The Nicaraguan singer and musician Luis Enrique defended efforts to pass of the DREAM act, which would legalize young undocumented immigrants, and immigration reform in general, because amongst the youth in the immigrant community, "you never know who will be a future legislator, singer or leader of this nation."
"As my song says, 'I don't know what tomorrow brings," said Enrique. And he knows this first-hand, because for 10 years, between 1978 and 1988, he was undocumented.
Luis Enrique was participating in the panel Immigration Reform and the DREAM Act: A Call to Action, part of the annual conference of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute (CHCI) , whose theme this year is "Keeping the Promise". The annual events of CHCI mark the start of Hispanic Heritage Month, a celebration which is framed this year by two high rates affecting the Latin community: unemployment and deportation. The public political conference covers various issues of interest to this community.
The panel included Cecilia Muñoz, director of Intergovernmental Affairs for the White House; the New Jersey Democratic senator Bob Menendez, Illinois Democratic congressman Luis Gutierrez, and Eddie Aldrete, executive vice-president of IBC Bank. The panel was moderated by Telemundo news anchor Jose Diaz-Balart.
In the past few months, the three Democratic figures were confronted by the high rate of deportations in the Hispanic community and the lack of immigration reform, but Gutiérrez reiterated his satisfaction with the new guidelines passed by the Obama administration and announced this past August, which would prioritize deportation of true criminals, rather than students and heads of families.
"I want to thank the President for making this announcement concerning the new guidelines for deportations," he said, and although immigration reform will have to wait until the next election -- and according to Gutierrez, perhaps up to two years after that -- the announced changes "are an important victory for our community."
"I will work hard for the President to be re-elected," he declared. The recent debate between candidates for the Republican nomination for president and their insistence on border security without any solution for the 11 million undocumented proved that, "we had no friends in that debate," according to Gutierrez.
Gutierrez has led critics of the White House over the high number of deportations and the resulting separation of families. "It's not easy to challenge friends," he said, but at least we are already seeing changes from the new regulations. Because of this, being contrarian sometimes bears fruit in this city. On the Republican side, he says, the silence has been deafening.
Muñoz characterized these differences as "a conversation among family" while repeating the President's promise of immigration reform that, he insisted, requires bipartisan support.
Once again, Gutierrez stood apart, indicating that it does the community no good to say that this reform requires bipartisan support when other measures, including health and economic reforms, moved forward without Republican support. But he affirmed that steps are being taken in the right direction.
If the panelists agreed on anything it was that immigration reform, or rather not obtaining it, would have serious political and economic consequences.
Luis Enrique offered an idea of how enduring and defining political actions can be.
"Thanks to Ronald Reagan, I'm here, just like many others," he said, referring to the amnesty granted by Republican President Ronald Reagan in 1986, which was what permitted the legalization of Enrique and his family. They arrived in the US in 1978 after fleeing the political crisis in their native Nicaragua.
For ten years, he said, he was, "surviving and trying to make it"; he couldn't pursue university education, "because I had no papers, nor Social Security". He stated that the undocumented live day to day, "but I am an example of what is possible and I want to believe that now it is more possible than ever. These laws have to be passed, and we are focused on what is right and humane".
Aldrete, from IBC Bank, differed in that the immigration debate is not over human terms, but rather the economic consequences of inaction for the US now that many industries, not just agriculture, are confronting a shortage in the workforce even in the midst of high unemployment rates.
Muñoz said that immigration reform is an economic necessity for this nation.
Menéndez insisted that reform is a civil rights issue and it is in the community's hands to let politicians know, whichever party they belong to, that the issue will determine who they support.
Meanwhile, President Obama himself attended the annual CHCI gala with first lady Michelle Obama as a special guest, in a preview of courting the Latino vote 14 months from the next Presidential election.