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What does the State of the Union hold for immigration reform?

Delivered to Congress last night, President Obama’s second State of the Union address was one that looked squarely into the future, and was charged with optimism, hope and the spirit of cooperation-

We are part of the American family. We believe that in a country where every race and faith and point of view can be found, we are still bound together as one people; that we  share common hopes and a common creed; that the dreams of a little girl in Tucson are not so different than those of our own children, and that they all deserve the chance to be fulfilled. That, too, is what sets us apart as a nation…Now, by itself, this simple recognition won’t usher in a new era of cooperation. What comes of this moment is up to us. What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow.

These words, spoken early in the speech, did more than honor Christina Green and the other victims of the tragic shooting that took place in Tucson, Arizona on January 8th. Along with noting the empty chair in the room and saying a prayer for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the President said, in his opening remarks, that the tragedy in Tucson served as a reminder that we were all greater than our parties and political affiliations, and that in order to face the great challenges that lie ahead, it is important to “move forward together.” This emphasis on cooperation between the two parties was symbolized by the fact that, for the first time, Democrat and Republican members of Congress sat together at the State of the Union address, representing a show of unity for Gabrielle Giffords.

In a speech that focused on science, technology, clean energy and education, President Obama chose to avoid specifics in favor of a rhetorical approach that employed storytelling to illustrate points. In addition to invoking the repeal of the contentious “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy in the military, he surprised immigration and human rights advocates by spending some time on the issue of immigration reform. In the spirit of allowing everyone to shape their own destiny and contribute to the future of the country, the President expressed support for immigration reform and the enactment of the DREAM Act that would give an estimated 2 million undocumented youth who have lived in the country since they were children, and gone through the educational system, to be put on a path to citizenship. He said-

Today, there are hundreds of thousands of students excelling in our schools who are not American citizens. Some are the children of undocumented workers, who had nothing to do with the actions of their parents. They grew up as Americans and pledge allegiance to our flag, and yet live every day with the threat of deportation. Others come here from abroad to study in our colleges and universities. But as soon as they obtain advanced degrees, we send them back home to compete against us. It makes no sense…Now, I strongly believe that we should take on, once and for all, the issue of illegal immigration. I am prepared to work with Republicans and Democrats to protect our borders, enforce our laws and address the millions of undocumented workers who are now living in the shadows. I know that debate will be difficult and take time. But tonight, let’s agree to make that effort. And let’s stop expelling talented, responsible young people who can staff our research labs, start new businesses, and further enrich this nation.

The issue of immigration has always been a contentious subject; one on which lawmakers have remained extremely divided. What cannot be disputed, however, is that the current immigration system is broken and desperately needs fixing. Currently, there are approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, people who work hard to seek a better life for themselves and their children. Mostly living in the shadows, a lot of people are forced to work for minimum wage, facing inhumane conditions while being denied basic care. Following 9-11, the government’s harsh policies regarding immigrants have resulted in a denial of human rights and due process, with the government allowing raids and arrests without warrants, holding thousands in inhumane detention centers, and deporting people with a fair trial.

While it is tempting to be optimistic that Congress will heed the President’s advice, put aside their differences, and work on fixing the broken immigration system through fair and humane immigration reform, this is not the first time that President Obama has called upon lawmakers to address some of these problems. In the four times that the President has addressed Congress during his term, he has brought up the issue of immigration reform on three occasions. Further, there has never been any doubt about his support for the DREAM Act.

Due to the President’s support, and the work of Senator Harry Reid and other supporters, the DREAM Act even made it to a vote in the Senate in December of last year, only to be struck down. It is also difficult to ignore the fact that Immigrations and Customs Enforcement deported a record number of people in 2010, and put into place a high number of agreements between federal immigration and local law enforcement agencies. These agreements, like the 287g and Secure Communities program, sanction immigration enforcement at the local level without clear objectives or meaningful oversight, resulting in eroding public trust in the local police, and in racial and ethnic profiling, as well as the unlawful detention of U.S. citizens and permanent residents.

So yesterday, when the President spoke about what an uphill battle immigration reform is for Congress, immigrant rights advocates like Frank Sharry from America’s Voice could not help but wish for a more aggressive approach in which he got on the “offensive” and “challenged the Republicans on comprehensive immigration reform.”

As many states seek to introduce harsh ant-immigrant legislation that threatens the security and freedom of thousands around the country, we will wait to see whether the Congress heeds his advice, and works together towards a solution to the immigration system, it is poignant to invoke President Obama’s words-

We are the first nation to be founded for the sake of an idea – the idea that each of us deserves the chance to shape our own destiny…We do big things. From the earliest days of our founding, America has been the story of ordinary people who dare to dream. That’s how we win the future.

We need to live in a nation that ensures equal rights, justice and due process to all, irrespective of their national origin, ethnicity, race, or citizenship. We are daring to dream.

Photo courtesy of latina.com

Immigrant women defy odds on International Women’s Day

March is the month where International Women’s Day celebrates the strides women have made, in spite of all they have to endure. Like Rosa Morales, an immigrant woman who turned her life around and went from the brink of being deported, to being awarded a scholarship for her contribution to society.

Two years ago, what started as a 911 call to register a case of domestic violence turned into a deportation case for Rosa. Although her husband was a legal resident, she had been living in the U.S. as an undocumented resident. Rosa, then a 35 year old mother of two boys, was taken to an immigration detention facility where she was held for a month before she was given a deportation hearing and released after her husband paid a bond. While in detention, Morales looked back on her life, realized that she was frustrated with living under extreme financial hardship, and took the decision to turn her life around. Soon after her release, she earned her GED and joined Promotoras, a group of women volunteers who visit schools and churches to provide information on health and education to other women in the community. In spite of continuing financial hardship, both Rosa and her husband have enrolled in college and she aims to follow this up with a social work degree at Arizona University, a job, and then citizenship. Recently, in honor of her commitment to bettering the life of her family and community, Rosa Morales was awarded the Virginia Palmer Memorial Scholarship from the Tucson Branch of the American Association of University Women.

While Rosa’s story is one of hope, we also want to call attention to the hardships faced by many immigrant women as they struggle to provide for their families. From exploitation by employers to the denial of reproductive health, domestic violence to the constant threat of separation from their children, undocumented women face many challenges. Many will be in the March for America on March 21st, calling for just and humane comprehensive immigration reform to reclaim their lives and contribute to society without living in fear.

But not everyone is sympathetic to the cause. In a conference call two days ago, Numbers USA, The John Tanton Network and the Tea Party Movement discussed strategies to counteract the March for America, with the groups advocating an anti-immigration stance that targeted Latina women and even children. From our friends at Campus Progress who listened in.

CALLER 1: I would like to speak out on something. I feel the new welfare queen in America today is women coming from Mexico with a bunch of babies. So I feel they’re all coming over here and having all these babies, they are the new welfare queen in America…

CALLER 3: One piece of information would be, they aren’t babies, they’re dependents. Don’t use babies. It’s emotional to them. They have dependents. We have babies.

And the racist ball didn’t stop rolling, even though the accusations are unfounded and irrational. Callers discussed strategies to flood Congress with phonecalls and faxes “to create the perception that there was a grassroots opposition to immigration reform”. Perceptions are powerful, but so are the actions of hundreds of thousands of workers, families, and women calling for immigration reform. So get your voices out there.