In a transcript of an appearance on Univision’s “Al Punto con Jorge Ramos,” House Representative Steve King claimed that, “it isn’t [his] responsibility to solve that problem,” in reference to the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. This is the same Rep. King (R-IA) who has compared undocumented immigrants to dogs and asserted that he’s picked up immigrants with calves the size of cantaloupes, a remark that’s earning him the distancing of fellow House Republicans John Boehner, Eric Cantor and Raul Labrador.
But on the subject of responsibility, it raises a good point as to whose role it is to deal with the issue of immigration reform. King asserts that the full responsibility for their illegal status lies with the immigrant him or herself, because they step into the situation willingly. One could assume that the next logical assumption is that undocumented immigrants want to alleviate themselves of that responsibility, i.e. through amnesty. However, I’d be hard pressed to think of an undocumented immigrant that I know who is asking someone else to take responsibility for them. Far from it, actually, especially given how hard workers most of the undocumented immigrants I have ever known are. They are usually the ones who are taking responsibility for many others—their American citizen children, their American citizen spouses, their family and extended family members back home. Without even wanting to, millions of undocumented immigrants shoulder economic responsibility for American citizens. They pay taxes into the IRS coffers and into a Social Security system that they will never see a dime from—to the tune of $11.2 billion dollars in 2010—which, when compared to giant American corporations who pay little to nothing, makes you wonder, why the misdirected vilification?
Beyond those who have citizen or permanent resident spouses or children, it’d be difficult to name an undocumented immigrant who hasn’t contributed in some responsible way to American society by contributing to the economy, producing crops, building homes, caring for young children, preparing food, working in virtually all aspects of American industry, in some way adding their daily bread to the fabric of American society, whether seen or unseen. Denying their contributions does not make them or their contributions disappear.
The undocumented immigrant whose level of responsibility I knew best was the one who I lived with in the U.S. until 2006—my husband. We moved to his home country of Mexico in 2006 because, despite being legally married and seeking avenues for legalization for several years, I could not assume the legal responsibility of adjusting his status, although we were legally married. Ironically, in the end, it was my husband the undocumented immigrant, who was the one who took primary financial responsibility for our family, in that he was making better income despite our disparate educational backgrounds, and allowed me to pay off my car loan, as well as my college loan, five years early.
But the panorama never looked better than bleak for obtaining legal status for my husband, despite several trips to lawyers. In 2006, I was working as a science teacher and finishing up my Masters. That same year, House Rep. James Sensenbrenner proposed laws that would have made it a felony for me to even drive in the same vehicle as my husband. One state after another passed laws that treated undocumented immigrants more and more harshly. I doubted the political will of Congress to finally live up to its country’s immigrant legacy and make good on its debt to the millions of individuals who have contributed for decades to American society, regardless of the piece of paper they did not hold.
Almost a decade after we’d married in California, I ended up in Mexico with my husband, we had a daughter, and I’d almost given up hope that I’d ever get back to the United States with him. I’d made my peace that maybe we might never go back because the political climate in Washington is as fickle as the wind that blows. But then that spark of political will stirred this past January, as we were finishing the manuscript of Amor and Exile. Those who’d been hopeless for so long suddenly were taken with optimism once again. We organized, we rallied, we lobbied, our messages were well received.
Many people didn’t want to engage in the rollercoaster ride of hope, fear, optimism, and pessimism. They’d been let down too many times before. They didn’t want to be let down again. But many felt it was different this time, that we were reaching a critical mass of support for immigration reform, and that we really had a chance at progress. Now many of us are questioning again.
It’s partially because there are some politicians who are bound and determined to make sure our hopes are ignored, that our demands go unanswered, that societal justice continues to go unserved. Another part is that we who are living this struggle on a daily basis are tired. We have lives, we can not go on fighting indefinitely. We also wonder when our fellow citizens will care enough to go to bat for us with their elected officials and help drive the support for this effort home—essentially, to bring our families home.
I may have found the way to survive, I’ve got my Plan B’s, and I might still thrive in the long run. But I have counterparts whose lifelines are much thinner. So much work has been put in by thousands of activists, lobbyists and legislators toward immigration reform.
So whereas some legislators may not see 11 million undocumented people’s fate as their responsibility, let me take a stab at a response to King’s assertion. They don’t want to be your responsibility, Rep. King. They want to be officially recognized for the responsibilities they’ve already taken on and met in a way that often exceeds the level of responsibility that many Americans will ever know.
And to go a step further, I’d assert that yes, it is the role of legislators to deal with immigration law—which is, in fact, the reason why undocumented immigrants have the illegal status that they do. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) changed the rules of the game in a drastic way in 1996, criminalizing undocumented immigration to an unprecedented extent that has had far-reaching effects not just on the lives of 11 million undocumented immigrants, but also in the fates of hundreds of thousands of their U.S. citizen family members, and members of their communities. An extent that some might say, changed the face of immigration in a country founded by immigrants.
Thankfully, many legislators still see it as their role to assume responsibility for fixing a broken immigration system that is currently causing more harm than it should. Even Speaker of the House John Boehner, who appeared wholly unsupportive of SB 744 just last month, has conceded the “need to educate members about the hundreds of issues involved in fixing our legal immigration system and the problem of those who are here in an undocumented fashion.”
Seven days until we go to Washington to deliver Amor and Exile to Congress. Even though we’ve already bought plane tickets and are thick into planning trip logistics, part of me still “no le ha caido el veinte.” That’s what they say here when something still hasn’t hit you yet.
Maybe it’s because I’m still so far away, in Mexico. I haven’t been to Washington in decades, but its policies affect me daily.
Maybe it’s because I’m still incredulous—and not only that we surpassed our campaign goal to raise $11,000 to send a copy of our book to every member of Congress. It’s still sinking in that we are finally done with our book, something that took over 3 years to complete and that’s required some serious trials of endurance to accomplish as a team.
There are times when this whole ride still seems somewhat dream-like (sometimes nightmarish). I got on this roller coaster nearly 12 years ago, when I met my husband, who is Mexican, in San Francisco in 2001. That’s when everything began to change for me. I discovered that our country has an undocumented class. I discovered that in many cases, marriage makes no difference any more. I had to decide whether to leave my country to keep my marriage together. I had to say goodbye to my friends, my family, my career as a science teacher. I moved to Mexico.
I’m currently sitting in the office of the Secretary of Exterior Relations. I took the bus here in the scorching, pre-rainy season Querétaro heat to get a Mexican passport. I need it in addition to my U.S. passport because I’ve been naturalized here since 2011. Becoming a Mexican citizen isn’t something I set out in life to do, but it was something that made economic and practical sense since my husband and I have to be here at least 10 years until he is eligible to apply for an I-212 waiver of his permanent bar from legally immigrating to the U.S. I am getting a Mexican passport so I can legally leave this country to go to my home country’s capital next week to ask that my husband, my family and millions of others like us might someday have a chance at getting a passport too.
They are very kind to me here, but of course, they are just as much about the rules as they are in the U.S. When I had to pay an unexpected $90 for a passport that I would really prefer to not purchase given my bank account’s precipitously low level, I tried to remember why I am doing this. It’s all for the long run—for my family’s well-being, to travel in good international stead, so I can claim my rightful spot among the many voices asking for legislative redress of a decades-long difficult situation—in person—no longer from afar.
When I was 23 and fell in love with my husband, I soon found out how much we were up against, and my world turned upside down. A long-time activist, I became silenced by fear, by disempowerment, for many more years than I could have imagined. I came close to losing faith in the system. But little by little, once in Mexico, as my cynicism about returning someday converted to self-reliance and survival (and sometimes thriving) in a developing country, I very slowly began to find my voice again. And then came Amor and Exile, after several years in it. I’ve regained some guarded hope in 2013—not just because of my own strength, but also with the support of others. I didn’t know it when I was 23, but I know now that I was never alone—that millions would experience my fate. Their stories, their struggles, are part of what propels me forward.
Perhaps what’s become clearer than ever as a result of this labor of bringing light to the very dark debate over immigration is the following: for every negative commentary or political prediction I hear about this issue, I observe something really positive. Not only is every single one of us who’s separated from our spouses, in exile, or living undocumented in the U.S. not alone—there are millions—but we all have families and friends who want us back safe in our communities. And they have friends too. We have friends and family who are willing to close the distance on thousands of miles and the seemingly similar distances in political rhetoric between where we are and where we want to be. That is the difference between what I knew at 23 and what I know now, and that is what I will try to remember every moment that I’m making it known while in Washington, D.C. next week.
Our stories just keep coming out, and out, and out. The farther we come out, the more scary it feels, but it also feels so wonderful to read and hear the words of our supporters as they join the call to legislators to help bring us home.
These past two weeks have been really amazing. Just last month, I was thinking it would be hard to get families like ours (in exile or facing exile due to immigration laws) organized into a cohesive political force to be dealt with. But then I put out a call asking if anyone knew of specific organizations dedicated to lobbying for our issues. There aren’t many—our presence on the media map is very sparse, despite our large numbers. There are a wide variety of organizations doing great advocacy work and coming up with exciting solutions, too many to list here. But if you’re interested, Prerna Lal, one of my favorite immigration bloggers, suggested a list of sites to start with here.
One thing happened after another. A fellow exile blogger, Raquel Magaña, got back to me with a few ideas of people to be in touch with. The first was Ellin Jimmerson, director and producer of The Second Cooler, a moving documentary that focuses on how immigration is a human rights and workers’ rights issue (Thank you Ellin).
Next thing I knew, I was messaging like crazy with other women in exile—in the U.S., South America, Mexico, South Korea. This was nothing new for many of them—they’ve been in touch with each other for a while—a long time for some, and attracting press to put our issues on the map. But my efforts on activism have been isolated to advocacy back in 2006 (the SF marches) and getting my memoir out over the last 2 years, with the occasional petition signature, and I hadn’t been a part of any online forum before.
But I also got the sense that the call for action was burning really bright for some women. We’re supportive of the broad movements, we’re supportive of the more specific ones, like those of the DREAMers. But we’re also afraid of getting left out of upcoming reform (Some might say we’ve got a snowball’s chance in hell, but we’re going to try anyways). So suddenly, we formed a group. It has a name and plans for action and collaboration and everything. It all happened so fast. We submitted our pictures and a beautiful mosaic image of them was made. We shared our stories, some intensely personal and not for public eyes. We began building trust in the best way possible without having met our colleagues before, while making up your own rules. We did a petition.
Raquel summed it up well with this comment:
“You will find that every one of these women has a story to be told… and those stories will be told, with heart, with passion, and with the truth of how their individual rights have been overlooked. These ladies will conquer the truth in this history made in their pens and that should promote a government official to execute some relief NOW. When threatened to be overlooked, there is organization. Family unity…there are too many to ignore.”
I am totally floored by how we’re managing to collectively surf this wave of energy we all have, to DO SOMETHING on behalf of our families and others like ours. I have no idea where all this will lead. This is purely voluntary, we all have day jobs, and no financial base to grow from. But I do know that I am feeling a hell of a lot more inspired than I was a month ago, when I wasn’t sure of what I could do beyond writing my story.
I believe in the power of the critical mass. And I wouldn’t be ashamed if we didn’t “make it” this time. As I’ve said before, I’m in this for the long haul.
Most importantly, we’re coming together. For action. Which brings me back to the petition. I wrote it with the help of others and I think it’s very powerful. It sums up our goals pretty well. All the comments I’ve read by my friends, family members, people I don’t even know, bring tears of joy to my eyes. And we hope it will continue to get signed like crazy. Help our group out with that, would you? And stay posted, as this probably won’t be the last thing you’ll hear about it.
People have been asking me if I saw Obama’s inaugural speech. I probably should, just to be “informed.” My not having seen it has less to do with me being a cynic than my not wanting to be let down again. Ever since his victory speech in 2008, I’ve been riding a hot air balloon with a slow leak.
Today, idealistic feet planted fully on the ground, even with rumors of impending immigration reform, I prefer not to entertain illusions of quick fixes to my family’s problem of a 10-year exile in Central Mexico. Even so, I just don’t have the heart to reveal the full extent of my reservations to my 90-year old grandmother. Her grandparents were immigrants from Germany, settling to farm in Central New York, much in the same way my father’s side of the family immigrated from Mexico a couple generations ago.
Last week my grandmother told me she really wanted to read our book. I wish I could snap my fingers and a publisher would pick it up this week. More than giving her the satisfaction of reading her favorite granddaughter’s story, it would help explain the tangled tale of why whatever immigration reform the administration is plotting probably won’t benefit my family and me.
Last night, she asked me about the inaugural speech. Did I see it? It was great. I told her no, that I’d rather just hear about the new laws getting passed than getting my hopes dashed again. That I wish he would stand up to corporations trying to milk our country dry of every last taxpayer dollar. I’d much prefer to hear about new initiatives passed investing in solar power than hear that Keystone XL is getting new rein in the Lower 48. But when she told me she wanted to send a letter to our senator, Chuck Schumer, I thought to myself, what could Chuck do at this point? We’re not a Dreamer in a university town with several thousand signatures behind us. We’re an unlikely unit of three: one Mexican man with a junior-high education who just wants to have meaningful work, one Ivy-League educated thirty-something, years away from her career and a toddler who might never go to school in her second country of citizenship. But I kept silent, because who am I to knock a great-grandmother’s undying optimism?
I share my grandmother’s hope, and the hope of millions: I want meaningful immigration laws passed, the kind that would allow my husband, daughter and me to return home to the U.S. together as a family. I’d rather see this happen than hearing for the umpteenth time that immigration reform is in the news, or surmise that Latinos are simply pawns in another political game. Our story is a part of the book Amor and Exile because I wanted to share our voice and illustrate an incredibly complex subject in that way that only a personal tale can. In the event that we cannot get our book to the public before the immigration reform debate happens, I’ll need to find another way to contribute to this debate.
But I’ll admit, I’m struggling to figure out how to do more than what I’ve already done. Championing immigration reform is a bittersweet battle for me. Although millions of youth and families like ours—and the U.S. economy—stand to benefit from immigration reform, because our family is suffering from a draconian time bar, the likelihood that we will benefit is very slim.
Of course I do allow opportunities for inspiration. I listened to part of that speech today, to Richard Blanco’s inaugural poem. His message of unity, of vision beyond the things that separate us struck a chord of kinship in me, even released some tears to cleanse my eyes that are frankly too young to be so chronically pessimistic. With this choice of poet, with this message of hope, I look forward to some choice actions taking the place of choice words on Capitol Hill this year. And in listening to this poet’s work, I am inspired to rise to the challenge of communicating exactly why it is that I can’t go home, and how, in an ideal world, my fellow citizens could help get me back there. I’ve always been a willing soldier of idealism, and I know there is a lot of work to do.
Maybe if I get to go back home to the U.S. with my family as a result of this next presidential term, I will watch that inaugural speech after all.
Six years ago, ten years felt like an eternity. Our waiting period. Ten years, and then a request for a “pardon” and a shot at a visa application for my husband. Every year I returned to the States, alone, every time, feeling so sad about having to leave my husband in Mexico. Our hopes are about so much more than a visa. Our hopes are about keeping our family together. For me, having to travel alone for 6 years meant it started to affect me a little less every year than the first time.
Now, on this seventh trip back (one year I went twice), my husband’s the one with tears in his eyes. For the record, I’ve seen Margo with tears in his eyes maybe three times in the eleven years I’ve known him. This time, it was at dinner. Tomorrow, he bids me and his toddler goodbye for three weeks while she accompanies me as a bridesmaid in my friend’s wedding in CA, and my grandmother’s 90th birthday in NY. It’s perhaps not as traumatic a separation as some families experiences when a parent is deported or jailed, but it hurts all the same. I tried to reassure him that we’d call twice a day, and we’d be in good hands, and I’d be as patient as possible with our daughter in his absence (he’s the good cop), but that wasn’t what was upsetting him. “I know, but it’s just frustrating,” Margo said “it’s difficult.”
I started to tear up myself in realizing just how rough this was going to feel for my husband this time around. But then he remembered the one beer I bought him earlier and the mini bottle of wine I got myself a couple days ago. “I want to be able to celebrate the night before we go,” I had said. “Se me estaba pasando,” Margo said, almost forgetting. We poured a glass and I reminded him of the possibility that when 2016 comes we might actually get lucky. “The first lawyer was a lying optimist, the second and third lawyers were truth-telling pessimists, so maybe this fourth lawyer is a truth-telling optimist,” I said, regarding some recent encouraging legal advice we’d heard about our case.
He managed a half-smile, and we toasted. “To 6 down, and 4 to go,” I said. Que sera asi.
Nathaniel and I have been away for a few months hunkering down on our next chapters in the book. But I’ve come up for air for the few days before we enter collaborative editing mode again (hooray!) this Thursday, when we’ll swap chapters and then tear them to pieces. It was a new thing for me, writing a chapter in between work days (I now teach at an English school as well) and at naptimes (previously, I hadn’t honed the fine art of only writing for a couple hours at a time while my daughter napped). Although I’m fairly content with the final product, I’m a little nervous about the collaborative editing process for this one. Not that Nate and I haven’t honed our process (we actually have come a long way in that, and think our way of doing things now brings out the better writer in each of us), but because this chapter felt like more of a doozy for me than my first two.
This chapter (unnamed for now) is centered on my husband and my departure together from the U.S. in mid-2006. It was fairly straightforward to write but mined innumerable emotions, the kind felt as we waffled back and forth on the decision as to whether we’d leave the U.S. to move together back to Margo’s hometown, and if so, when. I obviously get into it in much more detail in the book but suffice it to say that making the intentional leap to leave your friends, family, profession, and economic well-being is no small task. Going back through everything I thought, felt, and experienced along the way of making that decision and then going through with it (I draw heavily on my journals for my chapters) was emotionally intense, to say the least.
And what was weirder for me this time is that it wasn’t so tough while I was writing it, but got tougher when I was almost done. I’d written quite a bit of the last part of the chapter (which is basically our border crossing story) years ago, but went back and carved it up and rewrote it for Amor and Exile. In doing so, and in rereading the chapter to my husband, I relived the whole experience, which brought up a lot of feelings I thought I’d put to bed a long time ago (guess again).
Leaving behind friends, family, and familiar places were tough, but I still have contact with them and I can still visit. What stirred up the most distressing feelings for me upon revisiting them were the parts about leaving my job, and the actual border crossing itself. I don’t feel like I ever quite got back on track after derailing my professional trajectory (although I have undertaken a number of satisfying projects), and so that’s probably why I feel unsettled about that piece still.
The move south in its entirety was one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done, even though the actual border crossing itself was one the most stressful things I’ve ever done. I’m not sure why, but I got the notion to take another look at our route on Google maps. Below are a few images that I came up with. They virtually brought me back down memory lane.
This was the route we took from the San Francisco Bay Area to Margo’s hometown of Queretaro, Mexico. We stopped off in Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon because we don’t know if Margo will ever be back in the United States again someday, and well, those are two places you’ve just got to visit before you die.
This is a zoomed-in view of more or less where we crossed in Nogales, AZ to Nogales, Mex. Marker A shows where we had to stop unexpectedly, throwing a bit of a wrench into our plans.
It was precisely in this lot/parking lot that we had to sit sweating it out (literally) for a few hours while our truck’s legal paperwork was being done (none for my husband, unfortunately).
I couldn’t find imagery for the Homeland Security Department building that we passed when were almost out of the United States (maybe for security reasons). But it was quite a cathartic feeling to both finally be in Mexico and be done with rereading that part of the chapter to my husband. As much as it tears me up what we had to do, and how much I have to retell the tale in order to carry out my vision of telling our story, I’m comforted by the following quote from Buddhist master Chogyam Trungpa:
‘We wear out the shoe of samsara by walking on it through the practice of meditation…so meditation practice or spiritual development depend on samsaras.”
I see my story of leaving the U.S. and coming to Mexico as part of my own personal samsara—kind of like an emotional roller coaster ride. And so the trauma of having done so will eventually fade as I “wear it out” by telling the story over and over again. But in order to tell the story, I must have experienced it in the first place.
Or something like that.
Now that all the hype has died down from the proposed changes to immigration rules by the Obama administration, immigration has returned to its normal back burner location in the media. And those of us in exile, whose lives aren’t yet affected (or won’t ever be) by these small, potential policy alterations, simply go on with the daily reality of being detached from our home countries for an indeterminate amount of time. Not that I got too excited about the announcement in the first place. Sure, I think it would be great for the immigration process to be easier for families, but with the exception of the latest Keystone announcement, and especially demonstrated by the indefinite detention bill, Obama hasn’t had the greatest track-record at promise-keeping. The fact that this announcement was made in an election year, when he’s had the last four years to do it (or more, like not be the top deportation president) also makes me wonder if this is a popularity ploy.
But my point here is not to single out Obama as the cause of our immigration woes. The origin of that problem goes back way beyond him and also isn’t the point of this post. The dialogue that the rule-changes generated was good news to me, but I must confess I wasn’t inspired by the announcement, so I wasn’t compelled to comment on it. That was a good thing because I didn’t have the chance to do so. In fact it was probably a really good thing I was so busy training at my new job, because that way I didn’t have time to get too bummed out that the new rules would have zero effect on my husband’s and my case.
At the end of 2012, some personal situations developed, including a medical problem, that forced my hand economically and led me to take on part-time work that unfortunately means a temporary break from writing my piece for Amor and Exile. Since the beginning of this month, I’ve just been assisting Nathaniel with editing his chapters, hoping for moments like today to get back on our blog, but with sustained optimism that it won’t be too long before I can get back to finishing my chapters.
One of the only things that’s good about being so busy that you don’t have much time to think (much less write) is that disturbing thoughts, well, disturb you less. The prospect of a regular income also does enough for your panorama that it helps distract you from negativity that might otherwise cloud your focus. But that doesn’t mean that the disappointing fact that the proposed rule changes won’t help us didn’t get discussed. In fact, last night it came up in the kitchen, in the context of an edit I did of Nathaniel’s chapter on waivers. I’d mentioned to Margo that not one, not two, but three of the individuals profiled in the book are from the state we live in, Queretaro, and what a small world it is. He mulled this over and wondered aloud about another couple we know who’s in exile, spefically how their prospects for legalization compare to our own. I acknowledged that they had a long road ahead of them, and we chatted a bit about the arbitrary nature of immigration agents’ decisions on individual cases, and how when it comes down to it, your future fate in the U.S. has a lot to do with luck. Then we had dinner and put the topic out of our heads.
But some things are too disturbing to ignore, elbowing their way into your consciousness without even saying “excuse me.” That same night, perhaps inspired by chapter editing, I made time to pen a short post on my own blog as an update to my evolving personal situation. I mentioned the same friend whose fate we’d been contemplating while cooking dinner, and how we’d recently learned she was expecting and how I felt lucky to be able to provide her with some guidance and advice about impending motherhood in a foreign country. Right as I finished my post, though, that same friend messaged me: they’d just received some damning feedback about their immigration case, that they’d just gotten their FOIA back, that their attorney hadn’t represented them in the way they would have liked, that they’d have to stay here longer than they’d hoped, etc. She was completely distraught.
I tried to console her in the best way I knew how, drawing on the years that I’d lived in my own personal hell of being mentally consumed by not being able to live where I wanted to due to my husband’s legal immigration situation. But she was just so down that she was practically inconsolable, and I knew she just had to go through it herself. In the end it’s a deeply personal journey to the other side of accepting that, if you want to stay with your partner, you might have to live the rest of your life in a country that you never chose to live in. Going to bed, I thought about how much our situation has strained our relationship, how much I wish I had had someone in my shoes to talk to when I went through those worst moments of losing hope and my way. How people who observe our situation might think I am especially strong to be able to withstand the last 5 years of my life in a less than ideal professional and social situation, but how vulnerable I still feel.
I can sit back and watch the hype rise and fall when it comes to politically motivated legislative proposals. But when individual tragedies plague my mind, like those of our friend, who ultimately reminded me of the aspects of our own situation that I prefer not to think of daily, I feel driven to speak out. Knowing that the handful of compelling stories I’m personally acquainted with are so few, but so emblematic of a continent-wide problem (I might go so far as to even say tragedy—my friend graduated at the top of her class in her graduate school), it outrages me. So little of this comes out in the national dialogue on immigration. It deepens my commitment to share our story, to not let it get swept under the rug as yet another piece of collateral damage (read: deportations) in the war on culture, drugs, bilateral trade agreements, or whatever we deem as the root cause(s) of our broken immigration system. I don’t disagree that Mexico has a lot of its own responsibility, or that some deportation cases involve unsavory individuals that don’t deserve to stay in the U.S. But the vast majority of individuals seeking adjustment of status are just hard-working people who, like all immigrants who’ve built America, want a chance to continue contributing to society, legitimately. Further, how can we ignore that yes, immigrants, both undocumented and legal, do make a positive impact on our economy, especially at a time when that push is so needed?
Halfway into my period of de facto exile before we can apply to re-enter the U.S. as a family, I can’t say I am much clearer on how or why this system works the way it does. Or what it means for my life, like where I’ll be in five years. Like my friend, I’ve felt this uncomfortable context one too many times in the past, one in which our emotions, our lives, are at the mercy of politically-rooted government proposals and decisions, that appear and fade as arbitrarily as the wind blows. Also, like my friend, I want nothing more than to have a shred of control over our destiny. Ironically, this leads me closer to a point where I cease to allow my expectations about our case’s final outcome to have the power to determine my quality of life. I wish it could be the same for everyone in my situation, but I’m afraid we can’t depend on the politicians to take care of that problem for us.
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.