings who want to work and want [Napolitano] to stop the deportations. She is deporting people with no criminal record — mothers and fathers of U.S. citizens.”
Voces de la Frontera — a grassroots immigrant rights group in Wisconsin — is holding town hall meetings in immigrant communities as it prepares to kick off a “Keeping Families Together” national bus tour. In conjunction with Fair Immigration Reform Movement, Voces and other allies will be touring the nation to build support in the lead-up for a mass national march on April 10 in Washington, D.C.
Last June, President Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to halt the deportations of young people who would qualify for citizenship if the DREAM Act passes. The program, however, does not confer citizenship; it is a two-year waiver from deportation proceedings. It also covers only a small percentage of the undocumented population.
Jose Vera’s brother Juan Carlos Vera, for instance, did not meet the program’s stringent qualifications and is currently imprisoned at the Broadview Detention Center in Illinois after a human resources employee called the police and alerted them to his legal status. Jose Vera said of his brother, “The ones suffering the most are his U.S.-citizen, pregnant wife and his 10-month-old son. This is just one example of the many families that are split up every day by our unjust and broken immigration system.”
Vera emphasizes that a moratorium on deportations is just a start, and that for a fair and just path to citizenship to emerge, the discussion should not focus on border security. “Shutting down the border is virtually impossible, so that should not be used as an excuse,” he said. “We need to deal with the whole problem in a comprehensive way. If discussions lead to the militarization of the border, then that is headed into the wrong direction.”
Jacinta Gonzalez recoiled at how the immigration-reform process is unfolding, as evidenced by Napolitano’s continued comments regarding border security and interior enforcement: “The entire premise of the debate starts with more enforcement, and the people who have already been facing that know its not the solution.”
The Immigrant Youth Justice League, a Chicago-based activist community, has been collecting responses from undocumented immigrant students, workers and organizers regarding the ongoing debate about immigration reform. Tania Unzueta, an organizer with the league, told Waging Nonviolence that the voices of those living without papers must be prioritized in immigration reform proposals.
“Undocumented immigrants are not just stories to illustrate the need for change, but active contributors to the strategy and the discussion on the need for change,” said Unzueta.
One of those letters came from Immigrant Youth Justice League co-founder Rigo Padilla, who successfully defeated his own deportation in 2009. In the letter, he takes the struggle for change outside of the halls of Congress and the White House.
“Ultimately,” Padilla wrote, “how favorable an immigration reform is and therefore its likelihood of passing will continue to depend on the organizing by undocumented immigrants and allies. In the last four years we have seen just that, more and more undocumented people have found their voice and taken on the responsibility of bettering our communities.”
Since 2010, the Immigrant Youth Justice League has organized the annual “Coming Out of the Shadows” event in which hundreds of undocumented youth have announced, publicly and at great risk, that they were “undocumented and unafraid.” This year, as the immigration-reform debate heats up, the league is taking to the streets in an attempt, according to its website, to re-focus the conversation “on those being criminalized by the federal government and immigration enforcement: people in deportation proceedings, people in detention, those who do not qualify for deferred action, and those with past interactions with the law.”
Alongside the DREAMers who are eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, millions of others stand to be left behind. Many undocumented workers — including at least half of the 1.8 million farm workers in the United States, and many others because of past deportations and criminalization — will not end up qualifying according to the proposals currently being discussed. Recognizing this, immigrant rights groups are emphasizing the need for reform that will reach all 11 million undocumented people, not just select groups like students or skilled high-tech workers.
The established networks among immigrant communities and immigrant rights activists are poised for dramatic action to make truly comprehensive reform a political reality. In the meantime, the focus on organizing and direct action to stop deportations will continue to expose the ways in which U.S. immigration policy is tearing families apart.
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