This time last week, Republicans were selling war pornography, playing murdering-immigrant reels narrated by grieving parents, and frightening Americans with Rudy Giuliani shouting straight into their living rooms. On Monday, at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, the Democrats answered that with a lineup worthy of an Old Navy ad, a repeated message of inclusivity and interdependence, and more actual celebrities than appeared in all four days of the GOP convention.
Among the warm-up speakers tonight were 11-year-old Karla Ortiz and her undocumented-immigrant mother, Francisca, and the noted Las Vegas immigrant-activist Astrid Silva. The three were sandwiched between queer and female and immigrant lawmakers, labor leaders, and professional athletes in the program. The racial and gender diversity onstage and on the convention floor was striking. Speakers wasted no time pointing out the contrast with the Republican convention—not without occasional self-congratulatory smugness.
Ortiz’s and her mother’s speeches were short, and DREAMer Silva’s was even shorter, but the women’s presence on stage was the most important part of the message anyway. Karla, Francisca, and Silva are the very people Donald Trump refers to when he talks about “the illegals” who supposedly threaten national security and the economy.
“Hillary Clinton told me that she would do everything she could to help us,” the young Ortiz said on Monday. “She told me that I didn’t have to do the worrying, because she would do the worrying. She wants me to have the worries of an 11-year-old, not the weight of the world on my shoulders.” Ortiz met Clinton in February in an immigrant roundtable that provided footage for a campaign ad that Ortiz later starred in. (Silva can also be seen in the video.) In it, Ortiz told Clinton, who drew the young girl onto her lap, that she feared the deportation of her parents. Clinton responded with tenderness that the campaign sought to highlight back in February during the heated primary.
“My family and I are here because of Senator Harry Reid, abuelito [grandfather], who put himself in our shoes and helped us,” Silva, who is famous for her epistolary friendship with the Senate minority leader, said on Monday. “While President Obama’s immigration action helped me, we live in constant fear that my parents can be taken from their grandson Noah.” Silva is a recipient of DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, Obama’s major 2012 executive action granting immigrants like her who came to the United States as children short-term protections from deportation and work permits.
Silva, 28 and an immigrant-rights powerhouse, is no stranger to the national spotlight. She immigrated to the United States by climbing into a tire raft with her family as a 4-year-old, then taught herself English on the school playground and became a star student. Held back from her childhood dreams of becoming an architect because of her undocumented-immigrant status, she turned to activism, and today is the organizing director for Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada.
Silva’s sympathetic story is an archetypal DREAMer narrative, perfect for highlighting the Democratic Party’s approach to immigrant rights: Harry Reid mentioned Silva’s story during a 2013 Senate immigration fight, and President Obama spoke at length about Silva’s family in 2014 when he announced Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA), his second executive action, which remains on hold after a Supreme Court decision this year.
But political fights are not won with optics alone. A protest on Monday that began in the historically Italian and Irish immigrant neighborhood of South Philly sought to make sure Clinton didn’t forget that. In the blazing summertime sun, dozens of protesters with Mijente, the Latino organizing hub; Juntos, a Philadelphia-based immigrant-rights organizing group; the Philadelphia Student Union; Iraq Veterans Against the War; and other groups marched to City Hall to demand pro-immigrant policy that Clinton has not adopted.
Protesters called for a moratorium on deportations and an end to detention. Mijente and other groups have argued that, given a deadlocked Senate that stalls immigration reform, continuing to deport hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants makes no sense.
Clinton has vowed to introduce comprehensive immigration-reform legislation in her first 100 days as president. She’s also committed to using her executive authority on immigration, though that tactic will likely have to be put on hold while the courts resolve the current lawsuit over DAPA, Obama’s second executive action. And she has repeatedly said that she opposes privately run detention centers as well as family detention, where immigrant parents and children are locked up. But just because Clinton espouses a kinder, gentler, and decidedly more progressive immigration agenda than Obama did in 2008 and 2012 doesn’t mean that these immigrant-rights groups are taking her at her word. At the height of the child-migrant crisis of 2014, Clinton, then secretary of state, said that children “should be sent back,” and many immigrants are still bruised from Obama’s repeated and ultimately unfulfilled campaign promises to pass immigration reform.
“I don’t know how we can say that the Democratic Party is immigrant friendly if there are still families in detention, and they aren’t actively working to release them,” Erika Almiron, executive director of Juntos, said Monday.
Even the Democratic Party’s choices of immigrant voices to highlight reflected the party’s narrow political imagination, Almiron said. The majority of undocumented youth do not qualify for the president’s executive action, which Silva has become the face of. “There are a lot of young people who don’t identify as DREAMers. Philadelphia has a 50 percent [school drop-out] rate for Latinos, and undocumented youth are a big part of that. What about those stories of survival?”
The protesters marched north to City Hall carrying banners and chanting the usual immigrant-rights slogans, tweaked for this more progressive crowd. “What do we want? Moratorium! When do we want it? Now!” A dozen or so of the protesters at Monday’s march were also at the RNC in Cleveland.
No matter what the reaction from the Democratic Party, Almiron said protests served a larger purpose. “We’re in a new time. It’s a changing moment,” she said. “We’re seeing the racism and it’s much more open, and so we have to stand up and fight, and have moments like this so we can know for ourselves that, no matter who hates us, we’re always going to fight back.”