October was a busy month on the streets for comprehensive immigration reform backers—but it was quiet in on the floor of the House. While pro-immigrant lawmakers and their supporters keep putting pressure on Congress to pass overhaul legislation, record-setting numbers of detentions and deportations of immigrants continue. But so do actions that challenge the way immigrant communities are targeted.
Thousands of people in about 150 cities participated in mobilizations on October 5, calling for Republicans to move forward on the Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform bill. That was followed by a civil disobedience in Washington, D.C. on October 8, in which 200 people were arrested—including eight members of Congress. President Obama has also spent a good amount of time talking about immigration: Immediately after the debt crisis was averted in October, the president made clear, through a series of statements and interviews, that immigration was once again a priority. And time and time again, Obama has squarely put the onus on the House Republicans that he says won’t give comprehensive immigration reform a chance to go through.
But it’s Obama’s own administration, and not Republican lawmakers, that has deported a record number of immigrants. And activists are also taking that record to task. About 250 people converged in Arizona in mid October to participate in a series of direct actions aimed at shutting down Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) operations. After returning home from Arizona, activists in San Francisco were inspired to block a deportation bus—all the while calling on Obama to put an end to deportations. It’s rumored that similar actions to stop ICE in its deportation tracks—at least temporarily—are being planned.
October also drew attention to the so-called Dream 30, the group of undocumented youth who very publicly crossed the port of entry at Laredo, Tex. A total of 35 people crossed on September 30. Several of them—including a toddler who is a U.S.-born citizen, and her mother, an immigrant originally from Honduras—were released almost immediately. The rest of the minors and their parents were soon released as well. Last week, an additional 11 from the group were released, but 13 more remain in detention in El Paso. One activist, Rocio Hernandez, was deported to Mexico.
Hernandez was just four years old when she arrived in North Carolina from Veracruz, Mexico. She was accepted to Eastern Carolina University, but the state requires undocumented students to pay international tuition rates. “It’s usually $7,000 a semester, but that went up to $15,000 a semester because of my status,” Hernandez explained by phone from Mexico, the day after her deportation. She was unable to apply for federal aid because of her status, and found few scholarships that fit her needs. At 19, Hernandez decided to return to Mexico, despite the fact she had spent nearly her entire life in the U.S.
She enrolled in school, but soon got a taste of rising violence. Her home was broken into. An aunt was kidnapped and held for ransom—only to be followed by the kidnapping of an uncle as well. Hernandez’ accent in Spanish indicates someone who’s spent a lot of time speaking English in the U.S. That alone makes her and her family a target for ransom and extortion. Walking alone to get to and from school doesn’t help.
About a month ago, Rocio Hernandez thought she’d be coming home to the U.S. She had heard about a group of about 30 undocumented youth who were set to cross the border and ask for asylum, and she dropped everything she was doing to join. Hernandez was already familiar with the Dream 9, a group of undocumented people—mostly youth—who dared the same thing earlier in the summer, and were all released from detention in about three weeks. The outcome is already very different this time around, with Hernandez’s request to move forward on an asylum claim already denied.
“One of the reasons this action is turning out so different is that three of the Dream 9 were well known organizers in the U.S., and were able to engage their existing networks here,” explains attorney David Bennion, who’s representing the individuals involved in the Dream 30 action. Those who have been released are making their way to Washington, D.C., to advocate for the release of the rest of their group.
One of the advocates is Israel Rodríguez, one of the Dream 30 who gathered with others in Mexico before going into detention. He says he went into shock when he heard the news that Hernandez had been deported. He heard about the deportation while he was at a hospital where authorities had taken him in an attempt to force feed him; he’d been on a hunger strike protesting his detention. And although Rodríguez is now headed to Washington to pressure lawmakers into stepping up their efforts to help secure the release of the remaining 13, he’s skeptical.
Representative Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) has released a clear statement in support of the Dream 30, and has met with their family members, but Rodríguez says the representative hasn’t been supportive enough—Hernandez’s deportation alone is proof of that, he offers. “Our lives hang in limbo,” says Rodríguez. “Everyone seems to care about immigration, but no one seems to do actually do anything about it.”
Meanwhile, the call for a major overhaul is starting to change on Capitol Hill. “There won’t be a big comprehensive bill,” concedes Douglas Rivlin, who heads communications for Rep. Gutiérrez. It’s a surprising statement from Gutiérrez’s office, which has backed one big immigration bill for years. “It might be five, six, seven, eight bills,” explains Rivlin, referring to a series of piecemeal bills that Democrats have long said are not the solution for the nation’s immigration problem. But he adds that he’s skeptical about who will be left out of the bills and remain undocumented and therefore deportable.
The much-touted Senate bill, however, was only ever going to grant U.S. citizenship to about half of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S. And some Republicans have liked that all along. In April, Ralph Reed, whose name is synonymous with right-wing conservatism, debated against the idea that Republicans should seize the center—and specifically referred to the Senate’s comprehensive immigration bill as one that was rigidly conservative:
“I mean, if you read this comprehensive immigration proposal that was released this morning, it has the toughest enforcement and border security measures in U.S. history. If you entered this country illegally, the soonest you can get a green card is 13 years. The soonest. For many, it’ll be 20 years.”
When Gutiérrez’s communications director Rivlin indicates that piecemeal legislation may be worse for the prospects of some 11 million immigrants than what Reed describes, the picture that develops isn’t a very hopeful one. And, despite Rivlin’s expectation that immigration will finally be tackled in December, it’s unclear that there’s enough political will left in Washington to move forward. As much as the immigration system is supposedly broken, it’s also still essentially working—a group of seemingly permanent second-class non-citizens contribute their work and their taxes to a system that provides few benefits in return, all under the constant threat of detention and deportation.
That lack of political will on Capitol Hill translates into demoralization on the part of some organizers—many of them undocumented immigrants themselves. Speaking loosely, but always under the condition of anonymity, some advocates and activists involved with every major action in the last month have admitted to feeling disheartened that anything will substantively change. Nevertheless, the push to change the way the immigration system operates—whether that’s on the streets, in detention centers, or in the halls of Congress—will continue for what’s left for 2013.