Students and immigrant rights organizations plan to capitalize on the momentum from the 2012 election in which Latino voters favored Barack Obama over Mitt Romney 3-1.
Lawmakers are beginning to discuss reforming an immigration system that has decades of backlogs for legal immigration, exploitative working conditions and limited pathways to citizenship for the estimated 11.5 million undocumented people living in the U.S., according to Department of Homeland Security statistics.
The youth-led immigration reform network, United We Dream is hosting a national congress from Nov. 30 to Dec. 2 in Kansas City, Mo. More than 550 DREAMers plan to attend and set advocacy goals for federal legislation that would provide undocumented students and military veterans with pathways to citizenship.
The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act of 2011 was defeated by a small number of votes.
SF State biology major Emmanuel Valenciano, whose Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals application was accepted Oct. 29, said DREAM Act advocates are not going to sit back and wait for the federal government to act. Valenciano said his deferred action approval helps him be at ease, but joining the immigration reform movement changed his life.
“We have the momentum right now,” said Valenciano, who is a member of the SF State group Improving Dreams, Equity, Access and Success and another group called Asian Students Promoting Immigrant Rights through Education. “We’re going to try to keep that momentum and try to organize for reform next year. Right now we’re strategizing.”
To students like Cindy, an undocumented SF State student who asked to keep her last name private, immigration reform is deeply personal and her experience is marked by uncertainty.
“I can’t explain it,” she said while talking about friends who received California identification cards through the Obama administration’s DACA program. “We’re always living under that shadow. We get asked for identification, and we always go to our student ID. Then we get questioned, or not questioned, but we get that look — ‘Is this all you have?’”
Cindy applied for the DACA program and is confident her application will be accepted. The program is temporary and grants the possibility of a two-year work permit.
“The Obama move to do the (DACA) for undocumented students had a huge impact,” Belinda Reyes, associate professor of Latino/Latina studies, said. “Immigration was a big issue that hurt Romney and helped Obama.”
More than 53,000 DACA applications were approved as of Nov. 15, and about 250,000 more applications were still being processed, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services data.
One undocumented SF State student, who asked only to be identified as E.Z., said he hopes reform won’t stop at the DREAM Act and will extend to help many hard working undocumented immigrants who are too old, not in college or otherwise wouldn’t qualify.
“(The DREAM Act) would be a good way to protect the younger generations, but I’m still worried about the older generations,” he said. “I’m contributing to the U.S. by going to college, and they are contributing by working really hard. These people work the whole day without taking a break.”
Reyes said the U.S. economy depends on immigrant labor, but the immigration system functions to ensure that block of labor is powerless.
“It’s like slave labor in a way,” she said. “We create policy to pretend that we’re doing something about it and maybe regulate the flow, but in the end we really want them to be here. So it creates a second-class citizen and a vulnerable population with no power.”
In a local example, the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5 union is currently embroiled in a dispute with a California chain of grocery stores over protections for the undocumented labor force.
About 50 protesters gathered outside an East Oakland Mi Pueblo market Nov. 21 to protest the company’s participation in E-Verify, a federal program that checks employee immigration statuses. Demonstrators said the company started participating in the program to intimidate grocery workers who were considering joining the union to improve working conditions at Mi Pueblo.
Perla Rodriguez, Mi Pueblo’s vice president of public affairs, said the grocer only agreed to participate in E-Verify because it was pressured by Immigration Customs Enforcement and became the target of an I-9 audit. This allows federal enforcement agents to audit the immigration status of a company’s employees. Immigration rights advocates call I-9 audits “silent raids.”
“The only response to an audit is looking at immigration reform,” Rodriguez said. “We need a visa program that would support people in the service industry.”
Almost 400,000 people were deported in 2011 under the Obama administration’s expansion of the program, the highest number in decades. More than half were noncriminal, according to DHS statistics (see page 102.)
“Papers for all,” Claudia Arroyo, a member of the Dignity and Resistance Coalition, said during the Mi Pueblo protest. “This is the way the world is changing. DACA, that helps the youth. We don’t reject it, but it’s not enough.”
According to Reyes, for any comprehensive reform to have a positive outcome, the whole conversation about immigration in the U.S. needs to change to reflect an increasingly globalized world. Instead of arguing about fences and blaming immigrants, politicians should recognize the changing makeup of the country.
“Some of the problems with dialogue about immigration is that immigrants have been scapegoated for every problem in the United States,” she said. “It’s about time that something is done to embrace this population and not continue to vilify it.”