We Need Truth-Tellers Not Stewards on Immigration

Co-authored by Juan Pablo Orjuela

Three years ago, we stood up in the middle of a speech President Obama was delivering to National Council De La Raza and interrupted him with chants of "Yes you can."

After the DREAM Act had failed to pass in Congress months earlier, immigrant youth mounted a successful campaign for an executive order that eventually resulted in the president granting a segment of us temporary relief from deportations and the authorization to work in this country through the deferred action program.

During the fight for the DREAM Act we became used to hearing we were selfish, that we could derail larger reform, and that the president was our ally, not our target. But we were undeterred, and undocumented youth who had found our power weren't going to be stopped by the White House denying its abilities or the organizations who helped defend it.

Three years later, it looks like we're in a very similar moment. Only this time, the demand for executive action is even broader and certainly more urgent. Just as it made sense to give relief to immigrant youth then, it makes sense to expand that relief to our loved ones. Right now.

We may not be in the balcony at NCLR, but we still want to tell the president, "Yes you can," and we hope that call is carried by every organization that considers itself a voice for immigrants who are currently denied an equal opportunity at attaining citizenship.

A Politico article this week observed that "those who want the president to act increasingly own the narrative." That's not because of masterful messaging or high-paid consulting groups. It's because our families deserve relief and equality, and they deserve it now. Anyone connected to immigrants knows that because it's what we talk about at the dinner table and as we look in the rearview mirror on our way to work.

But the Politico article also highlighted a dangerous development that the closer groups get to the White House, the quieter they get on deportations. One advocate described her position as being a "steward of the immigration legislation," saying that we're all on the same team just playing different roles.

To us, it's not a question of positioning within a movement, it's a question of our purpose. The difference between undocumented people and political operatives in Washington DC comes from our core belief that we deserve to exist and to thrive. Their pursuit of a personal climb to power is different than our pursuit for liberation. We know what it's like to be a caregiver to siblings at too early an age because of a deported parent and haven't turned that experience into a talking point or converted it into a paycheck.

Immigration reform is not a game that we're playing and, frankly, our communities don't need stewards in Washington, we need allies. We need those with access not to allow themselves to be silenced but to use it to open space for our own voices to be heard, even when what we have to say targets the president.

At NCLR three years ago, we had to interrupt for a demand for administrative relief to be heard. Now the absence of the organization's voice is being noted by the press. After the risks we took then and that undocumented immigrants (like Ju Hong who interrupted the president last year) continue to take, we send the same message we tell the president to the groups who may for whatever reason, be afraid to critique him and really defend our communities, "Yes you can."

Juan Pablo Orjuela, the co-author of this post, is a United We DREAM organizer.