Old White Guys Focus on Militarizing Border, While Real Americans Descend on DC Looking for Reform

So many American flags were waving among the crowd that it could have been a Fourth of July celebration, except that there were just as many kids wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the imperative: “Don't Deport My Mom” and signs demanding “Reforma Imigratora Ahora!” (Immigration Reform Now!).

Wednesday's rally for immigration reform drew thousands of people from across the country to the west lawn of the Capitol, where their presence urged Congress to make citizenship possible for the estimated 11 million undocumented people living in the United States.

The jostling crowd included people who had traveled from as far away as California, to a group that had marched several miles from DC's Mount Pleasant neighborhood. Young parents pushed strollers, grandparents pushed walkers, children chased each other through a sea of legs. There were people playing drums and chanting into loudspeakers.

On stage, a rotating cast of speakers included NAACP president Benjamin Jealous, matriarch of the migrant farmworker movement Dolores Huerta, representatives from the LGBTQ movement, union officials, leaders from Pacific Islander, African and Asian communities, bishops of different nationalities, Dominican pop star Andy Andy, and a host of other media personalities and activists standing alongside the Dreamers – undocumented youth demanding access to higher education.

Many on stage spoke Spanish, and either translated their own words or left it up to the gringos to figure out for themselves. Sometimes English was spoken without a Spanish translation. The vast majority of the crowd was Latino, but when a Muslim leader delivered a prayer in Arabic, the crowd erupted in cheers as if they'd understood every word. Translation was besides the point—everyone was there to deliver a message to Congress and it came across loud and clear: the time is now for immigration reform.

Prior to the afternoon rally, In the quieter morning hours before bachata music echoed throughout Capitol Hill, a different dialogue was taking place in a Senate office building.

Members of the Senate Committee for Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs convened to hear testimony from Border Protection officials on how successful they've been at keeping a single land mass divided into different countries.

Chairman Thomas Carper, D-Delaware, opened the hearing by stating, “Today illegal immigration is at historic lows. The unprecedented taxpayer-funded investments that we've made to secure our borders is working.”

These taxpayer-funded investments amounted to nearly $18 billion in 2012—more than all other law enforcement agencies combined, according to a recent study by the Migration Policy Institute. The study also found that a larger number of people are held in the immigration detention system than are incarcerated in Bureau of Prisons facilities. But it isn't clear if the drop in unauthorized immigration is a result of the funding glut or a recession-induced lack of appeal to those seeking work, or some combination thereof.

In their testimony, witnesses agreed that the border is more “secure” than ever before. There seemed to be consensus on the issue until Senator John McCain, R-Arizona, took his turn to speak.

“I've been down on the border for the last 30 years and there have been significant improvements. But we really don't know how significant they are,” he said.

He went on to cite a report by the Government Accountability Office which states that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CPB) does not have a strategic plan for defining border security and the resources necessary to achieve it. Right now the department uses the number of apprehensions -- instances where undocumented people are prevented from crossing into the US -- to determine how effective it is in controlling the border. The problem, from McCain's perspective, is that there is no way of knowing how many people manage to cross without being stopped.

McCain's focus on this issue is significant, as he is one of eight senators who have been working behind closed doors to craft an immigration reform bill that is expected to be introduced any day. The group made it known in January that creating a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already residing in the US would be contingent upon securing the border. But without defined standards for what a secure border looks like, it could be a long road just to get to the citizenship path.

CBP's priority is keeping terrorists and their weapons out of the US. The Department of Homeland Security doesn't mention terrorism in its description of border security as “protecting the nation's borders from the illegal entry of people, weapons, drugs, and contraband.” In terms of results, both point to increased staff, surveillance, screening, and intelligence, which of course are not actually results, but the supposed means to achieving the broadly defined "border security."

A framework for immigration reform the “Gang of Eight” released in January, didn't define border security, but did state that its purpose is to “substantially lower the number of illegal border crossings while continuing to facilitate commerce.” It is perhaps the most direct acknowledgement that ultimately this is all about the neoliberal project of enabling the free movement of capital and goods while exerting further control over those who produce them.

To that end, McCain had some ideas. “Don't you believe,” he asked a Border Protection official, “that VADER, plus drones, could be absolutely vital tools in obtaining effective control of our border?”

VADER, or Vehicle Dismount and Exploitation Radar, is a radar technology that is mounted on planes or drones to produce high-detail imagery from high altitudes. It was developed on a fast-track for the military to find improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and is capable of distinguishing footprints in the sand. The official agreed that VADER and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are an important part of the solution. He went on to say that the current appropriations bill allows funding for two VADER systems, but the goal is to obtain six more. They cost about $8 million a piece.

McCain's enthusiasm for the surveillance technology comes from personal experience. He explained, “I have seen both UAVs and VADER radar in action, including the battle of Sadr City and other places where it has been extremely effective.”

No one batted an eye at the cognitive leap connecting Iraq and Mexico. The hearing continued and when McCain wrapped up he seemed tacitly resolved to procure at least $32 million to further militarize the southern border.

This likening of the US-Mexico border to a war-zone, and by implication, immigrants attempting to cross illegally to enemy combatants, is something Dreamers and other activists take issue with in a big way.

United We Dream is the largest coalition of immigrant-youth lead organizations in the country, and was instrumental in getting the Deferred Actions for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) legislation passed last summer. DACA, which gives people under the age of 31 who immigrated to the US as children temporary reprieve from deportation, was made possible by years of activism focused on bringing attention to the stories of undocumented youth who are stuck with no avenues to higher education. Their stories gained empathy from politicians who often characterize them as deserving of some formal legal status because they didn't choose to come here; their parents brought them.

Now United We Dream has launched 11 Million Dreams, a campaign to share their parents' stories – people who, they say, are the original Dreamers.

“[Some people view] undocumented Americans as lawbreakers who are trying to harm American society, without a consciousness of the root causes of migration and the realities of people's lives when they do come here,” says Amanda Gutierrez, advocacy analyst and manager at UWD.

“Dreamers didn't just pop up out of nowhere. There's a whole generation of parents that nurtured and inspired our community and our movement, and they've been elevating their own voice and their own stories now as the fight has shifted to focus on immigration reform.”

At Wednesday's rally, a 17-year-old girl was part of the diverse lineup. Katherine Tabares is a classic Dreamer. Undocumented, the president of her high school class, and a youth leader in a New York-based social justice organization, she fits the mold of what President Obama has termed, “the best and brightest.”

But when Tabares took the mic, she told her audience of thousands, “ Today I am here not to talk about my story anymore. I want to talk about this amazing woman who's next to me. My hero. She's my mother.”

With her hand on her mother's shoulder, Tabares explained how they had migrated from Colombia three years ago, and ever since her mother has worked “from Monday until Sunday” as a home health aid in order to give her daughter the opportunities she wouldn't have had in their home country.

“I want you to think about your mother, your father, your cousins, your aunts, your uncles, all of your family members,” Tabares said. “They are the original Dreamers...I am tired, just as many of you are tired, of seeing our parents being oppressed and denied work opportunities not because of their skills, but because of a nine-digit number that supposedly defines a person in the United States.”

Hours after the rally dispersed, several news outlets ran stories detailing information originally reported in Wednesday's issue of the Wall Street Journal. Sources close to the negotiation process provided details of the emerging bill, affirming that border security will trump a timely pathway to citizenship.

Under these proposals, undocumented people living in the United States would not be eligible to apply for a green card until 100 percent of the border is under surveillance, 90 percent of people trying to cross illegally are apprehended, and all businesses use an E-Verify system – which is infamous for its high error rate -- to avoid hiring undocumented workers. The soonest these goals could be met is projected to be 10 years from now.

In the meantime, some kind of probationary status could be available to undocumented people who meet certain conditions. It isn't clear yet what those are, or how much protection from deportation such status would afford. People will continue to be excluded from accessing social services, even though they pay taxes that fund such programs.

Some things are clear, though. Thousands of people are willing to travel across the country to Washington to assert their rights in spite of the risks posed by their legal status. Dreamers who have been successful in turning public opinion in favor of young, undocumented people seeking an education are using their momentum to elevate other immigrant narratives. It may be an uphill battle, but somewhere on the other side is a path marked “citizenship.”

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