Immigrant Rights Supporters Refocus Struggle on Obama

San Jose, Calif. – More than 300 people packed the Sacred Heart church in San Jose last Tuesday to hear Congressman Luis Gutierrez speak about immigration reform at a town hall meeting. The event was part of a 20-city tour being organized by the congressman from Illinois to energize and refocus immigrant rights supporters ahead of a national day of protests scheduled for Sunday, May 1.

Five years after immigrant rights advocates staged their first large-scale May Day protests, and with little indication that Congress will be making any moves on immigration legislation in the near future, immigrant communities and their supporters are switching tactics, using their voting power as leverage to lobby President Obama to use his executive power to halt deportations.

“I have not come to talk to you about comprehensive immigration reform; to speak to you about a legislative process that will bring about change. It isn’t possible,” Gutierrez told the crowd.

“We are not losing hope, just refocusing our struggle on President Obama. We responded [to his Presidential campaign] with our vote and our confidence and we need him to be the champion that he promised he would be for our community,” he said.

Since Obama took office, said Gutierrez, his administration has overseen a record number – 400,000 – of deportations.

The town hall meetings are part of a larger campaign, “Change Takes Courage,” which is demanding that the U.S. government cease all deportations of parents whose children are citizens, of DREAM Act-eligible youth and military veterans. The campaign is also calling for the discontinuation of joint federal and local law enforcement programs such as Secure Communities and 287G, which immigrant rights advocates say are making their communities unsafe.

“Immigration reform has been dead the last couple of months and this looks like there will be another spark (by offering) some form of relief. It may not affect all the community, but it will affect a portion of the community – the DREAM students – and give (legal) status to families,” said Jesse Castaneda, chair of the Silicon Valley Alliance for Immigration Reform, a coalition of diverse religious, labor and non-profit community groups that helped organize the forum in San Jose.

Many people arrived early just to hear Gutierrez speak.

“Congressman Gutierrez is on the vanguard of immigration reform and he lifts up the spirit of our families. That’s important with the May 1 march coming up this week,” said Jose Sandoval, the founder of Voluntarios de la Comunidad, a group that has been “urging people …[to] become citizens to vote because their vote is their power.”

San Jose resident Katya Ceballos, who spoke on a panel during the forum, told the crowd that her husband was facing a deportation order and eventually beat it, although the ordeal was a nightmare for her family. Ceballos is a member of Silicon Valley De-Bug, a community group that supports individuals who face deportation orders due to contact with the criminal justice system.

“I have a daughter who is an American citizen, who deserves and has the right to have her father by her side like any other child,” she said. Ceballos urged the crowd to become citizens and vote for immigration reform, so that families would not separated.

The meeting attracted city and county officials who reaffirmed the commitment of local governments in Santa Clara and San Jose to do whatever possible to not put their immigrant communities at further risk. Speakers included San Jose’s new Chief of Police Chris Moore, Supervisor Dave Cortese, Congressman Mike Honda, and testimonials from youth impacted by the immigration system.

Moore, who spoke on a panel, emphasized the importance of separating local and federal law enforcement duties.

“In my own department, we have made it very clear that we should not be engaged in civil immigration (enforcement),” he said. “It has become very important to add our voices to the need for immigration reform.”

Counties like Santa Clara have tried to opt out of Secure Communities — a program that requires local police to submit fingerprints of arrestees to federal immigration officials – but don’t yet have a clear legal roadmap to do so effectively.

Student Raul Martinez described his frustration and disappointment in getting turned down for jobs, because he doesn’t have a Social Security Number. Martinez called for passage of the DREAM Act, legislation that would give eligible high school graduates a path to citizenship. The legislation was defeated in Congress last year.

“I am undocumented and unafraid,” Martinez said.

A petition for immigration reform, signed by those who have been attending the town hall meetings, will be hand delivered to President Obama next Wednesday when Gutierrez meets with him personally.