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DREAM Act backers target GOP, Dems

Nine Chicago-area students were among 21 undocumented students arrested at the Capitol building in Washington yesterday in sit-ins demanding action on the DREAM Act.

Seventeen of the 21 were released today, and supporters believe immigration authorities have not been notified, said Rigo Padilla of Immigrant Youth Justice League, who is in Washington.  The nine Chicagoans were members of IYJL, he said.

In Chicago, local elected officials and immigrant advocates, including ICIRR and Latinos Progresando, delivered a letter to U.S. Representative Mark Kirk urging him to cosponsor the DREAM Act.  The bill would establish a path to legalization for undocumented students who have grown up here and complete college or serve in the military.

In Washington, though, the DREAMers mainly targeted Democrats, sitting in at the offices of Senators Harry Reid, Charles Schumer, Diane Feinstein, Robert Menendez, and Republican John McCain.  Several of the Democrats are cosponsors the the bill, and McCain has supported it in the past but backed off from that position recently.

“These are five champions of immigration reform who have the power in Congress to move the DREAM Act to the Senate floor,” Padilla said.

Schumer and Menendez have argued that the DREAM Act is a diversion from comprehensive immigration reform; Feinstein cosponsored the bill in 2003 but is now pushing legislation allowing agricultural guest workers.

That may be why Senator Richard Durbin, chief sponsor of the bill, had harsh words for the protestors.  His office told The Hill that they’d “crossed the line from passionate advocacy to inappropriate behavior.”

Durbin “believes that we will win this fight on the merits, not through public demonstrations or publicity stunts,” his office said.

It’s not clear, however, that legislators are committed to considering the bill on its merits, without strenuous pressure from outside.  Indeed, just two months ago The Hill reported that Durbin was “holding back” on the DREAM Act out of deference to senators who favor a comprehensive bill – and quoted him saying “I’m not pushing that” and “it’s unlikely we’ll get to it this year.”

In a post at The Dream is Coming, IYJL leader Tania Unzueta says that after her efforts to obtain legal status were stymied, she “pinned a lot of hopes for my future on the 2003 DREAM Act.  It failed.  I hoped again in 2007 [with] the same result.”

The undocumented students model themselves on the civil rights movement – and Durbin might reflect on the importance of the march in Selma in winning passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Immigrant rights advocates are also disillusioned with the Obama administration which, despite words of support for reform, has sharply stepped up deportations.

Yesterday’s actions are part of three days of activities by DREAM Act supporters, including legislative visits, a mock graduation ceremony, and a DREAM Act University outside the Capitol, with professors offering lessons on immigration history and policy, Padilla said.  About 500 DREAMers and supporters are participating, he said.

DREAM Act supporters have held hunger strikes at congressional offices in New York and North Carolina, and three students started a hunger strike at Feinstein’s office in Los Angeles today.

Here are eight reasons to pass the DREAM act immediately.

Chicago leader on ‘coming out’ as undocumented

In These Times interviews Chicago activist Tania Unzueta, saying she “may be America’s most visible undocumented activist.”

Unzueta directs Radio Arte‘s youth training program and helped found the Immigrant Youth Justice League.   She was one of five undocumented students who sat in at Senator John McCain’s Tucson office last month to protest new anti-immigrant laws in Arizona and demand passage of the DREAM Act.  (She talked with Newstips about it the next day.)

Unzueta talks about drawing inspiration from SNCC’s youth-led civil disobedience, and from Harvey Milk about the importance of “coming out.” Asked about the DREAM Act, she cites her work with undocumented students at Radio Arte:

“I have students who sit in my office and talk about how they can’t go to school, how they’re scared their mom might get deported, how they can’t get a drivers license, how they wish they could study abroad, how their grandmother is dying in Mexico and they can’t visit her – because they’re undocumented.”

About immigration reform:  “It’s important to have a system that acknowledges that there’s a need in the United States for the labor immigrant workers provide, that provides  a way for people who are pulled into the economy to do so legally, and that acknowledges that those workers are people who have families and their families need access to education.

“There needs to be a way for people who are already here to become legal, and for those who come because they’re pulled by the economy to have a pathway to citizenship.”

In the same issue, ITT also looks at ties between Arizona politicians and the private prison industry, which supports efforts to replicate Arizona’s SB 1070 in other states.

“The immigration dragnet created at SB 1070 [and similar bills] will greatly increase the numbers of undocumented residents who are arrested and jailed.  And that bodes well for the bottom lines of private detention corporations such as [the Corrections Corporation of America] and Geo Group.

ITT reports that a vast majority of CCA’s federal lobbying disclosure reports dealt with immigration policy and Homeland Security and ICE appropriations.

In the Arizona Republic, Dennis Wagner offers a detailed reality check for those who argue that securing borders must precede comprehensive immigration reform.

“Anyone with a minimal knowledge or understanding about the nearly 2,000-mile swath of land between Mexico and the United States realizes that requiring a secure border establishes an impossible standard.”

And perhaps an excuse to avoid dealing with real solutions for what advocates call a broken immigration system.

Arizona protestors released; Chicago students organize

Undocumented students arrested Tuesday after sitting in at Senator John McCain’s Tucson office were detained by ICE after their arraignment yesterday and later released to field supervision, supporters here report.

Meanwhile their goal of sparking further action may be seeing results here, with immigrant students from ten Illinois universities launching a campaign for “Equal Rights Universities.”

Students from U. of C., UIC, NEIU, Harold Washington College, Northwestern, IIT, Roosevelt, College of DuPage, and Elgin Community College will launch the campaign at noon on Thursday, May 20, at the University of Chicago, 5600 S. University, the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights announced.

The students are calling on university administrations to sign on as an Equal Rights Universities and commit to nondiscrimination in admissions; training for admissions, financial aid, and career services officers in working with undocumented students; campus education on the issue and a working relationship with undocumented students and community groups.

“Undocumented students will bravely announce their status publicly at this event” and will be available for interviews, ICIRR said.

In Tucson, “the police didn’t want to arrest [the protestors] and didn’t want to turn [three undocumented protestors] over to immigration,” said local organizer Rigo Padilla.  “ICE took it upon themselves to show up at the hearing.”

Mohammad Abdollahi of Michigan, Yahaira Carrillo of Kansas, and Lizbeth Mateo of California were detained and processed by ICE on Wednesday and released that night.  Raul Alcarez, a native of Arizona, was also arrested Tuesday.  Tania Unzeuta of Chicago’s Immigrant Youth Justice League joined the sit-in and left to act as the protestors’ spokesperson.

Tired of living in fear and under constant limitations, undocumented students are “going on the offensive,” said Padilla, whose own case last year highlighted the situation of students who have grown up here without legal status. (He won a one-year stay of deportation in December.)

The “senseless and absurd deportation of students who have their roots in this country…only adds to the backlog in the immigration system,” where avenues for legal residency are extremely limited, he said.  “We want the DREAM Act to pass.”

Immigrant youth offer bold leadership

Students sitting in at Senator John McCain’s office yesterday chose the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the epochal Supreme Court decision which outlawed segregation in schools, in order to emphasize the historical continuity in their demand for action on the DREAM Act.

That legislation, co-sponsored by Senator Richard Durbin, would remove bars faced by thousands of immigrant students to fulfilling their basic human right to education – and it would provide a path to legalization for young people who have grown up here and who get a college degree or serve in the military.

But their action also comes just after the 50th anniversary of the Greensboro sit-in and the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee – events in which young people took the lead and took the civil rights movement to the next level, confronting daily segregation in the South and registering black people to vote, and doing so at great personal risk.

The immigration rights movement has mobilized huge numbers in support of comprehensive reform, and the nation’s political leadership has responded with more promises but little action.  President Obama has backed off earlier promises to push reform, while Senator McCain has backed off earlier support for the DREAM Act.

Yesterday immigrant youth stepped forward with courageous new tactics – three undocumented protestors faced possible deportation with their arrests — and with a new focus on a significant reform that could break the impasse on a broader and more comprehensive agenda.

Protestors said they “hope to catalyze a mass grassroots movement to pass the DREAM Act by June 15.”

Young people who’ve grown up in this country but without legal status “have learned history here,” said Tania Unzueta, spokesperson for the Tucson students.  “This is where we’ve learned about civil disobedience and people struggling for their rights — from the history of the United States, from the civil rights movement, the gay rights movement.”

Unzueta is a founder of the Immigrant Youth Justice League in Chicago, and was one of eight undocumented youth who “came out” with public speeches at a rally in Chicago at the Federal Plaza in March.  IYJL has posted their moving statements (audio here), and they talk over and over about the fear that has been a constant element in their lives.

(“I’m putting my whole life on the line as I come out of the shadows,” says one young person, “because I am tired of being afraid.”  He says he is speaking out in order to “be true to myself, my family, and the values of democracy, freedom, and justice that this country has taught me over and over.”)

It’s crucial to overcome that fear because it often prevents people from standing up for their rights, Unzeuta said.  (It’s why unscrupulous employers prefer an immigration system that maintains a huge subclass of workers outside the protection of the law.)  “It’s so important to be able to speak out and take action,” she said.

She said that the local response in Arizona – where SB 1070 has targeted immigrants and people of color – has been supportive.  “They’re excited that we’re fighting for something as opposed to against something,” she said.

“We’re young people who have grown up here in the United States, and all we’re looking for is a path to legalization so we can fully contribute to society and to our families,” she said.  “Arizona should not be the standard for immigration reform,” she said.  “It should be based on American values of hard work, education, equality.”

Unzueta, who left McCain’s office shortly before her four fellow protestors were arrested, said they were still waiting to hear of the disposition of the three undocumented protestors.  Early reports indicated Tucson police were not putting them on immigration hold, and later it was said that they’d been taken into custody by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

‘Equal Justice’ in Arizona

Despite calls for a boycott of Arizona to protest SB 1070, which critics say sanctions racial profiling by police, the American Bar Association is going ahead with its Equal Justice Conference tomorrow in Phoenix.

But it is doing so despite the withdrawal of the conference co-sponsor, the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, and with indications that a significant number of participants have cancelled.

That’s not surprising, since the conference is for attorneys working on equality issues, said Leone Bicchieri of Chicago Workers’ Collaborative.  And it adds pressure on Arizona, since it underscores the controversy other organizations would court by holding conventions and conferences there.

CWC joined the Latino Union and other immigrants rights groups, along with lawyers who are members of the association, in a delegation to the ABA yesterday asking them to cancel the conference.

Major civil rights and labor organizations including the National Council of La Raza, Asian American Justice Center, Center for Community Change, League of Latin American Citizens, National Puerto Rican Coalition, Service Employees International Union, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, and United Food and Commerical Workers have endorsed a call for a boycott of Arizona, similar to the boycott that forced the state to join the rest of the nation in recognizing Martin Luther King’s birthday 20 years ago.

Today the Los Angeles City Council voted to stop doing business with Arizona-based companies.  Tourism officials in Arizona estimate that Phoenix could lose $90 million in hotel and convention business over the next five years due to the controversy.

‘Don’t deport our moms’

Children of immigrants who worry daily about their parents – and undocumented youth with uncertainty about their own future — will lead a pilgrimage and vigil at the Broadview Detention Center Monday calling on President Obama to end raids and deportations.

The pilgrimage starts at 5 p.m. (Monday, May 10) at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Parish, 1101 N. 23rd in Melrose Park, with a vigil upon arrival at Broadview Detention Center, 1930 Beach Street in Broadview. A press availability is scheduled for 4:30 p.m.

Joined by religious and community leaders, the young people will give testimony about their personal experiences with what organizers call a “broken immigration system.”

“Every day I worry about my family,” said Rogelio, 22, a Melrose Park resident whose parents brought him here from Mexico when he was 6.  His parents work in factories and “there are so many raids, I never know if they are going to come back.”  His sister can’t get a drivers license, and if she gets stopped “I might not see her again for a long time.”

He says his “reality check” came in high school when he couldn’t participate in a trip to Italy with other students who had studied Italian.  After he graduated, he didn’t think he could attend college.

Not till he began volunteering with PASO, the West Suburban Action Project (Proyecto de Accion de los Suburbios del Oeste) did he learn of recent legislation allowing Illinois high school graduates to qualify for in-state tuition rates regardless of status.

With PASO (which is organizing Monday’s action) he has worked on programs helping immigrants apply for citizenship and encouraging participation in the census.  Now he plans to go to college – but knows that certain professional fields will be off limits for him.

“It’s really frustrating,” he said.  “Undocumented youth shouldn’t have to go through this.  We just want to live peacefully, to go to school, to work, to be able to travel, not to worry about our families.”  He adds: “It’s not fair that so many families are being separated because of a broken immigration system.”

Drastic numerical limitations on legal residency for family unification and other reasons has resulted in backlogs that range from five to twenty years, said Erica Hade of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.  And quirks in current law add barriers for immigrants who are eligible for legal residency, preventing them from applying.

With Obama promising to begin work on immigration reform, PASO is calling on him to issue an executive order “ending raids and deportations that are tearing families apart,” said organizer Yesenia Sanchez.   Under Obama, deportations are at unprecedented levels.

PASO is also calling on Illinois and other states not to follow the lead of Arizona, where a new law made immigration violations a state-level crime.  “That will not solve the immigration system and it will harm public safety and relations with police departments” by requiring police to “go after people based on how they look,” Sanchez said.

Gold Star family faces foreclosure, deportation

Since Ashley Segura Sietsema was killed in Kuwait in November, 2007, while on active duty with the Illinois Army National Guard, her family has faced one hardship after another.

Now Ashley’s family faces the prospect of losing their home to foreclosure – and of losing another family member, her stepfather, to deportation.

“We have experienced the purest of pain and are living the worst that any family can live through,” said Olivia Segura, Ashley’s mother.  She will appear on the Veterans Helping Veterans live call-in show on CAN-TV 21 today (Thursday, May 6, 6:30 p.m.).

Spc. Ashley Segura Sietsema

Ashley signed up for military service while she was a junior in high school.  “She joined because she loved this country so much,” Segura said.  A nursing student at Northern Illinois University, she served as a medic.  She was killed while transporting patients when an ambulance she was driving rolled over.

Sietsema was 20.  She had married a fellow NIU student earlier that year.  (The Pantagraph reported on her death, and Eric Sumberg posted photos from her funeral at Ideography.)

Olivia had a difficult time dealing with the loss.  She attempted suicide once. “Nobody understands how hard it can be to lose your daughter,” she says. She says she fought with her husband, blaming him because he had supported Ashley’s decision to enlist.

She had married Alberto after her first husband, Ashley’s father, left the family.  “He raised her as his daughter,” she says.  “He was the only father she ever knew.”  Olivia and Alberto also have a son together.

After Ashley’s death, Alberto lost his job and was unable to find another.  With all the pressure, Olivia says, he started drinking.  He was arrested for driving under the influence and served a year in jail.  (He had previously been sentenced to home supervision for a minor drug offense.)

Without his income, the family fell behind in its mortgage payments.  Now, following many efforts to get a mortgage modification, the family home is still threatened with foreclosure.

One promised modification fell through when the bank said it lost the paperwork, Segura said.  Another was suspended when the mortgage was resold in the middle of negotiations.

Before Ashley’s death and Alberto’s arrest, he was in the process of obtaining permanent residency, Olivia says.  He had a driver’s license and a Social Security number.  But after the arrest, the government started deportation proceedings.

“They didn’t ask me or my husband for any papers to allow our daughter to go fight,” she says.  “Now we are not good enough to live here.”

She says her husband “has made mistakes but he has paid for them.”

Olivia came to the U.S. with her family from Mexico when she was 15.  She is a U.S. citizen.

“I don’t think my son and I can survive without my husband,” Olivia says. “My family has gone through a lot of loss and pain and I cannot imagine our life with another family member gone.”

Olivia has been bitterly disappointed by a number of elected officials who profess support for military families but have shied away from this difficult case.

“It is devastating to us that no one in our country has the ability or courage to fight for our family like our daughter was willing to do for them,” she says.

Broadview sit-in targets Obama, Arizona

Two dozen protestors were arrested at the Broadview Detention Center this morning as they blocked a van taking detainees to O’Hare Airport for deportation.

The civil disobedience was intended to build pressure on the Obama administration to move on comprehensive immigration reform, said Tom Walsh of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, one of those arrested.  He said immigration rights advocates have set an April 30 deadline for comprehensive immigration reform legislation to be introducted in the Senate.

Those arrested included priests, ministers, a rabbi, and labor and community organizers from Chicago and the western suburbs.

They linked SB 1070, a new Arizona law establishing criminal penalties for immigration violations – which has generated nationwide concern and controversy – with the Obama administration’s failure to advance immigration reform and establish more humane enforcement policies (see previous post).

“We need to demand that President Obama keep his promises,” said Yesenia Sanchez of West Suburban Action Project (PASO), noting that deportations are higher under Obama than under any other president.  “Every day that our legislators fail to act on immigration reform, 1,100 families are torn apart,” she said in a release from the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

Two PASO members were among those arrested.

“I am doing this for my students and my family who are undocumented,” said Salvador Jimenez of the Immigrant Youth Justice League.  The 24-year-old artist and teacher was also among those arrested.  “It’s heartbreaking to see the separation of families,” he said.

The Arizona law (SB 1070), which ICIRR has called “the worst example of the reign of racial terror surging across the U.S.” – along with disappointment over Obama’s failure to fulfill his promise to move on immigration reform in his first year — are expected to spur participation in May Day demonstrations across the country this Saturday.

In Chicago a number of groups will rally in Union Park (Randolph and Ashland) at 1 p.m. and march through the Loop at 3.

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