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The Rhetoric of Immigration Reform: From "Si Se Puede" to "Bring Them Home."

"Si se puede! Si se puede!" That's the rallying cry I remember from 2006 when waves of immigrant rights marches and protests swept the country.

The focus of those protests was a new federal bill that would have criminalized undocumented immigrants as well as those who employed or assisted them. Eight years later, under a president with more deportations than his predecessor, slogans have shifted from "Si Se Puede" to "Not One More." This May Day in New York City, immigrant workers and Occupy Wall Street have incorporated deportation and criminalization into their agenda, calling for a tour to "confront the institutions that exploit our labor, privatize our commons, deport our families, and criminalize our communities."

Back in 2006, over 100,000 people marched in Chicago, braving the March cold, to voice their protest. Later that month, 500,000 packed the streets of Los Angeles. By comparison, the tens of thousands of people I saw streaming across New York City's Brooklyn Bridge in an April protest may have seemed small. But it was powerful. For two hours, wave after wave of energetic people crossed the bridge, holding aloft signs and shouting, "Si se puede! Si se puede!" Many of the signs reminded on-lookers that immigrants are not outsiders—they are also part of families. Children held signs demanding, "Let my parents raise me here!" and "We deserve to live here." 

Adults also held signs showing that they, too, were part of families living in the United States. The emphasis on family, however, seemed to have gotten lost in much of the media reporting, which focused on HR4437, guest worker programs, and the concept of being "illegal."

a woman at the immigration protest

Photos I took at the April 2006 immigration rights protest in New York City. 

I remember American flags being a major, prominent part of all the 2006 rallies and marches. People waved small American flags, sometimes holding flags from their home countries in the other hand. Or else they draped themselves in large flags, wearing them like capes. Immigrants wanted to challenge the xenophobic argument that they could never be "American," that they would always be outsiders. It also, whether intentionally or not, projected the image that immigrants want to assimilate and become part of the American culture. They want to work legally and pay taxes. No one wants to be considered illegal.

Fast forward to 2014. George W. Bush has been out of office for six years. Secure Communities, first piloted in 2008 under Bush with local law enforcement in fourteen jurisdictions agreeing to share information with the FBI and ICE, grew under Obama to enable thousands of deportation in over 1200 jurisdictions.

Under the Obama administration, we've seen the number of deportations reach nearly two million people. We see slogans shift from "Si Se Puede" to "Not 1 More," decrying the number of deportations. While American flags are still  present at many rallies and marches, they're not as prevalent as they were in 2006. This might be part of the messaging: advocates have been shifting away from focusing on how immigrants can economically benefit the country to a focus on not breaking up families. Or it might reflect the reality that, eight years later, the country continues to attack immigrants and their families. Not only have the numbers of deportations increased but Congress has even passed a quota requiring that ICE fill 34,000 detention beds on any given day

Although the rhetoric has shifted from the "Yes We Can" to a specific (and urgent) call for an end to deportations, immigrant rights activists still work to keep the focus on how restrictive immigration policies and deportations devastate families. Also, thanks to the rise of social media, actvists are now more able to make their own media without relying on traditional journalistic gatekeepers. Last month when 1200 people in a privately-run ICE detention center in Tacoma, Washington, launched a hunger strike, their friends and supporters around the country used the hashtag #Not1More to spread the word. The phrase was also a frequent chant at solidarity demonstrations, rallies and actions throughout the country.

This past March, 150 people—parents, DREAM Act students, and children—crossed the Mexico-U.S. border as part of the Bring Them Home (or #reforma150) campaign. Many had previously been deported  or left the country to avoid being formally deported. Over four days, they crossed en masse as part of an action to draw attention to the impact on families. "So much of the focus on immigration reform is about money and how much this helps the economy," says Rosario Lopez, an organizer with the grassroots group National Immigrant Youth Alliance. "We can't forget the essential part about keeping families together. Bring Them Home [border crossings] are the action of families who have mixed status."

Photo of a recent Bring Them Home protest by Andreina Cruz.

Many of the parents who crossed the border as part of the protest brough along children who had been born in the United States. When their parents were detained, most of the children who were U.S. citizens were taken by Child Protective Services and then released to other family members. (Four are still in foster care while their mother, unable to post the $7,500 bond, remains in ICE detention) Ten children, who had been born in Mexico but raised in the United States, were detained with their parents at the ICE family detention center in Pennsylvania and later released.

The phrase "Bring Them Home" is probably more commonly associated with U.S. military occupying far-away countries. In this case, though, it asserts that the people crossing the border call the United States home. Andreina Cruz, whose husband and six-year-old son participated in the mass border crossing, noted, "Obama has said there’s going to be immigration reform, but he’s the president who has deported the most people. He’s deporting them; we’re bringing them back. We’re reuniting families." The language of the campaign challenges Obama and other politicians to recognize that, though they may have been born elsewhere, the United States is their home. It is where some of their children have been born, where  their families live, and where they have built their lives.

Related Reading: Immigration is a Feminist Issue—We Need to Treat it That Way.

Victoria Law is a voracious reader and freelance writer who frequently writes about gender, incarceration and resistance. She is also the author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women.


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