Winning real immigration reform

March 17, 2009

CHANTS OF "Sí, se puede!" (Yes we can!) rang out on the night of March 7 in a neighborhood church in San Francisco.

This is not unusual in this city, which has a long-standing immigrant rights movement; what was unexpected was the person who raised the slogan: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

Pelosi and fellow Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois were in town as part of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus' (CHC) 17-city "Listening Tour." The stated aim of the tour is to hear testimony from families impacted by raids and deportations.

Organized under the theme of "Family Unity," the tour is calling for an immediate moratorium on the raids. It is also pushing for comprehensive immigration reform (CIR). As Rep. Gutierrez stated in the announcement of the tour:

As a nation--as citizens--we cannot wait any longer for fair and just immigration reform. Across America, parents and children, husbands and wives are being torn apart by a system that values quotas over family values and which undermines our economic security in a time of crisis. It is for this reason that U.S. citizens in each of these cities are joining this campaign and standing up for real, lasting change.

Over 400 people filled Iglesia San Antonio, located in the multiracial, working-class Mission District. Speakers included local pastors, who started the evening off with fiery prayers that addressed the injustice of the raids, and also asked for the strength to mobilize against them.

A number of children, aged 9 to 15, then offered testimonials about what had happened to their families. These children have recently had at least one parent taken away by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). They spoke eloquently about what the raids had meant to them: the loss of loved ones, shattered dreams, the deprivation brought about by losing the breadwinner in the family and the terror of living through an ICE invasion into their homes.

Rep. Gutierrez then gave a pointed speech about the need to end the raids, and said he is "asking the president himself to stop separating mothers from their children." He was followed on stage by Pelosi, who apparently couldn't resist mugging for the camera by going over to hug the children who had spoken earlier. As with Gutierrez, Pelosi is not only calling on President Obama to immediately stop the raids; but is also pushing for broader legislative change. "We need comprehensive immigration reform, and soon," she said.

Unfortunately, though not accidentally, there was no time allowed for questions or comments from the audience. If discussion had been allowed, there might have been a situation in which Pelosi or Gutierrez would have had to explain what they mean by "comprehensive immigration reform."

Would it mean something like the STRIVE Act, put forward by Gutierrez and conservative Republican Jeff Flake in 2007? That bill, had it passed, would have: increased border "security" (meaning more deaths in the border regions), required millions of applicants to the program to leave the country within 90 days (thereby breaking up families), and tied workers to their jobs in order to stay in the country (thus putting workers at the mercy of their employers). Hardly something for immigrants, their families or activists to be excited about.

True, Gutierrez has since been highly critical of ICE and, at one point last year, compared it to the Gestapo. And the fact that high-profile members of government are calling for an end to the raids is both a welcome shift from the Bush-era punitive tactics and something that will no doubt encourage grassroots organizing.

But does the fight begin and end with the petition that Pelosi and the CHC are handing out on the tour, asking the president to stop the raids and enact comprehensive reform? Or does that struggle entail something more--a movement from below, that connects the need for full rights and equality for immigrants to issues such as the Employee Free Choice Act; funding for jobs, health care and education; and an end to the war?

Obama and his administration came into office saying that we need a "movement for change." We do! He has promised that things will be different than they were under Bush. Good, life has been awful for millions for too long! But what gets changed, the content of reform, and in whose interests the new direction will be is still up for grabs.

Stopping the raids and deportations is the minimum that the government could and should do at the moment, if the rhetoric about "family unity" has any meaning to it. There has already been at least one workplace raid under the new administration in Bellingham, Wash. In this respect, the promised change has yet to arrive.

We do need a reform of the U.S. immigration system--reform that guarantees full rights and equality, not the second-class status that has been on offer so far. The CHC tour will no doubt draw many of thousands of listeners out in its course, but the solutions offered don't go far enough.

It's up to us to push for what we truly want. So when we hear Pelosi and the others say, "Yes, we can," our response must be, "Yes, WE can!"
Roger Dyer, San Francisco

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