By LISA LUINENBURG
President Obama stated in a recent speech on immigration reform, “Real reform means stronger border security, and we can build on the progress my administration has already made, putting more boots on the southern border than at any time in our history and reducing illegal crossings to their lowest levels in 40 years. Real reform means establishing a responsible pathway to earn citizenship, a path that includes passing a background check, paying taxes and a meaningful penalty, learning English, and going to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally.”
This may sound on the surface like a promise for change, but as the legacy of Obama’s mass deportations of 400,000 immigrants a year continues to haunt communities across the country, many immigrants are asking when the deportations will stop.
Young people across the country like Hareth Andrade of Dreamers with Virginia, whose father Mario is facing deportation, are speaking out against Obama’s policies. Hareth said at a recent AFL-CIO convention where she asked union leaders for support: “My dad is just one of the faces of the thousand facing deportation, just one of the many who has to see his children cry. My dad was home for my sister’s ninth birthday in August, but who’s to say that because of an ICE decision, he won’t be there next year?” Recent immigration reform proposals coming from Congress have included harsh measures like thousands of dollars in fines, the requirement that immigrants prove their work history, pay back taxes, and learn English, and even a requirement that immigrants maintain a certain level of income, all before they can “earn” their legal status, a process that could take well over 10 years. In fact, in an analysis of the immigration reform proposal from the summer of 2013, the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law estimated that the “pathway to citizenship” being offered was so onerous that 4-5 million undocumented immigrants would be excluded because they could not meet its conditions or pay its fines.
And all of this was contingent on the implementation of increased border militarization, including the use of drones on the U.S.-Mexico border, and the nationwide use of guest-worker visas and E-verify.
While politicians twiddle their thumbs and argue back and forth about how harsh the terms of the new immigration law will be, over a thousand people are being deported every day. Many detainees spend months languishing in for-profit detention prisons while they wait for their deportation, often cut off from contact with their families.
As recently reported by Aura Bogado in The Nation, detainees who work in the kitchen or in maintenance at the Broward Transitional Center in Florida are paid $1 a day to keep the detention center running. Immigrants who are being deported because they don’t have a permit to work in the United States are being paid the wages of an indentured servant to maintain the very prison that holds them captive. GEO Group, the private company that runs the Broward Transitional Center, is one of the largest for-profit prison companies in the U.S., which along with Corrections Corporation of America, had a combined profit of $296.9 million in 2012. Many immigrants in detention get so discouraged that they sign their self-deportation papers rather than facing more months in jail fighting to stay with their families.
But some groups of DREAMers, undocumented students and youth who are fighting for their right to stay in the United States are resisting in creative ways. Bogado reported that the National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA) recently decided to defend the case of Claudio Rojas, a 47-year-old undocumented immigrant who was facing deportation in Florida after he had helped his son pick up his car when he was stopped over for driving without a license.
Under guidelines issued by ICE in 2011, judges are allowed prosecutorial discretion for low-priority detainees (those without a criminal record, which make up the majority of undocumented detainees). NIYA believed that Rojas should be eligible for release under these guidelines.
Marco Saavedra, a 23-year-old undocumented activist who works with NIYA, voluntarily turned himself in to ICE in order to infiltrate the Broward Transitional Center. Once inside, Saavedra worked with Rojas to make lists of detainees in similar situations, which they passed along to NIYA. NIYA eventually defended almost 70 cases, securing the release of several prisoners including Rojas. Saavedra was also released, but is facing deportation hearings.
Deportation cases like the ones defended by NIYA and other immigrant rights groups across the country expose the hypocrisy of the Obama administration.
On the one hand, undocumented immigrants are being offered a chance at citizenship that they desperately need. But the price that they have to pay is high—more deaths on the border, guest worker visas that will legalize on-the-job exploitation of immigrants, and thousands of dollars spent to gain an uncertain second-class status that could last for decades while they “go to the back of the line.”
In the meantime, there is no end in sight for the detainees who are daily being torn from their families to await their deportation in for-profit detention centers. The government expects these undocumented workers and their families to be too afraid to fight back, but groups like NIYA are proving otherwise.
Immigrants proved their power in the streets in 2006, and they will do so again. When they march, we must all be ready to join the fight.
Photo: Tamara Jimenez of the New Sanctuary Movement testifies at March 12 Philadelphia city council meeting. Immigration activists demanded at the meeting that police curtail their cooperation with federal immigration round-ups. The city now states it will only cooperate if a suspect had previously been convicted of a violent felony. By David Maialetti / Philadelphia Daily News.