Immigration touches a nerve for US voters in the Rio Grande Valley
In the Rio Grande Valley, one of the most pressing issues during the US presidential race is what each candidate says about immigration. This resonates in south Texas and especially in Brownsville, where more than 90 per cent of residents are Latino. Barack Obama has tried to garner support amongst Latino voters with a last-ditch effort on immigration policy.
Mitt Romney says he wants to see a solution to the immigration issue. He says illegal migrants should self-deport - that their lives will be so hard in the US that they will want to go back to their country of origin.
But that’s just not an option, according to Jaime Diaz, an immigration attorney in Brownsville, on the border with Mexico.
“It’s shameful that people that have an opinion about these issues can talk about it so lightly without really considering what they’re putting people through,” he says. “What kind of hardships and what kind of families are being destroyed.”
While many Latinos were unhappy with President Barack Obama’s lack of action on his immigration reform bill, they still have hope that in his second term, he will deliver on his original promises.
Jessica Puente Bradshaw is the Republican candidate in Brownsville running for US congress. If she succeeds on election day, she’ll be the first Latina congresswoman in the state of Texas. As a naturalized citizen originally from Matamoros, Mexico, she says the immigration issue is something she will tackle if elected.
“I think most Americans here know how the federal government works. If we put a little band aid solution, then everything else gets put on hold, again. That’s my concern,” Puente Bradshaw says.
There some 12 million illegal aliens in the US and five million of those have their children with them.
Whether Republican or Democrat, all agree that the system needs to be changed. But if temporary status permits are given out, immigration lawyer Diaz maintains that it creates a class of second-class citizens who do not have the opportunities that those on a green card would have.
Diaz says for every 10 to 15 people he sees each day, only one or two have a case where they have a chance to stay in the US. These include relatives of US law enforcement employees.
“Right now you are asking immigration [services] to look for the spouses of soldiers when they’re abroad, for the spouse of teachers when they are teaching classes. I have a policeman and his wife is undocumented, and I have a policeman whose mother is undocumented. It makes absolutely no sense.”
The fear that you could be deported or a member of your family could be deported is all too real in the Rio Grande Valley, says Diaz.
“People here in this area are scared of their own shadow. And we’re not only talking about the illegals, we’re talking about their families, what it’s like to have your wife in the car and you get pulled over. You’re a US citizen and the officer asks you for a driver’s licence and your wife doesn’t have a driver’s license.”
Republican candidate Bradshaw maintains that if Obamacare can be passed, then an immigration law is possible. The stumbling block in not creating a comprehensive bill could lie in the fact that many people, including lawmakers, are misinformed about US immigration laws.
“I hear people in the [Rio Grande] Valley that say that illegals get welfare,” says Diaz, referring to the US government aid program. “Illegals don’t get welfare, they don’t qualify for welfare. The only thing you can qualify for if you are an undocumented person is for emergency care.”
The Dream Act
In an effort to deal with illegal immigrants who are pursuing a higher education in the US, President Barack Obama in June pushed through a two-year deferment act. This helps students between the age of 16 and 35 without papers to stay in the US and continue their studies. They need to have been in the US for at least five consecutive years. It’s not a path to citizenship, however.
The deferment act looks like the Dream (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act, with the same requirements, but the deferment act has not been passed by Congress.
Nevertheless, Bradshaw criticizes the Dream Act, saying that those who meet the criterion are a small percentage compared to those who truly need some form of legal status.
“If we hang too strongly on this ‘Dream Act’ then we’re going to be waiting another ten years before we’ll be dealing with the kids who are five years old, or six or seven. Then the elderly, who are clearly wanting to become citizens because at some point they’re going to have to look into their healthcare, and their retirement,” she says.
“So sure, it’s a good thing, it’s a good little solution for now, but we have to say that’s not the solution and that should not keep us from actively pursuing and going towards a more active immigration package,” she adds.
But proponents of the Dream Act say that by allowing students to stay in the country for an additional two years to attend school will allow them to give back to society.
According to the Immigration Policy Center most people who would benefit from the Dream Act are Mexican nationals living in Texas.
Arturo Guerra is the student body president at University of Texas, Brownsville. He’s currently pursuing his Masters in Business Administration, and he graduated from undergrad with honours. And he is illegal.
The Ciudad Victoria native originally had the right documents when he was a child living in the US, but a missed opportunity by a relative to renew papers once he had returned to Mexico resulted in a logistical nightmare.
He has applied for deferment, which he hopes will give him at least a two-year chance to continue his studies.
“You have people who have been here their whole lives, because of decisions that their parents made. They’re stuck here. If you send them somewhere else, they’re not going to know anyone there. They’re just sending them away from their homes,” says Guerra.
Lawyer Diaz agrees. He’s seen what deportation has done to families and worries about the long-term impacts of legal US citizen children being separated from their illegal immigrant mothers.
“We’re completely destroying people’s lives,” he says. “To me it’s really sad to see what’s going on. I just hope that whoever gets elected takes these issues seriously - from a human point of view, from an economic point of view, from a social point of view. These decisions are going to be felt a generation from now. We need to see how these families have been completely destroyed. Their chances of being happy taken forever.”
Although he cannot vote, when asked as to who would be on the side of the young, undocumented immigrant, student Guerra says it’s obvious.
“Of course it’s President Obama,” he says with a smile. “He did something. And that takes courage.”