Emboldened by revived prospects for immigration reform in Congress, a group of about 100 young immigrants from several states — including some legalized by President Obama’s “Dream Act” order and some in the U.S. illegally — held a boisterous meeting on Capitol Hill Monday and then scattered to various congressional offices to make a quieter case for their rights.
“Undocumented and unafraid!” they chanted in English and then in Spanish, pep-rally style, at a news conference in a normally sedate House conference room. “When our families are under attack, what do we do?” called out one visitor. “Stand up, fight back!” the rest shouted.
Leaders of the group, called United We Dream, said they had come to Washington with three distinct messages. “To Republicans: your principles are not enough. We want to see bills,” said organizer Julieta Garibay. “To Democrats: hold onto your values and do not bar us from becoming citizens. To Obama: stop deportations and separating families.”
Many of the immigrants had travelled by bus from the Ohio district which is represented by Republican House Speaker John Boehner. Last week Boehner released a list of new GOP principles on immigration, which included granting some legal protections, but not an automatic path to citizenship, for the country’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants. GOP House leaders signalled an openness to legalizing and granting citizenship to illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children, who have come to be known as Dreamers.
Another group had arrived from Roanoke, Va., which is in the district of Rep. Robert Goodlatte. The conservative Republican chairs the House Judiciary committee, the chief panel dealing with immigration, and he was highly critical of the compromise Senate bill on immigration reform which passed last year.
Hispanic immigrants from both states recounted stories of fleeing poverty in Mexico and Central America, working in car washes and produce factories, and then facing legal and family crises when one or more of their relatives were deported. Some said their families were of mixed legal status, including both unauthorized immigrants and U.S. citizens.
Doralinda Soto, 34, a Guatemalan immigrant, raised four children in Ohio while working in vegetable packing plants. In 2008, her work permit expired and she was deported, while her four children had to remain behind with an aunt in Cincinnati. Frantic to be reunited with them, Soto crossed Mexico and entered the U.S. again illegally; she has remained here ever since.
“My children’s grades were falling and my oldest daughter had to take care of younger ones. I just couldn’t leave them like that,” said Soto, who was accompanied Monday by her 16-year-old daughter Emy, a U.S. citizen who is now excelling in high school and wants to become a nurse. “I want all my children to grow up to be a credit to our race.”
Paulina Lopez, 30, a supermarket cashier in Roanoke, was brought from Guatemala to the U.S. illegally as a child. She recently legalized her immigrant status under Obama’s order granting protections for up to one million such “dreamers,” but she said her brother was recently deported after police stopped and questioned him while he was riding a bicycle to work.
“I fought for my brother but there was nothing I could do to help him, so now I am here fighting for other families so they won’t suffer and be separated,” Lopez said after the news conference, slightly flushed and trembling with emotion. “People in my community are scared, but they should have rights and dignity like other human beings.”
The exuberant mood and strongly worded demands of the delegation suggested that young Hispanic immigrants across the country feel increasingly confident of their political strength, but they appeared to obtain little more than vague promises of support when they visited legislators’ offices in the afternoon.
“They promised to keep educating the community and work with Republicans for a better understanding of the issue,” said Yash Mori, a United We Dream organizer who met with staffers of liberal Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Cal.). “They sort of beat around the bush.”
And although the group’s leaders expressed gratitude for Obama’s order to protect illegal youth, they lashed out angrily at the president for allowing record numbers of deportations. The Obama administration has said it is focusing chiefly on deporting criminals and recent border-crossers, not working immigrants.
“Today, another 1,100 people will be deported by Obama, who has already deported almost two million,” declared Antonio Castanon, a United We Dream official at the news conference. “Obama, we are here to hold you accountable. We are here to demand action. . . “We are here to raise hell.”