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On the 235th birthday of the U.S., how do we “Define American?”

Over the last couple of weeks, developments in the immigration reform movement and the LGBTQI rights movement have opened up discussions of how one movement can learn from the other. New Yorkers celebrated the hard-won passage of the legalization of gay marriage, making the state the largest and most politically influential in the US so far to take the step forward. After the landmark passage of the law, other states (such as New Jersey and Rhode Island) are in the motion of enacting their own versions of the law.

The New York victory for the LGBTQI movement, coinciding with Pride Day and LGBT Pride Month, has sparked a discussion among the immigration reform movement over what can be learned from the successes of the other group. While the socio-political conditions of both movements are different, analysts have identified one major factor that contributed to the recent strides taken by the LGBTQI movement – making the issue personal for the legislators- that could be useful for other movements for human rights.

There are, of course, other, more obvious overlaps between the two groups as well. The recent case of Henry Velandia serves as a key example. Velandia, a Venezuelan salsa dancer, came to the US in 2002 and was legally married to his partner Josh Vandiver, a US citizen, last year in Connecticut. Velandia was then denied legal residency under the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which states that an American citizen can petition for legal residency for a spouse only if the spouse is of the opposite sex. Velandia faced deportation and only after repeated petitioning and opposition to DOMA, did the the immigration authorities cancel his deportation. Velandia and Vandiver’s lawyer, who won them the case, commented on the decision-

This action shows that the government has not only the power but the inclination to do the right thing when it comes to protecting certain vulnerable populations from deportation.

These links between the immigration and gay rights movements was also highlighted at the recent Freedom from Fear Awards that were announced on June 18 at the Netroots Nation conference in Minneapolis. One of the awards was given to Gaby Pacheco, Felipe Matos, Juan Rodriguez and Carlos Roa, the students who walked 1,500 miles from Miami to Washington, DC to move the government into passing the DREAM Act. The four students, two of whom (Matos and Rodriguez) are openly gay, went on the four month journey and garnered tremendous support – and some threats – along the way. Their campaign, called the Trail of DREAMs, caught the attention of President Obama and was also instrumental in the House of Representatives passing the DREAM Act in December 2010 before it was rejected by the Senate.

Freedom from Fear recognized several other, incredibly deserving, individuals for their dogged determination and fearlessness in working towards immigration reform, through grassroots campaigning, fighting discrimination, ending labor exploitation and much more. They also released a video showcasing all the winners from this year. One such worthy award recipient is Erika Andiola (from Phoenix, AZ). An honors student at Arizona State University, Andiola fell victim to Arizona’s draconian immigration laws when her scholarships were withdrawn because of her undocumented status. She has also been unable to find a job because of the same discrimination. Andiola joined Promise Arizona, a grassroots civic engagement group that works to train a new generation of leaders and also registers Latinos to vote. She is also campaigning for the DREAM Act, regularly approaching senior government officials to get her voice heard. Despite losing her scholarships, Andiola completed her degree and hopes to work as a school counselor one day.

The Freedom from Fear Awards give further impetus to the immigration movement, that has of late benefited from increased support and high-profile press coverage. On June 22, The New York Times published a completely unexpected confession from their Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Jose Antonio Vargas titled ‘My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant.’ The article, in which Vargas reveals his background, his unwavering American identity, and criticizes the immigration policy of the country, received widespread attention and gave the immigration reform movement its latest high-profile advocate. Vargas founded the organization, Define American, whose goal is to instigate a conversation around the many facets, including the moral questions, of the immigration debate. Vargas aims to publicize his story in the hope of encouraging the undocumented immigrants in the country to be more vocal and push legislators to pass comprehensive reform.

On June 28, the Senate held its very first hearing on the DREAM Act. In attendance were numerous DREAMers, including those who are now well known – such as Vargas – and those working tirelessly in their communities fighting to be accepted as Americans. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), who authored the original DREAM Act, said in his opening statement-

When I look around this room, I see the future doctors, nurses, scientists, and soldiers who will make this country stronger. I ask my colleagues to consider the plight of these young people, who find themselves in a legal twilight zone through no fault of their own. They are willing to serve our country, if we would only give them a chance.

Opponents of the DREAM Act always say they sympathize with DREAM Act students. They criticize the details of the bill, but they offer no alternative. Do they want these young people to be deported to countries that they barely remember? Or to continue living in the shadows?

The following day, President Obama renewed his promise to work towards comprehensive immigration reform, commenting specifically on the flaws of E-Verify, the mandatory background checking system that is being considered. Watch his remarks here:

Soon after, hundreds of DREAMers and their allies staged a symbolic graduation ceremony on Capitol Hill for the “Deportation Class of 2011.” With the slogan ‘Education, not Deportation,’ the DREAMers called on President Obama to fulfill his promise of getting the DREAM Act passed. Several DREAMers took to the podium to voice their calls for reform. They were also joined by Vargas, who spoke of the urgency to educate ordinary Americans about the cause and to publicize it more widely (an opinion that echoes the reasons for the success of the LGBTQI movement). With a statement that essentially summarizes the undeniable importance of immigration reform to the foundations of this country, Vargas ended with-

Americans don’t hate us…They just don’t know us. We need to show them that immigration is not about us, the 11 million undocumented immigrants. It’s about us, the 300 million Americans.

Photo courtesy of change.org

How has the immigration system fared one year under Obama’s presidency?

In early 2009, President Obama appointed the governor of border-state Arizona Janet Napolitano, and a supporter of comprehensive immigration reform, as the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). For many, it was a sign that the administration would tackle immigration reform as a priority. In her first week in office, Napolitano ordered a sweeping internal review of DHS, aimed at identifying key areas for reform. March 2010 marks the one year anniversary from that week. So how much has changed for immigration?

For this we turn to a new report released by the Immigration Policy Center which compares actual reform undertaken by the agency to reforms that were recommended to them by immigration policy experts, academics and community members that would instill fairness and due process.

While DHS struggles towards reform it has failed to meet some key expectations… The department has engaged thoughtfully and strategically on some issues… However, turning principles into practice has fallen short, and the practical realities for individuals caught up in the system have not necessarily changed for the better.

DHS has done well in some areas. Focus has been shifted away from from harsh worksite raids to a focus on  employers who hire undocumented workers. Welcome detention reforms have been announced particularly focused on healthcare and conditions of detention. A precedent was created whereby women who have suffered domestic violence are eligible for asylum. The Department was  efficient in responding to the earthquake in Haiti, granting Temporary Protected Status to Haitians in the U.S. and humanitarian parole to 500 orphans.

But the spirit of reform has been strangled by an “over-reliance on enforcement policies”. There has been little growth in community alternatives to detention or legally enforceable standards and people continue to face poor medicare care and substandard conditions. 2009 has seen the growth of partnerships with state and local law-enforcement that arm them with the power to enforce immigration law even though this is a federal responsibility. There has been a growth in programs that criminally prosecute those caught crossing the border, draining resources away from prosecution of serious crimes such as drug and human trafficking.

And the failures. There has been little tangible progress in the areas of due process, with the immigration court system continuing to remain overburdened, and an appeals process still compromised. The continued expansion of state and local law enforcement programs like Secure Communities and 287(g) programs have led to accusations of racial profiling and large scale prosecutions of individuals with no criminal history.

But although there are many areas where reform is desperately needed, ultimately these will be administrative measures carried by an administrative agency DHS. But the fundamental problems of the system will continue to grow until Congress works up the courage to institute just and humane immigration reform. We can only hope that the White House and Congress gives the broken immigration system the attention it deserves, so that rather than counting down another year of incomplete policies and inefficient reforms, we have a just and human immigration system that accounts for the realities on the ground.

Photo courtesy of fairimmigration.files.wordpress.com

POLL: Has DHS done enough to reform the broken immigration system?

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