Despite the high visibility of the DREAMers and immigrants rights activists last year, Congress failed to heed the call for comprehensive immigration reform in 2012. This year, however, is expected to be different. Following an election in which a rising number of Latino voters overwhelmingly supported Democratic candidates, President Obama signaled in November that he would push for a comprehensive immigration reform bill early in his second term. If such a bill is passed, it would be the first significant reform to our immigration laws in nearly two decades, affecting the lives of an estimated 11.2 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.
Major questions remain, however, as to what comprehensive immigration reform would look like. And in recent years, immigration activists have become outspoken critics of both parties, and are skeptical about their ability to deliver meaningful reforms. In North Carolina, an epicenter of the immigration debate, three undocumented organizers with the NC DREAM Team—José Torres-Don, 25; Marco Antonio Cervantes, 19; and Cinthia Marroquin, 22—explained what real immigration reform would look like to them.
Pass a bill
Whether immigration reform comes as a comprehensive package or as a series of smaller bills, the immigrant community needs some relief, says Torres-Don. The last time Congress passed significant immigration reform was in 1996. And while the DREAM Act was originally introduced with bipartisan support in 2001, it never became law—failing most recently in 2011. Today, with millions of undocumented people living in the United States, the issue has reached a tipping point.
Stop the deportations
Critics of Obama’s immigration enforcement policy have called him the “deporter-in-chief.” The reason: the Obama administration deported a record 1.5 million immigrants in the president's first term in office, fulfilling an Immigration and Customs Enforcement annual quota of 400,000 deportations. This distinction is significant because, in 2011, ICE director John Morton ordered the use of prosecutorial discretion, a policy that in theory would have protected DREAM Act–eligible youth and individuals without a criminal background from deportation. But in reality, hundreds of thousands of deportation cases remain open, and thousands of so-called “low-priority” immigrants have been deported, some charged for minor infractions in traffic stops resulting from enforcement programs like 287g and Secure Communities.
Most recently, Morton issued a December memorandum that ordered stricter requirements for placing immigration detainers on individuals believed to be in the country without documentation. And earlier this month, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano announced a new rule that aims to keep families united during the legal immigration process. But immigration activists say they want to see changes in the law, and they question the effectiveness of the administration’s internal policy changes.
A path to citizenship
More than 2 million undocumented youth live in the United States, where they are denied equal access to higher education and meaningful employment. Many are high school graduates, with little or no connection to their countries of origin. The DREAM Act—which in some versions would have given access to higher education and a work permit to undocumented youth—would have granted them a pathway to citizenship, but it has repeatedly failed in Congress, most recently in 2011. In 2012, Obama introduced a new program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, in an effort to grant undocumented youth a chance to avoid deportation and earn a work permit. However, the program pales in comparison to what would have been if the DREAM Act had passed, and it was not meant to replace congressional action.
Recently, activists have begun to “call out” politicians whose support they lack. Shortly after interviews for this video were conducted, Cinthia and fellow NC DREAM Team activist Elisa Bonitez were arrested in North Carolina Senator Kay Hagan’s office for a sit-in demanding a halt to the deportation of a mother of three US citizen children. Undocumented activists like Cinthia, José and Marco worry that comprehensive changes will be hard to win without major concessions, and they are demanding a seat at the table to ensure that such reforms will be meaningful.