THE BLOG
04/13/2011 02:13 pm ET | Updated Jun 13, 2011

Courage to Change More than a Slogan

The one-year-old attempts to escape the firm grasp of his mother's embrace. It's as if he can sense desperation and fear in his mother's words. Blanca, her voice trailing off a bit, tells her story, once again, of the day she was selling ice creams in front of a school, detained by local police and later taken to a local detention jail. She's an immigrant "without papers" who has worked very hard during the past six years to feed herself and her newborn. She is not sorry she fled a dangerous and abusive relationship in Mexico but now she is more afraid than ever because ICE has gotten a hold of her and wants to deport her. Her little boy wrestles himself upward, raising his two little hands, trying to shush his mother.

Blanca is not alone. Sitting next to her five other immigrants who tell similar stories of being at the wrong place at the wrong time, ending up in the hands of ICE officials who often pressure them into giving them answers they wanted to hear. Osfel, a cartridge-ink-factory worker in Fullerton, tells of the day early last year when approximately 40 ICE officers stormed the factory while helicopters hovered overhead. More than 120 workers were detained, 43 taken into custody and placed in deportation proceedings. Osfel was not detained during the raid but a month later; ICE came looking for him and nabbed him.

Isabel is 36 years old and she recalls the day early in December when she worked at a hostess club downtown Los Angeles. After nine pm nearly thirty local police officers raided the place and detained more than 80 workers, including her. The LAPD was looking for signs of prostitution, drug use, and other crimes. Instead, 78 women were charged with carrying fake documents and taken to a holding station nearby. Somehow, ICE agents got a hold of these women and deportation proceedings are underway for all of them, including Isabel, a mother of two young U.S. citizens.

At the other end of the table sits Dario, a Colombian man of affable nature but few words. He has been living in the United States for twenty-five years. A businessman and an immigrant community activist for much of his life, he now finds himself at the mercy of an immigration judge. After he divorced his wife, Dario moved to a new apartment but less than a month later ICE was at his doorstep ready to deport him.

What these stories have in common is not the plain fact that these men and women are unauthorized immigrants living and working in the United States. An estimated eleven million people have arrived in our country without authorization or have overstayed their visas during the past quarter of a century. Most Americans, however, have turned the other way because it was far too convenient and cost-effective for all of us to do so.

What's important to know is that, not unlike millions of other immigrants, these men and women have not committed a serious crime, violation, or caused injury to anyone in their community or their family. The speakers on this panel and the hundreds we meet on a weekly basis are all honest, hardworking folk who have a family and want nothing else but to continue living in the United States and be good all-around citizens. So why are these good men and women being persecuted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials even though they are non-criminals or do not pose a threat to our community? That is the question Americans throughout the country should be asking ourselves right now.

It is not all rhetoric. Within a few weeks, the United States of America, under the tougher-than-Bush hand of Secretary Janet Napolitano, will have the dubious distinction of having deported almost one million undocumented families within the first two years of President Obama's administration. That's not me saying so; ICE confirms it and does so proudly when testifying in front of a salivating panel of conservative, Republican, and shut-the-border-or-else congressmen. The president himself and Secretary Napolitano have made it their goal during the past few weeks to convince Americans that DHS and ICE is not in the business of separating families, disrupting local economies, or causing all-around havoc in the nation of pluralism and justice. They insist the US is prioritizing "criminal aliens" and those who pose a threat to our nation. Fair enough if that were true. Unfortunately, each and every day we find evidence in our communities that directly contradicts this administration's public edict. At least sixty percent of all immigrants who have been detained and deported during the past two years have no criminal records or pose little or no threat to their communities.

Passions and ideas diverge on the issue of whether recent immigrants deserve a chance to live and work in the United States even if they are as good or as worthy as previous generations of immigrants. Sharp is the division between those who find unauthorized immigrants to be good for our country and those who do not. A storm ensues when Congress publicly discusses the possibility of legalizing these newcomers and integrate them into American society. We came very close late last year to passing the DREAM Act. Approval of the legislation would have given close to a million bright and committed students a chance to give back to the country that has invested on and believed in them. The reality is that Americans are of two minds about immigrants but generally agree Congress must find a solution and pronto. And, we also seem to agree in two things: whatever we do, it's got to be fair and just.

Americans pride themselves in being fair and having a system of laws that offer justice to all. The American Dream is based on the principle that if you work hard enough, you can reach the stars. That's why I believe that Americans would be surprised to know that not only are our immigration laws broken, but that they are unfairly, unjustly, and inconsistently enforced, impacting other American principles and ideals such as due process, second chances, and the pursuit of happiness. And it's not just unauthorized immigrants that suffer the consequences of this dangerous and unsustainable system. Families, friends, neighbors, employers, schools and economies in entire communities are negatively impacted when good, honest, and productive members of the community are yanked from their roots, detained and deported to a place that is no longer their home.

Americans these days are eager to see caps in federal spending and borrowing, resent government shutdowns, and look towards Congress for bipartisanship. On immigration, public anxiety remains but we find very little cooperation amongst the parties and amongst ideologues to move forward credible solutions. President Obama has a golden opportunity during the next two years to show the American people that his courage to change was not just a pretty slogan for a candidate running for president. The president must set forth with determination a plan to fix our immigration system, legalize those living in the shadows that have demonstrated many times over belong in this country, and set up future mechanisms that prevent this problem from repeating itself. Publicly stating he is incapable of interfering with Congress' laws is unacceptable and denotes a nonchalant attitude towards the suffering of millions and the will of more than 57% of Americans who recognize this as a serious problem that needs fixing. As he embarks on the 2012 presidential campaign, we urge the president to order his administration to remain true to his values and to American ideals, stop bullying vulnerable immigrants while these laws undergo much needed change, and start leading a stubborn Congress to pass practical, fair, and humane immigration updates now.