Last week, as a representative of AILA, I joined Jose Antonio Vargas for two post-screening panels after his film “Documented.” Vargas has been a lightning rod since he, a Pulitzer Prize winner, revealed to the world that he was in fact unauthorized. The fact that one of the nation’s most celebrated reporters was “an illegal” has woken the nation up to the depth of those victimized by an unjust immigration regime which on the one hand has created a massive class of unauthorized immigrants while at the same time blocking any path to legalization.
While Jose has a compelling biography sprinkled with incredible perseverance and success, his movie transcends his own immigration story to depict the family separation, anxiety, and fear of those living under our broken immigration system and current laws. As I watched the movie and listened to the questions posed to us afterwards, I again questioned our role as immigration attorneys in obtaining meaningful and just reform and what “Documented” can teach us as we continue our struggle.
When Vargas revealed his status to the world, he joined the millions of youth raised in the US without immigration status in proclaiming that they would no longer live in the shadows and pretend to be just like their neighbors, classmates, and friends. By being both undocumented and unafraid, the DREAMers brought the issue of immigration to the forefront in a way that this nation had not seen. A movement largely devoid of ego with a huge diversity of backgrounds set out to not only legalize their status, but also that of their families by rejecting the statements even by DREAM Act advocates to not “visit the sins of the parents on the children”
While the DREAMers have remained unafraid, the political class has remained out of touch and beholden to a minority of harsh anti-immigrant voices and refused to move forward with the kind of bold immigration reform needed and really listen to the nation. A recent FOX news poll revealed that 74% of Americans favor legalization including eventual citizenship. Perhaps the best lesson we should learn from the larger DREAMer movement is what we have to lose as a country if we somehow let others dictate the immigration narrative and otherwise make immigrants and reform pawns of a larger political game. Both the movie and the questions we heard from the audience demonstrate that the debate coming out of DC does not reflect the feelings of those throughout the country. In the movie, Vargas shows the relationship between a conservative Republican farmer in Alabama and the gentleman who works with him who is Mexican. Through his personal relationship and his own idea of what it means to be free in America, the Alabaman came to oppose Alabama’s restrictive immigration laws designed to impinge on federal authority to regulate immigration.
We see this happening throughout the country. The national association of Evangelical Churches says “For several million immigrants, most drawn to the U.S. by employment opportunities, our immigration system offers no options for obtaining legal status.. Most immigrants are strong supporters of traditional family values.” Last year leaders in Chicago, Cleveland, Columbus, Indianapolis, St. Louis and Lansing, Michigan met to discuss ways to attract immigrants to their cities and create more welcoming and immigrant friendly environments. After that meeting Michigan governor Rick Snyder called for an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws to allow 50,000 new workers to revitalize Detroit. While Snyder did not specifically embrace a path to citizenship, he did call for meaningful discussions and in recognizing the misinformation in the current debate called for “taking the dumb off the table.”
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush reflects the feeling of a majority of Americans in his recent paradigm-changing statement as he called the unauthorized transportation of children across the US border by parents, “an act of love and a commitment to your family.” Despite the media for the most part measuring this statement solely in the context of its impact on Bush and his political party, we must view this as a step in furthering immigrant rights and a starting point in any discussion of reform.
Immigrants and their activist allies have marched, lobbied, gone to jail and otherwise pressured for years to get real reform. Now the voices of the evangelical churches and leaders of the GOP such as Jeb Bush and Rick Snyder truly change the narrative and should serve to marginalize the shrinking but vocal minority which has been responsible for keeping the discussion at the low level that Governor Snyder describes.
We cannot follow the lead of those that calculate “the right time” to bring up reform and simply depend on those in power to tell us when they can best press immigration reform and what needs to be in the bill. As Frederick Douglas said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
We have the stories to tell as we are often the place where the victims of IIRIRA and other unjust immigration laws let out their emotions and to which we are in a prime position to “testify” in public especially when our clients are too scared to do so.
So as this mid-term election campaign goes forward let’s not sit back and wonder what Congress or the White House might do. Instead, let’s each challenge ourselves to pick two avenues to push for immigration reform in our communities. Maybe it is a talk to a local school, speaking up at a town hall, or writing something in a local paper. I will make sure to ask candidates for local and national offices who I come in contact with and ask them how they intend to pursue immigration reform, provide driver’s licenses, or otherwise include immigrant populations in their “platforms.”
Let us be reinvigorated by Jose Antonio Vargas’s courage, energy and determination and also dare to DREAM and act.
And for those of you attending AC next week, I hope to see you at the screening of Documented—it’s a film that you don’t want to miss—Friday, from 5-7p.m. in the Westin, Floor 3, Essex Room.
Written by Mark Shmueli, Member, AILA Media Advocacy Committee