April 13, 2007

On The Road For Immigration Reform

By Elizabeth Gonzalez
New America Media

Editor’s Note: A mixed group of immigrants and their children — young, old, documented and not — traveled to Washington, D.C., to talk to Congress about immigration reform. Despite a lukewarm response from Congress, writer Elizabeth Gonzalez says she found the most inspiration in her fellow travelers. Gonzalez is on the staff of Silicon Valley De-Bug, a collaborative of writers, artists, workers and organizers in San Jose, CA.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – During the week that President Bush spent visiting leaders across Latin America, repeatedly stating that he wanted to work on immigration, many of the people who have left those lands for the United States were lobbying Congress in Washington, D.C., to act now for just and humane immigration reform.

Hundreds of people from national and grassroots organizations across the country visited the capitol to share their concerns about immigration. We went to talk to members of Congress about everything from the recent raids and rushed deportations, to the DREAM Act that would allow undocumented students access to higher education, and legalization for the millions of undocumented people living in and contributing to the United States.

I spent two days in Washington, D.C., attempting to meet with members of Congress to talk about immigration reform. Hundreds of people from 25 states joined together to tell their stories to Congress, and to send the message that we need comprehensive immigration reform that keeps families together and treats people humanely.

I traveled with a group from Voluntarios de la Comunidad, a grassroots organization from San Jose, Calif. that has been active in the immigrant community for years. My parents are both immigrants from Mexico and I have a lot of family and friends who have made their lives here and are undocumented. I have been an activist in my community since high school and the immigrant rights movement has been the one thing my whole family has gone out to the streets for. It is also an issue that has kept the branches of my family, like so many others, divided across a line drawn in the earth. I have to do my part to make a change.

I called my family each day to tell them about our experiences in Washington, D.C. Even though I was sometimes down, they motivated me, saying that everyone back at home was doing what they could, too.

The group I traveled with was a mix of residents, citizens and undocumented persons. There were some jokes about some of us possibly getting caught and deported during our travels, with real concern behind the smiles. It made me respect all the people who take action even though they don’t have documents. They are not waiting for others to fight their fight.

The only representative I managed to see was Dennis Cardoza, representing Merced, Calif. With one of his staff members as a translator, our mostly Spanish-speaking group was able to get our concerns across about farm workers and the need for legalization so that the workers who provide crucial work for the country can share in the protection of the law. Cardoza was able to relate to the group, saying that his own grandparents were immigrants from Portugal and that he knows that his grandparents and immigrants today share the drive to work hard and make better lives for their families. He said that an immigration bill is the one thing he believes this 110th congress can get done this year.

The ones holding the light in Congress are Representatives Luis Gutierrez of Illinois and Jeff Flake of Arizona. Right after we left, they introduced the STRIVE Act—Security Through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy. Under this bill, undocumented workers would pay a $2,000 fine and pass a background check to be eligible for conditional status that includes work and travel permission for six years. If, during those years, the worker keeps a job, learns English and civics, and pays taxes, he or she would be eligible to apply for citizenship after leaving the country and re-entering legally. The bill has drawn some criticism among immigrant-rights activists—many people think it unrealistic that immigrants should have to leave and re-enter the country in order to apply for citizenship— but I felt hopeful just knowing that some in Congress are actually listening to the people.

On my second day in Washington, groups set out to meet with the offices of Congress. Some had better luck than others. One group recounted a horrible experience with a Republican congressman. According to Porfirio Quintano of Comite de Padres Unidos from San Francisco, Calif., he and his colleagues were first told they could have a meeting in a different office. Then the group was led to a stairway where they were told, essentially: You crossed the border and do not have the right to demand anything so you can go back to your country. Then, Quintano said, they were left at the stairs.

Immigration is clearly a struggle in which neither party is willing to concede much, so I’m not sure how Democrats and Republicans will manage to come together and agree on a new immigration policy. But the lives of so many people depend on the actions of these few in Washington, D.C., that we can’t afford to sit back and wait for them to come to a decision. We have to help move them to action.

Since the immigration rights marches of last year, a lot of folks feel that nothing else has been done — that there were no effects from those massive protests. Meeting all the different activists who had traveled to Washington, D.C., because they were still trying to make a difference was inspiring to me. I learned that thousands of people are still working to organize their communities so that they are not isolated in those times when immigrants are being targeted once again.

I met people from border towns who had successfully stopped their local police departments from acting as immigration agents when they detained people for regular traffic stops. These are the stories that inspired me most — the things happening in local communities that we don’t always hear about, but that are making the biggest difference of all.

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