Can we really fight deportations one at a time?

In the last month we’ve seen a lot of exciting news on the political front regarding support for undocumented immigrants. Undocumented Dream Activists Jonathan Perez and Isaac Barrera turned themselves in at a Border Patrol office on November 10th in an effort to draw attention to conflicting policies in the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency—ICE is not following internal policy to prioritize resources by only detaining and deporting serious criminals.

A little over a week later, on November 21, actions by the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice (ACIJ, One Family One Alabama Rally) brought together a number of elected officials from the states of California, Illinois, New York, Texas, and Arizona to hear from Alabaman elected officials, law enforcement and community members about how the draconian HB56 is undermining the economy, security, and collective spirit of goodwill and justice in their state.

Countless journalists and media outlets are cropping up increasing the amount of in-depth, well-balanced coverage that the subject deserves (see our blogroll) This is positive press, and a step in the right direction as far as I’m concerned. More and more people are questioning the increasingly intolerant environment that hardworking undocumented immigrants encounter in the U.S.  It’s more heartening than President Obama’s relative silence on the matter of being the one President who’s deported the most individuals (and his term isn’t even up). A perception of outrage and action is far better than the depressing panorama revealed by the competing Republican candidates for the 2012 elections with regard to immigration policy.

But there is one immigration and the media-related phenomenon that I feel like I ought to view as positive but that in reality I view as somewhat concerning. It is the amount of petition signing requests I’ve received regarding individuals on the brink of deportation in the last several months. Don’t get me wrong—ever since I became an environmental activist at 15, I learned the power of petitions for enacting change. And ever since I got Internet at my house where I live in exile with my husband (a former undocumented immigrant in Mexico), I dutifully sign on to these sites and sign the petitions. I don’t normally “state a reason” for signing the petition, but if I were to, I’d say something like, “Read the inscription on the Statue of Liberty” or “because this student wants to contribute to American society, and we need more people like him/her.” Then I think to myself, I hope they have better luck than we did, and go on with my day’s business. Some of them do, happily, end in victory.

It’s not that I’m not against getting signatures on petitions per se—the problem I see is that the cases aren’t letting up, much less ever ending. Today I read a tweet that we need to get someone home with their fiancee by Christmas. I think to myself, yes, we do, but how many other thousands of individuals besides this one person would also like to be home for the holidays with their loved ones? Last week I read an article by Valeria Fernandez about a woman from Michoacan whose husband is American and whose run of luck in the U.S. may be about to come to an end. She has all the same potential tragedy if she had to go back to Mexico as any of the petition requests I’ve received; she would be separated from her family, her business would be ruined, etc. But a quick search on change.org revealed no hits for Maria Teresa Fuentes. As I read the article, her story sounded more and more eerily like my husband’s previous situation, and the sense of helplessness we had when facing our final decision to take destiny into our own hands and move to Mexico. Her husband’s comment: “I just want to go to Washington D.C. (to) meet with someone there and see what we can do to help my wife,” he said. “This gives me so much grief. Someone has to listen.”

But every time I receive a petition benefiting a single person’s case, I can’t help but wonder if trying to win immigration reform case by case is the most strategic direction for the movement to go in. Even though I’m experiencing the direct effects of displacement by deportation, I have yet to feel fully entitled to make my strategy criticisms public, since I’m “only a spouse” and “not an expert” (hopefully I’ll get over that issue). But I ask anyways: what would happen if we combined all the energy spent on individual cases and petitions and used it to lobby for comprehensive immigration reform on Capitol Hill that we can rely on, that’s truly fair and just, and/or, in the case of ICE, agency-wide policy follow-through?

More than most people I know, I want to see undocumented students be able to complete their educations and go on to be successful professionals as legal U.S. residents. I want immigrant spouses to be able to stay with their American families on U.S. soil (or wherever they choose) without having to go through stressful forced relocations the way we’ve had to (or worse). But I am concerned about the current nature of the discourse and political action regarding immigration reform.

My most idealistic expectation is that we shouldn’t need to start a petition, or find a representative in Washington for every single case. More than just victorious immigration cases that boil down to luck or influence, opportunities are needed for people who don’t have access to sites like change.org but who still deserve a shot at legalization. I worry that today’s “good feeling” of one victorious petition campaign, despite making a positive but tiny dent, distracts us from the overall panorama—that millions of individuals are living in an undeserved underground due to a long detour in how our country values its immigrants of all skill levels and skin colors. We need to acknowledge the importance of all immigrants to American society, not just the wealthy, well-educated, or papered ones, and work to eliminate the knee-jerk biases that come with incomplete understandings of the system.

There is a lot of history to this movement that I’m not privy to, despite the fact that I’ve read and experienced much more about it than most of my friends and family. There have been all sorts of failed attempts at reform and even worse laws passed that have made things worse for immigrants and polarized the situation further. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, the U.S. immigration scene, the kind that pits descendants of undocumented immigrants against their brethren who don’t have the benefit of laxer laws or amnesty. It’s the kind of situation  that leaves activists with no choice but to split into factions and seek their best chances in Congress. Dream Activists may be uniquely suited for organizing around this issue, as students in a closer-knit collegiate setting. And it’s harder to argue with the idea that young children and students who arrived in the U.S. undocumented by no choice of their own ought to be extended the same rights as legal residents, vs. getting behind adults who, despite not having had “a line to wait in,” made an adult decision to seek economic refuge via illegal entry.

Perhaps that’s where the problem arises: the inherent lack of unity among the individuals affected by these policies (I’d argue, all of us).  It’s a difficult matter to speak frankly about, even in families with affected individuals. But it’s a matter we must address if we are to make any substantial headway in terms of comprehensive immigration reform.

And when it comes to activism that targets positive change in the lives of immigrants, I would hope that in addition to campaigns won by the individuals who manage to pull off major online mobilization or gain personal favor in Washington, public backlash will grow and coalesce against policies that unfairly target ALL individuals, students and adults alike, who frankly, the U.S. economy and many American families depend on.

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