On Tuesday night, a collective sigh of relief was heard among us. And in the past few days, as I’ve turned my ear to the conversations swirling around me, I believe I still hear it. A loud and prolonged whew.
I, like you, look forward to things to be done in a second Obama term. But I suggest one action is called for before we move past this election. I envision a collective “thank you” to the Latino voters who made this Obama victory possible. Without these voters, Obama could not have won.
Over the next four years, non-Latino Democrats will have historic opportunities to make our “thank you” an expression of genuine gratitude rather than empty sentiment. Already, immigration is moving to the fore of public conversation, a direct result of the election and the importance of demographics for the outcome. As this conversation unfolds, and as our legislators undertake efforts to address (or block) compassionate, far-reaching immigration reform, some of us need to move from the role of onlookers to the role of engaged allies.
The issue of greatest importance to Latino voters is immigration. At least sixty percent are personally acquainted with someone who is undocumented. Immigration is a heart and hearth issue for Latinos, but it is something that touches the lives of all Americans. I was recently told of a local Anglo woman who takes fastidious care not to hire undocumented immigrants to clean her house because of her dedication to “following the rules.” But the truth is, if this woman wants to remain untainted by the issue, she needs to avoid almost all food sold in grocery stores and never eat out at restaurants or stay in hotels. She needs to rescind her business from places cleaned by undocumented workers, and she should probably avoid all box stores and airports. In other words, her resolution may boost her self-image, but it is entirely unrealistic and somewhat egotistical. All of us who are part of the US economy benefit from the labors of undocumented workers. We all pay lower prices, almost every day, because of their labor. We are all participants in the broken system. Yet disdain and criminalization are reserved for the undocumented. As news anchor Jorge Ramos recently stated on the Stephen Colbert show, “There are millions of people who benefit from their work, and there are thousands of American companies who hire them, and we don’t call them ‘illegal.’ We have to talk about co-responsibility. … They are here because we need them, and they came here simply because we are hiring them.”
Most Americans—even those sympathetic to immigrants—know almost nothing about US immigration law. Yet laws that were put in place in the late 90s make a road to legal status impossible for the large majority of the undocumented. For example, anyone who has stayed in the country undocumented for over a year is barred from legal status without leaving the US for 5-10 years. And any immigrant who was in the US undocumented, then left for any reason and returned again undocumented, is under a “permanent ban,” meaning they’re not allowed to receive legal status under any circumstances. Permanent, 5-year and 10-year bans are in place for many other situations.
Most of us admire the high value placed on family, even extended family, by Latinos. Family commitment runs so high in Latino culture that if an immigrant feels she is needed by her family “back home,” she will go to the aid of her family. And when she returns to the US, she will permanently be barred from legalization as an immigrant, under any and all circumstances.
The NAACP, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, National Action Network, Congressional Black Caucus, Amnesty International, and other civil-rights groups, have all stood in solidarity with undocumented immigrants in the US, recognizing immigration as a key civil-rights issue. As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Those of us who are concerned about justice will have an opportunity in the next four years (and beyond) to stand with these groups in their advocacy for undocumented immigrants. We can educate ourselves about US immigration policy. We can talk to our friends and write letters to the editor. We can challenge use of the dehumanizing term “illegal.” We can use social networks to spread knowledge and advocacy. And most importantly, we can call and write to our legislators, repeatedly, telling them we care about immigrants and want to see far-reaching reform. In my view, there is no better way to say “thank you.”