Nice Words on Immigration, But No Action

Human Rights

An adoring crowd of Latino Caucus members rousingly greeted Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of presidential hopeful John Kerry, at the Sheraton the morning of July 28. Fresh on the heels of her multilingual debut at the Democratic Convention the previous night, Heinz Kerry came prepared with a tried and true trope of Latino politics: immigration.

"I'm about seven-eights Latin," the Mozambique-born heiress told the responsive Caucus; many of whom could remember when the scions of Democratic and Republican politics wouldn't even direct radio messages their way. Clearly in command of these foot soldiers, Heinz Kerry took the immigrant pitch a step further: "Recently a columnist challenged me saying that I really wasn't an immigrant ... because I was not poor."

Turning the columnist into a political pinata, she replied: "Never heard of refugees, people who flee from difficult circumstances? Never heard of waiting for two years for a visa as I did? Never heard of being single, alone, working in New York City as I did at 25 years old at a tough job far, far away from your parents in Africa?"

By the end of her dramatic delivery, some were near tears, as she concluded: "You do not have to come to this country shackled or poor to know what immigrant life is." The quiet before the storm of applause signaled that the audience was hers.

After dedicating most of my professional life to securing legal status for Salvadorans and Guatemalans – including members of my own family who fled war and extreme poverty – I, too, trembled upon hearing Heinz Kerry's story. Like most people in the audience, I carry the immigrant tropes in my emotional DNA.

Many, if not most of the other DNC speakers, including people many of us worked with to secure protected status for Central Americans (and worked for, in the case former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros, whom I got to know when he was head of Univision) also spoke to immigrant interests. Hillary Clinton: "Wasn't it great to have a future first lady speaking fluent Spanish? And won't it be great when we have a president and first lady who understand that in order for America to lead the world you cannot turn your back on your friends in Latin America?" Michael Dukakis: "My parents are immigrants. My grandson is named Pedro Antonio Dukakis."

While I stood entranced by all the Latino and Anglo elected officials stirring my inner immigrant parent with their appeals, legendary United Farm Workers co-founder and friend Dolores Huerta whispered to me: "I heard they just killed the AG jobs bill!" The reliably forthright Dolores' mention of the House bill that would accelerate legalization among agricultural workers startled me back into journalist mode.

Suddenly, I started noticing that while the immigrant stories were quite moving, not a single speaker said anything about the AG jobs bill or the DREAM Act, the proposal to help 65,000 undocumented high school graduates become citizens if they complete college. None mentioned the recent immigration raids and detention of hundreds in Los Angeles (my hometown) and other cities, including Houston. There was no mention of the South Asians and Latinos I interviewed around the country while documenting increased cases of beatings, fire-bombed homes and other hate crimes against immigrants ever since politicians of both parties – including some of the speakers at the Caucus event – began ratcheting up post-9/11 "defend America against its enemies" rhetoric.

Although some specifics on issues like education, housing and jobs did flow over the roaring crowd like a wave at a ballgame, immigration issues remained under the radar at this Caucus meeting, in the shadow of the DNC platform.

"The Democrats do support the DREAM Act and the AG jobs proposal, but you have to search hard to find it in the platform," observed Ali Noorani, head of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Coalition, which is advocating for a DREAM Act-like legislation in his state. "Support for immigrants is only on the Spanish DNC website – not the English."

At a press conference titled "Where is the Vision?" Noorani added, "Nearly every speaker at the DNC this week says 'We are a nation of immigrants,' and I expect nearly every speaker at the RNC will also say 'We are a nation of immigrants.'" He then asked, "These days, what does 'a nation of immigrants' mean?" and answered his own question with specifics not mentioned at the Sheraton: "It means the abuse of immigrant workers; it means no access to higher education; it means detention and deportation; it means no path to citizenship."

Echoing Noorani's statements was 18-year-old Angela Perez, who is not yet a legal resident and wants to continue her successes in school. "I want my chance," she says, sharing stories about immigrant friends locked in legal limbo and parents trapped in low-income jobs and living in crowded rooms. "I think our politicians – including Latinos – should be more aware of immigration issues. We've had too much talk and not enough action." Asked if she thought a Democratic president would say the "L word (legalization), she responded, "Only if we keep pressuring (him)."

Feeling Angela's determination, I concluded that it might well make a difference whether or not the person stirring my subconscious with appeals to the immigrant parent is poor like my parents were.

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