A woman leaves the US Citizenship and Immigration Services offices in New York. (Reuters/Keith Bedford)
President Obama announced his plan for immigration reform yesterday at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas, Nevada. The public school opened in 2004, and started what it calls its Newcomer Academy just one year later—a school within a school that provides personalized education for new immigrant students with limited English language proficiency. The high school venue itself reflects the changing demographic of the United States, and many welcomed Obama’s remarks. But, coupled with the so-called Gang of Eight senators’ blueprint for comprehensive immigration reform, Obama’s speech marks a familiar territory for some immigrants who say they can’t count on lawmakers to enact immigration reform.
Nevada remains a top destination for immigrants looking for agricultural and construction work—and more than 7 percent of the state’s residents are undocumented. Las Vegas is also a hub for the gaming industry, always searching for essential workers who clean and clean while vacationers take advantage of the city’s vast entertainment options. In some ways, Del Sol High has accomplished what the federal government has been unable to do for a new generation of young immigrants. It recognizes that these young immigrants exist, and it provides the tools that allow those young people a chance to more meaningfully participate in society.
While Obama announced deferred action for some immigrant youth shortly before last year’s election, the program is only temporary—providing two years of relief, in the hopes that Congress will hammer out legislation that provides a lasting solution before that time is up. Yet when legislators had the chance to pass the DREAM Act as a stand-alone bill in the lame duck session of 2010, they failed to do so. The House managed to push the bill through. The Senate, meanwhile, had fifty-five of the necessary sixty votes to move forward, but five Democrats voted against the bill. Comprehensive immigration reform, which would include the DREAM Act and other immigration measures, has also failed repeatedly in Washington.
So its understandable that while many undocumented immigrants are still hopeful about immigration reform, they’re also very apprehensive. During Obama’s speech to the Democratic Nation Convention last September, I left the convention to join a group of undocumented immigrants who had traveled to Charlotte, North Carolina, on Undocubus. They joined together in the basement of a local church, and watched Obama live on a stream projected from a laptop.
A handmade sign over the projected video asked, “Will you be on the right side of history?” while another read, “No more deportations,” directly below the screen. Rather than record what promised to be enthusiastic support from delegates responding to Obama’s remarks on the stadium floor, I opted to spend time with those people who cannot so much as vote in the country they’ve made their life in, but nevertheless claim a voice in politics. Reflecting on the speech afterward, many commented that they didn’t feel Obama’s message was directed at them. Others worried that they were soon returning to their homes in Arizona, where SB 1070 targets them for deportation because of the color of their skin.
Among them were entire undocumented families who challenged the narrative that students are the only ones who deserve immigration status adjustment. Rosi Carrasco and Martin Unzueta had raised their daughters, Tania and Ireri, in Chicago after leaving Mexico. Just four months after that convention speech, Tania Unzueta Carrasco was asked to comment on the president’s statements yesterday—which were directed to the country as a whole, and perhaps to undocumented immigrants in particular.
Unzueta Carraso noted that after so many promises, she has “learned to keep [her] hopes in check” when she listens to Obama now. She highlighted that the way the president has expressed compassion for undocumented immigrants contradicts his administration’s actions, which include deporting more immigrants than any other, keeping detainees in horrid detention facilities, continuing to target workers and implementing new programs to collude with local law enforcement to enforce federal immigration law.
The difference between the electoral season and today is the acknowledgement that the Latino vote helped keep Obama in office, and Republicans have conceded that one way to attract that growing demographic in the next election is to work on immigration reform now. The Gang of Eight blueprint outlines some kind of pathway to citizenship, which Republicans have largely opposed in the past. But the bipartisan plan, crafted by Democrats Charles Schumer of New York, Richard Durbin of Connecticut, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado, along with Republicans John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Caroline, Marco Rubio of Florida and Jeff Flake of Arizona, also includes compromises opposed by immigrant rights groups, including a possible guest worker program and increased border enforcement. While the blueprint has considerable support in the Senate, the House remains a harder challenge.
If Congress is able to craft and pass its own legislation, Obama’s proposal may not be necessary—but the president made clear yesterday that if lawmakers on Capitol Hill don’t move quickly, he will introduce his own bill. Although Obama outlined that a continued focus on border security should be first principle moving forward, Republicans are already signaling that the president will be too soft on such measures. During his speech, Obama touted big tech companies that were founded by immigrants, and the White House plan prioritizes green cards for science, tech, engineering and math students with advanced degrees. That plan doesn’t address day laborers who toil in agricultural and construction work, or domestic and other low-wage workers. It’s likely, meanwhile, that the Gang of Eight proposal will hinge on the creation of a permanent guest worker program based on changing demand. But a bigger sticking point may be Obama’s plan to treat families headed by same-sex partners equally. In response, Senator Lindsey Graham quipped, “Why don’t we just put legalized abortion in there and round it all out?” The fact that abortion is, in fact, legal, was of no consequence to Graham, but may reflect that Republicans view the White House proposal as one that’s too liberal to support.
The Obama administration deports some 1,100 people per day, and as Washington brokers a proposal, it is undocumented immigrants who will continue to feel the brunt of enforcement. Two weeks ago, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents picked up Edi Arma for deportation, and Arma’s son helped humanize the pain that’s felt as a result of family separation. Ironically, Arma was set to be deported on the day that Obama laid out his plan for immigration reform. In that speech yesterday, Obama mentioned deportation only once, linking it to the removal of criminals. But just like tens of thousands of others who are deported yearly, Arma has no criminal record. A campaign to stop his deportation has resulted in a temporary stay and Arma is set to be released today—uncertain as Capitol Hill is to what the future may hold.
As the debate over immigration legislation rolls on, deportations aren’t slowing down. Watch an 11-year-old boy express the pain of losing his father.