This is the first installment of “Checkpoint,” Michelle Chen’s weekly round-up of immigration reform news.
Immigration reform is all but dead in Congress—or at least that’s what the headlines say. Some pundits have mercifully put it on “life support,” suggesting that piecemeal reforms could pass as individual bills, even though lawmakers have already alienated many pro-migrant groups because of the draconian compromises that conservatives demanded. Meanwhile, Obama’s deportation regime continues apace, edging toward a record two million under his tenure.
Even the traditional political last resort for putting brakes on the deportation machine—appealing directly to the White House for execution action to halt federal crackdowns—appears to have been exhausted at this point.
So with all the political odds stacked against them, why did a group of roughly 35 undocumented youth activists decide to court trouble this week by deliberately crossing the border? It was a controversial, seemingly “reckless” move. But there really is no clearer statement they could make than to stand in physical and mental defiance of the thin strip of land in which their entire lives have been bound. In a delegation organized by the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, the youth crossed on September 30 over the Mexico border and were taken into federal custody—repeating the action of an earlier team of protesters, the Dream 9, who crossed in August at the Nogales border. Their legal fate remains unclear, and they’ve received far less media coverage than immigration-reform deadlock in Congress. But the “Dream 30” have arguably done more to shift the ground of the immigration debate than any lawmaker this week.
And many undocumented people currently in the U.S. continue fighting for their right to stay home. Activists with United We Dream in Phoenix recently rallied at a local detention center to form a human blockade against a bus used to transport detainees. Images of the protest were widely circulated on social media—men and women standing together with linked hands to stop a bus from deporting mothers and fathers—showed the magnetic force of people power.
In contrast to those signs of bravery, Washington remains mired in political cowardice. Obama made a perfectly eloquent and shameless legal argument for doing nothing in a Telemundo interview when he argued that he had no choice but to keep deporting undocumented people at unprecedented rates. Yet Obama’s deportation agenda is not a reflection of legal realities but political timidity. The President has actually repeatedly used his executive authority to ease up on deportations of groups of “low-priority” detainees who pose no safety threat. Last year Obama granted “Deferred Action” to hundreds of thousands of DREAMers—undocumented youth, mainly students, who would qualify for relief under comprehensive reform legislation. The current political climate, however, offers little chance of significantly expanding the reprieve to other immigrants, including the undocumented parents of DACA youth—largely because they are not as sympathetic to the public eye as the bright, eager, high-achieving students who have helped brand the youth wing of the migrant-rights movement.
Washington’s inaction has very concrete impacts for immigrants’ communities. The recent wave of floods in Colorado exposed some of the most acute kinds of hardship that migrants endure when poverty and legal precarity intersects with natural disaster. As disaster relief agencies swept into the flood zones, many immigrants reportedly avoided coming forward, for fear of confronting government authorities. As immigrant workers try to salvage what’s left of ravaged homes, The Denver Post reported, “Fear is keeping some immigrants from accessing the help available to them.”
Federal emergency relief is generally off-limits to families without papers. They typically must rely on private charity for help. In the aftermath of the flooding, community volunteers and non-governmental relief workers reached out to families to help them obtain work permits and other documentation they needed to rebuild their lives.
The abandonment of undocumented survivors in disaster situations is part of a longstanding exclusion of immigrants (including even green card holders) from various federal assistance programs, including Medicaid and food stamps. They are designed reinforce the notion of citizenship as a way of demarcating social worth. The immigration reform agenda put forward by Obama and congressional democrats would have kept this social hierarchy firmly in place. The immigration debate in Washington is about managing the movement of human capital over borders, not meeting humanitarian needs or advancing social equity. So those deeper social questions aren’t even contemplated in the mainstream reform discussion.
Sparks of Defiance
But lately some cracks have emerged in this oppressive legal edifice, mostly at the local level. In California, Governor Jerry Brown just signed landmark legislation to expand the rights of domestic workers—a sector historically dominated by immigrant women. California also moved to issue drivers’ licenses to undocumented residents—ensuring that an immigrant’s commute to work or school is not treated as a criminal act. All these initiatives were pushed forward by a groundswell of grassroots activism led by immigrant rights, labor, and Latino community groups.
So even while the federal government remains literally shuttered by political paralysis, local campaigns are helping to uphold the rights and dignity of migrants. And the most powerful sparks of local resistance have emerged not from public institutions or professional activists, but from the people who have endured the deepest suffering.
When Prabhjot Singh, a Sikh American professor at Columbia University, was attacked on a recent evening in Harlem, he became yet another victim of the vitriol and hatred that has built up in New York City since 9/11. But after his jaw was smashed by a group of unidentified assailants calling him “Osama,” his first public statements reflected none of the brutality of those who had tried to silence him. He wrote in the New York Daily News:
“People keep asking me what it feels like to have been assaulted in a hate crime. Honestly, I can’t come up with a better response than simply “gratitude.”… If they had attacked me any more violently, I may not be awake right now to tell my story. If they had attacked me even half an hour earlier, they would have harmed my wife and one-year-old son. And if they had attacked me anywhere else, I may not have had bystanders there to save me.”
Singh poses a hard question: how to foster coexistence in a social structure that militates against empathy. Laws are hard to change, but ordinary people have more power to transform the cultural forces in our communities. Every encounter with difference provokes us to judge and confront—but also requires us to consider compassion, even love—as different aspects of a movement of resistance.