On Nov. 20, President Barack Obama took executive action on immigration, lifting the threat of deportation for millions of immigrants, including some members of my undocumented community. Over the last few weeks, I have been reading a lot about just whom to thank for Obama’s action.
I came to a realization that most of those who write or speak about immigration in the media are not activists or even immigrants, let alone undocumented ones. I am writing to tell the story I know, as an activist, an undocumented immigrant and a proud mother.
This country has been my home for the past 22 years — the last two decades in Seattle. When my daughter was born 17 years ago, I promised myself that she would not face the kind of racism and bigotry most immigrants have to endure. By the time she turned 3, we were already attending know-your-rights workshops, May Day marches, demonstrations against the first Iraq war and workshops on immigration. I wanted to learn about my rights, connect with other undocumented community members and begin building a coalition to demand that we be treated as human beings.
I first joined groups calling for immigration reform in early 2000s, but right after 9/11, I knew we would be scapegoated simply for being immigrants. The creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) brought regional detention facilities to the Pacific Northwest. A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center opened in the Tacoma tide flats in 2004. Lawyers and pro-immigrant groups advised me and other undocumented immigrant activists not to go near the jail. And we were told to never reveal our identities. So we stayed away from the facility and kept our identities hidden. But I began organizing against the facility without ever putting a foot nearby.
By 2006 the immigrant rights movement grew to attract millions of people, and we defeated the infamous bill sponsored by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner that called for strengthening of interior immigration enforcement, additional border security and the criminalization of churches and community groups that help undocumented immigrants. Similar immigration reform bills were introduced and met with protests in 2007 and 2009.
Negotiating away our future
During those years I learned how politicians hijacked our movement for reform. And more important, I learned how the big, well-funded pro-immigrant organizations such as the Center for Community Change were already negotiating away our future. My breaking point came in 2010, when Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., proposed a conceptual framework for a bill that essentially called on immigrants to admit to being criminals in exchange for a green card. I realized that politicians did not champion our campaigns but must respond to them. We brought local advocates together and started calling for an alternative to the behind-the-scenes negotiations on our future. It was time to build a real bottom-up strategy instead of being led by pundits in Washington.
Other activists created the Dignity Campaign, a network of organizations and individuals calling for a real immigration reform based on human and labor rights. Organizers traveled throughout Washington State, sharing Congress’ offerings on how to fix the broken immigration system with Latino communities and raising awareness about what big pro-immigrant organizations were shoving down our throats.
Obama’s executive action was a win for those who risked their livelihoods, their health and deportation to keep at least some of our families together.
Last year when the Senate passed S. 744, a bipartisan bill meant to enhance border enforcement and modernize and streamline the process of granting legal status to undocumented immigrants, we knew our community’s work was more important than ever. (The bill has not gotten any traction in the House.) It was clear that politicians were once again playing politics with our lives, calling a measure that would turn us into a permanent cheap and disposable labor force an immigration reform bill — and would ensure that undocumented immigrants would continue to generate record profits for corporations that hold detainees in private prisons.
By the end of 2013, when other undocumented immigrants began taking actions to stop deportations, I felt that I could challenge that early advice from lawyers and other activists by coming out and openly joining these actions.
I had so much to lose by revealing my identity. For one, ICE could detain and separate me from my daughter at any point. I could lose clients at the business that I started in 2010. Once my daughter agreed with my decision to come out, we joined the local #Not1More deportation campaign to plan a civil disobedience action. It took months, but on Feb. 24, 10 of us locked arms and blocked the street outside the Tacoma detention center, shutting down the ICE office and halting deportations for a week.
We took this action because we all believed that a comprehensive immigration reform measure was not possible. We refused to serve either political party. We knew Obama has the power and the moral authority to act. Most important, we knew it was time to take the leadership back from big pro-immigrant groups.
Felons versus families
We were criticized for pressuring Obama to take executive action on immigration and for calling for a stop to all deportations. We did not toe party lines or follow the deserving-vs.-undeserving-immigrants narrative. We focused on our communities’ suffering and exposing gatekeepers who shield access to the president and other Democratic Party leaders.
And we were right. After we stopped the deportation buses from leaving the Tacoma detention center in February, detainees organized three hunger strikes. In May, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., introduced a legislation that made private detention centers accountable and brought global attention to the U.S. deportation machine. He helped us arrange a meeting with the DHS and other members of Congress. All these actions, along with many other initiatives across the country, built one of the strongest pressure points that forced Obama to finally take executive action.
Taken together, Obama’s executive action was a win for those who risked their livelihoods, their health and deportation to keep at least some of our families together. The unified actions of the undocumented community — not those of pundits, nonprofit executive directors or pro-immigrant lawyers or politicians — overcame the lack of political will and brought this latest victory.
But we are not done. We will continue to push for a sensible immigration policy until we all are recognized as part of this country. Most of us don’t get paid to work for our dignity. We don’t get recognition or invitations to meetings or photo ops with powerful politicians. We don’t stage civil disobedience pretending to know how it feels to be treated as less than human. We protest to reclaim our humanity.
We understand that our struggle is intertwined with the plight of other communities of color that face injustices in the criminal justice system. And that is why we say “not one more deportation” and why we won’t fall for the divisions created by politicians that ask us to choose between felons and families. Everyone is part of our family. Everyone — particularly victims of the international predatory economy that pushed us to migrate as well as those who are caught in the prison-industrial complex — deserves to be here. It’s our victory and one of many more to come.