How a New Class of Activists Is Changing Immigration Politics

Immigration-reform measures targeted at young undocumented immigrants have proven the most popular.

Demonstrators march near the White House in Washington, DC, on May 1, 2014 to protest against deportations of undocumented people. Hundreds of people, including children, joined in the protest against US President Barack Obamas immigration enforcement, calling on him to stop most deportations. AFP PHOTO/Jewel Samad 
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Fawn Johnson
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Fawn Johnson
June 12, 2014, 5 p.m.

Three years ago, Maria Rodrig­uez stood in the ro­tunda of the Flor­ida state Cap­it­ol cry­ing tears of re­lief after the state Sen­ate ef­fect­ively killed a harsh im­mig­ra­tion bill. Modeled on Ari­zona’s con­tro­ver­sial “show me your pa­pers” law, the le­gis­la­tion was a top pri­or­ity for Re­pub­lic­an Gov. Rick Scott. And even though im­mig­ra­tion ad­voc­ates ul­ti­mately won the day when the Sen­ate hal­ted pro­gress on the meas­ure, it was too close a call.

Rodrig­uez’s or­gan­iz­a­tion, the Flor­ida Im­mig­rant Co­ali­tion, spent most of its re­sources that year fight­ing the tough le­gis­la­tion. In pre­ced­ing years, her group had beaten back sim­il­ar or­din­ances in Avon County and the city of Palm Bay. They were con­stantly on the de­fens­ive, al­ways scram­bling simply to stop pun­it­ive meas­ures, such as ef­forts to re­quire de­port­a­tion pro­ceed­ings for non­vi­ol­ent il­leg­al im­mig­rant of­fend­ers.

And then, im­prob­ably, the nar­rat­ive flipped. Last month, Rodrig­uez stood in the same spot in the Cap­it­ol ro­tunda, cheer­ing the Flor­ida Le­gis­lature’s pas­sage of a bill to give in-state tu­ition rates to the state’s un­doc­u­mented high school gradu­ates. Re­pub­lic­an state lead­ers had shep­her­ded the le­gis­la­tion, and Scott made it clear he in­ten­ded to sign it in­to law. “It was just a really re­mark­able change,” Rodrig­uez says of that mo­ment. In 2011, im­mig­rant ad­voc­ates were lined up against the gov­ernor. “This time, the gov­ernor came out to be there with us.”

Eric Can­tor’s loss Tues­day night demon­strates just how un­likely it is that Con­gress will pass com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion re­form any­time soon. But Flor­ida may be the most dra­mat­ic il­lus­tra­tion of the shift­ing polit­ic­al winds on im­mig­ra­tion at the state level. El­ev­en states — in­clud­ing ruby-red Utah and swing-state Col­or­ado — have passed laws al­low­ing un­doc­u­mented res­id­ents ac­cess to driver’s li­censes. “That was an is­sue that had been polit­ic­ally tox­ic just a few years ago,” says Tan­ya Broder, a seni­or staff at­tor­ney for the Na­tion­al Im­mig­ra­tion Law Cen­ter, which tracks state im­mig­ra­tion laws. And in 20 states, stu­dents who are un­au­thor­ized res­id­ents now have ac­cess to in-state tu­ition rates.

Im­mig­ra­tion-re­form meas­ures tar­geted at young un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants have proven the most pop­u­lar, both na­tion­ally and at the state level. High-pro­file fig­ures such as former Wash­ing­ton Post journ­al­ist José Ant­o­nio Var­gas put a face on an is­sue that is so of­ten de­bated with ste­reo­types due to the un­der­stand­able re­luct­ance of many un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants to “out” them­selves. These young “Dream­ers” (so named be­cause most of them meet the re­quire­ments of the De­vel­op­ment, Re­lief, and Edu­ca­tion for Ali­en Minors — or Dream — Act) have es­tab­lished their own polit­ic­al and so­cial move­ment, sep­ar­ate from the older and more es­tab­lished ad­voc­ates who have pushed (un­suc­cess­fully) for com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion le­gis­la­tion in Wash­ing­ton.

Dream­ers speak their minds, mak­ing even their al­lies un­com­fort­able some­times. But their plight as off­spring pun­ished for the de­cisions of their par­ents makes them un­usu­ally sym­path­et­ic fig­ures. Sen. Marco Ru­bio of Flor­ida floated a plan to grant them leg­al status even as he was be­ing con­sidered as a po­ten­tial run­ning mate for Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee Mitt Rom­ney in 2012. “That al­lows us to deal with these kids in a hu­man­it­ari­an way,” Ru­bio said at the time. “To re­cog­nize that what we want to do is to give these kids a chance to get right what their par­ents got wrong.”

For con­ser­vat­ives who sup­port eas­ing un­au­thor­ized im­mig­rants’ bur­den, the Dream­ers’ stor­ies help provide jus­ti­fic­a­tion for what has tra­di­tion­ally been an un­pop­u­lar stand with­in the GOP. Such politi­cians are quietly emer­ging as a coun­ter­weight to a more bois­ter­ous group of Re­pub­lic­ans who cham­pi­on laws such as Ari­zona’s, which al­lows loc­al po­lice to in­vest­ig­ate sus­pec­ted im­mig­ra­tion vi­ol­a­tions — something crit­ics con­tend leads to ra­cial pro­fil­ing.

As mis­steps on state im­mig­ra­tion en­force­ment have piled up, Re­pub­lic­an law­makers who were nev­er com­fort­able with such laws feel freer to speak out. And as politi­cians in Flor­ida re­cently learned, they have a ready-made group of shrewd young ad­voc­ates to help steer their states in a dif­fer­ent dir­ec­tion.

A new gen­er­a­tion of people im­pacted by the coun­try’s un­solved im­mig­ra­tion prob­lems has grown up. These chil­dren of im­mig­rants — some leg­al, some not — speak Eng­lish flu­ently and have an in­tim­ate un­der­stand­ing of Amer­ic­an cul­ture. They will not live in the shad­ows. They get polit­ics. They get gov­ern­ment. They re­fuse to be in­tim­id­ated. If they are lucky enough to have pa­pers, they have too many friends and fam­ily mem­bers who don’t.

Dream­ers think their situ­ation is un­fair — and they ex­pect their coun­try to cor­rect that in­justice. “Start­ing in eighth grade, I star­ted telling people I was un­doc­u­mented, be­cause I thought some­body knew an an­swer, and if I kept it to my­self then nobody could help me,” says Gaby Pacheco, who helped found United We Dream, the largest act­iv­ist group of un­doc­u­mented youth in the coun­try. She now runs the Bridge Pro­ject, an­oth­er im­mig­ra­tion-re­form group.

Pacheco’s par­ents brought her to the United States from Ecuador on a tour­ist visa when she was a child. The fam­ily stayed. The visas ex­pired. She watched her two older sis­ters gradu­ate from high school and then avoid col­lege be­cause they lacked the pa­pers that would qual­i­fy them for in-state tu­ition. Out-of-state rates were out of reach. “That’s when I said, ‘Oh, man, this is go­ing to hap­pen to me,’ ” Pacheco says.

It is against the law for pub­lic schools to ask for im­mig­ra­tion doc­u­ment­a­tion when en­rolling stu­dents, which is how Pacheco and oth­er chil­dren without pa­pers be­come edu­cated as Amer­ic­ans. Es­pe­cially in heav­ily His­pan­ic met­ro­pol­it­an areas such as Miami, Phoenix, and Los Angeles, these young people live in the same neigh­bor­hoods, speak the same lan­guage, and en­dure the same gen­er­a­tion­al ten­sions of a stead­ily evolving eth­nic com­munity.

After gradu­at­ing from high school, Pacheco ob­tained an in­ter­na­tion­al stu­dent visa that al­lowed her to at­tend Miami Dade Col­lege. “I had to pay out-of-state tu­ition. So four, five thou­sand a semester while my friends were pay­ing one thou­sand,” she says. “I was an in­ter­na­tion­al stu­dent this whole time. However, I iden­ti­fied as an un­doc­u­mented.”

Pacheco star­ted push­ing for in-state tu­ition for un­doc­u­mented stu­dents in 2005, when she was the stu­dent-body pres­id­ent rep­res­ent­ing all of Flor­ida’s pub­lic uni­versit­ies. That’s how she got to know many of the Re­pub­lic­ans in the state Le­gis­lature. In 2010, she and three oth­er class­mates walked 1,500 miles from Miami to Wash­ing­ton to plead their case, call­ing their march the Trail of Dreams. Pacheco lost her stu­dent visa be­cause she stopped tak­ing classes, and again be­came un­doc­u­mented.

In their act­iv­ism, Pacheco and oth­er Dream­ers are ir­rit­at­ingly non­par­tis­an, at least to long­time im­mig­rant ad­voc­ates who have his­tor­ic­ally aligned with Demo­crats. The Demo­crat­ic Party has been more will­ing to em­brace im­mig­ra­tion re­form, and yet has proven un­suc­cess­ful in ef­forts to make changes at a na­tion­al level. See­ing this, the Dream­ers have fo­cused their at­ten­tion on find­ing con­ser­vat­ive al­lies. Pacheco cam­paigned for Re­pub­lic­an Sen. John Mc­Cain for pres­id­ent in 2008, ar­guing that he had a bet­ter chance than Demo­crat­ic Sen. Barack Obama did of get­ting im­mig­ra­tion re­form over the fin­ish line. (She did not feel the same way about Mitt Rom­ney in 2012.)

The Dream­ers are resigned to the fact that im­mig­ra­tion re­form stands little chance in Con­gress, which they see as the per­fect reas­on for Obama to provide re­lief through ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tions. Can­tor’s up­set loss in his primary elec­tion this week spurred Dream Ac­tion Co­ali­tion Co­dir­ect­or Cesar Var­gas to de­clare that “there is no chance of get­ting any­thing done le­gis­lat­ively” this sum­mer. As such, he said, Obama should of­fer de­port­a­tion re­lief im­me­di­ately.

The Dream­ers also ral­lied around Ru­bio when he pro­posed a Re­pub­lic­an ver­sion of the Dream Act. Ac­cord­ing to mul­tiple ac­counts, it was their en­thu­si­asm for Ru­bio that promp­ted Pres­id­ent Obama to cre­ate a “de­ferred ac­tion” pro­gram to stop their de­port­a­tions in 2012. But even in the midst of that sig­ni­fic­ant vic­tory, the Dream­ers still wouldn’t hitch their wag­on to the Demo­crats or Obama: Pacheco in­sisted that the “watch party” for Obama’s an­nounce­ment take place at the Amer­ic­an Im­mig­ra­tion Law­yers As­so­ci­ation, a non­par­tis­an im­mig­ra­tion group, rather than at the Cen­ter for Amer­ic­an Pro­gress, which is closely aligned with the ad­min­is­tra­tion. 

Ex­ec­ut­ive Dir­ect­or Frank Sharry of the im­mig­ra­tion-re­form group Amer­ica’s Voice says Pacheco’s de­mand is con­sist­ent with the Dream­ers’ ap­proach to polit­ic­al ac­tion. “The Dream­ers we’ve worked with break all the rules,” he says. “They fiercely de­fend their in­de­pend­ence and are cre­at­ing their own dis­tinct way of build­ing and pro­ject­ing power. It’s not al­ways com­fort­able, but it’s al­most al­ways ef­fect­ive.”

In­deed, the de­term­ined non­par­tis­an­ship of the Dream­ers has paid off in can­did con­ver­sa­tions with Re­pub­lic­ans who privately sym­path­ize with their situ­ation but don’t know how to help them. Groups like Pacheco’s and Rodrig­uez’s have po­si­tioned them­selves to sup­port those law­makers the mo­ment an op­por­tun­ity presents it­self. In Flor­ida this year, their mem­bers spent sev­er­al weeks trav­el­ing to Tal­l­a­hassee to meet with law­makers — mostly Re­pub­lic­ans — who were on the fence about the in-state tu­ition bill. On the day of the Sen­ate’s fi­nal vote, they sat in the pub­lic gal­lery wear­ing gradu­ation caps.

Re­pub­lic­ans like to talk tough about il­leg­al im­mig­ra­tion, but ac­tu­ally crack­ing down on it is a lot harder. Alabama, which en­acted the coun­try’s harshest im­mig­ra­tion-en­force­ment law in 2011, be­came an in­ter­na­tion­al laugh­ing­stock shortly there­after. On two sep­ar­ate oc­ca­sions, high-level for­eign ex­ec­ut­ives were ar­res­ted be­cause they didn’t have prop­er doc­u­ment­a­tion. In re­sponse, the state Le­gis­lature moved to quickly pass re­vi­sions wa­ter­ing down the law. A fed­er­al court then rolled back the law’s pro­hib­i­tions on un­doc­u­mented chil­dren in schools.

Situ­ations like those in Alabama have caused the en­thu­si­asm for state im­mig­ra­tion-en­force­ment laws to die down re­l­at­ively quickly, giv­ing GOP re­formers a chance to act. While more than a dozen states con­sidered such le­gis­la­tion in 2011 and 2012, only four man­aged to get laws on the books: Alabama, Geor­gia, In­di­ana, and South Car­o­lina. Then, in the 2013 and 2014 le­gis­lat­ive ses­sions, more than a dozen states passed im­mig­rant-friendly ini­ti­at­ives — some al­low­ing in-state tu­ition for un­doc­u­mented stu­dents, some ap­prov­ing driver’s li­censes for res­id­ents without pa­pers. No state passed a broad pun­it­ive bill. “We have seen a dif­fer­ence around the coun­try,” says Broder. “States that thought a smart way to deal with im­mig­ra­tion policy would be to tar­get im­mig­rants found that this was not a good solu­tion polit­ic­ally, leg­ally, or prac­tic­ally.”

Flor­ida’s Gov. Scott is a per­fect ex­ample. In 2010, he cam­paigned on bring­ing an Ari­zona-style im­mig­ra­tion law to the state. He failed to meet that pledge after mov­ing in­to the Gov­ernor’s Man­sion. Now up for reelec­tion against an old rival, former Gov. Charlie Crist, Scott is chan­ging his tune. He can’t af­ford to talk tough on im­mig­ra­tion like he did be­fore. He needs the state’s swing voters, many of whom are His­pan­ics, more than he needs the tea party. And Scott can read polls. Fully 84 per­cent of His­pan­ics in a 2011 Pew na­tion­al sur­vey sup­por­ted mak­ing un­au­thor­ized im­mig­rants eli­gible for in-state tu­ition.

Polit­ics cre­ated an op­por­tun­ity to shift the tide on im­mig­ra­tion in Flor­ida, but someone power­ful still needed to take ad­vant­age of it. That per­son was state House Speak­er Will Weather­ford, who made tu­ition equity for un­doc­u­mented Flor­idi­ans a top pri­or­ity this year. Here, the non­par­tis­an nature of the Dream move­ment made a dif­fer­ence. Weather­ford says it was an eld­erly “Moth­er Teresa fig­ure” in his com­munity who in­spired him. Late last year, he met with Mar­gar­ita Romo, a long­time im­mig­rant act­iv­ist and a former nun. “She prayed with me and said, ‘God give me the strength to do something for the kids,’ ” he re­calls.

So he did. In Janu­ary, he placed a heart­felt op-ed in the Tampa Bay Times ar­guing that young un­au­thor­ized res­id­ents should have in-state tu­ition just like their cit­izen class­mates. He opened the House ses­sion in March with a plea to his fel­low Re­pub­lic­ans to pass tu­ition equity. He ar­gued that Flor­ida shouldn’t lose out on the tal­ent of thou­sands of young people schooled at state tax­pay­ers’ ex­pense just be­cause Wash­ing­ton couldn’t fig­ure out how to fix their leg­al status. “I got tired of wait­ing for the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to do something,” Weather­ford says. “We needed the right polit­ic­al mo­ment for it. I didn’t know if it was go­ing to work.”

Weather­ford wasn’t wor­ried about his col­leagues in the state House. Miami Rep. Jeanette Nuñez, a Re­pub­lic­an rep­res­ent­ing a dis­trict she calls “His­pan­ic Ground Zero,” in­tro­duced the bill, which rolled back auto­mat­ic tu­ition rate hikes and al­lowed un­doc­u­mented res­id­ents to qual­i­fy for in-state rates. Nuñez made a point to listen to the op­pon­ents from the be­gin­ning. She agreed to a change, for ex­ample, that en­sured U.S. cit­izens would not end up com­pet­ing with un­doc­u­mented stu­dents for schol­ar­ships. “We really tried to provide as much help to this group of stu­dents as pos­sible without be­ing com­pletely un­reas­on­able to the op­pos­ing side,” she says.

The state Sen­ate was an­oth­er story. Sen­ate Pres­id­ent Don Gaetz was un­enthu­si­ast­ic about the bill and fel­low Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Joe Neg­ron, the chair­man of the Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee, was adam­antly op­posed. But then an un­likely ally stepped up. Sen. Jack Latvala, a vet­er­an Re­pub­lic­an with a repu­ta­tion for be­ing crusty and old-school, sponsored the bill in his cham­ber. He figured that if Weather­ford was go­ing to stick his neck out to help de­serving kids, he might as well fol­low suit. “I’m a tough, mean, old bird that takes these kinds of things on,” he says. “I don’t kow­tow to the tea party. They don’t like me any­way, so I didn’t have any­thing to lose.”

Then the dom­in­oes star­ted fall­ing. Two weeks in­to the ses­sion, Scott signaled his sup­port for the bill, say­ing tu­ition rates needed to come down for every­one. Former Flor­ida Gov. Jeb Bush began act­ively cam­paign­ing for it. Gaetz quietly told Weather­ford and Latvala that he wouldn’t stand in the way. Sen­ate Rules Com­mit­tee Chair­man John Thrash­er, a close friend of Jeb Bush’s, figured out a way to by­pass the Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee and bring the meas­ure dir­ectly to the Sen­ate floor. In the end, the tally wasn’t even close. The bill passed hand­ily, 26-13, on May 1.

Latvala is proud that he helped the GOP shift its tune on im­mig­ra­tion. “I think it’s im­port­ant for our party to be in­clus­ive,” he says. “We’ve got some ground to make up with cer­tain eth­nic groups.” But, true to his tough-old-bird self, he won’t spec­u­late about next steps like leg­al­iz­a­tion. “I don’t be­lieve people who came in­to this coun­try il­leg­ally should be as­sisted by the gov­ern­ment,” he says. When it comes to oth­er meas­ures for un­doc­u­mented chil­dren, he says only, “I’ve got to get elec­ted first.”

Pacheco isn’t sur­prised to hear this. Changes in at­ti­tude don’t hap­pen overnight. “It took 10 years for me to get him to this spot, to feel this is the right thing to do,” she says. She doesn’t ex­pect everything she wants to hap­pen overnight. She be­lieves the ad­vocacy com­munity should ac­know­ledge the dif­fi­culties that Re­pub­lic­ans like Latvala en­counter when they cham­pi­on pro­pos­als to help those who, rightly or wrongly, are still in vi­ol­a­tion of the law.

“We want to be right with the law, and they love to hear that,” she says, adding that Re­pub­lic­ans need to see “the hu­man side” of the im­mig­ra­tion prob­lem. That’s why Pacheco starts all of her in­ter­ac­tions with law­makers the same way: “I’m a Dream­er.” With a whole gen­er­a­tion of young un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants say­ing the same thing, they could even­tu­ally make it easi­er for even the most con­ser­vat­ive law­makers to find a way to change the sys­tem.

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