It’s been interesting to watch the conversation presidential candidates have around the topic of immigration in the last couple of years. I grew up undocumented and can remember a time when both Republican and Democrats talked about building a fence across the southern border—and immigrants like me and my parents were carelessly referred to as “illegals.”
We have made a lot of progress on how we talk about immigration in this country but it is also obvious that we have been set back by the daily demonization and scapegoating of immigrants by the Trump administration. The Republican Party has declared open war on immigrants so blatantly that documents now show the true motivation behind their efforts to add a citizenship question to the census, saying it “would clearly be a disadvantage to the Democrats” and “advantageous to Republicans and Non-Hispanic whites.”
In the backdrop of this fight for the political soul of this nation and the wellbeing and safety of immigrant families, are the 2020 presidential elections. A field of 23 Democratic candidates are competing for the opportunity to take on Donald Trump and ensure that his racist brand of politics do not occupy the White House for an additional four years. If they want to make it past the primary election and ultimately win the presidency, immigrant voters will be crucial to ensuring victory.
A cadre of about 500 immigration advocates gathered last week in a hotel in Pasadena, California to strategize the next steps in the fight against Trump and his hateful policies. The summit hosted by FIRM Action, Community Change Action, and CHIRLA Action Fund included organizations from all across the country that fight to increase political participation in immigrant communities and pass progressive policies that would protect families and allow them to thrive in peace. Perhaps most interestingly though was that the first presidential forum solely focused on immigration and put together by immigrant organizers took place that weekend.
In attendance were Senator Bernie Sanders, Senator Kamala Harris, Governor Jay Inslee, and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Julián Castro. We are used to hearing candidates talk about their issues without any input from directly impacted people, and the format of the forum was specifically designed to address that issue.
Throughout the evening, the candidates heard directly from people who are impacted by our brutal immigration system. Kamala Harris heard from Lupita Sánchez, an 18-year-old high school student from California whose father was detained after a massive immigration raid at his workplace. Although ultimately her father was released, Lupita suffered from great emotional distress over the experience.
Julián Castro heard from Grace Pai, who works as an immigrant rights organizer with Illinois Immigrant Action and shared the experience of her family as immigrants from South Korea running a successful business in the United States.
Bernie Sanders was moved to tears by Diana Bautista, a 16-year-old who migrated to the U.S with her family when she was only 3 years old. She was not able to benefit from DACA because Trump repealed the program 31 days before she turned 15.
“I felt devastated as I knew that my future was now at a standstill,” Diana said. Her mom is a household worker and her dad works at a warehouse. Her parents have faced various hardships, including sexual harassment, low pay and wage theft, and intimidation because of their immigration status, among other financial hardships. Diana became involved with Wise Up and her first encounter with activism was a demonstration outside of Republican leader Kevin McCarthy’s office, and that experience began to shape her activism.
“My mom has told me that I need to fight the good fight because she can no longer do it alone, and knows that I have the courage to fight for both her and I and the rest of our immigrant community,” Diana said during the forum.
Jay Inslee heard from Jenny, a U.S. citizen and a daughter of immigrants. During her childhood, she always feared being separated from her parents if they were deported.
“My fear was of our family becoming another broken household and just another additional number to the statistics,” Jenny said. She witnessed her parents struggle to lay down a foundation for a family in a country whose culture and politics made it feel like they were building on constantly shifting sand.
I asked Governor Inslee if he would commit to introducing immigration reform within the first 100 days of his administration, something all the candidates committed to doing.
We are living in a difficult moment for immigrant communities in the U.S. Trump is the president and he has declared open war on immigrants, his hate permeating not only Republicans in Washington D.C. but also state legislatures across the country. The detention and deportation system has never been more ruthless and it’s becoming increasingly privatized, attaching a for-profit motive to the detention of human beings.
The FIRM presidential forum helped to shape the conversation in a way that shifts the narrative around immigration while forcing candidates to hear and speak to directly impacted individuals. If we truly want to reform our inhumane immigration system, immigrants need to be at the table.
You can watch footage from the FIRM Action forum here:
Thomas Kennedy is the Political Director for Florida Immigrant Coalition Votes (FLIC Votes) and a communications fellow for the Center for Community Change Action. He tweets from @Tomaskenn.