Dreamers continue to fight for immigration rights and reform

Illustration by: Jasmine Mochizuki / Visual Editor
Illustration by: Jasmine Mochizuki / Visual Editor

A group of nine undocumented individuals from the U.S. voluntarily crossed the border into Mexico this past summer to protest U.S. deportation policies and to help urge the passing of the Dream Act, a federal policy that, if passed, will provide a pathway to citizenship to those who were brought to the U.S. as children illegally.

People known as Dreamers are the children who were brought to the U.S. under age 16 and have been raised in America. Using the same strategy as Dream 9, the new larger group of undocumented immigrants who have lived in the U.S. for most of their life, Dream 30, attempted to cross the border.

The Dreamers mission is to get the Dream Act passed and to spread awareness about deportation issues that Dreamers, such as themselves, face in the U.S.

Lizbeth Mateo, 29, a CSUN graduate now attending law school at Santa Clara University, is undocumented and a member of the Dream 9. Mateo said knowing she or her family could be deported at any time inspired her and the other members of the Dream 9 to take matters into their own hands.

“The idea was that if we are going to get deported, we are going to do it on our own terms. We knew that when we would do it on our own terms, the roles would switch. People usually hide. We didn’t want to hide. We wanted to be very open and confront that fear,” Mateo said.

The Dream 9 were detained at the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona and claimed asylum with the hope it would help them enter back in the U.S. safely without having to be deported to Mexico, where they feared unjust and inhumane treatment.

It was only after massive media coverage and protests that the group were paroled into the U.S. They now have to present their asylum case to a U.S. judge, a hearing that could be years away.

Earlier this month Dream 30, following in the footsteps of their predecessors lined up at the U.S. border in Laredo, Texas, and protested to “bring them home.”

Nancy Landa, CSUN’s first Latina student body president, who graduated with honors from the university in 2004, was deported to Mexico in 2009 and has since been an activist in fighting for immigration reform, specifically for deportees.

“I want to open doors for others who do not have the option to return to their lives in the U.S. Life does not have to end after deportation,” Landa said.

Landa is a member of Los Otros Dreamers (The Other Dreamers), a group of Dreamers who are pursuing their lives and goals in Mexico. While she was not directly involved in the actions of the Dream 9, she and Los Otros Dreamers publicly supported the group and sent a letter to the president asking for their release.

“As part of Los Otros Dreamers we publically supported the effort as [the Dream 9] were the first activist group in the U.S. that focused on giving visibility to those of us who were being left out of immigration reform, including individuals like me who were deported or those that [were forced to return] because they could not pursue an education due to their immigration status,” Landa said.

Out of the Dream 30, less than half have successfully crossed back into the U.S., while the rest are currently still waiting at the El Paso Processing Center to see if their asylum claim is enough to let them back into their homes. The group is part of the Bring Them Home Campaign, which is sponsored by the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, co-founded by Mateo and Dreamactivist.org.

“The Bring Them Home campaigns presses for the urgency of passing immigration legislation that is humane and comprehensive. The more we continue to wait for a comprehensive solution, the more it will continue to negatively affect immigrant communities,” Landa said.

Landa believes that the efforts of the Bring Them Home Campaign will help spread awareness about the inhumane immigration policies that continues to be upheld under the Obama administration.

“As with the Dream 9 efforts, I believe this campaign continues to bring visibility to the record number of deportations under the Obama administration and the inhumanity in these policies,” Landa said.

While detained, Mateo said she heard first person accounts about what women experienced in the Eloy Detention Center.

“When the [Dream 9] came to the detention center, they knew we were a high media case, so we heard they cleaned up the facility and repaired broken things. But the women there told us that a lot of the time their toilets and sinks in their cells would not work and that when they would turn on the water, it would come out brown,” Mateo said.

Since July 15, 2012, the federal government has made it possible for Dreamers to apply for deferred action.

If they qualify under the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), Dreamers can have temporary legal residency for two years and be eligible for employment opportunities. After the two-year period expires, they can reapply again.

According to Pew Research data, 1.7 million undocumented individuals can benefit from DACA.

While Mexico is the number one country of origin for those who apply for DACA and California is the state with the most individuals living under DACA, individuals of Latino descent are not the only ones who face issues with deportation in the U.S.

According to recent data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), South Korea, Brazil, Peru and the Philippines are among the top 10 countries of origin who apply for DACA.

As of March 2012, 6.5 million of the 11.7 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. were from Mexico, making them the majority of undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

Claiming asylum

A majority of the Dream 30 have claimed asylum at the U.S. border, hoping that it will help bring them back to the U.S. safely.

A person must be “unable or unwilling to return to his or her country of nationality because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion,” in order to receive refugee or asylum status, according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

“For the Dreamers that entered the U.S. claiming asylum, their claim is largely made on the fear of persecution in Mexico due to increasing violence that is a result of Mexico’s war on drugs. Claiming asylum allows this group of individuals to work and deter deportation until a decision is made in their individual cases,” said Dr. Martha Escobar, assistant professor for the Chicano/a studies department at CSUN.

Not only do Dreamers have the right to claim asylum because of the recent cartel violence in Mexico, but the fact that they grew up in the U.S. also puts them at risk, said David Bennion, the Philadelphia-based immigration attorney for the Dream activists.

“The fact that they grew up in the U.S. and many are easily identifiable as coming from the U.S. makes them a more attractive target for kidnapping or extortion by both the cartels and the police,” Bennion said.

Undocumented immigrants labeled as criminals

While deportation statistics under the Obama administration are showing record numbers, being deported is not the only issue undocumented immigrants face.

When CSUN graduate Nancy Landa was deported, she was not treated like someone who was brought to the U.S. with no other choice or as someone who has contributed to her community, she said.

“I was treated as a criminal, as if I had made a choice to be in the U.S. without documents,” Landa said. Dreamers do not make the conscious choice, as we were children when our parents brought us into the U.S. But the deportation system easily criminalizes a community that has made the U.S. their home and has contributed to it.”

According to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), 55 percent, or 225,390 individuals deported in 2011 were undocumented immigrants. Of those the website said they “removed,” 40,448 were reported to have committed crimes involving drugs and 36,116 were convicted of driving under the influence.

However, the website does not specify the country those who committed crimes were deported to.

Devora Gonzalez, a CSUN alumna who majored in Central American studies, is an advocate for immigration reform and is currently getting her master’s degree in Central American studies at the University of Arizona. Being undocumented in the U.S. carries a heavy stigma, according to her.

“The stigma (is that) you are an unethical being because you are undocumented,” Gonzalez said. You are seen as someone who broke the law, your very presence is illegal or not wanted.”

Not only are those who are undocumented treated as criminals in the U.S., but they are also treated unfairly when they get deported and arrive at their country of origin, making it harder to get jobs and rebuild their lives, said Dr. Douglas Carranza, professor and program director of Central American studies at CSUN.

“When these deportees reach their country of origin, they are not welcomed. They criminalize them because there is an assumption that most of the people who are being deported are criminals,” Carranza said. “Being labeled as a criminal hinders their opportunity to get a job. On top of already being embarrassed that they were deported, now they are labeled as a criminal too.”

Being labeled as a criminal does not only affect the deportee, but also their family, Carranza said.

“Being the son of a person who was deported, being the daughter, being the mother, the wife or the husband or someone who is deported means they can be tainted because they are seen as being connected to someone who is supposed to be a criminal even though he or she is not,” Carranza said.

Stereotypes that come with being undocumented

Another stereotype that undocumented individuals are faced with in the U.S. is that they do not contribute to the economy, but instead are a “drain on it,” said Dr. Axel Montepeque, professor of Central American studies at CSUN.

“The work that the undocumented do, the industries that they sustain, and the taxes that they pay are simply erased and they are represented as a drain on public benefits,” Montepeque said.

These stereotypes influence the public and ultimately leads them to form an anti-immigrant and anti-Latino sensibility, according to Montepeque.

Although the Latino population makes up the majority of immigrants in the U.S, they are not the only group who are labeled with stereotypes.

Dr. Timothy C. Lim, a political science professor and expert in international migration/immigration in Asia at California State University, Los Angeles, said Asian immigrants, even those who are legal, are stereotyped as well.

“For Asians, however, even legal immigrants are often viewed as incapable of fitting into American society. Indeed, even Asians who have lived in the U.S. for generations are still viewed as “foreigners” in the United States,” Lim said.

Issues with U.S. policies for immigration reform

Gonzalez feels that one of the biggest issues in immigration reform in the U.S. is that it solely focuses on naturalizing people rather than getting to the root of the issue, leaving the current policies to just be bandages over the deeper issues.

Let’s start with international foreign policy. Let’s talk about militarization at the border. Let’s talk about the racialized history,” Gonzalez said. “Let’s talk about the issues in other countries that have caused migration for people from those countries to come here.”

Furthermore, U.S. immigration policies do not have any laws or policies in place pushing to keep families together, an issue that Gonzalez said is far too common with migration to the U.S.

“If they stay in their country, they remain poor and they can’t make it so someone has to leave and they separate. Now you have a person who comes to the United States and can send money and be that contributor,” Gonzalez said.

In order for change to take place regarding U.S. immigration reform policy, Carranza said that stronger and less modified policies are needed.

“What we need is immigration reform without diluting the benefits to the entire community, that is the reality. We cannot just take small steps. People have been living here for many years working hard in their communities and providing new ideas in the way society should function and it’s a disservice to humanity not to provide those full benefits,” Carranza said.

David Bennion, attorney for the Dream Activists and Philadelphia-based immigration attorney, said that while California is on the forefront of passing measures to protect Dreamers and their families, it is not enough.

“State and local governments could act further to disentangle themselves from ICE and Border Patrol by refusing to grant detention space in state jails and prisons,” Bennion said. “California Democrats could push the president to release the Dream 30 and provide a way for other Dreamers to reunite with their families,”

According to Carranza, the fact that the Obama administration deports 400,000 individuals a year gives us an “idea about the administration’s immigration policies.”

“The Obama administration had presented itself as the beginning, as friends of the immigrant community, and that it was going to be helpful and also have the willingness to support the immigrant community, but it has been the reverse,” Carranza sad.

The Latino population: a targeted community

According to Montepeque, the Latino population has been misrepresented by the media as far back as the early 1970s.

“Beginning in the 1970s and continuing into the present, the media have represented the undocumented in the U.S. as Mexican, and this has had the effect that the public believes that all undocumented people and therefore deportation is a Mexican issue,” Montepeque said.

“Of course, immigration and deportation affects many other people, particularly Central Americans.”

However, Montepeque also said while deportation is heavily targeted towards undocumented individuals from Latin American countries, “the statistics simply do not lie: the majority of those deported are from Mexico and Central America.”

Beckie Moriello, immigration attorney for Fabio Ortiz Law Firm, does not believe that immigration in the U.S. is viewed as a Mexican or Latino issue.

“I think people also jump to terrorism when they think of immigration, and people tend to think of Middle Easterners in that context,” Moriello said.

Furthermore, from her experience, the Latino population is not more targeted than other groups from other countries when it comes to the issue of deportation.

Immigration: a racialized issue

Escobar believes that besides the fact that the majority of documented and undocumented migrants are from Mexico, the reason the Latino community is targeted is because of how they are painted “as a threat to the nation.”

“While Mexican migrants were and continue to be desired for their labor, they are racially constructed as a threat to the nation,” Escobar said. “They are not only assumed to be racially, culturally, linguistically, and morally different from white America, but their constructed difference is assumed to be inferior. Thus they are constructed as a threat to the nation and deportation becomes a means to control that threat.”

One of the most politically effective racial ideas used to portray Latinas/os as threats to the public include labeling those of Latino descent as “public drains” or “criminals.” Ideas such as “anchor babies,” describing the notion that women cross the border to have children in the U.S. so the government will take care of them is only one of the racially constructed ideas that racially label the Latino community, Escobar said.

Escobar said these racial constructions of Latino/a immigrants heavily limit or completely exclude them from receiving public resources such as healthcare and education.

Gonzalez believes racism in the U.S. is a historical issue, dating back to when America was founded and the founding fathers decided that a U.S. citizen could only be someone who was Anglo or of European descent.

“Being undocumented is historical and it’s racialized. History and racism go together because history is a racialized history,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez said claiming racism is no longer an issue in this country after the civil rights movement is not true.

“Racism just took a different form. It got reshaped and it became that now you have the rhetoric of undocumented immigration which is a racialized issue,” Gonzalez said.

Deportation: a human rights issue

Labeling an undocumented individual as a criminal provides the framework to “enact means of control that would otherwise seem inhumane,” Escobar said.

“The hundreds of deaths at the border that are a consequence of border militarization are legitimized by the narrative that ‘those people’ were knowingly violating ‘our’ nation’s laws, and while unfortunate, ‘our’ protection and safety comes first, and ‘their’ death is of their own making,” Escobar said.

Landa recalls that when she was detained, she had no access to an attorney or a judge and she was expediently removed.

“There is a complete lack of human dignity and respect for due process,” Landa said.

However, Gonzalez notes that deportation is not the only time when there is a human rights issue with immigration. Using terms such as illegal, undocumented or even immigrants can be offensive. “The right term to use is human being” Gonzalez said.

Whether a person is undocumented or not is not something that Gonzalez feels should not matter when identifying that person.

“If they are undocumented or not, it should not matter. Immigration is a socially constructed issue,” Gonzalez said. “No human being is illegal. No human beings presence is not wanted. Everyone has a right to life. Everyone has a right to migration. Everyone has a right to say I am not a criminal because I decided I wanted to look for a better life.”

Carranza agreed with Gonzalez and believes that when referring to an undocumented individual, a person’s legal status is irrelevant, and instead of being called undocumented, they should only be called an immigrant.

“They are just a person who is an immigrant. It shouldn’t matter if they are legal or not because people have the right to work and anybody has the right to access healthcare and education and they are paying their taxes and working,” Carranza said.