Welcome: Action for Family Unity

Action for Family Unity collage of photos of families separated or in exile due to immigration law

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.

Sign the petition here: https://www.change.org/petitions/president-obama-and-congress-bring-home-american-families-in-exile#

One Tomorrow

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.

The author and her grandmother “GG”

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.

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.

Testing Alabama’s and ICE’s deportation process

Isaac Perez and Jonathan Berrera are currently in immigration detention in Louisiana

[quote]”Hey, what’s going on, Boss?”[/quote]

The cell phone video below shows two young activists going into a Border Patrol office in Mobile, Alabama and basically turning themselves in. Their names are Jonathan Perez and Isaac Barrera. They turned themselves in to the Border Patrol on Nov. 10 in order to test the Obama Administration’s use of prosecutorial discretion in pursuing deportations.

[quote]”What’s it to ya?”

“I’m undocumented too.”[/quote]

“We want to reveal the truth and show [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] for what they really are, as a rogue agency which has no accountability while they separate families,” Perez, a 24-year-old activist from Los Angeles, told Colorlines.com after being detained and sent to the South Louisiana Correctional Center in Basile. Perez and Barrera are interviewing other detainees and collecting other deportation stories from inside .

The action was supported by Dream Activist, a national network of grassroots groups that support passage of the Dream Act and The National Immigrant Youth Alliance. According to the Colorlines story, Perez and Barrera have been issued deportation orders, but an ICE spokesperson told Cololines that the agency has not issued detainers against them. Either way, they are still being detained and activists are trying to pressure the agency to release them before Thanksgiving.

By organizing around specific cases, mostly through online petitions and flooding ICE offices with phone calls, immigrant youth activists have managed to prevent many deportations of low priority, low risk immigrants such as Perez and Barrera—Dream Act eligible youth, people with family ties in the United States or long term residents without criminal records. These are the people that Obama has pledged and ICE has been directed not to deport.

Still, the vast majority of people being deported do not have criminal records: From October 2010 through July 2011, 81.2 percent of people ordered removed from the country had only violated immigration rules—illegal entry, overstaying visas or other administrative violations, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. That is 152,488 people. None of them had committed any other crimes.

Perez and Barrera have not gotten any press aside from the Colorlines report, as far as I can tell. But their action, along with a sit-in at the Alabama Statehouse last week and a rally at the historic 16th Street Baptist Church last night, the same church where four young black girls were killed in 1963 when white supremacists set off a bomb, is a powerful symbolic act in this time of renewed protest spirit in the United States. Risking arrest and, now, deportation, has a long history in this country of successfully demonstrating injustices to the public. The media needs to pay more attention to it.

[fblike style=”standard” showfaces=”true” verb=”recommend” font=”arial”]

The other status: Dating while undocumented

Almost a year ago, I interviewed Matias Ramos for an article about the impending DREAM Act vote. Since that time, that vote failed and Ramos continued to fight deportation. Last week, he received another stay of his standing deportation order, allowing him to remain in the United States at least through March 2010 and buying him time for the Obama Administration review of low-priority deportations that is currently underway.

Ramos credits the more than 7,000 people who signed a petition on his behalf, as well as the many people who called Immigration and Customs Enforcement asking that he be allowed to stay and continue his work.

“It has a huge positive impact … in as far as I’m able to bring attention to the issue.” Ramos said. “It’s not just me against the government; my removal would have an impact on other people’s lives.”

Many undocumented youth and immigration reform leaders spoke up on Ramos’ behalf, as he is a powerful voice for immigration reform.

But another life that would be seriously impacted by his removal is that of his American girlfriend, Lindsay McCluskey. McCluskey has been with Ramos since before he was detained at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in Feb. 2010, setting the deportation in motion. Ramos was detained at the airport after attending a historic meeting of undocumented youth in Minneapolis, though he had been public about his status for years. (He was flagged by TSA because of the ID he presented at the airport.)

“There is a whole community of people who feel it’s their self interest to not have him deported,” McCluskey said. “He’s changed me a lot in that regard. I didn’t used to see the struggle of undocumented youth as my struggle at all.”

McCluskey is a fellow activist and recent vice president of the U.S. Student Association. The two met in Aug. 2009 at Trivia Night at a D.C. bar, though Ramos’ reputation proceeded him.

“I knew about Matias before I actually knew him,” McCluskey said.

Of couse, he knew about her as well … they had met a few months prior, but McCluskey had forgotrten about it.

McCluskey separates their relationship into two periods: pre-work permit and post work permit. Ironically, it was only after Ramos was deported that he was given work authorization. There was a financial strain on their relationship at first, because Ramos did not have full-time work. Now that he is legally working as a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, they have a nicer apartment and more equitable date nights.

But there are still constant reminders of Ramos’ complicated relationship with the U.S. government. At a recent lunch at a diner with friends, Ramos took a phone call and came back to the table to announce that ICE just called to say he needed to buy a plane ticket to Buenos Aires by October 4. He paused and then delivered the punchline: they didn’t say what year though.

McCluskey also accompanied Ramos to a check-in with ICE on Sept. 13. After the check-in, an agent sent them down the block to another office, telling them only that it was an outfit that ran a program for ICE and that they were expected in a few minutes. When the couple walked into the office they looked around the packed waiting room and saw that everyone was wearing an ankle bracelet. Ramos left with one himself, walking out with his American girlfriend, feeling the shame of having to plug his leg in for three hours a day.

“It was disgusting having it on,” Ramos said.  When the batteries run low, the device beeps and then actually says: “charge your battery now.” B.I. Inc., a subsidiary of GEO Group, one of the largest private prison contractors in the country, provides “community based monitoring” for ICE.

Ramos’ attorney mentioned his American girlfriend in appealing the deportation order, to demonstrate that he has strong ties to the United States. The two have discussed marriage; Ramos could likely adjust his status in the U.S. if he married an American because he originally entered at 13 years of age, on the visa waiver program, essentially as a tourist from Argentina. But Ramos also hoped for the Dream Act to pass, conveying him legal status, or to have his case put aside after administrative review. And McCluskey never felt he needed her to get a green card.

“I’ve never felt that it was my job and Matias has never put pressure on me to do anything for his case,” she said. “For him it’s more than about his case. It’s about the relationship of undocumented people to the U.S.”

She means the official, legal relationship. But she could just as well be referring to the relationship between Americans and the undocumented people we encounter every day. Or to her relationship with an undocumented man, which has grown deeper through the stress of the deportation proceedings. Either way, the point is neither is alone—the relationship between America and the undocumented in her midst grows more and more intertwined every day.

As Ramos told me last year, on being public about being undocumented: “First you feel all alone, then you feel like other people have your back.”