As we prepare to take Amor and Exile to San Francisco for a serendipitous event this week at the International Institute of the Bay Area, immigration reform efforts in Congress appear as stalled as ever. But the same cannot be said of action in the streets. Just last week, in San Francisco, immigration activists temporarily blocked a bus carrying deportees.
“Us, the community, have to step up and prevent the separation of families and keep our communities together,” protester Dean Santos told KTVU.
[box type=”info”]Join Nathaniel Hoffman and Nicole Salgado (who will attempt to Skype in from the field) on October 24 for a discussion at the International Institute of the Bay Area, 657 Mission St., starting at 5:30 pm (reception). Free event, open to the public. RSVP on Facebook.[/box]
The protest in San Francisco followed larger protests and direct action training in Arizona three days prior in which activists also blocked “deportation buses” in Phoenix and Tucson. The consistent and clear calls for keeping families together — to “prevent the separation of families,” as Santos put it above — have not been heard in Congress nor in the halls of public opinion. Even when an actual member of Congress, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, a Chicago Democrat, travels around the country, for years, talking about keeping immigrant families together and keeping American families together, even when he’s arrested for it, the message does not come through.
Why? Why is the American public and the majority of Congress deaf to these calls for family unity? There are at least two reasons, hinging on the political and the personal realms. Politically, there is momentum to transform our immigration policy from one emphasizing family unity and family migration, as we have since the 1960s, to a more utilitarian focus on labor markets.
The super-positive pro-immigrant campaign coming out of Silicon Valley, the one that’s all over my Facebook feed, embodies this shift in many ways. While they are doing cool things like training activists in hacktivism, and they support a broad legalization program, their line on immigration reform focuses on workforce needs in the tech sector, innovation and talent. It’s exemplified by this month’s cover of Wired Magazine, a story about a young math whiz in Matamoros headlined “The Next Steve Jobs.” While the story is ostensibly about innovation in pedagogical techniques, the cover shot and the protagonist’s proximity to the border are clear references to immigration. Good ones, but, references that largely ignore relationships and families.
These sentiments away from family-based immigration are echoed in the Senate immigration bill, S. 744, which eliminates sibling sponsorship, limits green cards for adult children and kills the diversity visa in favor of new, merit-based visa tracks, tied to workforce needs.
Still, the Silicon Valley version of keeping families together could be re-couched in terms of networking. One of the arguments in Amor and Exile is that people frequently come to America for jobs, to be sure, but they come because someone told them about a job. A cousin, a brother, a mother who is already here put them in contact with a potential employer. Migration of any sort is a highly networked activity, built on relationships. That’s something that the LinkedIn set could easily sink its teeth into, echoing the family values arguments that anti-deportation activists are making.
The second reason politicians are not hearing the pleas of families separated through deportation is much more odious. It has to do with another central argument of Amor and Exile, that our immigration system is built from the dominant racial dynamics of the era. The fact is, many in Congress and many Americans in general do not see immigrant families, mixed-status families or bi-racial families as having equal claims to family values. Dean Santos, cited above, is portrayed in the media first as a former deportee, a stranger in our midst, and thus a second class citizen. His ties to the United States, to political activism and to relatives and friends here, are secondary.
Until the recent overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act, same-sex couples were officially viewed as second class citizens for purposes of immigration (and many other federal benefits) as well. That changed, in no small part, as public sentiment toward gay marriage shifted in the wake of several years of super positive press coverage of gay couples. Everyone, it turns out, loves a wedding.
Which is why I was very pleased to see another form of direct action in August, as U.S. citizen Edgar Falcon wed his Mexican bride, Maricruz Valtierra, from opposite sides of the Paso del Norte bridge in El Paso. According to the El Paso Times article, Customs and Border Protection officials said border weddings are performed with some regularity in El Paso. We need to see more of these border weddings. Congress needs to see the white dresses and the mariachi bands and guests bearing blenders and wooden spoons. And Congress needs to hear from the teary parents of the betrothed who are forced to Skype into the wedding parties.
The immigrant youth movement is keyed into this fact; the annual Dreamer Graduation in Washington, D.C., included a wedding ceremony this past July, a lesbian wedding no less. But, and this is a key point, there will be no sudden outpouring of public, mixed-status weddings until something is done to curb the record numbers of deportations. I had a conversation with a strong immigration activist recently and throughout our talk I assumed she was already public about her husband’s undocumented status. But at the end of the conversation, when I asked her about possibly quoting her, she said no, that no one knows about his status. That it’s too risky still, too personal.
That is a key difference between the marriage equality movement, which is on such a roll in the public eye and the courts, and the immigration reform movement, which has been stymied in Congress. There are serious consequences to losing a state marriage equality fight to be sure, including violent repercussions. But they are different from the consequences of losing a public battle for a spousal green card, which can result in detention, separation and exile for families.
There are growing numbers of congressmen who have been to these weddings and know these couples, such as Rep. Beto O’Rourke in the CSPAN clip below. Every member of Congress has access to our book, Amor and Exile, and if they lost it, we’d be happy to send another. But let’s get them down to the border to see these regular border weddings, rather than the barbed wire and drone tours, which are so much more popular.