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Out of the shadows

On Campus
May/June 2013
Feature Story

By Barbara McKenna

The AFT works to ensure a road map to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants.

On an unseasonably hot spring day in Washington, D.C., tens of thousands of immigration rights supporters filled half of the National Mall on the west side of the U.S. Capitol building to join the Rally for Citizenship. The date, April 10, had significance for the immigration reform movement because on that day seven years ago, immigration rights advocates in 70 cities showed their muscle by rising up to successfully oppose anti-immigrant legislation in Congress.

This year, the stakes are even higher because an immigration reform bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate as AFT On Campus went to press.

For the first time in more than 20 years, immigration rights supporters gathered not to oppose a draconian anti-immigrant or anti-labor law but to call for construction of a new path forward. The rally attracted supporters from across the country advocating for a road map to citizenship for millions of aspiring Americans, and the crowd could sense that a victory—“la victoria!”—was within sight.

The goal: to bring 11 million undocumented workers and their families—including 2.5 million DREAMers, the hopeful, young face of the movement—who have been living in the shadows of an underground economy and in fear of arrest and deportation, into the light. This will fix what long has been acknowledged as a broken system that does not reflect the basic American values of freedom, equality and opportunity, or serve the country’s labor and economic needs.

AFT members have been working in concert with student and immigration rights groups for more than a decade to pass the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. This would give students who came to this country at a young age a chance to pursue a college degree or serve in the military to qualify for citizenship.

Four years ago, labor and the AFT worked with community- and faith-based groups to create a broader framework for immigration reform that reflects the shared values of dignity, fairness, opportunity, voice and justice.

The framework advocates for keeping families together, creating a road map to citizenship, and halting the race to the bottom in wages and worker protection standards by employers who are taking advantage of our nation’s failures in immigration policy. It calls for a data-driven approach to immigration that would determine future visas based on labor market needs, as well as the improvement—not expansion—of worker visa programs that too often deny basic civil rights to immigrant workers. The framework also recognizes that a new immigration system must include rational operational control of our borders, supplemented by effective work authorization mechanisms that hold employers accountable.

Not only is this a social justice imperative, it’s also bound to be good for the economy. According to a recent U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey, enacting reform could add $1.1 trillion to the gross domestic product, as well as create 159,000 new jobs and generate millions in federal, state and local taxes. Today, 7 out of 10 Americans agree that undocumented immigrants should be eligible for permanent residency or citizenship.

Commonsense reform now

This spring, the AFL-CIO launched the Campaign for Citizenship, a national grass-roots lobbying and community awareness initiative, with rallies in 14 cities. AFT president Randi Weingarten led the kickoff in Houston on March 22, at a town hall event and news conference where 70 groups representing the community, faith and labor organizations, parents and students turned out en masse.

“Commonsense, comprehensive and compassionate immigration reform is long overdue,” said Weingarten. She laid out the AFT’s priorities for an immigration policy that:

  • Ensures children who are immigrants or whose parents are immigrants can go to school without fear;
  • Provides a clear road map to citizenship for undocumented immigrants now living in the United States;
  • Promotes better (and better-paying) jobs for all workers;
  • Supports family unification, halting the tragic separation of families; and
  • Passes the DREAM Act.

DREAMers—the young people who would benefit from passage of the DREAM Act—have been the stars of the latest push for immigration reform. As products of U.S. public schools, DREAMers are well-educated and hold the values and beliefs of freedom and opportunity that are part of the America tradition—because for most, the United States is the only home they have known.

They speak on behalf of 2.5 million undocumented young people, including the 65,000 who graduate from high school each year, relegated to a life in the underground economy.

Engaging in acts of civil disobedience, wearing shirts and carrying signs stamped “undocumented and unafraid,” marching hundreds of miles to state capitals like Tallahassee and testifying fearlessly before state legislators, they also have become a familiar presence on Capitol Hill and the symbols of a broken immigration system that needs to be fixed.

Living to see another day

Like many DREAMers, Samantha Vázquez, 23, was brought to this country because her parents sought a better life for their family. She didn’t give much thought to her status until she turned 16 and conversations turned to learner’s permits, cars and college. Visits from college recruiters to her school put things into relief: “My friends were talking about the colleges they were going to and all the financial help they were going to get. For me and my undocumented friends, we felt that for some to have access to all these resources while some of us, who were just as good students, would have no opportunities—it wasn’t fair.”

Accepted at the state university but unable to pay the tuition, Vázquez now is taking courses at Evergreen Valley College in San Jose, Calif., to complete her undergraduate requirements.

Another EVC student, Sandra Guzman, 25, has been working on her paralegal and sociology associate degree from a community college and recently completed a two-year process in Mexico to legalize her status. She is preparing to go to UC Santa Cruz in the fall to study sociology. Guzman has spent 14 years of her young life separated from her mother, and 10 years trying to adjust her legal status in the United States. She has worked in offices where the employer refuses to pay workers minimum wage or allow them to take breaks, and where employees are told they are working illegally and therefore are not covered by U.S. laws.

But two recent changes have made a difference. One is passage of the California DREAM Act, which now allows Vásquez to receive state financial aid. The other is the opportunity to qualify for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the program the Obama administration started in 2012 to put a hold on the threat of deportation. Her course cost dropped from $600 to $24 in January. Next fall, she will transfer to San Francisco State University.

Both women have become immigration rights activists. Vázquez is vice president of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science and president of Cochitlehual-li, a student honors advocacy group. Guzman has helped more than 300 DREAMers complete their DACA paperwork.

Ana Avendaño, assistant to the president of the AFL-CIO, says that in the runup to the last (unsuccessful) vote on the DREAM Act in 2011, “the Hill Democrats’ staffers said the DREAMers were the most effective lobbying operation they’d seen in years. They did not give up. They set a model for those of us working on immigration reform: Live to see another day.”

Countering immigration abuses

AFT members have seen firsthand the toll an unfair immigration policy takes on the immigrant families they serve. In Alabama, after the Legislature passed House Bill 56, the most nativist, anti-immigration bill in the country, AFT teachers, labor, faith groups and the community galvanized to stand up for their immigrant neighbors’ rights.
“It was a wake-up call,” says Vi Parramore, president of the Jefferson County Federation of Teachers in Alabama.

H.B. 56 required schools to check the immigration status of students; allowed police to demand documents during traffic stops; and made unenforceable any contracts that immigrants enter into with state agencies, employers, landlords and utility companies. Worried immigrant families kept their children home from school, says Richard Franklin, president of the Birmingham Federation of Teachers in the city of Birmingham, an urban district where the schools were serving 800 English-as-a-second-language students. “After that first week, 400 students stopped coming to school.”

Parramore and Franklin helped organize a huge community response, beginning with a lawsuit that stopped schools from serving as an arm of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Most of the provisions of H.B. 56 have been struck down as unconstitutional.

The AFT represents tens of thousands of highly skilled immigrants who work in our public schools, colleges and universities, and our hospitals, enriching the fabric of our communities and our union. Far too many of our visa-contingent members have faced serious violations of their basic rights, particularly within the H-1B visa program. Three years ago, the AFT brought to light and helped end the abuse—including threats and extortion—of 350 Filipino teachers recruited to work in Louisiana. The AFT helped these teachers win a $4.5 million settlement against the unscrupulous recruitment agency.

What’s next?

“This is the time, this is the moment we’ve been waiting for,” says Maria Elena Durazo, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County AFL-CIO, who chairs the AFL-CIO’s immigration committee. Last November’s election, she adds, “woke up the whole country to the growth of the Latino and Asian vote” and created an “enormous energy around passing real immigration reform.”

That energy was on display April 10 in Washington, D.C., at the rally sponsored by the Alliance for Citizenship and 11 organizations, including the AFT. The alliance sponsored parallel events in 20 states.

AFT executive vice president Francine Lawrence represented the AFT on a stage filled with leaders from civil and immigrant rights organizations who were saying, in every way and language possible: The time is now to fix the United States’ broken immigration system. “We’re in the fight with you until we get comprehensive immigration reform,” said Bob King, president of the United Auto Workers. “That means we will demand that families be united and that all workers have the right to collectively bargain for fair wages.”

“Americans know that our strength has always been built on the simple notion that America is a place where many become one,” says Weingarten. “The AFT, as the representative of those who teach and care for our next generation, is working to open the path to opportunity and the American dream for the next generation of immigrants and citizens.”