Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of Washington D.C. Sunday, calling on lawmakers to make good on long-awaited promises for immigration reform. In a year when health-care reform has monopolized domestic policy debates, many doubt immigration reform will be attained this year — and that if it is, a hasty bill that places repressive enforcement over legal recognition may be the result.
President Obama, who has yet to move forward on his promise to tackle the issue, is currently backing a framework set forth by Senators by Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.). In a bipartisan op-ed published in the Washington Post late last week, the senators appeared to focus on the creation of a biometric social security card, as well as increased border and internal enforcement over legalization — this during a time when countless raids and deportations continue to dominate existing policy.
The bill would likely expand a guest worker program, the likes of which have traditionally economically favored the United States at the cost of temporary migrant workers. The path to citizenship, as outlined by Schumer and Graham, would preference those undocumented students who receive doctorates in math and science. Aside from the fact that those PhD holders represent a minute fraction of those undocumented immigrants already here, the notion discounts the knowledge and humanity of those who toil in fields and homes throughout the nation, as well as those who pursue educations in other disciplines. Finally, the bill would seek to force those undocumented immigrants who are currently facing some of the cruelest and most repressive enforcement by local, state and federal authorities to perform “community service”, pay back taxes and fines in order to be recognized by the state.
Meanwhile, rather than extending the rhetoric and practice of repressive enforcement, other lawmakers are suggesting more progressive legislation which seeks to better recognize the immense contributions that undocumented immigrants are providing to the nation — though it appears unlikely such legislation will make its way through Congress this year. And while most legislation on the Hill seeks to incorporate the voices of those negatively affected by current policy through Congressional hearings, the case is generally different for immigrants, because the dehumanizing label of “illegal” obscures the very human experiences and struggles which undocumented immigrants face. Yet some are brave enough to challenge that preclusion. One such voice is Flor Crisóstomo.
As a migrant from Mexico, and one who is indigenous to Oaxaca and therefore to the American continent, Crisóstomo says she is exercising her historic and cultural right to travel — a practice that extends far beyond the few hundred years during which the United States has increased its territory and become a new nation. Due to inhumane consequences dictated by the North American Free Trade Agreement, Crisóstomo says she left three children behind to arrive to the U.S. in 2000, where she worked at a factory in Chicago until it was raided by immigration authorities in 2006. Crisóstomo defied her deportation order and instead took refuge in a church in Chicago, where she spent nearly two years organizing for immigration reform — legislation which would acknowledge her contributions and the invisible contributions of more than 10 million others currently living in the nation.
I had the opportunity to spend one day with Crisóstomo in July 2008, and had a tough time keeping up with her schedule as she cooked, cleaned, wrote letters, fielded phone calls, edited text and worked with local youth of color who attend the Adalberto United Methodist Church for various social activities. I was in Chicago at the time attending a conference for journalists of color — and for many, the convention’s highlight was the opportunity to meet then-candidate Barack Obama, fresh back from his trip to Afghanistan. I felt more honored to meet Crisóstomo, whose voice from sanctuary down the street from the conference called for dignity and recognition beyond a ballot box. I remember spending time in her room surrounded by posters and flyers on the wall, looking at family photographs tucked between boxes of notes, newspapers and books on top of an old ironing board. One featured her young son, and Crisóstomo raised her hand above her head as an estimate to how tall he might be that day — since current laws do not allow her and millions like her the ability to physically see and interact with the families they are providing for in neighboring nations, she and millions like her must constantly implore their hands and imaginations in order to survive and better construct a more fitting reality. Facing the risk of immediate deportation, Crisóstomo left sanctuary and its relative safety last year to begin organizing on the outside. It has been Crisóstomo’s ability to claim and honor her experience as an indigenous woman which allows us to re-consider an immigrant subjectivity beyond a lousy patchwork system of repression. Her strength, will and capacity to challenge the state’s restrictive and often contradictory notions of citizenship have inspired countless of people in the United States and beyond.
Crisóstomo heeded the call to travel to Washington Sunday and first issued the following statement in Spanish. In the spirit of other women and men who have historically been denied the right to citizenship at various times in this nation’s violent history, Crisóstomo penned this daring demand for lawmakers to bring those most affected by current immigration policy to the negotiating table.
Statement by Flor Crisóstomo, Washington D.C. March 21, 2010
These words are dedicated to all the communities and individuals who are voluntarily and compulsorily driven by the desperate crisis facing us daily as migrant and undocumented people in this nation.
We have mobilized along very long trails and highways from hundreds of miles away, along with our co-workers, families and friends. Today we are here in Washington D.C. in front of the United States Congress, facing the White House before President Barack Obama and his Cabinet. We are gathered in fellowship and are advocating for the basic rights to which any human being is entitled.
For more than 20 years of profound difficulties and hard struggles, we’ve asked for the adoption of a more productive leadership from the U.S. Congress. The results of your negotiations have made us to take to the streets and to demand you be more productive in your representation for the people and our families. Therefore, we are here again today, reminding you that the people still have the same needs — but with more repressive laws. What you are doing to confront the growth of this grave crisis we are facing?
Groups of people and leaders of thousands of indigenous communities have been driven to the edge of forced displacement from our lands. As indigenous migrants, we are here today and declare that we are present at this meeting. It is our intention to call on the President of the nation yet again, to make good on his campaign promise of just immigration reform, which supports the reunification of our families, which puts an immediate end to raids and deportations, and which respects our communities, what we represent and what we provide to this nation.
Through this statement, we demand the Democratic majority of the Congress of the United States take a more productive leadership position in favor of those broad communities whose votes have granted you the authority to represent us. Sadly, the way we see it, the negotiations which you have handled behind closed doors in Congress are exclusionary and have yielded no results.
It is with pain and anger that we unfortunately see the political chess game that is now developing. The immigration reform proposal introduced last week by Chuck Schumer and Lyndsey Graham, endorsed by President Barack Obama, is what follows after the mass repression that already exists. And regrettably, it appears similar to proposals led by other Congress-members and Senators and who call themselves lawmakers “of and for the people”, or “progressives”, or — worse of all — “Democrats.”
We see and live the consequences of the ineffectiveness of our representatives. We, who are directly affected by this system’s repressive immigration policies, offer the creation of immigration reform which is centered around and created by our own core communities. We ask the United States Congress to include in every negotiation for immigration reform, representatives from these affected communities.
We are the people who have the need, and have the capacity to decide where to turn and what we want; and we can contribute in even more positive ways to this movement — which is also ours.
We thank the organizers of these mobilizations; it is with credit to the calls as extensive as they are to be here, that created a place where migrant indigenous people can also say today that we are present.
We know it has been a struggle that has lasted longer than we expected. Yet we also know that from the leadership that emerges out of own families and out of our own communities will come the results that will affect or benefit the change for which we fought every day, the changes we’ve waited for for years; during which time politicians have not taken into account our families’ pain during the years we have waited to be free from bondage, that time which has maintained us as slaves within this system, as fugitives within a reality that lawmakers and the privileged have not had to face. Or, worse of all, the fate of being jailed for the simple act of wanting to provide a life of dignity to our families who have been torn apart by their economic policies.
Aura Bogado is a freelance journalist and writer, and a student at Yale University.
Flor Crisóstomo is an indigenous organizer for social justice.