The political-personal border

Long-standing “problems” with immigration and the border. The recently unveiled immigration reform proposal by President Obama. Our book. My own life. Never before has the political felt so urgent and personal to me, and yet never before have I felt so reticent about diving into political matters.

That’s kind of weird, so I’ve got to explore this. Although I’ve never held public office, I’ve also never shied away from politics. That’s probably because I never made much of a distinction between the personal and the political per se—at least as defined by Google dictionary (see below*) If you accept those definitions, you could say I got political pretty young, when I began organizing on behalf of the environment. I guess ever since my family exposed me to nature and I attended those camps as a kid, I decided the environment was something important to me, and it seemed like a no-brainer that whatever we did as individuals or a society had an impact on our greater world. Although I was long drawn to leadership positions, I was always far from feeling uniquely empowered—to the contrary, I was convinced (and still am) that anyone and everyone could make a difference in their community with a minimum of effort, and with good reason—my friends and colleagues and I managed to do some pretty incredible things.

Artwork from National Museum of Independence in Dolores Hidalgo, Gto. MX

It was with this sense of confidence that I first approached the issue of adjusting my husband’s immigration status. But as we recount in Amor and Exile, almost everyone who becomes involved with an undocumented immigrant eventually runs into a wall of legal complexity that seems impossible to overcome. Everyone deals with their disempowerment in different ways, and the reasons for their decisions are as intricate as the laws and societal pressures that influence them. Some couples fight tooth and nail to achieve official status for the undocumented partner, and win (or lose). Some couples prefer self-preservation and live under the radar for a short time, or forever. Some stay together. Some are separated. The living situations can be voluntary or forced. Our situation is a combination of several of the above.

Despite circulating a few articles or petitions regarding immigration, I’ve actually spent relatively little energy specifically on immigration action. It might seem odd in light of my inclination to activism, but I think there are several reasons for it. One was circumstantial, and had to do with the fact that around the time I began dating my husband, I was starting to become aware of how exhausting community organizing can be—they call it burnout—and I was at a point in my life where I began to prioritize my energies. I chose to focus on education vs. political activism. I’ve also unfortunately developed some sense of powerlessness over the last 10 years when faced with our limited number of choices, and the extent of people’s knee-jerk reactions about immigration issues is painful to behold. However, I’ve spent a ton of time thinking about our situation and how it relates to the larger political panorama, and always wished I could do more.

Now that one of the decisions I’ve made with regard to Margo’s former undocumented status in the U.S. is to write about it, our story has come into the public light. According to the first definition below, that automatically makes contributing to this book a political act, although that’s not my original intention—I simply had a vision to tell a story. It’s exciting because, as scary as it is, it’s my hope that telling our story could have some positive impact on others in our situation. Despite this, I feel reticent to make any sort of general political statement about my feelings about immigration reform—especially in response to President Obama’s recently unveiled proposal, which Nathaniel recently posted about. That could change, though.

In chatting up my ambivalence with a trusted supporter, she raised the idea of “self-activism,” and that instead of faulting myself for being politically inactive, maybe that’s what I’ve been doing a lot of in these past 10 years. It’s something I’m continuing to explore. After all, leaving one’s home country, adapting to life in another and possibly obtaining binational status (I’m waiting on a Mexican citizenship application) are no small tasks, as I allude to in a 2008 blog post, back when I first saw the artwork above. In any case, the work of writing a book is absorbing enough that I’ll need to seriously prioritize my time until my chapters are done—and for once that feels like a good enough reason to limit my exposure to the fray, at least in the short-term.

*po·lit·i·cal, adjective
1. Of or relating to the government or the public affairs of a country
2. Of or relating to the ideas or strategies of a particular party or group in politics.
3. Interested in or active in politics
4. Motivated or caused by a person’s beliefs or actions concerning politics

per·son·al, adjective
4. Of or concerning one’s private life, relationships, and emotions rather than matters connected with one’s public or professional career

Hedging like Obama

For three days, I’ve anguished over my personal take on President Barack Obama’s recent immigration speech. I wanted to say that the ubiquitous . media . interpretation . that it was merely a campaign event aimed at Latino voters was a lazy, short-sighted and offensive trope. I still think that: reporters should write about issues first and guess at politicians’ intentions second.

If you’ll allow me to quote my own unpublished blog post, it contained things like this:

But at the same time, he humanized the immigrant struggle, acknowledging that many of the record number of deportations under his watch have broken up families and denied futures to undocumented youth brought to the United States by their parents. We think we know which side of the fence Obama is on—he has written of his father’s immigrant past and speaks passionately about the central role of the immigrant in U.S. history.

Then I saw this campaign ad, which uses the Dream Act as a fund raising vehicle (via United We Dream):

Obama 2012 campaign ad

Good thing I didn’t hit publish too quickly. I still think that hanging an article about a presidential speech on the presumed politics of the speech is lame—when is coverage of anti-abortion legislation or pro-gun legislation ever framed/dismissed as campaigning? And I think the media (speaking in broad generalities here) takes shortcuts with immigration stories because it is a controversial issue to cover and because many reporters don’t think that Latinos are watching. But I think that Obama is also playing a very dangerous game here, though I don’t think he’s doing it haphazardly.

It is significant that Obama took a strong stand on immigration reform (again) and that he’s making it his first major 2012 campaign issue, and I think it shows that he believes in the Dream Act, reuniting families, visa reform and a legalization program. It also shows that he trusts that the American public supports all of those things and even that he thinks he can move people who are not quite there yet into the pro-immigration camp. Hell, he even thinks he can bring the likes of John McCain along, as evidenced by this photo below, which comes straight out of Obama’s new Blueprint for Building a 21st Century Immigration System:

Obama at unidentified immigration reform meeting / Courtesy of White House

But Obama’s actions thus far in his presidency do not demonstrate the increasing urgency of the immigration stalemate for people caught up in the system, as Rep. Luis Gutierrez, among many others, have been saying.

[blackbirdpie url=”!/DreamAct/status/68035698061615104″]

Obama is highly strategic in his own right—though more so campaigning than governing—and the El Paso speech revealed the depth of his strategy. I believe that Obama waited patiently for about two years to be able to use this line:

“We have gone above and beyond what was requested by the very Republicans who said they supported broader reform as long as we got serious about enforcement. All the stuff they asked for, we’ve done. But even though we’ve answered these concerns, I’ve got to say I suspect there are still going to be some who are trying to move the goal posts on us one more time.”

For the past two years, leading up to that speech, he was busy hiring Janet Napolitano, quietly ramping up deportations, wasting money on a border fence, putting more “boots on the ground” and changing tactics on workplace enforcement. That’s meant two more years of delays for immigrants and their families, for college students who don’t have papers and would be eligible for the Dream Act (reintroduced this week), for most of the couples in Amor and Exile. For people directly affected by “the broken immigration system” it’s the long, long, long view.

I hope that his two year old strategy includes a way to strong arm 25 House GOP votes for the Dream Act in the next few months. If not, it would seem the media reports are true and that Obama is tooting an empty horn.

Here is the speech, in case you missed it: