Tania A. Unzueta
I must admit, I once believed in comprehensive immigration reform (CIR). I believed in what it promised, an overhaul of an antiquated immigration system that would result in a conditional path to citizenship for the 11 to 12 million undocumented immigrants who currently reside in the United States. I believed it could be a long-term solution for me, my parents, and my friends who have survived undocumented in the United States (U.S.). Mostly, I thought it was the only tangible, achievable, solution to a concrete change in our lives.
But there are three critical things that I have learned about CIR, which have made me a believer in the so-called ‘piecemeal’ or ‘incremental’ approach to improving the lives of immigrants:
- A comprehensive bill on immigration will be hard to move forward legislatively. There are plenty of opinions about what can and cannot happen, the effects of the ‘fiscal cliff,’ the wavering potential collaboration between the parties. So first, even if we assume good will from the President and the Democrats, collaboration between the parties seems unlikely. Second, good will is hard to assume. The Democratic party has failed to move immigrant rights issues forward in the legislature, including in 2010 when 5 democratic votes could have achieved cloture for the passage of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. Additionally, let us not forget that President Obama just broke records for highest number of people deported under his presidency as we end 2012 (again). There are differences in the post-electoral atmosphere, with some arguing that “the voters have spoken” in favor of a path to citizenship for the undocumented, and Republicans re-thinking their negativity on immigration reform, but none of these is a guarantee that the parties will work together and move forward. Until now, this willingness to address immigration has only led to each party introducing and supporting their own versions of small bills, without crossing the isle for collaboration.
- Even if there were to be collaboration to pass a large bill, there is an ugly side to ‘comprehensive’: Legislators and advocates use this word because it includes both a path to legalization AND harsher penalties for future undocumented immigrants (and those who do not qualify for whatever parameters are set); more stringent enforcement at the U.S.-Mexico border; and employment verification programs that “prevent unlawful employment and rewards employers and employees who play by the rules” (See Hispanic Caucus Principles). Please note that ‘comprehensive’ does NOT mean that the legislation also includes our parents, or a more ‘comprehensive’ part of the immigrant community. It is about the implementation of immigration law, and presenting a bill that appeases both Republicans and Democrats of all kinds.
- CIR bills do not t address some of the most urgent problems facing immigrant communities: As of today, none of the proposals have included stopping the current 400,000 deportations per year quota from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the inhumane treatment of undocumented immigrants in detention centers, the lack of legal representation of undocumented immigrants in deportation or detention, the continued collaboration between DHS and local police enforcement through programs like Secure Communities, the local laws that make undocumented immigrant life difficult, unlivable, or the administrative problems encountered at immigration agencies that make the system inaccessible.
This is not an indictment of CIR supporters, nor a wish to thwart their efforts in bad faith. In part, it is a response to those who equate supporting CIR with ‘casting’ a “wider net” that includes “our parents, our cousins and our abuelitos,” as United We Dream’s (UWD) decision to support comprehensive legislation was described in a recent New York Times article. The description implies that that before, when UWD voted to support the DREAM Act in 2010, it must have been because we did not want an inclusive pathway to citizenship, but rather one that was exclusive to ‘dreamers,’ young people, agricultural workers, etc. I was there for that vote, as the Immigrant Youth Justice League (IYJL) was then a member, and I remember it being a strategic vote considering votes, political context, and our knowledge of the needs of our communities.
It is insulting to assume that the political stance of undocumented youth, of DREAM Act advocates, or of those who support piecemeal legislation is based on self-interest. So this is my attempt to tell the story of how I came to the decision to support the incremental approach to policy and legislation affecting immigrant rights, as a political consideration of what was possible legislatively, and what would best address the needs of our communities.
I began to question CIR during my first trip to Arizona in the early spring of 2010, just before SB 1070 became a national debate. I went to Phoenix with a group of undocumented organizers who at that point identified as part of The Dream is Coming (many of which were founding organizations of the National Immigrant Youth Alliance), with the plan to organize the first civil disobedience by undocumented students as an escalation to the fight for the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. When we arrived we began to talk to the local organizations, in particular the Arizona DREAM Act Coalition (ADAC), Puente Human Rights Movement, Tierra y Libertad Organization, and the Repeal Coalition. We spoke about strategy, political targets, the organizing climate in Arizona, deportations, the differences and similarities of living undocumented in various parts of the country.
One of the first lessons was that we were going to have to strategize on how to get arrested to begin with. I remember I had imagined that it would only take us wearing our ‘I am undocumented’ t-shirts out in the street, and we would quickly be identified as undocumented immigrants and placed under arrest. I think the first people we told this to laughed a little, and told us that everyone was wearing those t-shirts and that deportation, racial profiling and criminalization were much more devious and complex. Part of it is that the anti-immigrant strategy of attrition is about making every-day life difficult through laws and policies that, for example, block undocumented immigrants’ access to public services, police patrols and raids through Latino neighborhoods, harassment of day laborers by the border patrol. We were told again and again, that SB 1070 was not the first law targeting undocumented immigrants, it was just the first one to gain national attention from the media and non-profit organizations.
The action that we were organizing was very specific in its ask: pass the DREAM Act as stand-alone legislation. This meant that we wanted the Senate and Congress to move forward this bill on its own, not attached to another bill. We knew this would go against the national messaging of coalitions like Reform Immigration for America (RIFA), who were advocating for a CIR bill (which had not been introduced in the Senate) with the DREAM Act and AgJobs attached. As I understand each side’s argument, the folks who agreed with RI4A believed that the DREAM Act was a good hook to pass the entire legislation, as it included amicable undocumented students. In their opinion, passing the DREAM Act as a stand alone bill would hurt the chances of any other immigration reform from passing. The way we saw it, this looked like a repeat of 2007, where advocates pushed for a comprehensive bill, while DREAM Act advocates were told to wait until the last minute, and in the end got nothing. This time, we thought, we could get the DREAM Act.
I was not sure how people in Arizona were going to react to the DREAM Act ask, particularly those who were not already involved in this campaign, such as ADAC. In Chicago, my experience had been that often groups who called themselves ‘leftist’ or progressive (or socialist) intensely dislike the DREAM Act, due to the military option or because they see it as rewarding model immigrants. I have been at forums where people call the legislation ‘anti-Mexican’ and argue that it is a way to get brown people into the military. I should say that these arguments have merit, although my perspective is that we can commit to doing anti-recruitment work, but people still need citizenship; that the military will target brown people for recruitment anyway; and that I have friends and co-organizers who want to be in the military, and they should be convinced not to join through arguments, not prohibition due to their undocumented status. So I was worried we would encounter the same resistance in Arizona.
Instead, I was surprised at how well the DREAM Act message was received. We heard some of the same arguments against it, but at the time most people were receptive. Members of ADAC organized press conferences and declared that the DREAM Act should not be ‘held hostage’ by CIR. Those with Puente told us that they were excited to hear that we were speaking as undocumented people for ourselves, and representing ourselves. Volunteers with No More Deaths in Tucson, opined that that as long as the DREAM Act did not include enforcement at the border, they were supportive. More enforcement means more deaths at the border, they told us.
One day, we went to see the Operation Streamline courts in Tucson, Arizona, and saw how dozens of undocumented immigrants were processed and punished for seeking a better life. These courts run every day, from 12:00-3:00 pm, and are open to the public. Sitting there, you hear the sounds of the chains tied around their feet, hands and waist, and watch people walk out of the court room always with their heads down. I remember realizing that life was different at the border, and that the effects of further border enforcement translated into bodies, in the courts or in the desert, as people take higher risks to come to the U.S.
The civil disobedience took place in Tucson, making it the first time that undocumented immigrants were arrested as part of a civil disobedience. I believe this was a critical moment that moved the discussion about the DREAM Act forward, both in the legislature and in our community organizations. It mobilized undocumented youth across the country to adopt the emerging ‘coming out of the shadows’ strategy and speaking for ourselves.
The civil disobediences — the one in Tucson and the one that followed in Washington D.C. – and the activism and organizing that happened in between and after, were also part of a rough political fight entrenched in the subtleties of legislation and policy. While there were some RIFA organizations that were supportive, particularly in Illinois, there were others that accused DREAM Act advocates of being selfish, petulant, and politically naive, and actively blocked our access to legislators and policy-makers. There were others who asked us for us to ‘wait’ for continuously moving deadlines, because soon there would be a CIR bill. [I got one of these calls in March of 2010, where a then RIFA employee asked that UWD not say that CIR was dead just yet, as it would be harmful for the national movement. He ended the call saying that if there was no bill by May 1st, we had all the right in the world to move forward. There wasn't a bill, and RIFA's deadline for moving towards piecemeal legislation continued to change].
Towards the end of the year, the DREAM Act passed in the House. Then, on December 18, 2010, the U.S. Senate failed to pass the DREAM Act by 5 votes. As afore mentioned, the number of needed Republicans was achieved, what we failed to get were 5 Democratic votes, including North Carolina’s Kay Hagan, Arkansas’ Mark Pryor, Montana’s Max Baucus and Jon Tester, and Nebraska’s Ben Nelson. I know that there are a multiplicity of reasons as to why the bill failed. But I have often wondered, whether the result would have been different if the millions of dollars that were invested into CIR would have been used to make sure we had those last 5 votes.
And so this is how I have come to wonder, not only whether CIR is a political plausibility, but also whether it is the best option for our communities. Living, working, and organizing in the immigrant community after this experience in 2010 has continued to show me that the problems that undocumented people face go beyond issues that could be resolved with general ‘comprehensive’ legislation. There continue to be undocumented people being deported and torn away from their families, with a new record set in 2012 of 409,849. There is not a day that goes by without signing a petition against someone’s deportation. When I was traveling with the No Papers No Fear Ride for Justice just this past summer, we heard of sheriffs in North Carolina setting up checkpoints near childcare centers and farms frequented by Latino immigrants, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) collaborating with these sheriffs to place people in deportation proceedings. The legacy of Secure Communities programs in these cities and towns has been increased fear, criminalization, racial profiling, and deportations. And there continue to be denunciations of the conditions under which undocumented immigrants are held in detention centers across the country, including here in Illinois, where the Tri-County Detention Center was named one of the 10 worst facilities in the country. Lastly, just last week, there was a raid of a day labor corner right here in Chicago.
I know there are again people who strongly believe that CIR can happen this coming year. I know that most often, these are people who wholeheartedly believe that this is the best way to improve the lives of our immigrant communities, their own lives, their families lives. Sometimes, like there is everywhere in the organizing and non-profit world, there are those who want to exploit us for their own goals and power. But there is no question, we need papers, and we need permanent, tangible solutions. I am also aware that the reasons that the anti-immigrant Republicans and Democrats will argue against CIR are ironically the parts that I would love about it: family unity, path to citizenship. And I understand that in order to win and gain support we have to make compromises, and that if I were to write my ideal immigration legislation it would have very, very, very little chance of making it out of any committee.
My argument is not that we do not make compromises, but that we understand what these compromises mean, and that we look for those long-term, tangible solutions outside of the CIR box:
- Consider, for example, the position of the National Immigrant Youth Alliance (of which IYJL was a founding member until October 2012), that declare “we will not limit ourselves to one bill or one solution” and call for bills and legislation “that help our communities at the federal and state levels,” such as AgJobs and the DREAM Act. They also list a series of reforms to the immigration system, the courts, detention centers, detention policy and legislation that could today improve the lives of undocumented immigrants (a full list of recommendations from NIYA can be found here).
- The National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) has also published a list of 6 steps that could be taken by the President on immigration, which include addressing the deportation quota, stopping the Secure Communities program, and bringing Arizona’s Sheriff Joe Arpaio to justice for his actions against immigrant communities.
- Mark Dow calls for the government to “End mandatory detention. Appoint lawyers for detained immigrants. Hold the Office of Public Affairs responsible for disinformation.” in an article on The Hill entitled “What the immigration reformers are missing.” He criticizes the expansion of categories for mandatory detention and deportation created by a combination of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIAIRA) in the mid 1990s, and argues that these past reforms that have had harsh consequences for immigrants need to change too.
- Even the Obama administration has considered alternatives. A leaked 2010 memorandum from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) entitled “Administrative Alternatives to Comprehensive Immigration Reform” lists seventeen different alternatives to CIR, including adjusting the immigration status domestic violence, human trafficking, and crime survivors and undocumented minors in foster care; and other policies that have already been implemented, such as “increased use of deferred action” for individuals who qualify for the DREAM Act. Despite the high deportation numbers, there have been other small changes done by the administration, including the memorandum on prosecutorial discretion and the recently released guidelines on ICE detainers under secure communities.
- In conversations with other organizers and advocates, I have also heard of the need to bring back suspension of deportation (which allows for hardship to self, not just US citizens in deportation cases), an expansion of DACA to those older than 32 or parents of DACA beneficiaries, bringing back adjustment of status through section 245(i), or simply updating the immigration registry, which currently allows adjustment of status for people who can establish continuous presence in the U.S. since 1972 (Credit goes to Mony Ruiz-Velazco at the National Immigrant Justice Center for this part of the conversations). An update of the immigration registry to the year 2012 – but more likely 2000 or earlier – would allow a significant number of people to adjust their status.
I do hope that one day there will be a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, including me and my parents, and my uncles and abuelitas, and I will continue to advocate for this to take place. I will also work to make other changes to immigration law and policy possible, and to support undocumented immigrant communities in defending themselves. And when there is a CIR bill to consider, to perhaps advocate for, each one of us will decide where we stand, what we think is best, how much we are willing to compromise, and who we are willing to leave out, perhaps until next time.
May those directly affected by legislation be at the forefront of the debate – and may we listen to the voices of undocumented immigrants everywhere, especially those being left out. May we remember that anything that can pass through a Republican house and a Democratic Senate is going to be a compromise. Whether it is CIR, the DREAM Act, AgJobs, they all leave people out. And may we not be confused or lured by politicians with shiny boxes that promise everything, particularly during election time. Lastly, may we remember that our rights are not solely determined by legislation, that we cannot depend on the government to change our lives. In the end, policy and laws are only tools that our communities can use, but they will always have their limits. We will continue to create alternative ways to fight deportations, to work, to travel, to organize, to live.
May we listen, understand, and love each other in this upcoming discussion about immigration reform in 2013.
p.s. I am not a new or aspiring American, I am not a dreamer, I am undocumented, unafraid, and unapologetic.
Tania Unzueta is co-founder and organizer at the Immigrant Youth Justice League. The opinions expressed in this piece are solely her own. Follow her on twitter at @_latania, and on instagram as @ilehlainat.