TRUE STORIES, REAL PEOPLE WEIGH IN ON IMMIGRATION DEBATE
HOUSTON– Last winter, the Border Angels set out from the California border town of San Ysidro to reach 40 U.S. cities in 40 days. Enrique Morones, heading the group, wanted to encourage local leaders to join a national demonstration against the draconian House of Representatives-approved bill that would criminalize up to 12 million migrants in this nation.
The caravan traveled across the Southwest, then the Southeast, along the way planting 4,000 crosses to honor those who lost their lives crossing the international divide as they tried to enter the United States.
On a snowy Feb. 18, they were in Washington, D.C. joined by about 30 union representatives, students from Georgetown University and other activists who held up signs near the Capitol building.
Before they proceeded up the walkway leading to the Capitol steps, they huddled for a prayer and a homily. Morones, outwardly a quiet man and seemingly detached, is inner-driven by a faith in the truth of his mission.
When they reached the top of the Capitol steps, they stood with their handmade signs pointed in the direction of the Washington Monument; then after five minutes turned to face the Capitol dome.
What I saw as a reporter that day was a deep respect for our national institutions. It was moving. They were reverential. Here’s something cynics cannot understand because it has to do with a devotion to the ideal Congress stands for. It is about a faith in the search for justice at the inner core of United States decision-making.
By the time they walked back down the steps, the group had grown to 40. A child asked her mother — they were plainly day tourists — what were the people doing. They were there “because somebody is putting up a wall between us,” her mom said.
In the following days, the caravan moved on to Philadelphia, New York, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Chicago, Salt Lake City, and Denver and back to the West Coast.
Soon thereafter the spring protests of 2006 began. They brought out five million people. No, the Border Angels alone did not ignite the largest demonstrations in U.S. history. But they were one of the important sparks.
Approaching a year later, President Bush has reaffirmed his commitment to immigration reform and the new Democratic majority in Congress has, too. Morones believes it is time for the next spark. His group set out Feb. 2 on its second migrant march. It will travel the 2,000-mile stretch along the U.S.-Mexico border, visiting 20 towns in 20 days. The sojourners will place 4,400 crosses along their route.
They will collect letters, photos, stories, anecdotes and documentary material at public gatherings about why individual human beings want immigration reform.
The marchers are seeking real-people stories so that arcane billion-dollar theories or xenophobic rhetoric and screwball scenarios don’t dominate the forthcoming political debate. For them, immigration is a humanitarian matter.
Morones says he wants life accounts like the one he heard from a five-year-old boy whose father left home and died in the desert. The boy relates his personal loss. There’s a ten-year-old girl whose mom never came back from work because she was deported to Guatemala. “By personalizing the issue we might touch the hearts of people who have not made up their minds,” Morones says.
He expects to consult Congressman Xavier Becerra, the Democratic advisor to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, after the last All Peoples’ Immigration hearing is held in San Diego. There the Border Angels will prepare the testimonies to deliver to Congress.
When an accounting is taken about this period of immigration reform, among the mountains of think-tank reports, statistics and economic what-ifs there will be true stories collected as evidence by the Border Angels from children, parents, grandparents, spouses and others .
This time, Congress may be in a better mood to accept true stories from real people.
[José de la Isla, author of “The Rise of Hispanic Political Power” (Archer Books, 2003), writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. E-mail email@example.com.]