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Courage and Persistence: 7 Untold Stories from Immigration Reform Summer

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Below is the eleventh article in the series, “Immigration Reform Summer,” by Gebe Martinez, Advisor to America’s Voice Education Fund.  This article is available for reprint as long as the author is given proper attribution.

This week, a red pickup truck pulled up to the West Chester, OH, office of House Speaker John Boehner and deposited 600,000 signatures on petitions gathered across the U.S. by community, faith, business and labor groups calling for immigration reform with a path to citizenship.

Though “Immigration Reform Summer” is ending, the immigration reform movement, bolstered by its growing share of the electorate, is not going anywhere any time soon.

Tens of thousands of advocates of all ages, regardless of status, showed unprecedented courage during August as they claimed their place in American democracy and society. They marched hundreds of miles, rallied and faced their representatives at town halls, and began destabilizing some of the myths advanced by immigration opponents.

The bands of unruly Tea Partiers of three years ago were drowned out by the unified, multicultural and multi-faith voices of America’s future who chanted, “Yes We Can,” in English, Spanish and Korean.

House members heard the advocates; some risked political peril by not responding. But several who once strongly opposed immigration reform — perhaps as part of the conservative group think — began listening and let “citizenship” enter their lexicon.

The movement caused House members to reassess their immigration positions and come to terms with the changing demographics of their districts and states. For many members, election challengers are in place or expected, so views of new Americans cannot be ignored. Republican Reps. Mike Coffman of CO, Michael Grimm of NY, and Joe Heck of NV, for example, already have challengers for the 2014 election, and are among the dozens of members looking for paths to support immigration reform with some form of eventual citizenship.

Only a few of the hundreds of events captured national media attention, but the story of August is about the courage, compassion and power of civic engagement that emerged, and of how House members dealt with the immigration issue.

Here are a few of the lesser-known stories:

1.     Speaking truth to power

House leaders usually spend recesses outside of their districts headlining fundraisers for their colleagues. One absentee leader when visitors came calling was House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-CA, who was times zones away when a caravan of immigration reformers made their way to his Bakersfield office in mid-August. On Labor Day, as 11 pilgrims ended their 21-day, 285-mile pilgrimage for citizenship from Sacramento to Bakersfield drawing a crowd of more than 2000 people, McCarthy said he was needed in Washington, DC to deal with Syria.

But two days later, McCarthy returned to Bakersfield to meet with the pilgrims, members of the PICO California grassroots-based network.

Immigration reform “has to start with the borders so the borders are protected,” McCarthy said after the meeting, failing to address how a path to citizenship would be handled.

“First and foremost we need to address the 11 million aspiring American families in this country,” responded Gonzalo F. Santos, one of the pilgrims who is a sociologist at Cal State in Bakersfield. “We sure told him that the overall movement for justice for immigrants is now reaching a fork in the road as to how we’re going to act in the next phase of our quest for immigration reform.”

2.     From the mountains to the prairies

Though Nebraska may seem an unlikely hotbed of immigration debates — only 6.3 percent of the state’s population is native born — the small town of Fremont, NE, got caught up in the nativist frenzy of 2010 and passed an ordinance that banned renting to undocumented immigrants. But community partners of all backgrounds, representing more than 40 entities are now fighting across the state for immigration reform.

Families delivered banners and children’s drawings depicting the impact of family separations to their members of Congress, as well as postcards from Nebraskans supporting commonsense immigration reform. Business, faith and education groups also held forums to push for needed reforms, and DREAMers and others worked telephone banks.

In a creative show of dogged determination, Nebraska Appleseed set up a booth at Nebraska’s largest music festival, Maha, featuring The Flaming Lips, and registered voters while running carnival games to illustrate the difficulties Nebraskans face navigating the immigration system.

3.     True Colors

Not all members of Congress held town halls in August and some who did, controlled them by not making them public or restricting access. One event that got national notice is worth repeating because of how immigration supporters are pressuring leaders and exposing the uglier side of their opponents.

Immigration supporters organized by the Tennessee Immigrant Rights and Refugee Coalition (TIRRC) had heard Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-TN, would be holding a town hall. Nope, said his office. They tracked down the event, organized by the Tea Party, to be held in the low-lit 3 Brothers Craft Brewhouse in Murfreesboro. The bar manager said the forum was open to the public, and by start time, the crowd of about 150 was almost evenly split between Tea Partiers and immigration reform.

The voice of 11-year-old Josie Molina quivered while asking DesJarlais what he could do to keep her undocumented father from being deported. The congressman responded to Josie saying we need to enforce our laws. In other words, her father should be deported. The crowd cheered for the congressman. Stories like Josie’s help to show the struggles immigrant families face, but also reveal just how insensitive opponents to reform can be to real these real-life struggles.

4.     Mobilizing against constituents.

When Texas Republican Rep. Blake Farenthold heard that constituents in favor of immigration reform would be delivering 10,000 signatures to his office, his campaign organized about five dozen Tea Party members to disrupt the event. The Tea Partiers hurled insults at Latinos and blocked the entrance to Farenthold’s office as shouting matches ensued.

5.     Softening, even in the most unlikely of places

In the Tennessee district of Republican Congresswoman Diane Black, town hall attendees were required to sign in by writing down their questions. Even though questions about immigration dominated the sign-in sheet, the Congresswoman dismissed them, repeating her stock statement before moving on to other issues.

Undeterred, advocates followed Black to another town hall a few days later. Her tone showed slightly more tolerance for the subject, especially when compared to her once strident stance against birthright citizenship, said Eben Cathey with TIRRC.

“Our community members across the state are now engaged in the civic process. They had an opportunity to get in front of representatives and ask for a pathway to citizenship,” Cathey added. “I hope the work we did moved the needle a little bit.”

6.     Moving the needle

At a Tallahassee, FL, forum featuring Republican Tea Party ally, Rep. Steve Southerland, a two-degreed college graduate spoke of difficulties of getting and maintaining legal status and citizenship. Juan Espinoza, who came to the U.S. as a four-year-old, impressed Southerland.

Recently, the congressman opened up to a path to citizenship and cited Espinoza as the reason, according to the Miami Herald. Fines and contrition would have to be part of the deal, “but I believe in reconciliation,” he told the newspaper.

7.     Facts emerge

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-AL, and Rep. Steve King, R-IA, are known for not letting facts stand in the way of hyperbolic statements about immigrants, as they prefer a deportation policy. And King again became an embarrassment to the Republican Party just before the August recess when he referred to young immigrants as having “calves the size of cantaloupes” because they are drug smugglers.

During an August forum, Republican Congressman Spencer Bacchus laid out the facts as he flatly disagreed with Sessions, his home state senator, and King. “As your Congressman, I am not gonna separate families or send them back,” Bacchus said

In Iowa, GOP Sen. Charles E. Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee who opposed the Senate’s bipartisan immigration reform bill with a path to citizenship, undermined the nativists’ use of the word “amnesty” in the current debate. King’s home state senator noted the 1986 immigration law granted unconditional “amnesty.” The Senate bill requires at least a 10-year wait while multiple hurdles are crossed before earning legal status and then citizenship.

“Putting conditions prior to legalization, I would say, would pre-empt the use of the word, “amnesty,” Grassley said, echoing the words of  Rep. Tom Cole, R-OK, who flatly told his own district, “It’s not amnesty.”

Inch by inch, facts emerged and progress was made.

After this Immigration Reform Summer, the question of congressional action on immigration reform is only a matter of “when.”

See also:

KGET.com: Congressman meets with immigration reform activists

Miami Herald: Tea partier Rep. Steve Southerland voices immigration-reform support

MSNBC: Who’s who in GOP’s pro immigration reform camp