"I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America," boomed the man's voice inside the standing-room only third floor hall at the Los Angeles SCEI-ULTCW local. He continued, "and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." That's how this lesson in civic participation started. The more than 500 participants at this immigration reform townhall, one that included many students and their parents, union members, faith leaders, and a few Republicans. They joined the man as they anxiously waited to hear from the man of the hour, Congressman Xavier Becerra, the Vice-Chair of the House Democratic Caucus.
Forum organizers, which included CHIRLA, SEIU-ULTCW, NAKASEC, COFEM and others, also invited Senator Barbara Boxer and Congressman Waxman, but they were no-shows.
Next, it was up to 15-year-old high school student Beatriz to set the mood. Teary-eyed, Beatriz recalled how one early morning late last year she woke up to loud banging on her front door. Already inside, ICE agents demanded to know her mom's whereabouts. Beatriz could only scream and cry. Luckily for her, both parents, who are in the country illegally, were already hard at work, far away from the grasp of the federal agents. "I am living a nightmare," sobbed Beatriz. "Every day, I go to school terrified my mom won't be at home when I come back. She's my hero. This is no way for anyone to live. Please, Congressman, I ask you to help us." Congressman Becerra's face as he looked up at Beatriz was sympathetic and pained.
Rep. Becerra joined Angelica Salas at the podium after a campaign representative told him how much work communities throughout the United States are doing to make immigration reform possible. More than 800 organizations have endorsed the Reform Immigration FOR America campaign principles thus far and thousands of people are expected to join a March 21 rally in Washington, DC labeled "March for America - Courage to Change." The Congressman chose his first words carefully: "It will not be easy, it will not be fast, but it will come." Visible were the tears and clenched teeth on the faces of some sitting in the front row.
It is the duty of our congressional representatives to tell us the truth, even when the truth is painful. Most keep themselves and the truth far away from us, worrying instead about their next campaign. It is also true that we elect congressional representatives to work to make sure the truth is not always painful every time. Mr. Becerra remained true to his reputation as a fighter and straight-shooter during this forum. "It is my task to tell you the naked truth," he said. "It is your duty," an elderly woman shouted back. "Yes, it is my duty to tell you that many in America are not feeling it. We feel Beatriz's story. But many in Congress, especially in the dysfunctional Senate, do not feel it the way we do." Beatriz bowed her head and shut her eyes.
"But I will tell you this," continued the Congressman. "Push comes to shove, I feel very confident we will pass immigration reform in the House of Representatives. But, and there's away a big but, I can't say the same for the Senate. Unless we fight and stand up, this won't happen. We have to get to the point that we can pull crowds like these in other places in America. Then they will feel, they will see, we will do it. But we need your help".
I listened intently to the Member and initially felt anger inside. I was angry at him for being a Democrat in a leadership position, and at his party, the modern Democratic triathlon team that runs, flees, or hops to the hills whenever the going gets tough. I also felt anger at Republicans, the hypocrites who claim they stand for values and justice when they really only represent greed and obstructionism. I was angry at the whole political institution for protecting itself from feeling anger, pain, fear, anxiety, sadness, even happiness. At the same time I appreciated Mr. Becerra's sober assessment, because no amount of social change can take place without the aggrieved peoples' feeling of urgency, disappointment, and anger at their so-called leaders and the system that thrives year after year, unchanged, no matter how dysfunctional, impractical, or inhumane.
Which leads me to ask a simple question to you, America. My America since 1982. The America I dream of when I dream of great things. The America I pray will be a just, caring, but stern mother whenever I go astray. What are your feelings about our nation's history of immigration, our sense of justice and fairness, our ability to encourage dreams to soar high and become reality, our sense of hard work and rewards for a job well done? Have we lost that which we pride ourselves of having plenty, courage to protect life, family, and freedom?
During the next few months, thousands upon thousands of people will gather in small and large places at a city or town near you. We will be discussing solutions to problems we all know we want fixes for. We will be inviting bipartisan approaches to reaching the most fair, practical, and humane solution to illegal immigration. We will be touching a nerve, I am sure, because the things we have heard most often about immigrants and immigration has come from the mouths of those who should know better than to spread division, hate, and lies. We hope we also reach the common sense American, the hard-working American, the solution-seeking American, the family-loving American. What are you feeling now, America? What will you be feeling, then? I hope you will be feeling what I feel when I recite the Pledge of Allegiance which ends in "and justice for all."