This op-ed is part of the Nuestra Voz series coordinated by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. It is an attempt to highlight the voices of the workers and day laborers who are on the frontlines of the immigration debate around the United States and across the continent.
Last week at Stanford University, I joined my fellow day laborers from the Graton Day Labor Center and the Day Worker Center of Mountain View to protest President Obama as he addressed the Global Entrepreneurs Summit. We stood out there because, like many others, we cannot accept that the president of the United States refuses to do anything for immigrant families, that Obama is willing to step back and stop fighting for the millions of people who look to him for leadership is entirely unacceptable.
After watching Obama’s response to the U.S. v. Texas ruling by the Supreme Court, I could no longer stand by and do nothing. For us, it is important to share our stories with President Obama, and to demonstrate that this ruling doesn’t only affect immigrants but also U.S.-born citizen children who grow up watching their parents face unending obstacles as they struggle for the right to work and provide for their families.
In 2009 my brother-in-law had to leave the United States for Mexico because of a family emergency: his mother had passed away unexpectedly. Since he was undocumented it was unclear if he would ever be able to return. As he said goodbye to his wife, my sister, I could see the tears streaming down her cheeks. I felt their pain then, as I continue to feel it now. They hugged and embraced their children, three of them U.S. citizens, and then he left with no idea when he would see them again.
A couple months after my brother-in-law left, my sister joined him in Mexico. She is undocumented and decided that keeping her family together was most important to her. However, economic insecurity, political instability and the rise of narco and state violence throughout the country made life very difficult for them and for my nephews. Only two years after their return to Mexico, my brother-in-law was killed.
Now, my sister is left alone with her children and hopes to return to the United States, a place she called home for most of her life and the country where she worked for over 20 years. She worked in the fields, cleaned houses and did everything she possibly could to provide for her family. She has three kids who are citizens, and she would have qualified for DAPA if the Supreme Court decision had been in favor of immigrant families. Now my sister is attempting to enter the country legally. However, the immensely bureaucratic immigration process is complicated and confusing for most. She wants to return so that she can work and so that her kids can grow up in the country they were born in.
The separation of families happens in many ways — deportation is one them, the criminalization of migrants is another. As migrants, we travel and cross borders out of necessity in order to find opportunities and resources so that we can provide a better life for our families. We migrate to be able to work above anything else.
We can only hope that President Obama demonstrates the leadership that is currently needed, especially as our community faces extreme levels of hostility, discrimination and threats of violence. I would also like him to understand that the language he uses to describe us is offensive. Immigrants are not “criminals” and “gang-bangers.” This language not only perpetuates the stereotypes and attacks pushed forward by anti-immigrant politicians, but it is outright wrong to classify as criminals the same people who are the targets of ICE and border enforcement. Every one of us knows mothers, fathers and children that have been victims of the Obama administration’s deportation machine.
As a community, we must continue to organize, we must continue to fight against efforts to criminalize us, and we must stand together against those who continue to dehumanize us.
Gervacio Peña is president and a founding board member of Centro Laboral de Graton/Graton Day Labor Center in Graton, California.