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Immigration Advocates Tell Their Stories as Reform Effort Intensifies

Posted: Jan 30, 2013

It was a quiet evening like any other for Erika Andiola and her family, a peace that was suddenly shattered by a heavy knock on the door of their home on the outskirts of Phoenix, Ariz.

Andiola opened the door and saw what she thought were undercover officers talking to her brother in front of the house. A man standing at the door told Andiola he was doing an investigation and wanted to talk with her mother. Hearing her name, Andiola’s mother, Maria Arreola, came to the door to see what was happening.

The moment Arreola, 53, stepped outside the house, the officer grabbed her arms and snapped handcuffs onto her wrists. Then Andiola’s brother was handcuffed. The young woman’s stomach knotted as she realized the men were from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Her mother and brother were swept into a car and gone.

“They took her without saying anything. I was crying, I was very emotional,” said Andiola, 25. “Is this how it feels?”

Families are torn apart every day. Last year, more than 400,000 people were deported. Many had lived in the U.S. for decades – some had come looking for a better life; others, such as Erika Andiola, had been brought here as children.

Eleven million undocumented immigrants live in the U.S.

Erika Andiola was 11 years old when her mother brought her to the U.S. The first time they crossed the border, they were caught, taken into an immigration office and fingerprinted. The second time, they made it.

Last year, the U.S. spent $18 billion on immigration enforcement programs, more than all other law enforcement programs combined, according to a new Migration Policy Institute report.

The federal government’s failure to create national immigration legislation has been costly not just to the taxpayer but to families separated by deportation, workers exploited by unscrupulous employers, and young people who grew up here, but have little chance of building a future for themselves or lifting their families out of poverty.

Now there is evidence that America’s attitudes on immigration are changing and that Republican opposition to immigration reform may be diminishing – if not from a sense of justice and compassion, then from a sense of self-preservation.

Latino and Asian immigrants were a deciding factor in the presidential election. Seventy-one percent of Latino voters supported Barack Obama for president, and recent polls show 62 percent of all voters support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Rebuked Republicans have taken note.

The same week in January that Erika Andiola’s mother was arrested in Arizona, lawmakers in Illinois were approving driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.

Only a handful of states offer some type of driving permit for undocumented immigrants. The Illinois vote was the result of a 10-year effort and, to some, an indication that the time is right to move on other immigration issues.

“Illinois is an example of what can happen nationally,” said Lawrence Benito, CEO of Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. “Passing the highway safety legislation is proof that both parties can put the politics of fear and scapegoating aside and work on practical solutions that keep our roads and our families safe.”

A week later, in his inauguration speech, President Obama set the tone for his second term and sent a message that immigration reform will be an early priority.

“Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity, until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country,” Obama said.

But for every hopeful sign, other scenes, like the one outside Erika Andiola’s home, illustrate the deep divisions on immigration and are a painful reminder to supporters that the work is far from done.

Strength in Organizing

When the car holding her mother and brother drove away, Andiola ran into the house and began doing what she does best – organizing and mobilizing.

Andiola is one of Arizona’s most popular young immigration activists. She co-founded the Arizona Dream Act Coalition, advocating for citizenship for young people brought into the country as children.

Andiola became the face of proposed Dream Act legislation when Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin stood next to a poster-size picture of her on the U.S. Senate floor last July.

He told the Senate that the young woman who graduated from Arizona State University with honors – and thousands of others like her ‒ was exactly the kind of person the country should value and encourage by allowing them to be full citizens.

She remembered that moment as she started making phone calls. Her first call was to an immigration lawyer; then she called people she had organized with before.

Andiola quickly posted on Facebook, tweeted a blast of details, then recorded an emotional YouTube video describing what had happened and asking for help. Friends shared the story, and it spread.

She started calling legislators she thought might recognize her name and help, including Arizona Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, who had interviewed Andiola for a job just a day earlier.

“She was really responsive,” said Andiola. “I called other legislators. I was emailing people like crazy, all the congressional offices in D.C.”

A conference call with 20 of the leading immigration advocates throughout the country was held late that night.

“We have grown a huge movement. That night everyone came together,” said Andiola. “We decided public pressure on Immigration was the best way to go. Every organization has thousands of people on their mailing lists. They all put out the call asking everyone to contact legislators, the media and immigration officials.”

This was the same grassroots organizing and mobilizing from neighborhood organizations, immigrant rights groups and communities across the country that had powered the 2012 elections nationally and locally, overcoming well-financed campaigns.

Few outside the immigration-reform movement are aware of its sophistication and its reach across the country, not just in southern-border states like California, Arizona and Texas, or immigrant-rich Florida.

Coalitions are growing in Alabama and Georgia, where harsh immigration laws have sparked parallels to the civil rights movement and support from African-American groups and faith organizations.

And more organizations stretch along the northern border with Canada, where beefed-up border patrols spread fear in communities from Washington state to Michigan to New York.

Activists are putting a face on the millions of working immigrant families – they are people in your neighborhood, people you work with or who share a classroom with your children.

“It will require a lot of community organizing,” said Jorge-Mario Cabrera, communications director at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. “Immigration reform deserves its day in the limelight. This is the time.”

Republican senators – including Arizona’s John McCain, a long-time immigration reform leader, the state’s newly elected junior senator, Jeff Flake, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio – are building support for an immigration overhaul.

Business leaders are stepping up as well. Tom Donohue, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, speaking to business leaders in January, called for an overhaul of the nation’s immigration system, saying the “door to the American dream must always remain open.”

Democrats, such as Sen. Durbin of Illinois, are girding for the new debate and drafting early proposals for a bill.

Some of the early Senate proposals announced Monday call for a path to citizenship, but also for securing the border and improved tracking of people in the U.S. on visas.

Despite the encouraging words, immigration advocates are wary. It will all come down to the details. Reform must be comprehensive rather than a piecemeal approach that again leaves families in limbo.

Opponents paint reform as amnesty and urge fingerprinting and tighter border enforcement before any path to citizenship is considered for undocumented immigrants already in the country.

“The elephant in the room is the pathway to citizenship,” said Petra Falcon, executive director of Promise Arizona. “I just can’t imagine second-class status for part of our population. That isn’t what this country is about.”

“The laws and policies in place today are ripping families apart,” said Falcon. “Lives are being destroyed. Tens of thousands of children are being separated from their parents, who came to the United States not to harm America but to help build America. It’s time the United States government and its people lived up to our democratic ideals and justice.”

In June, President Obama introduced Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a policy that allows people younger than 30 who were brought into the country as children, to apply for temporary protection from deportation. Once approved, they are eligible to work, apply for a driver’s license and pay in-state tuition at their local college.

Some states balked, including Arizona. Although the federal government has clarified that people approved through deferred action are “legally present,” Arizona’s Republican Gov. Jan Brewer – who signed the state’s stinging anti-immigrant legislation three years ago – said she is reviewing the driver’s license matter.

Erika Andiola was approved for deferred action. Although she still can’t get a driver’s license in Arizona, she has a social security number, is allowed to work legally. She accepted the job in Rep. Kyrsten Sinema’s Arizona office as outreach coordinator.

“I feel a little more like I belong,” said Andiola. “I am really glad I can work and can provide for my family.”

Andiola’s mother worked for years cleaning houses after coming to the United States. She applied for her residency green card in 2001 and is still waiting. The last time the family checked her position on the list, she had five years to go.

This Time It’s Different

By the time the sun was rising in Phoenix the morning after her mother and brother were whisked away, Andiola’s supporters had gathered nearly 18,000 signatures on petitions to free her mother and brother.

Andiola decided to go stand outside the immigration office to see if she could talk to her mother and brother. She posted on Facebook where she was going and invited anyone interested to join her.

When she arrived, a small crowd had gathered.

An employee from the immigration office came outside and told Andiola that her brother would be released in an hour. But her mother was already on a bus to Mexico.

The media began arriving at the the detention center. Andiola held a press conference. As she was speaking, her brother, finally released, came over and pulled her aside. He was smiling.

The bus their mother was on was just miles from the U.S.-Mexico border when the bus driver received a call with instructions to bring Maria back to Phoenix. It was over.

Erika Andiola said that because she has been open about her immigration status and shared her personal story so many times, people felt connected to her and wanted to help.

“It all comes down to politics,” said Andiola. “When no one is looking, they do what they want to do. When people are looking, they don’t want to look bad. It literally takes people calling and petitions, so they know the community is watching. The country is watching.”

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