Pilgrimage for Comprehensive Immigration Reform

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Playing Checkers in the Desert: A Reflection on Immigration, Life and Values

She pursed her lip; I squinted my eyes. She scratched her head as my heart raced; then she saw it.  It was a double jump in checkers and in one swift move Tonya took both of my kings and I was doomed. We laughed as if we were old friends and she had bested me for the one-hundredth time. Suddenly, a car door slammed and we heard a cry for assistance. We were pulled back to reality – no more games. A group of volunteers had returned from a patrol where they had found a dying man on the side of a road and medically evacuated him to our camp. We rushed to his aid.

Tonya and I were not old friends, though she affectionately made fun of me by calling me “flaca,” Spanish for skinny, and I called her “tía.” We had met days before as she came into the No More Deaths (NMD) humanitarian aid campsite in total desperation begging us not to shoot (mistaking our camp for a military one) and pleading for water. She was 46, and I was 21. She was a migrant traveling across the U.S.- Mexico border from Guatemala trying to reunite with her young daughter in Florida and I was a social work student from Nebraska trying to gain a better understanding of the border. Our worlds could not have been more different, yet the collision of them is imprinted on my soul forever.

I had always been interested in immigration reform and human rights law, but an experience working with a humanitarian aid organization along the U.S.-Mexico border two summers ago changed everything and potentially “ruined me for life”.  My fate was sealed by a game of checkers.

It was my junior year of college that I threw myself into studying immigration issues; I familiarized myself with Latin American politics and social structures as I prepared for a practicum the following year with the St. Louis Inter- Faith Committee on Latin America (IFCLA). My research led me to a group that was facing prosecution for “littering” by hiking the migrant trails with food and medical supplies and leaving large water jugs for those in need. I knew that in order to be a true activist I had to join in their mission. I had boasted about my in-depth study and knowledge of border issues, and arrogantly explained to friends and loved ones that I wished to be in solidarity with those suffering in the desert. However, nothing could have prepared me for my stay with No More Deaths, a humanitarian aid group whose mission was to prevent the unnecessary death and suffering of migrants in the Sonoran desert.

I hiked for three hours up a mountain in one hundred degree heat with four gallons of water on my back only to find that the water jugs left out from the last team had been slashed and destroyed. I learned about the number of individuals who go missing in the desert each year, heard personal stories from volunteers about border patrol abuse, and I knelt down and prayed at a shrine of a fourteen-year-old girl who was found dead the year before by NMD volunteers. We discussed privilege, anger, guilt, and how to possibly communicate this experience to loved ones. We smiled as Roberto, Tonya’s husband, cut up onions and sprinkled them around my tent to ward off the rattlesnakes and bring me good luck according to Guatemalan customs. We danced to pop music and went swimming in a lake to remind ourselves that joy exists even in such desperate conditions. I was no longer discussing my philosophy regarding human rights and dignity; rather, I found myself at the epicenter of the immigration debate where dehydration occurs daily and migrant death is far too common.

It was not merely a service trip; it was not a learning experience, nor a project. What happened to my spirit as I reflected on top of a mountain near Arivaca, Arizona was soul shattering. The Jesuit Volunteer Corps, an organization to which I currently belong, boasts that participants of their program will “fall in love, have their hearts broken, and be ruined for life.” Though the program has been powerful, my transformation occurred two summers ago in the desert. I fell in love with the No More Deaths organization and the migrants while playing checkers with Tonya. My heart broke as I witnessed the plight of those crossing the Sonoran desert every single day and as I learned of Tonya and Roberto’s capture and detention by Border Patrol when they recovered and left our camp.  I was ruined for life.

While working at IFCLA, I was able to translate my experience and passion into practical advocacy.  My work connected my border experience with domestic immigration issues as well as international issues in Latin America.  I received direct advocacy experience and mentoring through my time at IFCLA. The organization utilizes a variety of different methods and approaches to fulfilling its mission of Accompaniment, Intervention, Investment, and Immigration. I worked with Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates to challenge legislation that would adversely affect the immigrant population of the state.  A robust and successful Immigrant Advocacy Day prevented anti-immigration bills, specifically SB 590, from being placed on the legislative calendar.  I also formed a team that successfully worked to pass a Resolution 79, which aims to curb workplace exploitation of immigrants in garment factories and declared St. Louis a Sweat-Free City.  I was an active participant of a racial profiling task force that observed court proceedings in St. Ann County to assess accusations of racial profiling of Latinos in the area.  I gave a presentation on my border experience and worked with my organization to promote speakers on immigration issues that encouraged awareness and dispelled myths. The list of activities goes on.  Most importantly, my goal was to provide a human face to the immigration debate and honor the struggle of those I met during my time at the border.

Currently, I work as a food security advocate for the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona through the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, serving a predominantly immigrant population. Social justice is not only an interest for me, but also a way of life. Whether through the pursuit of human rights law, immigration reform, or public interest law, I made a promise to fight tirelessly to protect immigrant and human rights and to recognize the dignity of every person.  Every day I remind myself of that commitment I made to Tonya, mi tía, as we played checkers like old friends, in the desert.

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This article was submitted by Rosie Laughlin. She studied at St Louis University, and interned with the Inter-Faith Committee on Latin America during her senior year. She currently lives in Tuscon, Arizona and is applying to law school to continue fighting for the rights and dignity of our fellow human beings.

Welcoming Immigrants in Missouri

Missouri, ranked 41st out of 50 states, is not a prime destination for immigrants. Its foreign-born population makes up only 3.9% of the total state population, a small amount compared to Illinois’s 13.9%, and yet they have an overwhelmingly positive effect on the state’s economy. If Missouri removed its unauthorized immigrant population, we would lose $2.3 billion in economic activity. Recognizing their huge economic impact, the city of St Louis has started a welcoming campaign to increase the area’s immigrant population, thus bolstering economic growth.

While the city and federal government are viewing immigration from an economic perspective, it is crucial to remember that each statistic represents a personal story. Stories of heartache and separation from friends and family, stories of struggle and adaptation to new cultures and environments. Stories of human beings trying to create a better future for themselves and their children. We could choose to reject immigrants, and push them away through legislation that punishes their legal status, or we could welcome them by creating policies that are inclusive, not exclusive of immigrant families, and correct the anti-immigrant rhetoric used in the legislature.

IFCLA, in partnership with the Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates (MIRA), is working to promote the later with state legislators in Jefferson City, MO. On March 6th people from across Missouri will be meeting with their representatives to speak about four specific legislation affecting immigrants. We will be asking our representatives to support the SB 203, a bill enacted by Sen. Chappelle-Nadal to repeal Missouri’s anti-immigrant statute originally passed in 2008. This statute has been used to deny bail to ‘suspected’ undocumented immigrants, foster fear and mistrust between immigrant communities and police authorities, and prohibit undocumented students from attending local colleges and universities. In relation to education, we will also be urging support for SB 209, introduced by Sen. Justus that would grant in-state tuition to immigrants who graduated from a Missouri high school! Just like their peers, these students and their families reside and pay taxes in Missouri, and they deserve equal treatment and access to higher education.

We will ask legislators to oppose HB 275, a legislation requiring every employer in Missouri to register and use E-verify, an expensive and inaccurate program used to determine the legal status of a potential employee. The Social Security Administration estimates that 3.6 million Americans are misclassified by the e-verify database, particularly women whose last names have changed due to marriage or divorce, and documented, work-authorized foreign-born individuals. We’ll also ask legislators to oppose SB 267, a legislation that bans judicial consideration of any body of law outside of the United States. This has the potential to disrupt contracts based on foreign and religious laws, meaning contracts such as marriage, divorce, child custody agreements, and others, could be voided in a Missouri court. This legislation is unnecessary and harmful to all immigrants living in Missouri.

To make Missouri welcoming to immigrants, we need to do more than stop harmful acts, we need to create laws that are beneficial and fair to all persons living within the state, and create communities that welcomes the stranger. If you are interested in speaking with your representative on these important issues, please join IFCLA and MIRA on March 6th in Jefferson City.  You can register here and find more information at http://www.mira-mo.org/wordpress/.    

A View of the Immigration Reform Debate from the Nation’s Capital

In his first campaign for Presidency in 2008, current re-elected President Barack Obama promised a plan for immigration reform in his first year of office. This promise, like many made by past and present elected officials, was not fulfilled during his first term. The President was re-elected this past November and immigration reform was again part of his platform. While some might be discouraged by the lack of action on this key policy issue by the President and Congress during the past four years, I am cautiously optimistic. Living and working in Washington, DC allows me a unique perspective into this ongoing policy debate, and this only reinforces my optimism.

The foundation for true and comprehensive immigration reform was laid in November of 2012. Barack Obama defeated the challenger, Mitt Romney, on the back of a diverse coalition of supporters. The topic of “jobs and the economy” dominated the airwaves during press conferences, rallies, and debates at local, state, and federal levels throughout the election season. While immigration is often thought of as its own area of policy, the simple truth is that it fits into many different policy discussions. In my opinion and from what I have observed around Washington, DC, the immigration debate is a key part of the larger discussion of economic policy. A common refrain among politicians of varying ideologies, in the media and around town, is that the American economy is still in a slow growth pattern and needs to be kick started. Truly comprehensive immigration reform could provide some of that energy, and both of the United States’ main political parties are aiming to harness this potential.

The presidential election was decided by narrow margins of victories in swing states and Obama’s overwhelming support among certain demographics, including a significant margin of votes amongst Hispanic voters. Exit polls estimated Hispanics voted 71% to 27% in favor of Obama. Clearly, a key part of Obama’s coalition was Hispanic communities across the country, and they made a significant difference in some of the swing states like Colorado and Virginia. While the priorities of the Hispanic community often mirror those of all Americans – jobs and the economy, education, and healthcare – polling consistently shows that the Hispanic communities consider immigration reform a personal issue. By giving a second chance and reelecting a president who did not deliver on a past promise to enact immigration reform, this demographic now expects to have one of its main policy issues addressed and will most definitely hold him and other elected officials accountable.

Furthermore, past US Presidents have often waited until their second term, if they were so lucky, to tackle immigration reform. That time is now upon President Obama and us. In their second term, Presidents often look to cement their legacies. Supporting and signing a bill that truly reforms the United States’ immigration system would be quite the feather in President Obama’s cap.

The election results in November also taught the man Obama defeated—Mitt Romney, his party, and his supporters—a valuable lesson: they need to reexamine their current approach or listen to those in their own contingent who have been advocating for immigration reform over the past few years. The GOP, its elected officials and its strategists are not naive enough to believe that supporting immigration reform will be a cure-all for their declining support among the Hispanic communities and other minority communities in the recent years. They also recognize that the rhetoric and tone with which they approach key issues can greatly be improved.

Some notable conservatives, like rising GOP star Senator Marco Rubio, are leading the charge to make the Republican Party the “pro-legal immigration party” instead of the “anti-illegal immigration party.” This re-branding is a small part of a concerted effort to frame the immigration discussion within the ongoing debate over economic policy. Conservatives are taking aim at the bureaucratic mess that is the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, looking to improve border security, and boost economic growth. The results of the presidential and senate races are strong motivation for those who have finally realized that if current electoral trends persist they will continue to lose influence at the national level. This has led to increased bipartisan efforts on many policy issues, including a total package proposal for immigration reform, and thus should produce a very healthy debate.

Eight Senators, including Democrats and Republicans, put forth a plan from which they will construct a package of legislation. Members of the US House of Representatives are also working together on their own proposal. President Obama has laid out his vision for reforming our immigration system, but the White House will not introduce its own legislation at this time. The President is hoping that the US Congress can agree upon legislation. This is a promising sign in the long process of legislative reform, but there are still other reasons to remain optimistic. For the first time we are seeing past adversaries come together to bridge the gaps that have stopped past legislation like the DREAM Act from passing. For example, business leaders are working together – the US Chamber of Commerce and labor unions are starting to collaborate to bridge certain gaps. Religious leaders, including the Christian Right, are also entering the debate. The DREAMers have made their voice heard and will be part of the ongoing debate. Educators, community leaders, and employers are also offering their two cents. There is space for all of those who want their voices heard at the table and all are optimistic that they can complete this heavy lift.

We will see many different plans emerge over the coming months, and I believe this to be a positive thing. It shows that immigration reform is being taken seriously. The Hispanic voting community, called a “sleeping giant” for the past couple of election cycles, has woken up and so have other immigrant communities. These communities and other activists have realized they must do more than just cast a ballot. They must hold elected officials accountable. Over the past few years we have seen the impact that grassroots movements can have on legislation proposed by both sides of the aisle.

Immigration reform is an overarching economic policy issue that also has some very important social and human rights implications. This is bringing Americans of all sorts to the bargaining table. Friends, the debate is occurring across the country and has finally arrived in the legislative center, the nation’s capital. Elected officials are taking this opportunity to show leadership, but they need our help. We have a chance to correct past errors, reform stove-piped bureaucracy, bring the undocumented out of the shadows, welcome the world’s best and brightest with open arms to create a brighter future for this country, our children, and those who wish to come live in and contribute to a more prosperous United States. The time is now, and the legislators in Washington, DC are very much aware of this unique opportunity.

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Contributed by Max Ivan Rava, an affiliate of the Inter-Faith Committee on Latin America, Latin Americanist, and policy analyst.

Immigration Reform is Once Again the Topic of Conversation

On January 28, the Bipartisan Framework for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (Senators Schumer, McCain, Durbin, Graham, Menendez, Rubio, Bennet, and Flake) presented their principles for new legislation[i].

President Obama spoke to high school students the next day outlining his plan.  Both begin with “enforcement first.”

While I whole-heartedly support Comprehensive Immigration Reform, I am very concerned about the prospect of more militarization on the border. Drones are an expensive and dangerous (they can be armed) means of surveillance of the US-Mexico border.  There are currently 6 drones and 124 planes present on the border.  How much more enforcement do we need?

The effects of current US economic and military policies around the world need to be addressed for true comprehensive immigration reform.  The Free Trade Agreements, Extractive Industries and large scale Development projects have impoverished and displaced many families in Latin America.  The push and pull factors are as important as the status of the undocumented sisters and brothers among us.  One reality will not be resolved without dealing with the other.

The response of the Obama administration has been enforcement with an emphasis on deportation.  More people have been deported (cost $12,500/per person/per deportation) in six years than all who were deported before 1997[ii]. Go here to see a running count of how many people are being deported under President Obama.

Once again police and military training and assistance for Latin American countries bring unnecessary force as small farmers resist land takeovers and mega projects by large corporate interests.  Under the guise of the “Drug War” and “Anti-terrorism” security forces are growing in size and scope.  We remember how this played out thirty years ago: repression, low-intensity war, death squads, and thousands fleeing for safety.

One of our IFCLA partners, the Alliance for Global Justice, has put together a Border Militarization Study Guide.  I am going to follow the classes, perhaps you will too.

The Border Militarization Study Guide

Click here to watch this short, informative video of a visit to the border by the Alliance for Global Justice Board of Directors to learn about the impacts of border militarization.


[ii]Mapping the Shift from Border to Interior Enforcement of Immigration Laws during the Obama Presidency.Social Scientists on Immigration Policy, Jan. 25, 2013.

Contributed by Marilyn Lorenz, Program Coordinator for the Inter-Faith Committee on Latin America