Democracy and the Inclusion of the Undocumented

12/08/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Joshua Hoyt Director, Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights

The election of Barack Obama president of the United States of America has sent a powerful message that the genius of our American Democracy at its best is inclusion.

Obama, the son of a white single mother and a Kenyan immigrant, represents the American Dream that every one of our citizens has the possibility of growing up to be President. He becomes president carried forward on the shoulders of a massive group of new voters, young, poor, African American, immigrant, and Latino. Obama's candidacy gave these Americans a belief that politics is relevant to their lives. When the final count is done it expected that a record of more than 135 million citizens will have turned out to vote

One group who has watched this election hopefully are the last, most marginalized people toiling in the shadows of our society. There are 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States today, living and working in hiding and with the constant fear that their families will be broken apart.

American history is the story of struggle for inclusion of the marginal in our democracy. Often the prospects for freedom appeared bleakest just before our nation took a huge lurching step forward.

When the British finally decisively defeated and expelled the French from our Northern borders at the end of the seven year French and Indian War in 1763, the British Empire seemed more secure than ever. Only a fool would have suggested that 13 short years later the colonialists would declare their independence from England in a hall in Philadelphia, launching one of the great experiments in democracy in world history.

In 1858 the freed slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglas was in such despair at the prospects of ending slavery that he wrote that only his faith in God kept him going. The Kansas - Nebraska Act allowed for the extension of slavery into these two territories; the Supreme Court Dred Scott decision declared that blacks and mulattos did not have citizenship rights; the Fugitive Slave Law had nationalized slavery and sent federal troops to hunt for escaped slaves in the North; and Congress and state legislatures had passed gag laws making it impossible to debate slavery. Only 5 short years later President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation as the nation was convulsed in civil war.

It was only in the wake of the carnage of our first World War did women finally win the vote in the U.S., after a 60 year struggle. The despair of the Great Depression spawned the historic worker organizing drives of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and the beginnings of the great American Middle Class. Out of the ashes of the paranoiac anti-communist witch hunts of the McCarthy era sprang the Civil Rights Movement and the end of legal segregation in our nation. One beautiful constant in our history is the push for inclusion in our democracy.

The recent past has been bleak for those in poor and working communities. Real wages have been slipping for close to 35 years. Some 25% of the young African American men in our nation are enmeshed in our criminal justice system and have few prospects for dignified work. Our broken immigration laws have turned 12 million workers into dehumanized "illegals," invisible while they cut our grass and wash our dishes, but living in constant fear that their families will be destroyed by para-military immigration raids.

So for many in the immigrant communities the election of Barack Obama is a beacon of hope that our American Democracy will finally include them. Exit polls show Obama earning 91% of the Latino vote in the Chicago Metropolitan area, and Latino voters were key in victories in Colorado, New Mexico, Florida, Indiana, Nevada, and Virginia. The exit polls also showed that Latino voters are fully united in support of a path to citizenship for the undocumented. The historic marches in 2006 of over 3 million Latinos across the U.S. were accompanied by chants of "Today We March, Tomorrow We Vote." In 2007 a record 1.4 million immigrants became U.S. citizens. And on Tuesday these new citizens and their U.S. born relatives turned out in record numbers to participate in our democracy and ask that the last group of people in America who are excluded and marginalized finally be able to earn their path to citizenship.

Joshua Hoyt is the Executive Director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, and has been a community organizer for the last 32 years.

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