Obama, Romney: The Battle to Do Right by Immigrants

Yesterday, presidential hopeful Mitt Romney stepped into potentially dangerous territory: a conference organized by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) being held in Florida. He made his appearance just days after Obama made a seemingly seismic announcement that he would suspend the deportation of DREAM Act-eligible immigrant youth and potentially give them work permits. While some members of the media called Romney's statements on immigration to conference attendees "vague," it was as clear as the Florida sky to me. He would "override and supersede" Obama's order and replace it with one that would only help immigrant youth that join the military, essentially Latino cannon fodder.

Immigrant youth protested outside the conference. Romney's rhetoric beware, once these DREAMERS taste a bit of freedom, i.e. a drivers' license and a work permit, they'll fight like hell to keep it, as they should. Give me "freedom or give me death." That type of revolutionary fervor, courage and principle, has led Florida's immigrant movement in less than seven years to cohere into a formidable, winning force.

On January first, 2010, at the Freedom Tower in downtown Miami, a new immigrant revolution took shape: we kicked off a campaign asking the President act in his executive authority to stop the deportations that were destroying families. The families, many farmworkers, went on a hunger fast for several weeks, consuming only water, to protest the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raids and deportations that have literally split up over one million families and snatched scores of young immigrant students from their communities. At the same time four undocumented students set forth on a 1500-mile journey on foot, to Washington D.C. The Fast for our Families and the Trail of DREAMS, as they were respectively titled, would end up being two of virtually two thousand organizing actions around the country that would make Obama's oratory on immigration slowly produce real hope and change.

But it wouldn't be the last time we, Floridians, fought to defend our friends and our future. Last year we were the targets. We were told that an Arizona-style immigration bill would imminently cast a dark cloud on the Sunshine State. After the 24/7 anti-immigrant campaign ads during the gubernatorial race, even our friends said "something like Arizona had to pass." In response, through organizing our communities, the poorest of the poor jumped on buses to travel as long as eight hours, and virtually occupied the state capitol in Tallahassee during the Legislative session. Those in the know say they've never seen anything like it in 30 years. People protested, prayed and petitioned until the time ran out and nothing passed. Unlikely allies and diverse tactics at a local, state and national level demonstrated that the immigrant rights movement could lead a winning sophisticated campaign, "We Are Florida!," changing the terrain and the course of history, for now.

Another more recent local victory, essentially against a multinational prison company, shows again the power of organizing. On the same day that Obama made his famed immigration announcement, ICE officials quietly conceded that a hotly contested private immigrant detention center planned for the South Florida town of Southwest Ranches, was dead. However quiet the concession, the news resounded loudly among immigrants, residents and all Floridians who believe in democracy with a small "d." After all, the facility was called a done deal by powerful private detention contractor CCA (Corrections Corporation of America) and equally powerful Democratic politician, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz. Again, organizing built a broad alliance, residents, environmentalists and immigrants from different perspectives but common goal. Many with different views on immigration, politics and policies, but we came together to oppose a prison that was not right for immigrants, not right for SW Ranches and not right for South Florida.

Many pundits will reduce this list of victories to election year pandering to powerful Latino and Floridian voters. As a Latina, a Miamian and a Floridian, I can tell you that we are known to put the communities we love before our politicians' aspirations. But that is only part of the story.

While we were fighting against the Arizona copycat legislation in Tallahassee, one of the many participants in the We Are Florida! campaign, Rev. Dr. Charles Mckenzie addressed our state politicians by invoking the words of MLK:

"Cowardice asks the question, 'is it safe?' Politics ask the question, 'is it expedient. 'Vanity asks the question, 'is it popular.' And then conscience comes along and asks the question, 'is it right?'"

The heat of elections goes both ways. Latinos can get used or abused, courted or shunned depending on election cycles. However, no matter if it's President Obama, Cong. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, Gov. Rick Scott or Mitt Romney, the immigrant rights movement in Florida has the courage to demand the changes that we need and organize to hold politicians accountable and do the right thing for the benefit of us all. Those of us that stand up to fight bad proposals at the local level, bad legislation at the state level and bad policies at the federal level don't do it because it is safe, expedient or popular. We fight because it is the right thing to do. We win because we organize.