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Despite nationwide mobilization, immigrant advocates acknowledge they have failed to reform a broken immigration system

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OSCAR LEÓN, TRNN PRODUCER: In 2013, Immigration Customs Enforcement, or ICE, an agency of the Department of Homeland Security, deported around 369,000 people from U.S., out of which 134,000 were apprehended inside the country. Many of them are detained by ICE raiding in their houses or picking them up at work. Over the last few years, hundreds of thousands of families have been separated by immigration policies.

For example, according to USA Today, if we count prosecution of illegal entry and re-entry cases, “there has been a 367 percent increase from a decade ago and a 1,420 percent increase from two decades ago”. By the end of 2013, the Obama administration had reportedly deported close to 1.9 million people, according to Homeland Security’s own numbers.

The Real News spoke to several undocumented workers.

UNDOCUMENTED WOMAN 1: I have no papers. I have worked in hotels since I got here [to the U.S.] 11 years ago.

UNDOCUMENTED WOMAN 2: Since I have no legal papers, I get scared. I am not from U.S., and these days you can get detained driving in the street and get deported, lose it all.

LEÓN: To get a legal work visa for U.S., it is required a set of skills in concept unmatched by local people, as well as an employer who will take full responsibility for the applicant, setting this possibility away from the majority of would-be undocumented immigrants, many of whom were brought here as a child.

UNDOCUMENTED CHILD: I feel bad that they can detain my dad. And [during the day] I miss him. In school I have American and Mexican friends alike, and we all play football and baseball just the same.

LEÓN: But this clampdown on illegal immigration is not only a federal effort. Many states have passed legislation to control illegal immigration. In 2007, Arizona passed a groundbreaking law targeting employers hiring illegal immigrants. Raids ensued in 2008, creating a climate of fear among many Latino communities in Arizona. Fearing deportation and racial profiling, life fundamentally changed for thousands of families.

Massive demonstrations in the summer of 2008, and an injunction in a federal court eventually scaled down the reach of the original laws, including the propositions to turn not only cops but hospitals and schools into immigration controls.

LEÓN: Erika Andiola is an immigrants rights activist, winner of the 2013 Freedom From Fear Award. Her life changed in 2008 when her Arizona State University scholarship was canceled after the state passed Proposition 300, banning students who cannot prove to be legal residents from receiving financial assistance from the State.

Smart and outspoken, Erika quickly became an icon of the Immigration Rights movement in Arizona, fighting criminalization of undocumented people. She graduated from ASU (Arizona State University) and eventually got a job as staffer for Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema.

But she recently left that job in D.C. to come back to Arizona and fight her mother’s deportation. On Thursday, December 12, 2013, Andiola announced her mother will be allowed to remain in the U.S. for another year.

ERIKA ANDIOLA, DREAM ACTIVIST: You know, they took her and my brother, and it was just sort of like a wake-up call. Like, you know, if I’m going to go in there, I’m going to need to make something happen so that at the end of the year we can have a legislation that is going to prevent my mom from actually being deported.

But, unfortunately, when I went in there, I saw that there’s too many games being played inside by both parties, that it’s not necessarily now about, you know, the anti-immigrant Republicans holding everything. It’s also about both leaderships in the House of Representatives that are, you know, seeing this issue as something that they can win for their own party. And that’s how I made the decision. And I want to be able to actually speak my mind about what I saw in there.

And I didn’t like also seeing a lot of the Democrats that were actually, like, you know, thinking about this issue in a way that they can get more votes in 2014, you know, by not passing something, and some of the Republicans in the leadership that are scared of their own party and they don’t want to do anything about it. So it’s sort of we’re trapped into this game. And I feel like I’m more–you know, I can actually fight better with my community outside.

LEÓN: Randy Parraz, a local community organizer and progressive activist, believes that the diverse Latino, pro-human rights, and pro-immigrant rights coalitions failed at their purpose to push for immigration reform in 2013.

RANDY PARRAZ, COMMUNITY ORGANIZER: Ultimately the goal was immigration reform in 2013. It didn’t happen, so it is a failure. A lot of people don’t want to say that. They want to say, oh, we’re closer. But who knows if we’re closer, ’cause once we get in 2014, states start having primaries and not many folks are going to be focused on a landmark piece of legislation like immigration reform going into an election year. So does that mean 2015?

So I think for the most part we have to come to the realization that the strategies we deployed, the power that we built were not enough to make it happen in 2013.

I think right now the Republicans are in a difficult situation because if immigration reform was to pass right now, they would get very little credit for it. It’d be mostly the Democrats. And if it includes a right to vote, a pathway to citizenship, Republicans will see that’s giving another 8-10 million more people who are going to vote for the Democratic Party.

LEÓN: According to ICE, in 2012, 45 percent of the deportees have no criminal record. That is almost 185,000 people. And in 2013, that number went down to 18 percent which represents 24,000 people. This means that over the last couple years, around 210,000 individuals who had not committed any kind of criminal offense have been taken out of United States and, in many cases, away from their families, with all the grave implications this carries.

From “24-hour notice” letters demanding the person to be present at the airport the next day and leave the country voluntarily to midnight raids, the lives of millions are touched by the fear of that moment when they will lose all that they have fought so hard to get.

For the Andiola family, the dreaded moment came in the middle of the night, when immigration agents broke down the doors and stormed in their home just a few days after her mom had been stopped while driving.

ANDIOLA: I knew it could happen, and it had happened before I was involved. You know, my mom was raided before at work by Sheriff Arpaio. And so there was always, you know, the fear that something could happen.

I feel the surprise came more out of the fact that I was so outspoken that I never thought that they would target my family, I guess. But the reality is that, you know, it could happen to anyone. And it happened to her. You know, she got stopped out of nowhere, literally, supposedly for speeding. She didn’t even get a ticket. But she did get sent to the police to take her fingerprints. And, you know, next thing you know, ICE is already at our house. And this happens every day–in Arizona, in Maricopa County, happens even more.

LEÓN: However, in Arizona, a social movement was born as a reaction to such anti-immigrant laws. Back in 2008, just a year after the passing of SB 1070 “the broadest and strictest anti-illegal immigration measure in recent U.S. history”, as The New York Times called it, the movement successfully recalled Russell Pierce, the main promoter of such controversial legislation.

Randy Parraz was one of the main organizers of the successful recall effort.

PARRAZ: Yeah, I think there’s been tremendous change. I think finally people have started to come together and fight back and to get some real victories.

Like, the first for us, even in the darkest of times, when, you know, Jan Brewer became governor, SB 1070 was passed by, pushed by Russell Pearce, within a year of that time, you know, we had a campaign to recall Russell Pearce and remove him from office, which was unheard of and unprecedented. So I think that was huge move forward in a different direction for Arizona.

And now we just have to build on those victories. We’ve got to keep holding people like Sheriff Arpaio and Governor Brewer accountable as we move forward.

So I think that, by removing Russell Pearce as president of the Senate has definitely set a different tone, where some of these anti-immigration bills are no longer being heard. By not taking out Russell Pearce, he would have been president. That Medicaid expansion never would have happened in this state. He would have, you know, really clamped down with the Tea Party in the Senate and really shut that down. So I think that’s tens of thousands of people getting Medicare coverage that would not otherwise.

So I think we’re moving in a better direction. But the challenges are still here, and I think there’s still opportunity and promise, but it’s not going to happen just because we want it to.

LEÓN: Erika is one of many activists who believe that the main obstacle for immigration reform is the prison-industrial complex.

ANDIOLA: Yeah. I mean, it’s an issue that is sort of like a taboo for many people, especially in D.C. because there is a lot of money being spent by these corporations.

But it’s a huge issue. And the way I see it is that it’s a human issue, right? You cannot expect to have, you know, these really big prisons just–they don’t call them prisons. They call them detention centers. But for us they’re prisons, right? You can’t expect to have all these, you know, places to hold people and not commit human violations. You have tons of undocumented folks who are being stopped for literally, you know, driving without a license, and they end up in those places for about a year. And so, you know, having those being a for-profit, I guess, for-profit place or a detention center, then it causes for a lot of, you know, legislators to actually not want to get the problem fixed as much as they should.

LEÓN: The prison-industrial complex is a name used to describe a private industry that Huffington post reported to have contributed as much as $45 million on a small army of lobbyists to successfully entrench itself on both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill. In 2012, an Associated Press report found that the Federal Bureau of Prisons is paying $5.1 billion to private prison corporations for immigration detention through several year-long contracts.

Andiola denounces the conditions in for-profit detention centers close to Phoenix, like Eloy and Florence, which are but small local components of the nationwide private prison industry.

ANDIOLA: My mom went through Eloy–not Eloy. Florence. And she all of that, right? She saw–you know, she was actually chained herself. They chained her arms to her legs for no reason. She had no criminal background. She’s a 55-year-old woman. It makes no sense for them to do that. And they do it to her, to women, to people who are–you know, women who are pregnant, and men who have committed no crime in the past.

LEÓN: Parraz believes that beyond the powerful prison-industrial complex’s lobby, it is in the people’s hands to fight for their rights.

PARRAZ: Yeah. I think it’s more than a shortage of financial resources. I think it’s a short of courage and people willing to take the risk and sacrifice to make things happen. Right now on the Capitol lawn there are people fasting for immigration reform, but the problem is they’re in one tent, in a small tent. If there are indeed 11 million people who are suffering, where are the hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people really demanding this change?

LEÓN: Although 2013 came to a close without any immigration reform passed by Congress, The Real News will continue to report on this important issue throughout 2014.

Reporting for The Real News, this is Oscar León.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Oscar León is an experienced international press correspondent and documentary filmmaker based in Arizona. His work has reached continental TV broadcast in many occasions on Telesur, ECTV, Ecuavisa, Radio Canada, Canal Uno and even Fox Sports Latin America and El Garaje TV; he has been a TRNN correspondent since 2010. Oscar has reported from as many as 9 countries and more than 12 cities in US; his coverage includes TV reports, special reports and TV specials, not only covering social movements, politics and economics but environmental issues, culture and sports as well. This includes the series "Reportero del Sur", "Occupy USA - El Otoño Americano", "Habia una vez en Arizona", "Motor X" all TV mini series broadcasted to all Americas and "Once upon a time in Arizona" finalist in Radio Canada's "Migration" 2010 contest.