Fasters and Supporters, May 2013
During our seven years of existence as a grassroots community organization, WeCount! has fought for a just and inclusive immigration reform.
In 2006, together with our sister organizations the Farmworker Association of Florida, American Friends Service Committee and the National Farmworker Ministry, we organized the large mobilizations of our community in Homestead against the hated Sensenbrenner bill – the rally of 8,000 to 10,000 persons in Harris Field on April 10, and the May 1st march of 10,000 – 12,000 persons. Immigrants and their allies won that battle, demonstrating our dignity in huge peaceful marches in cities, towns and rural areas around the U.S. The Sensenbrenner bill, which would have criminalized the undocumented and all persons and institutions that lent their undocumented neighbors a hand, was defeated, and space was opened for a national debate about immigration reform with a path to citizenship.
In 2007, we led a campaign to get the cities of Florida City and Homestead to pass resolutionsasking the federal government to suspend deportations and family separations during the immigration reform debate in Congress. Although we won the local battle, we lost in Congress. We didn’t have enough power to pass a comprehensive immigration reform law. In fact, in the effort to pass something, our legislative champions ceded so much ground that the bill that died was really bad, with a legalization program that would not have worked for the great majority of working-class immigrants.
The repression and criminalization of immigrant communities increased. On November 19, 2008, our town of Homestead suffered an ICE raid that was supposedly directed at a sex trafficking ring but that in reality targeted working women and men who had nothing to do with sex trafficking. Dozens were deported, and many were mistreated and beaten. With our allies, we raised our voice against these abuses. We were able to get an investigation, but unfortunately the perpetrators continue working at ICE. Our FOIA suit to get information to unmask ICE’s abuses on November 19, 2008 is still in court.
Adolfo Garcia and Julio Sales, beaten by ICE agents, November 19, 2008
President Obama started his presidency in 2009 having promised as a candidate to pass immigration reform in the first year of his term. But he depleted his political capital in the fight for health care reform and put immigration reform on the back burner. At the same time, using the excuse and logic that he is obligated to enforce the law and that he had to avoid being accused by his adversaries of being soft on unauthorized immigrants, he deported more persons at a higher rate than any other president in the history of the U.S. And despite his hard line, he was still accused by anti-immigrant forces of being too tolerant of undocumented immigrants.
Without any publicity, in February 2009 ICE implemented its misnamed “Secure Communities” program in Miami-Dade County, using the police and jails as an entry point into the deportation system. Since then, they have deported over 4,000 persons from our county through this program, the great majority of them persons without criminal records or with convictions for minor crimes. The program has also had a disparate impact on Central Americans and Mexicans. The hypocrisy of the administration was shown by its legal fight against anti-immigrant laws such as Arizona’s SB 1070 at the same time it was extending “Secure Communities,” which practically has the same effect, throughout the country.
In 2009 we also saw an increase of ICE home raids. While supposedly looking for persons with criminal records or “fugitives” with deportation orders who hadn’t left the country, ICE agents would also arrest “collaterals” with the bad luck of living in the same home as someone they were looking for, or in the home where they once lived. In 2009, the Sheriff’s Department of Monroe County began to profile Latinos and hand them over to the Border Patrol. Many Latinos who live in Homestead work in the Florida Keys in construction or landscaping. The Sheriff’s Department’s actions was another cause of the increased deportations and family separations, and many immigrant families in the Homestead area lost their jobs on the Keys at a time when they were still suffering the effects of the Great Recession.
WeCount! organized a community forum in November 2009 to break the silence about the massive deportations that were destroying families in our community and so many others around the country. Even though the press didn’t show, we broke the silence. The human pain expressed by the courageous people who gave their testimonies that day awakened our conscience and that of our allies in the immigrant rights movement. We understood that it was no longer acceptable to let the administration led by President Obama, a “friend” of immigrants, to continue to break up our community, family by family, without a fight.
On January 1, 2010, we launched the Fast for Our Families. Six individuals, persons directly impacted by deportations and their supporters, initiated an indefinite fast at St. Ann’s Mission in Naranja, demanding that the Obama Administration take immediate administrative action to end the separation of families and that the Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, meet with us. The same day, four young persons from Miami initiated the Trail of Dreams. The Fast for Our Families lasted 17 days. We decided to end it without achieving our objectives out of respect for our Haitian brothers and sisters, who suffered the unimaginable pain of the devastating earthquake of January 12 of that year. The Fast was supported by many sister organizations, particularly the Florida Immigrant Coalition (FLIC), to which WeCount! belongs, and it inspired a spontaneous upsurge of support from the local immigrant community. It was one of the first drops of resistance to the deportation regime of the Obama Administration that the Trail of Dreams and many other efforts around the country turned into a river of indignation.
We also participated in the great march of March 21, 2010, in Washington, D.C., supporting comprehensive immigration reform, together with FLIC and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), to which we also belong.
WeCount! Youth outside the White House, March 21, 2010
With the victory of the Tea Party in the 2010 mid-term legislative elections and the defeat of the DREAM Act in the Senate in December 2010, when five Democratic Senators voted with the Republican minority to block the vote, the possibility of immigration reform in that Congress was closed.
During President Obama’s first term, representatives of the White House came to Miami to meet with representatives of pro-immigrant organizations to beg us to stop criticizing the administration’s deportation policies, which they presented as a necessary evil to win comprehensive immigration reform. We feel proud of the South Florida organizations, which all rejected that logic during these meetings. At one meeting, a representative of FLIC asked the White House representative to give us something – some concrete measure, any one – that would alleviate the human rights crisis in the community, instead of only offering concessions to the other side. The response was silence. At another meeting, a White House representative alleged that any administrative action to alleviate the deportation crisis would be immediately overturned by Congress, implying that the administration was powerless in the face of the Republican House majority and the Tea Party.
In 2011, WeCount! proudly participated in FLIC’s “We Are Florida” Campaign, which successfully defeated Arizona-style legislation in Florida. We joined the massive, constant and unprecedented mobilizations of immigrants in Tallahassee, coordinated by FLIC and its member organizations. While opinion-makers in South Florida, with its large immigrant population, did not believe that Arizona-style laws had a chance of passing in Florida, the political consensus in Tallahassee was that it was inevitable. Our “We Are Homestead” week of actions in March of that year, supported by NDLON and FLIC, broke the silence in the important South Florida media market about the threat of an Arizona-style anti-immigrant law in Florida. It also brought to light the silence of the Republican Cuban American legislators concerning the anti-immigrant bills, or in some cases their consent. The actions of WeCount! and other FLIC member organizations in South Florida forced the Miami Hispanic Republicans to come out of hiding and declare their opposition to the anti-immigrant position of the Republican Party leadership. This was one of the factors that contributed to our movement’s victory.
WeCount!, FLIC and allies picket outside the Miami office of House Majority Leader Carlos Lopez Cantera, April 2011
The pressure of our movement, particularly the constant actions of the Dreamers, extracted some concessions from the administration, such as the June 2011 announcement of its Prosecutorial Discretion policy, through which the Department of Homeland Security can close cases of persons in deportation proceedings who are considered “low priority.” The imprecision of the policy allowed the administration to sell it, especially to the Spanish-language press, as something that would stop the deportation of immigrants without a criminal record. The reality was much different. “High priority” persons included not only those considered a “public security threat” because of their criminal record (and for the immigration authorities, convictions on minor charges often qualify one as a threat), but also persons with deportation orders who haven’t left the country (“fugitives”), those who have recently entered the country (generally anyone who has entered in the last five years) and those who were deported and returned to the country (without taking into account if they returned to be with their families or if their original deportation originated with a criminal conviction or not). And local ICE authorities resisted granting Prosecutorial Discretion since their job is to deport people and they resent any concession. It ended up being another cruel joke.
In 2012, candidate Obama once again promised immigration reform in the first year of his second term. The anti-immigrant and racist discourse of the Republican candidates, including the call for “self-deportation” by Mitt Romney, the primary election winner (reflecting the “strategy of attrition of the promoters of state anti-immigrant laws), gave the Latino and immigrant vote no other alternative than President Obama, despite his history as leader in deportations.
The continual pressure on the president from the Dreamers’ movement also resulted in him changing the calculus: on June 15, 2012, the administration announced the first significant administrative action that had a very positive impact not only in theory but in reality – Deferred Action for those who arrived in the country before their 16th birthday (DACA). The DACA concession energized the president’s supporters and was a factor in his reelection.
We also viewed the post-electoral political moment with optimism, when opinion-makers and even the Republican Party leadership recognized that the overwhelming Latino vote in favor of President Obama and Latinos’ rejection of the Republican candidates’ anti-immigrant discourse were determining factors in the president’s reelection.
Unfortunately, the president’s hardline continued. In 2012, his administration achieved a record of over 400,000 deportations, justifying them by saying that the great majority fell into the “high priority” categories. In Homestead, we had an increase in home raids beginning in December 2012 and culminating in April 2013, when in a period of six consecutive days ICE arrested 47 immigrants in Homestead, according to official sources, as part of a national operation called “Operation Safe Neighborhoods.” Instead of liberating the energies of the immigrant community around the country with a moratorium on deportations (at least of those who would qualify under the Senate immigration reform bill), the administration stuck to its deportation policies. Imagine the momentum that a suspension of deportations would have given to the movement for a just and inclusive immigration reform. In contrast, the repression discouraged involvement of the affected community in the national debate and prolonged the family separation crisis in Homestead and communities around the country. In fact, we are not at the negotiating table where our future is being decided behind closed doors. Nor are the large organizations that represent the immigrant movement, for better or for worse, at the national level.
WeCount!, SWER Homestead, Farmworker Association of Florida march from Florida City to Homestead for immigration reform with a path to citizenship and a moratorium on deportations, March 9, 2013
In 2013, WeCount! launched our “Organizing for Our Families” campaign, which strives to put the voices of affected families and individuals in the center of the immigration reform debate. We once again marched for a just and inclusive immigration reform and for a suspension of deportations. We collaborated with the “Just Say Yes” campaign of FLIC in favor of immigration reform with a path to citizenship, which maintains families united, and protects worker rights. We also collaborate with the “Not One More” campaign of NDLON, which demands that the president suspend deportations as a first step toward immigration reform. On May 11 to 17 we carried out the “No More Deportations” Fast and Week of Actions at the First United Methodist Church in Homestead, as part of a national rolling fast coordinated by NDLON. Over a dozen members and supporters of WeCount! fasted, and we had a visible presence of resistance to the deportation regime in the center of Homestead. With FLIC’s tremendous support, we got the voices of families impacted by the raids and deportations in the national and international press and out throughsocial media.
Children and adult supporters gather for Children's March, May 11, 2013 to kick off Fast and Week of Actions
We haven’t gone through this history to promote ourselves. We are one of many immigrant organizations around the country that have struggled for many years for a just and inclusive immigration reform. We recognize that others have made greater sacrifices, and have acted with greater determination and effectiveness.
But our history impacts the position we take on S. 744, the comprehensive immigration reform bill that was passed by the Senate.
We believe that the history of 2007 has repeated itself. S. 744 is not the immigration reform for which we have fought for many years. We still do not have the power to pass that reform.
At the beginning of the post-electoral period we consulted with our membership about immigration reform – what we need, what we want, what we would accept and what we would not accept in a bill. We understood that the political reality was that we would have to accept some bad things that we aren’t in agreement with in order to get legalization for our community. We concluded that what we needed more than anything, first, was for the bill to include as many persons as possible – that it be inclusive. And second, that it would let us live in freedom – without the constant fear that an encounter with the police or an ICE raid would result in deportation; without the fear that they would stop and arrest us for driving to work or taking the kids to school, resulting in our deportation, and if we have our family here, our family’s separation.
Why isn’t S. 744 acceptable? We understand and it isn’t surprising that it has good and bad things. But it is not acceptable precisely because it would exclude too many people, it would leave us without freedom, and the price of partial freedom for some of the 11 million undocumented people in the United States would be very high.
The bill’s legalization programs for Dreamers and for farm workers are acceptable because they are more inclusive and the road is shorter and less costly in fines and fees. We don’t like that they make farm workers continue working in farm work for three or five years longer to maintain status and obtain permanent residency, but at least the great majority of farm workers would qualify.
Even though the majority of undocumented persons in our community would qualify under the farm worker and youth programs, many in our community, and the great majority of the 11 million undocumented persons in the country, would have to apply under the general legalization program. Millions would not qualify, or they would become ineligible while on the long path to permanent residence and citizenship. In the first place, it excludes those who arrived after December 31, 2011. Second, some will not be able to pay the higher cost of fines and fees, on top of the back taxes that we don’t know how they will calculate. Third, since the period of “provisional residency” lasts for at least 10 years, criminal exclusion will be poised over our heads like the sword of Damocles, since one encounter with the racist justice system would disqualify us. Fourth, the multiple “triggers” that must be fulfilled by the government before we can apply for permanent residency could extend the provision residency period indefinitely. Fifth, the requirements for continuous employment and minimum family income, even with the contemplated waivers, could leave some out and would keep immigrant workers at a disadvantage in relation to their employers. Sixth, it leaves intact and reinforces the whole regime of criminalization of immigrants, from Secure Communities and the Criminal Alien Program, to deportation goals and beds in private and public detention centers for immigrants, guaranteeing that there will be great pressures to push the beneficiaries of the program from the path to citizenship into the deportation machinery.
The unprecedented militarization of the border between Mexico and the United States as a result of eleventh-hour negotiations to ensure passage of the bill in the Senate was the final straw. Did we miss the declaration of war between the United States and Mexico? What about human rights in border communities, or do they not count in majority Mexican-American communities? The “Corker-Hoeven” amendment guarantees that the defense industry will join the private prison industry to consolidate “Fortress USA, Inc.” at the expense of immigrants.
In the House of Representatives, the leadership of the Republican majority said it wasn’t going to consider the Senate bill. It said the House will debate piecemeal legislation. Some of the bills under consideration are sickening, such as the “SAFE Act of 2013” (H.R. 2278), which already passed the House Judiciary Committee in a party-line vote. It should be called the “Hate Act.” It’s a combination of the Sensenbrenner law of 2007 and SB 1070 of Arizona. Things do not bode well, although no one can be sure what will happen.
As an immigrant community of women, men, youth and children; as Latinos, Mayas and Mixtecos; as workers who have sacrificed for our families, we have a long history of struggle both in our countries of origin and in the United States. The “original sin” of the immigration issue was not the act we committed of crossing the border between Mexico and the United States without authorization, rather the global economic system that did not permit us – and still does not permit us – to survive or get ahead in our countries of origin. We migrants are not to blame for this system, and we do not accept responsibility for it. We have dignity and we deserve to be treated with dignity wherever we live, with our without papers.
WeCount! is not advocating for members of Congress to vote for or against the Senate bill. In fact, it is doubtful that they will have an opportunity to vote on that bill. We are saying that we don’t support it. And that we will continue to fight – now and as long as necessary in the future – for what we want: a just immigration reform that is inclusive of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. We are aware that we are taking a different path at this time from many of our allies in the struggle. We respect their decisions, and we believe that any difference is temporary and the alliance with them is enduring.
We are also conscious that our community not only deserves a just legalization but also needs a legal remedy now. We will continue pressuring President Obama to suspend deportations and grant Deferred Action to the adult undocumented population in general. We will also fight for Miami-Dade County to stop cooperating with ICE hold requests.
We know that if immigration reform doesn’t pass, many will be disillusioned. In our organization we try to create consciousness about social struggles. We understand that social change doesn’t occur without struggle and sacrifice, and that struggles to change unjust systems can last decades.
We make this statement with a little resignation and sadness, but also with a commitment to continue the struggle. We don’t have the power yet to pass the immigration reform that we merit by reason of our human dignity and our struggle. But as the great martyr of the civil rights struggle, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.