Veteran Activists Campaign for Biden’s Immigration Reform

January 26, 2021

RENTON, Wash. — Immigrant rights activists energized by a new Democratic administration and majorities on Capitol Hill are gearing up for a fresh political battle to push through a proposed bill from President Joe Biden that would open a pathway to citizenship for up to 11 million people. 

The multimillion-dollar #WeAreHome campaign was launched Monday by national groups including United We Dream and the United Farm Workers Foundation. It starts with ads on Facebook and other social media to reach lawmakers and the constituents who can pressure them.

"We are home," a young woman's voice declares in the first video spot showing immigrants in essential jobs such as cleaning and health care. "Home, even when they say we don't belong."

The effort is a longshot. Immigration remains a third rail dividing Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. and opponents of the measure have pledged to fight it. Although Democrats now account for 50 of 100 senators, with a deciding vote by Vice President Kamala Harris, the bill will need at least 60 votes to pass. 

Opponents promised to launch their own social media blitz, as well as TV and radio ads. They also said they would write letters and meet virtually with members of Congress. 

But organizers say they enjoy the momentum of a new administration and growing public support for giving people in the U.S. illegally a chance at citizenship. The activists note they are also more seasoned.

"The movement has matured," said Lorella Praeli, the Peruvian-born co-president of Community Change, among the national groups leading the campaign. "It's more diverse, experienced."

Praeli, now 28, was brought to the U.S. when she was 10 so she could get better medical treatment after losing a leg in an accident. She became an immigrant activist in her teens.

Praeli honed her skills as Latino communities outreach director for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign before addressing the 2016 Democratic National Convention. 

She said the new battle is being waged on various levels, from grassroots organizing in communities to lobbying on Capitol Hill. Participating groups will bankroll the campaign with their own fundraising and the help of the New Venture Fund, a nonprofit social advocacy group. 

"We need an early breakthrough on immigration," said Praeli. "We have 100 days to set the tone."

Patrice Lawrence, the Jamaica-born co-executive director for the UndocuBlack Network, said the campaign represents all immigrants "regardless of the color of our skin, where we live, if we work, how we pray or how old we are."

Glo H. Choi, of the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium, said comprehensive immigration reform is overdue. 

"The temporary measures of the past have just been kicking the can down the road," said the Chicago-based community organizer who was brought to the U.S. as a child from South Korea. 

The effort offers hope to immigrants like Daniela Murguia, a University of Washington graduate who lives in the Seattle suburb of Renton. Murguia's family brought her here from Mexico in 2008 when she was 11 and she has no legal status or protections. She recently raised millions of dollars in coronavirus pandemic aid for immigrants living in the U.S. illegally and lobbied to include such help in the state budget. 

Under Biden's bill, most people like Murguia would wait eight years for citizenship, but those enrolled in the Delayed Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA; those with temporary protective status after fleeing violence-wracked countries; and farmworkers would wait three years. The bill includes protections for other kinds of immigrants, too. 

Opponents note that President Ronald Reagan's 1986 amnesty for nearly 3 million immigrants was followed by a flood of new arrivals. But immigration enforcement has expanded greatly since, and Biden's proposal calls for more technology at land crossings, airports and seaports even as he halts construction of former President Donald Trump's signature border wall. 

Still, Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican who supported the wall and is a staunch advocate of restrictive immigration laws, describes the bill as "open borders." He said it has "no regard for the health and security of Americans, and zero enforcement."

The Federation for American Immigration Reform, a major opponent of the bill, also considers it a kind of amnesty and vows to fight it. 

"It would not only reward everyone who has violated our immigration laws in the past, but also induce millions more to come here illegally," said R.J. Hauman, head of the group's governmental relations. "In exchange for absolutely nothing."

NumbersUSA Deputy Director Chris Chmielenski suggested Biden may feel beholden to activists who helped elect him. The group favors reduced immigration. 

"I think it has zero chance of passing," he said.

But the activists have changing public opinion on their side. 

Seven in 10 voters said they preferred offering immigrants in the U.S. illegally a chance to apply for legal status, compared with about 3 in 10 who thought they should be deported to their birth country, according to AP VoteCast. The November survey of more than 110,000 voters showed 9 in 10 Biden voters and about half of Trump voters favored creating a way for people to legalize their status.

Veteran civil rights activist Dolores Huerta, an activist and co-founder of the United Farm Workers who now runs her own foundation, said the immigration reform push will benefit from the dramatic stories of children being separated from their parents under the Trump administration. 

"I think that is going to make a difference," Huerta said. "Once people see the justice of the issue they will come onboard." 

Immigrants say a proposal in the bill to replace the word "alien" with "noncitizen" in immigration laws already makes them feel a difference in the way they are viewed. 

"I feel more hopeful, more confident," said Melissa Laratte, a member of National Domestic Workers Alliance, another group organizing the campaign. She arrived with her young son in Miami two years ago seeking asylum as a member of an opposition group in her native Haiti. 

"They're trying to help us," she said. 


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