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Immigrants Head to Washington to Make Their Voices Heard

Hopes for immigration reform included protections for organizing workers, an end to deportations and a path to citizenship for all.

Jose Antonio Vargas, the undocumented journalist who came out about his immigration status in a New York Times feature story, will not be the only undocumented immigrant making his voice heard at the capitol this week.

Vargas will be speaking at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on immigration reform Wednesday.

But a group of more than 250 immigrants have gone to Washington DC to put their opinions forward on what they would like to see from immigration reform. While there, they will meet with Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Illinois) and lobby other legislators on immigration reform.

Truthout spoke to two people from DC whose voices represent what have become the two poles of undocumented immigrants’ experience. Yovany Diaz is the young immigrant brought over as a child, while Luis Zavala is the older undocumented immigrant working low-wage jobs.

Their hopes for immigration reform included protections for organizing workers, an end to deportations and a path to citizenship for all.

Zavala, 45, is a day laborer in New Orleans who has been working on restoring homes as part of the ongoing reconstruction after Hurricane Katrina as well as after 2012’s Hurricane Issac. He won’t say what country he is from or how or when he came to the United States. But he knows what he wants: protection for workers.

He is one of a group of immigrant day laborers and maids in New Orleans, known as the Southern 32, who are facing deportation for speaking out against wage theft and “payday raids,” when employers call immigration authorities instead of paying their workers wages owed.

In his case, he and other workers were organizing against wage theft by their employer, a construction company in New Orleans.

“The employer gathered us and told us we were going to be paid back wages,” said Zavala through a translator. “Instead of getting paid for that work, it was actually an immigration raid.” This took place in the fall of 2012.

He is still fighting his deportation case, though others arrested in the raid have been deported. He is urging that a bill known as the Protect Our Workers From Exploitation and Retaliation (POWER) Act be a part of any immigration reform.

Though retaliatory firings for workers who organize are illegal under the National Labor Relations Act, immigrant workers face the threat of being reported to immigration authorities just as Zavala and his fellow employees were.

The POWER Act was introduced in June 2011 to protect organizing immigrant workers from retaliation from employers, but a version has yet to pass Congress. Zavala and other immigrant right groups are hoping to instill the protections that would have been in the POWER Act into any immigration reform passed.

“That way, people will know they actually have the protections they need to be able to control their working conditions,” said Zavala.

Zavala also stressed that he wanted to stop the deportations of workers, a point he shared with Yovany Diaz, a member of the Georgia Undocumented Youth Alliance.

Diaz first came to America when he was 5 months old, returned to Mexico at age 5 and then came to Georgia at age 8. Along with an aunt and his two brothers, Diaz crossed the Rio Grande to return to his mother in the United States and says he almost drowned on the way.

His experience of being separated from his family – and of putting his life in danger to be reunited – has made him an advocate for all immigrants, he says.

“I would like the deportation to stop. They are separating families which include US citizen kids,” said Diaz. “I’ve pretty much lived here all my life, and my mother has been here for over 20 years.”

“She would be required to learn English, but that shouldn’t separate her from being a human being and having the chance to be documented,” he said. “Immigrants like my mom do contribute, they do pay taxes.”

For now, Diaz says he isn’t too hopeful that immigration reform will address his concerns.

“I’ve been hopeful for a long time, since the DREAM Act was first introduced.” The DREAM Act would create a six-year path to citizenship, via college or military service, for many undocumented young people who came to the United States as children. “But I’m still here in the same situation,” said Diaz. “I think it’s better if I don’t get my hopes up.”

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