In Arizona, which has been at the forefront of the national immigration debate since the state enacted its toughest-in-the-nation immigration policy in 2010, Latino activists, politicians, immigrants and their families gathered in front of the state Capitol in Phoenix to praise the move toward comprehensive reform.
Surrounded by activists holding signs reading “not one more deportation,” speakers called on Congress to make family reunification and a path to citizenship the priority.
Jose Garcia Ramirez, an 11-year-old U.S. citizen, started crying at the podium as he spoke about his father, an undocumented immigrant who was arrested this week and is set to be deported tomorrow.
“I really want Obama not to deport him,” he said.
Speakers deplored the current immigration system, saying it tears families apart. U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat from Tucson, called the issue “biggest moral cliff” facing the nation.
While he praised a bipartisan coalition of senators today for “breaking the ice” to discuss comprehensive immigration reform, he said he remains concerned about a focus on border security.
“Family unification needs to be a major part of the agenda,” Grijalva said.
Still, the principles outlined by the bipartisan group of eight senators is a good start, he said: ”For us to be able now in an open way in Congress to debate the particulars of immigration reform — rather than not have a conversation at all — is, in itself, progress.”
Danny Ortega, a Phoenix civil rights attorney and past chair of the National Council of La Raza, said issues, such as determining when the border is secured, remain. Still, he said he thought the proposal put the nation on the right path.
“America through this legislation is beginning to reestablish its core values,” Ortega said after the press conference. The proposal “recognizes the contribution of immigrants and not only that but recognizes that we cannot survive economically without them.”
Daniel Rodriguez, 26, executive director of Somos America Coalition, a group of Phoenix-area community organizations advocating for immigrant rights, said Latino voters need to hold politicians accountable for making reform happen. “Congressional leaders have read the writing on the wall,” he said of the impact of Hispanics on the 2012 elections. “Latino voters have a check to cash in 2013.”
After the press conference, Rodriguez, a 26-year-old law student at Arizona State University who came to this country when he was 7 years old, said he remains concerned about the focus on border security. ”My concern is we are going to have ever-changing guideposts on what is a secure border,” he said, adding that he believes deportations should stop as conversations move forward to provide a path to citizenship to undocumented immigrants now in the U.S.
About a dozen immigrants and supporters with the Promise Arizona activist group held an overnight prayer vigil beginning Sunday afternoon at the Capitol, sheltering themselves from the rain in a tent with a large crucifix and sculpture of the Virgin Mary. Participants said they prayed for immigration reform that keeps families together.
Jacqueline Garcia, 16, joined the vigil early Monday morning. The Phoenix high school student who was born in the U.S. knows first-hand the impact of deportations on families: she now goes to school on-line so she can work at Subway to support her ailing grandmother and younger brother. Her grandfather, the family’s breadwinner who had been in the country illegally for more than 20 years, was deported last year.
“It makes me happy they are trying to do something,” Garcia said of the congressional proposal. She said she hopes “to see other families not get separated — it hurts, I went through it. It gets really hard here, especially if the one deported was the one paying the bills.”
She said she wants President Barack Obama to listen to the stories of families like hers.
“We need help,” she said. “We need comprehensive immigration reform. It will help a lot of people and keep families together.”