Local Activists Work to Keep Undocumented Families Together, Fight for Deferred Action for All
By Blair Jackson
It is a cold autumn night. A dozen or so men, women, children and teenagers have gathered on the sidewalk, spilling onto the lawn in a loose circle. Some are lighting candles. At the head of the circle, a young man raises his voice to the crowd.
“Thousands of families are being separated,” he calls into the night. “Over a thousand deportations a day is too many.”
The crowd murmurs in agreement, some clap. Others hold their hands over their candles, protecting the flames from the wind.
The young man’s name is Fernando Garcia. He has been lobbying for immigrant policy reform since 2007. Today he works to organize and mobilize the immigrant community, raising awareness, lifting spirits and educating others on the policies that affect the lives of undocumented immigrants.
At the age of 5, Garcia crossed the border without documentation. Today, at 29, he is a United States citizen. He and his family were one of the estimated 3 million undocumented immigrants who obtained citizenship under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Also known as the Simpson-Mazzoli Act, the law allowed undocumented workers to receive citizenship after meeting specified criteria and paying back taxes and penalties. Garcia has acquired what the 11.5 million undocumented workers in the United States are hoping to receive: an accessible path to citizenship.
“I will never forget that I was undocumented once,” says Garcia, “and I won’t forget the struggle that my parents had to go through because they were undocumented once as well.”
Garcia is part of a youth-led organization called The Natural Dreamers, an Arkansas-based group that is dedicated to passing the DREAM Act, a bill that would provide a path to permanent residency for the children of undocumented immigrants. Today, the Dreamers are not only fighting for their own rights, they are standing up for their parents as well.
For the past 28 days, Garcia and his fellow Dreamers have been participating in 30 Days of Escalation, an awareness campaign coordinated by United We Dream, the largest immigrant youth-led organization in the nation. In an official statement announcing the campaign, United We Dream cited high deportation rates and the separation of families as a fundamental concern:
“DREAMers are fighting for families to be able to live free from fear, pressing President Obama to halt deportations and calling on Speaker John Boehner to give us a vote on immigration reform that ends senseless family separation and creates a clear path to citizenship.”
In solidarity with United We Dream, the Natural Dreamers have been holding vigils, visiting the office of Rep. Steve Womack and raising awareness about the 1,100 undocumented immigrants who are deported each day in the United States.
Deportation rates have reached record highs under the Obama Administration. Immigration and Customs Enforcements (ICE) deported an all-time high of approximately 400,000 undocumented immigrants in 2011. In 2012, ICE topped the figure, deporting approximately 410,000 undocumented immigrants.
According to ICE, 55 percent of deportees in 2012 were “convicted criminal aliens,” bringing criminal deportations to a record-high of 225,390, almost double the criminal deportations that took place during Obama’s first year in office. But organizations like the Natural Dreamers are more concerned with the 45 percent of deportees, or 184,459 people, who were not criminals.
Now, nearing the end of the 30 Days of Escalation, the Natural Dreamers are standing outside of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office in Fayetteville. It is an unmarked, brick building, tucked away off Garland Avenue. If any of the undocumented immigrants standing on the sidewalk were to be detained, this is where they would be held.
Tonight, as a part of their 30 Days of Escalation, the Dreamers want to leave ICE a message. Using the light from their candles and their cell phones, the dozen or so attendees chalk messages onto the sidewalk.
A young girl writes: “My name is Josse Lynne. I am 9 years old. My parents are awesome. Please don’t separate them from me.”
Josse Lynne is part of what is referred to as a “mixed status” household. Born in the United States, she is a citizen. Her parents are undocumented immigrants. If her parents were to be deported, Josse Lynn would fall into the care of any remaining family members or friends. If there was no one to take her in, she would be declared a ward of the state.
Blanca Estevez, political advisor for the Natural Dreamers, tells the story of a mixed status household targeted by ICE earlier this year. Confronted with the threat of separation, the family fled the area. To help prevent situations like these, the Natural Dreamers use education and political action to support families and students facing deportation.
Garcia explains the process, “We organize and we unite the community around that issue to stop the deportation. No child should have to grow up without their parents. That’s why I continue to organize and to mobilize in this movement. Everybody deserves the opportunity that I had; to not fear that my parents are going to be deported; to not fear that I could be deported to a country I don’t know.”
Fear of deportation is a daily factor in the life of an undocumented immigrants, but recent legislation has alleviated that fear for at least one group. Implemented in 2012, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) protects students and qualified undocumented immigrants from being deported. The law also provides a renewable two-year work permit for high school or GED graduates.
Although DACA was a victory for Garcia, Estevez and the other Dreamers, they consider it a temporary solution that fails to address many of the larger problems of the undocumented immigrant community.
“It’s only a Band-Aid solution,” says Garcia, “but we’ll take it because it stops the deportation of Dreamers.”
Obama has promised to renew DACA, but it’s organizers like Garcia who are leading political movements across the country to keep politicians accountable and to pressure them to reform the immigration system. The 30 Days of Escalation is only one example of the sit-ins, occupations and protests that are being held across the nation in response to high deportation rates and anti-immigration laws.
Some legislation, like the H.R. 2278: SAFE Act, propose more stringent regulations and more aggressive approaches to deportation, but there are some bills that recommend a more lenient approach. Lawmakers and activists are looking to Bill H.R. 15: Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act as a possible compromise to the problem of immigration reform. As its lengthy name suggests, the bill is comprehensive, and while it would increase border patrol and immigration enforcement, it would also provide a path to citizenship for undocumented workers across the country.
Estevez says the immigrant community is just beginning to tap into its power, to stand up and fight despite fears of deportation. She believes once the immigrant community realizes its full potential, revolution will be at hand. “Every one of us knows someone who is undocumented or has been mistreated by the government. The government has tried to blanket us with fear, and we’re not allowing that to happen.”
Blanca Estevez leaves a simple message for ICE employees: “Undocumented. Unafraid.”
“I hope [the ICE employees] see it,” she says, looking down at the message she has etched in yellow chalk. “I hope they see that people were out here, and I hope our words bring hope to the people being processed, to assure them that they’re not alone.”