Lobbying for the Dream Act on Capitol Hill

Cross-posted from the Standing on the Side of Love blog:

Buoyed by the historic passage of DREAM in the House of Representatives on Wednesday evening, and mindful that the prospects for a Senate vote are much more uncertain, several members of the Interfaith Immigration Coalition (IIC), including yours truly representing the UUA, decided to visit some key senators yesterday morning, before what was scheduled to be the 11 am vote on DREAM.

The DREAM Act would provide a pathway for earned citizenship to millions of undocumented young adults who were brought to this country by their parents as children and have since grown up in this country. The U.S. is their country in every way except for legal status.

The senate offices that we visited were those on this target list.

I won’t bore you by describing every office visit. And the few juicy tidbits about who is leaning in what direction, I’m not at liberty to say publicly. But there are two really strong impressions that I would like to share with you.

One was the fact that in every office we visited the phones were ringing off the hooks. As we waited in the seating area of various offices to see if a staffer could/would come out to see us, we could hear that the majority of the calls were about the DREAM Act. The poor folks answering the phones looked like they had been going at this rate for days. I almost felt sorry for them, but at the same time I know that this is democracy in action.

The phone call to your elected official is many times more powerful than the vote you cast in the ballot box in terms of influencing what becomes our national laws.

In the few cases where the receptionist’s ear was not glued to the phone, we asked what direction the calls were going in. ‘50/50’ or ‘pretty even’ was the answer.

With things so tight, every phone call that we make to stand on the side of love counts.

The second impression I had was when we walked into Senator Lugar’s office. As you may or may not know, Sen. Lugar of Indiana was one of the original sponsors of the DREAM Act and had long been a proponent, but in these crazy partisan times, the Republican senator is now threatening to vote against his own bill.

A group of roughly a dozen young adults, many wearing colorful graduation mortar boards made out of construction paper, were gathered in a circle on the office floor, praying. They looked like they had been there for a while. They were so quiet and unobtrusive, and yet so persistent and impossible to ignore. I wish to God I had a camera then and could have shared the image with all of you. Their presence reminded me of why I am doing this work.

In truth, I was originally against the DREAM Act, having the same reservations that many Unitarian Universalists and other progressive people of faith have. From the provisions, it’s clear that one of the motivations for DREAM was to attract more recruits to the military. What changed my mind was the DREAM Act activists (or DREAMers, as they are called). These young women and men are publicly stating their undocumented status and going directly to elected officials to ask them to support their dream of being productive U.S. citizens.

They are willing to risk everything. How could I not support that?

In one of the last offices that we visited, we learned from the television tuned to C-SPAN that the Senate had tabled the vote on the DREAM Act scheduled for yesterday morning. The reason why Sen. Reid tabled his own bill is because there weren’t enough ‘YES’ votes in the senate to pass it.

The good news is that this gives us more time to change some senators’ minds.

So I am asking you to take action.

Based on what I saw yesterday – the calls coming into the Senate offices are so close, and the DREAMers need our help.

Call your senators – both of them – and urge them to support the DREAM Act. The Capitol switchboard number is (202) 224-3121.

NAFTA and Immigration

A Tidal Wave of Migration

We know that people have been migrating freely across the U.S-Mexico border since there was a border, and they continued to do so even after the border was created. In fact, the U.S. has a long history of relying on Mexican migrant labor. It officially started with the Bracero program of the mid-1940s, where Mexican farm workers were “invited” in to work on U.S. farms that were short-handed due to the war, but migrant farm work had been going on unofficially well before that. Migration across the border to look for work is nothing new. However, it is also true that the influx of Mexicans into the U.S. looking for work has jumped dramatically in the last couple of decades. Pundits are actually not exaggerating when they describe a relative tidal wave of immigration that is stressing public services and changing the demographics of many U.S. states. In the early 1990s, Mexican migration to the United States was less than 400,000 a year. By 2007 it was 500,000 a year. As Alejandro Portes wrote for ssrc.org in 2006 (http://borderbattles.ssrc.org/Portes/):


What Part of “Illegal” Don’t You Understand?

It sounds very simple but there is actually a great deal of confusion around the term “illegal immigrant.” Being in the country without documentation is illegal but not criminal. It is a civil offense, much like exceeding the speed limit while driving. If you’re going 50 mph in an 35 mph zone, you are breaking the law, but does that make you an “illegal driver”?

Due to the dysfunction of the current U.S. immigration system, family members face years of separation and those seeking work face years of waiting before they can find legal employment to support their families. In both cases, the situation is untenable, especially when there are young, dependant children involved. For that reason, many people choose to enter or remain in the country without documentation.


“Go Back to Where You Came From!”

Ever since April when Governor Brewer signed SB1070 into law in Arizona, I have been following developments down there with rapt attention – checking the updates of various facebook groups, scanning online news headlines, reading analyses… With each new day the news seemed to get worse and worse. First, there was the passage and signing of SB1070 itself. Before the worst parts of the legislation were suspended in July, SB1070 directed officers of the law to investigate the legal status of people “where there is reasonable suspicion” that they may be undocumented. Then came the news that the state of Arizona had also banned public schools from offering ethnic studies – classes designed to give students of color, predominantly Latin@/Hispanic and Native American students – a sense of self worth in this Euro-dominated culture. At the same time, teachers with noticeable accents were barred from teaching English. Arizona Republican Senate candidate J.D. Hayworth called for a moratorium on LEGAL immigration from Mexico.  And finally, the AZ state senator behind SB1070, Russell Pearce, intends to introduce legislation that ends birthright citizenship, in clear contradiction of the 14th amendment. Taken altogether, it seems obvious that the state of Arizona has declared war on immigrants in general and Latin@/indigenous people in particular.

Luckily, it is my job to keep track of legislation and other developments around immigration or else my obsession with the issue these last few months would have severely affected my work. It was more than just passion, more than compassion, more than the fact that my parents, paternal grandparents and uncle, maternal cousin, and many of the non-biological “aunts” and “uncles” from my childhood are all immigrants. This was personal to me to the point where I felt like it was me who was being attacked.  The reason why became clear one afternoon in May as I sat at home, reading developments as usual, and saw the story of Juan Varela, a third-generation Mexican-American who was shot and killed by a neighbor as he yelled “go back to Mexico!”


What We Accomplished in Phoenix

By Susan Leslie, Congregational Advocacy & Witness Director

Monday, July 26th: After arriving in Phoenix and meeting up with the UU Congregation of Phoenix (UUCP) Immigration Task Force, Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, the congregation’s minister, invited me to accompany her to Puente’s Monday Assembly meeting.  The open air meeting in front of the bright blue Tonatierra building where Puente is housed had over 100 people seated on folding chairs out in the parking lot surrounded by pink sky and palm trees.  Sal Reza, with his signature grey ponytail was talking to the majority Latino crowd about the political situation heading into the upcoming Day of Non-Compliance on Thursday, July 29th, when the legislation was scheduled to go into affect.  Whatever the ruling, and he said they expected it to be mixed and to not completely overturn SB1070, the day would go forward in order to protest the criminalization and repression of the immigrant community.  There was simultaneous translation provided for us English speakers in one section of the crowd near where a documentary film crew was taping.


It Takes A Village To Hold A Protest

Let me start by saying that I am not a “protest” kind of person.  My experience with numerous protests is that a lot of people assemble, shout angry slogans, maybe sing a few songs, and then go home, leaving piles of garbage in their wake.  No matter how much I cared about an issue it always seemed to part of me like protests were something that we “attend” the way that one might attend a rock concert, and that they were geared more towards letting the participants feel good about having “done something” than actually effecting change.  For that reason, I approached the Day of Non-Compliance (July 29th) in Phoenix with some personal apprehension.  Since I knew that I was not planning on getting arrested, I wondered then what exactly it was that I would be doing.  Was I flying two-thirds of the way across the country just to attend a protest?  But I tried to approach the coming days with an open heart – letting the Spirit guide me.


A Very Brief Primer on U.S.-Mexican History

In the early 1800s, U.S.Americans started settling into a territory of Mexico known as Texas.  Alarmed by the fact that the immigration rate was so high that U.S. settlers were starting to outnumber Mexicans, Mexico closed the territory to further legal immigration.  But U.S. settlers continued to pour in illegally.  Rather than attempting to learn the language and culture of the country to which they had immigrated, U.S.American immigrants in Texas declared independence from Mexico in 1836.  (One has to wonder what the Mexicans whose families had already been living in Texas thought about that.)

In 1845, the Republic of Texas was annexed as the 28th state, and President Polk was eyeing Mexico’s territories west of TX, all the way to the Pacific Ocean.  The annexation of Texas, which Mexico continued to think of as a rebellious territory, caused Mexico to break diplomatic ties with the U.S., but it did not declare war.  Polk needed Mexico to be the first to engage in hostilities so that he could frame his expansionist intentions as defensive.  He sent Gen. Zachary Taylor to Texas to push its southern boundary from the Nueces river (the border that Mexico recognized) 150 miles southward to the Rio Grande (the border that the U.S. wanted).  The ploy worked; in April of 1846, a Mexican detachment attacked a U.S. patrol in the disputed area, killing 16 U.S. solders.  The U.S.-Mexican War was on.


A Split Decision Only Serves to Split Our Communities

On the day before SB1070 was to go into effect, Unitarian Universalists from across the country converged in Phoenix.  We came by air, car, bus, and some already lived here.  About 150 of us met at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix in preparation for the National Day of Non-Compliance that was to take place the next day, Thursday, July 29th, 2010.  As you can imagine it was chaotic fun to have that many UUs in one place – people greeting old friends and making new ones.  But an air of uncertainty hung over us.  What would the next few days bring?  What would we do if the federal judge did not act and left SB1070 to go into effect?  What would we do if the federal judge did act?  From following the news, we knew to expect a partial ruling.  And we knew that regardless of the ruling we would do “something” but what that something was might vary depending on what kind of law went into effect at midnight.


On Borders

It was a family tradition when I was growing up that almost every summer we would pack the car and drive from San Francisco where we lived, to Yosemite National Park, then Lake Tahoe, then Reno. The city of Lake Tahoe is bisected by the border between California and Nevada. The first time I saw the Cali/Nevada border, I was disappointed and confused over the lack of a big black line, as I had seen on the map. Instead, there was only a small sign on an otherwise normal looking street. As an adult, I can now see that one direction has casinos and the other only the cheesey tourist shops, but as a kid I would look down the road in one direction and then the other, and it would pretty much all look the same to me. If the little sign were not there pointing it out, I would not have known that there was a border at all. But since there was a sign, I would hop one step to the left and say I was in California, and hop one step to the right and say I was in Nevada.   Looking back on it I see now that my child brain was trying to understand what a “border” actually meant. Yet try as hard as I might, I could not feel a real difference in the land.


Trouble the Borders

Taquiena Boston is the Director of Multicultural Growth and Witness, the new staff group resulting from the merger of Advocacy and Witness and Identity-Based Ministries.

When I became Director of Multicultural Growth and Witness on July 1 my first official UUA act was to attend President Obama’s speech on immigration reform at American University. The presence of religious leaders in the hall –- with high-profile evangelical ministers front and center — signaled that faith communities are hearing the call for immigration reform as a moral imperative.

President Obama’s speech referenced not just securing, protecting, and enforcing borders but also the human rights of the people who cross into the United States seeking opportunity. Faith leaders’ took that message further by emphasizing that immigration reform is about the humanity of those who cross the borders.

In multicultural ministry borders or “la frontera” are described as places where encounter, conflict, and transformation can occur when people of faith use our collective power to amplify the voices and concerns of the oppressed. To my mind when Unitarian Universalists voted at the Minneapolis General Assembly to act in solidarity with Puente and others to support immigrant justice, our movement waded into the turbulence of a human rights issue that puts us at odds with the majority of Americans. To paraphrase an African American spiritual, Unitarian Universalists made a commitment to “trouble the borders.”

Now that the U.S. Justice Department has challenged the constitutionality of Arizona’s SB 1070 legislation, I hope that our movement will not think that we can relax our efforts around immigration. The debates among Unitarian Universalists that preceded the General Assembly demonstrated how this issue divides communities. While border security issues in a post 9-11 world are real, laws like Arizona’s SB 1070 that potentially “profile” people based on their racial, ethnic, or national identity creates an environment of fear and mistrust that are anti-Beloved Community.

A footnote: Intent on being on time for President Obama’s speech I hailed a taxi to American University, but one-third of the way to my destination I wondered if my District of Columbia driver’s license would be sufficient “government-issued identification” to allow me entry. Should I ask the taxi to take me back home to get my passport, too? That could mean not getting into the speech as well. Besides, I was urged by the White House contact to in line at American U by 9:30 to ensure entry. Passing a “Homeland Security” sign only reinforced my anxiety about having the right ID. As a woman of color I’m used to having to seriously consider personal safety, but strict laws that make communities fearful and suspicious have never made me feel more secure.