In 2013, the immigrant rights movement’s objective was to pass a comprehensive bill that included a special path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants. The year finished, however, without a legislative win. In light of a crisis of record deportations and family separation, we must revisit our priority in the new year. Our new priority must be securing immediate relief to stop deportations, not a “citizenship-or-nothing” political stance.
From lobbying members of Congress to infiltrating detention centers and stopping individual deportations, we have each done our part to make this movement stronger, advance the rights of the immigrant community, and rekindle the fire of the American Dream.
Despite all the hard work that we did last year, we cannot ignore that we did not pass comprehensive immigration reform. Instead, we are nearing an alarming two million deportations under the Obama administration; saw U.S. Citizen children carry signs asking for parents to be released from private immigration prisons; ICE coming to work-sites taking parents whose only crime was to provide food on the table.
As leaders, we need to have the humility to reassess our strategy and make changes when something is not working. The stakes are too high to continue with the same flawed strategy. If President Obama halted deportations, then we could fight for a direct path to citizenship. Family separation from deportations, however, makes it difficult to continue with the same demand and strategy.
We were all exuberant from the 2012 elections results: Tea party’s defeats, including Mitt Romney’s loss due to his “self deportation” stance, would finally move the Republican party to act on immigration legislation. We felt confident that we could achieve comprehensive immigration reform with a special path to citizenship for all eleven million undocumented immigrants.
While the Senate immigration bill was not perfect, we were hopeful that its passage meant we were halfway there and that a bipartisan deal was taking shape in Congress. The logic at the time was that passing the Senate Bill would increase momentum to pass it in the House. This, however, did not happen. "They completely misunderstood the impact that the Senate bill would have," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, a key Democrat on immigration.
As the Senate immigration bill stalled, advocates and House Democrat leadership acted, understandably so, to introduce a comprehensive bill, H.R. 15, with hopes that it would pressure Speaker Boehner (R-Ohio) to force a vote or introduce his own legislation. It made sense then. It no longer makes sense now. Speaker Boehner has refused to bring the Senate bill to the floor or even go to conference.
Blaming Republicans for killing CIR became good propaganda used by some Democrats, like Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), and alienated the few Republicans who were interested in moving legislation forward. Establishing hard lines, like “citizenship or nothing”, made it politically impossible for both parties to come to the table on a real solution.
The new year sees opportunities but we need a new priority: we must seek immediate relief to lift the shadow of deportation from the undocumented community. The status quo is not acceptable. We can’t stand by and watch two million more people get deported while we try to pass an ideal immigration reform.
We must first win a practical solution even if it doesn't include a special path to citizenship. Allowing undocumented immigrants to be legalized first and seek existing channels of citizenship must be a priority. Republican leaders are already amenable to citizenship for Dreamers and legalization for parents without blocking existing citizenship channels.
At the same time, Democrats and Republicans must lead to ensure that Republican extremists do not hijack deliberations by including provisions that will criminalize undocumented workers or parents thereby creating a police state.
Finally, we must accept that the Senate (S.744) and House (H.R.15) immigration bills are no longer viable options.
Walking away with nothing is not an option for us; “citizenship-or-nothing” is not an option. We can’t ask our communities to wait for “citizenship” while we see our mothers, our fathers being separated from their children. Citizenship is our ultimate goal but we cannot let it become a hardline that poisons bipartisanship.
This year we have a real opportunity to secure our first victory; a victory that will allow us to live and work freely, to travel and see our family members we left behind. Rest assure the next day, we will be ready to work and fight for the next victory, including a path to citizenship. Let’s, however, get our first win 2014.
Vargas, J.D., is co-director of the DREAM Action Coalition and National Activists for the DREAM Act.
Response from the office of Rep. Becerra (D-Calif.): James M. Gleeson, communications director for Becerra, said:
“Mr. Vargas writes with passion about the need to reform of our broken immigration system. That's healthy and Congressman Becerra supports that. But when Mr. Vargas attributes actions and quotes to Congressman Becerra that are inaccurate or that he will not substantiate, that's unhealthy and doesn't move us closer to getting immigration reform done. We should all welcome a vigorous debate on a crucial issue to our families, our country and our economy. But let's stick to the facts.”