Opinion: A Comprehensive Strategy for Immigration Policy

National Journal
Sayu Bhojwan
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Sayu Bhojwan
Sept. 10, 2012, 6:35 a.m.

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.

Sayu Bho­jwani is the found­ing dir­ect­or of The New Amer­ic­an Lead­ers Pro­ject. She has worked on im­mig­rant in­teg­ra­tion in vari­ous ca­pa­cit­ies for more than 15 years.

Opin­ions and oth­er state­ments ex­pressed by Per­spect­ives con­trib­ut­ors are theirs alone, not Na­tion­al Journ­al‘s. Con­tent cre­ated by third-party con­trib­ut­ors is their sole re­spons­ib­il­ity, and its ac­cur­acy is not en­dorsed or guar­an­teed.

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