For immigrants’ rights activists, battle continues

For Angelica Salas, it was a long time coming.

The Obama administration’s announcement that it would stop deporting illegal immigrants who were brought here as children was the culmination of more than a decade of persistent political organizing by Salas and her fellow immigrant rights advocates.

But Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, barely had time to celebrate what many activists consider their most significant victory since amnesty was offered to nearly 3 million illegal immigrants in 1986.

There is work to be done to build political power through get-out-the-vote campaigns: To forge strategies around the U.S. Supreme Court’s imminent decision on Arizona’s restrictive immigration law; to slow down the Obama administration’s record level of deportations; and, in California, to renew the push to give illegal immigrants driver’s licenses. “We organized. We pushed really really hard,” Salas said. “It’s great to know our hard work is paying off. But there is so much more to do.”

Despite the immigrant rights movement’s most enduring disappointment -- the failure to win an immigration system overhaul that would include legalization for most illegal immigrants -- the movement is brimming with energy and crafting countermoves to hawkish policies that have proliferated in the last two years. And the focus on relief for undocumented students has expanded the movement’s organizing ranks with young people armed with energy, social media skills and compelling stories, analysts say.

“In the last couple of years, the movement has been much more led by the activism of young adults,” said Louis DeSipio, a UC Irvine political scientist.


DeSipio cautioned, however, that activists face a daunting obstacle to enduring national gains: The lack of what he called a “viable strategy” to shift the dynamics of the House of Representatives by electing a Democratic majority or more Republicans open to their agenda. Failing that, he said, the activists will have to continue relying on administrative action that could be overturned with a new president.

Activists will also face an energized opposition by those who believe Obama’s decision last week rewards those who broke the law.

William Gheen, president of Americans for Legal Immigration PAC, said he and his allies plan to launch a “peaceful political revolt” involving protests, marches, public education, media interviews and work with like-minded legislators to defeat Obama. “We need to throw this dictator out of office and others who try to make policy through executive decree rather than the processes of the republic,” Gheen said.

Obama’s decision to stop deporting young immigrants, advocates say, capped a decade of work they say tactically evolved with changing political circumstances. Under the new policy, illegal immigrants would be given a two-year renewable reprieve from deportations if they came here before age 16, lived continuously in the United States for five years, are students with a high school or general education degree or served in the military, have no criminal record and are younger than age 30. Successful applicants will be given a work permit -- and, most likely, a Social Security card that will also give them access to driver’s licenses.

Advocates have been pushing for such relief since Reps. Howard L. Berman (D-Los Angeles) and Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles) first proposed it in 2001 with bipartisan support, Salas said. But the efforts sputtered as Republicans hardened their stance with legislation against illegal immigrants. This included a 2005 House of Representatives bill to criminalize undocumented immigrants and those who assist them -- legislation that sparked waves of national protest marches -- and the 2010 Arizona bill that made it a state crime for illegal immigrants to be in the state and requires police to check for proof of legal status.

Reading the political tea leaves in 2010, advocates made a fateful strategic decision: to shift from pushing legislation, seen as politically impossible to pass over congressional GOP opposition, to executive action that Obama could take on his own. “We all pivoted toward administrative relief when we saw that legislation was very unlikely,” Salas said.

In June 2011, the Obama administration announced that it would focus deportation actions on individuals who pose a public safety threat and give relief to those who do not, including students and families.

But activists have been disappointed and angered by the results: Among nearly 300,000 deportation cases reviewed so far, only 1.5% have been closed. Overall, the Obama administration has ejected more than 1 million immigrants so far, including 46,000 parents of U.S. citizen children during the first six months of 2011, according to a report by the Fair Immigration Reform Movement.

Advocates stepped up pressure for administrative relief for undocumented students. Democratic congressional leaders began quietly but persistently pushing Obama for action. Last month, UC Santa Cruz graduate Neidi Dominguez and others delivered to the White House a letter from UCLA professor Hiroshi Motomura and 94 other prominent law professors laying out the legal basis of executive authority to stop deportations against Dream Act students as a group. This month, Dream Act advocates began sit-ins at Obama campaign offices in Colorado, Nevada, Florida and California.

As enthusiasm for Obama among Latinos waned and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) dangled the prospect of preempting the president with a Republican Dream Act bill, Obama finally made a move that surprised and thrilled activists.

DeSipio said the elation could be short-lived if the Supreme Court upholds the Arizona law this month.

But advocates have begun plotting their responses. If courts uphold the state’s right to make immigration law -- opponents of the law argue that only the federal government may do so -- immigrant rights activists will push more state legislation to expand protections for undocumented immigrants, according to Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles).

Cedillo said several proposals were in the works, building on California’s landmark laws last year that gave undocumented students access to both state and private financial aid for college. Among them, Cedillo said he planned this year to reintroduce his bill allowing driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.

The students, too, say they are ready. They say they will use their new momentum to continue building support for the full Dream Act, an immigration system overhaul and other initiatives.

With supporters of the Dream Act active in 28 states, students will continue rallies, sit-ins and hunger strikes nationwide, said Carlos Deoses, a 23-year-old college graduate from New Mexico.

“We’re going to keep going until our parents, uncles, aunts and cousins are legal,” said Deoses, who has a degree in social work but works fixing roofs and waiting tables because he lacks a work permit.

Cristina Jimenez, managing director for United We Dream Network, said the hundreds of thousands of students she expects to apply for legal status and work permits can become active new foot soldiers in the fight for lasting relief for all undocumented immigrants.

“This adds new energy to our movement,” she said. “Now we have to hold the president accountable and move forward.”