“Derechos para todos, como agua para todos, como…para todos”–and here I stopped Gustavo (last name withheld), because I didn’t know what that last word was.
“Como?” I asked. Smiling, he gestured in different poses as we played charades, and spoke too quickly for me to understand. Finally I got it, as he said “respirar,” and held his hands to his nose and breathed in deeply.
“Like air,” he had said, “rights for all, as available as water, as available as air.”
I had approached the Colombian as he stood with his lady friend on Broadway, slightly off to the side of one of the pens the New York Police Department were using to contain demonstrators at an April 10 rally in lower Manhattan. As the speeches from senators and executive directors droned on, the two-year undocumented resident of the United States was clear with me about what he wanted: Green cards. Ahora.
When I spoke to Gustavo, just two weeks after the rally of hundreds of thousands in Los Angeles, it wasn’t crystal clear where things would head. Depending on what happened in the streets, in nonprofit offices, in Congress and in the White House in the next few months, Gustavo could have ended up with a green card, a work permit, deportation or prison time as a felon, followed by deportation.
As is now widely known, more than a million people in the United States have at different points done exactly what Gustavo did: taken to the streets to protest House Resolution 4437, the bill that would make Gustavo a felon, and asked for something more. However, while that “something more” remains a contentious topic, an increasing number of immigrant advocates and organizers have come to realize that whatever it is, it’s missing from the considerations of Congress and the President.
Unfortunately for Gustavo, it is looking more and more likely that he and millions of others who have been in the United States less than five years, or who have crimes on their record, or who fail to meet any number of other hurdles imposed by Congress are either going to be driven deeper underground or be forced to leave the United States in the long run. While acknowledging that the Senate bill offers important benefits–namely some form of legal status for perhaps 3 million undocumented people–advocates like Peter Schey are deeply concerned. Schey, president of the LA-based Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, predicts that if Congress passes legislation along the lines of what is on the table now, an enormous underground labor pool–he estimates 20 million people within twenty years–will emerge with restricted rights and few avenues for legalization, allowing US corporations to further exploit both immigrant and citizen labor. Obscured by the rantings of the nativist fringe, who say that anything short of a massive roundup somehow constitutes “amnesty” is the deeply troubling nature of the Senate’s approach to immigration, workers’ rights, deaths at the border and the criminal justice system. The legislation divides the undocumented into three categories, with onerous waiting periods for green cards and up to sixteen years for citizenship for those eligible, no long-term legalization provisions for most, increased means of criminalizing, jailing and deporting all immigrants, and funding for at least 350 miles of militarized walls along the Mexican border. If a compromise with the even more draconian House bill can be hammered out, the final legislative product is almost certain to be even worse.