Second in a two-part series about immigration-reform advocacy in Minnesota.
Looking to bring a personal touch to the immigration debate in Washington, lawmakers have occasionally called the Twin Cities group Navigate MN trying to find compelling stories they can share with colleagues, former group director Juve Meza said this week.
Navigate, a support and advocacy group for immigrant students, has sent both stories and activists to lawmakers, Meza said, looking to shape the immigration reform debate and pepper it with their own tales of coming to the United States. Right now, Navigate is trying to meet with members of Minnesota’s U.S. House delegation, hoping to win support for reform, one personal story at a time.
“Immigration reform cannot be done without votes,” Meza said. “Students are still out there telling their stories and all that, but it also is about these district campaigns.”
MinnPost talked to a handful of Minnesota immigration-reform activists, young and old, this week to find out what those stories are.
Carmen Diaz says her love story would have been anything but romantic if not for her serendipitous family history.
Diaz met her eventual husband, Bonifacio Diaz Larrieta, in California 14 years ago when he rented a room from one of her friends. Diaz Larrieta was a construction worker who had risen from a run-of-the-mill laborer to a field supervisor, and he had been an undocumented immigrant for five years.
Carmen (né Flores Gomez) and Bonifacio would fall in love, get married and have children, and because she was a citizen, Bonifacio was put on track to gain U.S. citizenship as well.
That wouldn’t have been the case if Carmen’s family history had been a bit different. Because her grandmother worked as a California fruit picker, Carmen’s father was a naturalized American at birth, making Carmen one as well, and allowing her to help Bonifacio to win legal status himself. If husband and wife had been undocumented, Carmen said, “I can’t imagine thinking, what if we were undocumented and I got deported or I got pulled over?”
Diaz has worked on immigration-reform advocacy campaigns through the SEIU Healthcare Minnesota union, of which she’s a member, delivering postcards to lawmakers and marching in a rally in St. Paul just this week.
Her three kids often come with her, she said, in the hope that she’ll inspire future activism from them.
“I think my kids need to understand it’s important,” she said. “There was someone who did the groundwork before. That’s how we feel now, we are doing the groundwork for future generations.”
Abena Abraham, then just 4 years old, arrived in the United States in 2000 to be with her mother, who had fled their native Liberia seeking political asylum a few years earlier. The pair was given “Temporary Protected Status,” though Abraham said she never really grasped the fact that she wasn’t a born-and-raised American for several years.
But in 2007, a change in immigration policy could have forced her and other Liberians out of the country. Then-President George W. Bush and Congress stepped in and blocked their deportation, but the incident made 11-year-old Abraham understand her immigration status for the first time. (Bush approved what’s called “Deferred Enforced Departure” for Liberians, giving them the chance to stay in the United States if they kept their immigration status updated with the government. A provision in the Senate-passed immigration reform bill gives Liberians like Abraham the chance to gain citizenship a bit earlier than undocumented immigrants.)
After a July trip to Washington with the Young Democrats of America, Abraham committed to pushing for an immigration overhaul in Minnesota. She teamed up with Organizing for Action, the activist group spun off from President Obama’s re-election campaign, doing everything from phone banking to meeting with lawmakers and speaking at rallies, including one planned by the group this weekend in Minneapolis.
“I’m getting the word out there that immigration is more than a Latino issue, and it affects millions of Americans,” she said.
When Daniel Perez’s immediate family decided to come to the United States, his aunt, a U.S. citizen, said she would sponsor their citizenship applications.
That was in 2002. Perez said he’s been waiting to gain citizenship for 13 years, and his lawyers say he’s at least a few more years away.
In the meantime, Perez earned two masters degrees at the University of Minnesota, paying most of his own way because he wasn’t eligible to receive financial aid. He spent his college years networking with other immigrants and serving as the self-described “public face” for immigration reform activism, especially among the group of young undocumented immigrants known as “DREAMers,” speaking at galas and meeting with lawmakers.
“It was important for me, not only to expose that I was undocumented, but that we are in the process [of gaining citizenship], and look at what it’s doing, that it’s not fast enough,” he said. “It’s not efficient, it’s broken.”
Today, Perez, 26, is what he calls “DACA-mented,” part of a group of undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children who gained temporary permission to stay last summer under an Obama administration program called “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.” The program grants a renewable two-year reprieve from deportation for those eligible.
Perez received deferred status in January.
“I’m documented, but I’m not legally here,” he said.
As a student at Augsburg College in 2007, Juve Meza and a group of friends and colleagues set out to form a support group for immigrant students in the Twin Cities. So they founded Navigate MN, with Meza as its director.
At the time, Navigate was about connecting immigrant students to one another and helping them tackle college in the United States. But the program took on a political edge as well. During this year’s legislative session, for instance, the group worked with Education Minnesota and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce to lobby for a state DREAM Act, making undocumented students eligible to receive state financial aid for college (the bill passed).
Meza, 25, said Navigate is working with lawmakers on federal reform as well. At the minimum, he said, he’s hoping Congress can move on an expedited path for citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States when they’re young.
“I think a role that we play, as young people, has been more about convening interests,” Meza said. “Most people are very well-intentioned around undocumented students, and that’s been a very useful tool for us to draw attention to immigration reform through young people.”
Pablo Tapia and Antonia Alvarez
Immigration reform advocates have generally been pretty high on the Senate-passed reform bill and its pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
But Pablo Tapia, Antonia Alvarez and their Asamblea de Derechos Civiles (Civil Rights Assembly) have their concerns.
The citizenship process in the bill could be too expensive for some immigrants, they say. It also takes too long—in some cases, more than 13 years—for undocumented immigrants to gain citizenship. All in all, “we’re not very excited about immigration reform,” Tapia said.
But something is better than nothing, so in March, the Assembly launched its “A Dream for All” initiative to rally support both for immigration legislation and a cheaper, shorter path to citizenship. The group holds rallies in the Twin Cities, occasionally overlapping with major celebrations in the Latino community, and has taken its message on the road, including a bus trip to the offices of Midwestern lawmakers on the U.S. House Judiciary Committee last week. Members have been to Washington twice this year, and met with high-level staffers for House Speaker John Boehner.
“[The Senate bill], it’s not 100 percent good,” Alvarez said. “But we need to open some doors. When you don’t have this opportunity, you lose everything. That’s why we need to have something.”
Tapia and Alvarez founded the Civil Rights Assembly eight years ago, but Tapia’s involvement in the reform movement goes back to the early 1990s, when he attended several early immigration marches in the Twin Cities. At the time, he said, people questioned whether such a movement would ever have legs. Today, he said, the answer’s obvious.
“It’s very clear, the interest of our people,” he said. “They’re looking for freedom. The fight that we have, the struggle that we have, really is not about a document only, or a certificate of citizenship. It’s about the rights that others enjoy as human beings.”
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry