On Wednesday night at the Democratic National Convention, Benita Veliz represented the most inspiring activism in recent history, the Dreamers. A college graduate from Texas, Benita is one of the million-plus young people benefiting from the Obama administration’s deferred-action policy to stop deportation of young people.
The new policy would grant eligible immigrants temporary visas and allow them to apply for employment authorization so they have a chance at the American dream. Benita’s voice was one of many in the course of three days to uplift the cause of Dreamers and herald the president’s administrative action. Most speakers highlighting President Obama’s accomplishments mentioned this policy decision, and it is indeed one worthy of celebration.
Still, it’s hard to ignore this reality: The president’s deferred-action policy helps only an estimated 1.4 million immigrants and is only temporary. Even as the Democratic convention's main stage mainstreamed the cause of these young immigrants, millions of other immigrants are struggling in the shadows.
Those individuals and their stories formed a backdrop to both presidential conventions, via the "UndocuBus." At one gathering in Charlotte, I heard a young woman say that Obama would be known as the first African-American president but also as one who oversaw a record number of deportations.
For some, it may seem easy to delineate between Dreamers, who are undocumented through no fault of their own, and other undocumented immigrants. But, the line is in fact blurry, and further, there is no clear dividing line between all undocumented immigrants and other Americans.
Some are just on the other side of the line. Consider Jose Antonio Vargas, one of the bravest champions of comprehensive immigration reform. Vargas is ineligible for deferred action because he is four months older than the cutoff age of 30. Others’ lives are inextricably intertwined with Dreamers, including their parents or grandparents, whose sacrifices brought these young people to the U.S. in the first place.
When undocumented parents fear taking their American-born children to school, and worse, when these parents are separated from their children and deported, we bring entire families of children into foster homes and the child-welfare system. That comes at a deep psychological, and financial, cost to our society.
A family in which the adults are working and caring for their children, who are attending school and nurturing ambitions for college and career, feeds the American dream. A family torn asunder by the arbitrary use of power is not able to achieve that dream.
At the UndocuBus gathering in Charlotte, I heard the kinds of stories I have been hearing for nearly two decades. But this time, thanks to the proliferation of 287 (g) agreements, in which local law enforcement collaborates with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, the fear is more prevalent among parents, among workers, and even among Dreamers, for whom deferred action is only a temporary fix. (ICE currently has 287(g) agreements with 64 law enforcement agencies in 24 states.)
The Democratic Party platform does call for comprehensive immigration reform, but Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois was a rare voice on that issue at the convention.
“Forced deportation,” he said, “is not right. Our broken immigration system creates stories like this every day. Good people, torn apart, kept from working, paying taxes, serving in the armed forces.” And, at the Republican National Convention, Condoleezza Rice called in her speech for a law “to protect our borders; meet our economic needs; and yet show that we are a compassionate people.”
The president who takes office in 2013 has to be committed to a comprehensive policy, not one that is piecemeal or temporary. Members of Congress, whose constituencies are affected by poorly implemented immigration policy as well as by voters from immigrant communities, also need to step up.
Finally, immigrant communities must work on the comprehensive advocacy approach articulated by advocates at the Undocubus gathering – conducting robust grassroots activism, leveraging powerful and high-profile voices and donors, and engaging in the electoral process as voters and as candidates.