Letter from the US: Undocumented youth demand sweeping immigration reform

December 8, 2012
Participants in the United We Dream conference reflect in silence.

In the recent elections, Latinos, Asians and Blacks voted against the extreme racist policies and rhetoric of the Republicans.

A central plank in the Republican onslaught has been attacks on immigrants who lack documents. Romney said he would make life so miserable for them they would “self-deport”.

In the aftermath of the elections, immigrant youth without papers have remobilised to fight for their own rights and for citizenship for all of up to 12 million undocumented migrants working in the US.

A spirited conference of 600 undocumented youth defied deportation threats to gather for a three-day conference in Kansas City, Missouri on November 30-December 2. At the last day of the conference, they unanimously vowed to mobilise in support of a fight to win citizenship for all the undocumented.

This puts pressure on President Barack Obama and Congress to enact sweeping immigration reform.

They took chances just attending the conference. Some participants from California came by plane, passing security with state-issued identity documents, flying for the first time. Others came from places such as Texas, New York and Florida, in cars driven by the few among them who have drivers’ licenses.

California did once issue drivers’ licenses to undocumented workers, but stopped doing so in the face of a racist campaign a few years ago.

It was a sign of their new confidence that the leaders of the United We Dream network held its conference in the convention center in downtown Kansas City, a conservative state known for its hostility to immigrant rights.

Last Northern hemisphere spring, many of these same young people, proudly wearing T shirts with “I Am Undocumented” printed on them, staged sit-ins at Obama campaign headquarters, demanding he take a stand.

In June, embarrassed by these actions as he was trying to win Latino votes, Obama announced two-year reprieves from deportations and work permits for hundreds of thousands of young immigrants without papers. They had been brought into the US as children by their parents.

The Obama administration has deported nearly 1.4 million people for the “crime” of not having papers since he took office, far more than his predecessor. This has broken-up families and created unnecessary hardships for this important sector of the US working class.

These youth saw the reprieve as a victory a step forward. In the aftermath of the election, Obama says he will do something on immigration reform. In this area, as in others, Obama can point to Republican hostility as an excuse to water down any action.

Now United We Dream has upped the ante, saying they will mobilise in the broader community to not only make the two-year reprieve permanent for young people, but win full rights for all the undocumented, their parents included.

A New York Times reporter at the conference said in a December 2 article: “Their decision to push for legal status for their families was intensely emotional.

“When they were asked at a plenary session how many had been separated by deportation from a parent or family member, hundreds of hands went up ...”

The NYT article quoted Regem Corpuz, a 19-year-old student at the University of California, who was born in the Philippines, as saying: “When Obama is deporting all these people, separating all of our families, I’m sick and tired of that.”

The point was underscored on the last day of the conference. Six undocumented immigrant parents of those present joined a “coming out” ceremony where they spoke in public for the first time, as many of their children have done this past year.

The NYT said: “One father, Juan Jose Zorrilla, 45, who is from Mexico, recounted how he had entered the United States several times by swimming across the Rio Grande.

“‘For parents, there is no sacrifice so large that we won’t make it for our children,’ Mr Zorrilla said. A mass of youths jumped up from their chairs to embrace Mr. Zorrilla and the other parents.”

By demonstrating openly as undocumented youth this past year, and now holding an open conference, these young people are engaging in a mass civil disobedience campaign. They are challenging the authorities to arrest and deport them.

This tactic relies on the fact that they were brought into the country as children to many citizens, even those who are taken in by the anti-immigrant racism, this means they are here by "no fault of their own".

It seems especially heartless to deport them, and so far the administration has not dared to do so.

These courageous youth are utilising the election results in a clever way. They are not relying on Obama to “do something” for them and their communities, nor are they waiting on him.

At the conference some also pointed to the disarray among Republicans about why they lost so heavily among Latinos and Asians as indicating they are on the defensive too, and the time is ripe to strike.

By raising the stakes through a campaign to mobilise to fight for legalisation of the status of all the undocumented workers, these young people are showing the way forward: independent mass action.

It is to be hoped that Blacks, women, LGBTI people and trade unions can take a page from this positive example in the months ahead and emulate it.

[Barry Sheppard was a long-time leader of the US Socialist Workers Party and the Fourth International. He recounts his experience in the SWP in a two-volume book, The Party — the Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988, available from Resistance Books. Read more of Sheppard's articles.]

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