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Immigration Reform Advocates Losing Patience with Obama

Marcelo Ballvé

Subhash Kateel thinks impatience with President Obama's immigration
agenda has begun to boil over. An immigrant advocate in Florida, Kateel
says there is a potent mix of frustration and disappointment
percolating through immigrant communities nationwide.

President Obama promised sweeping changes to the immigration system
before taking office and raised immigrants' hopes, says Kateel. Instead
of delivering, the administration has maintained the status quo:
high-handed enforcement tactics that separate families and funnel
immigrants into substandard immigration courts and detention centers.

"Yeah, things are changing," says Kateel, who works for the Miami-based
Florida Immigrant Rights Coalition. "They're getting worse. That's what
we hear on the ground."

Kateel is one among many immigrant advocates nationwide who sees a need
to reignite the immigrant rights battle with more imaginative and
hard-hitting tactics.

Arrests of immigrants - mostly for petty crimes - have increased under
Obama, advocates point out. Department of Homeland security budgeting
for immigration enforcement, detention and deportation has continued

The advocates would like to hold the White House accountable for its
broken promises. Plans are underway to attract tens of thousands of
activists to Washington, D.C. on March 21 to demand reform.

But besides relying on timeworn tactics like street protests and
lobbying lawmakers, the immigrant rights advocates also have turned to
more imaginative and radical approaches.

One is the shaming of specific public figures that are perceived as enablers of anti-immigrant activity and sentiment.

Late last year, CNN anchor Lou Dobbs resigned after he was targeted in
a high-profile media campaign, "Basta Dobbs," that painted him as a
megaphone for distorted information on immigration.

Last month, over 10,000 people turned out in Phoenix to rally against
local Sheriff Joe Arpaio who, thanks to a contract with the federal
government, has transformed his office into a de-facto hard-line arm of
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

On the same day, Jan. 16, smaller rallies were held nationwide to coincide with the anti-Arpaio protest.

Faith leaders, young people and more recent immigrants are playing
prominent roles in organizing protests like the Phoenix rally.

The Phoenix rally was successful in part thanks to a high level of
engagement from young people, says Shuya Ohno, spokesman for the Reform
Immigration for American campaign in Washington, D.C.

"I would say youth are leading the way right now," agrees Katherine
Gorell, communications director for the Florida Immigrant Rights

Students have recently innovated with their own original protest
concepts. Along with four other students from South Florida,
23-year-old Felipe Matos is walking 1,500 miles from Miami to
Washington, D.C., to promote in-state tuition at public colleges for
undocumented immigrants.

"The government hasn't done anything for us, so we need to do something for ourselves," says Matos.

Like two of the other walkers Matos is an accomplished student at Miami
Dade College, but is blocked from financial aid and other forms of
support due to his lack of papers., an online Latino organizing group that also helped
organize "Basta Dobbs," is one of the backers of the students' protest,
dubbed the "Trail of Dreams."

In New York, a five-day road trip this week dubbed "Road Trip for our
Future" took 10 immigration activists, many of them first- and
second-generation immigrants, on an itinerary that includes farm towns,
rust-belt cities, and suburban communities.

The activists held rallies outside lawmakers' offices and met with
local activist groups including, in tiny Pittsford, N.Y.,-"The Raging
Grannies," a troupe of elderly ladies who sang a ditty in favor of
immigration reform.

One of the caravanning activists, Gabriela Villareal, is also advocacy
policy director for the New York Immigration Coalition. She expressed
peoples' frustration with the immigration system with a personal
anecdote. Under current law, it would take 22 years for her to lawfully
bring her adult brother from the Philippines to live with her in the
United States.

Hunger strikes - that age-old tool of last resort in political protests
- have lately become more common in immigrant rights organizing.

Last year, solitary confinement had to be used to break apart hunger
strikes at an immigrant detention facility in Basile, LA. And at the
beginning of this year Florida activists grouped as "Fast for our
Families" went on a fast to protest inflexible deportation policies
that the fasters said needlessly separate immigrant families.

The Florida group was joined on Jan. 18 by some 70 fasters at the Port Isabel Detention Center in Bayview, Texas.

Some of the new immigration activism is taking place in states and
localities that would hardly be expected to be hotbeds of immigrant
rights agitation.

Alma Díaz, a 28-year-old bartender and mother of a three-year-old
daughter, helped organize an unexpectedly large pro-immigrant rally in
Cincinnati last month in collaboration with workers' and faith-based

"Lately, this year, and the final months of last year I've seen many
Latinos ... including many who can't yet speak English, who are informing
themselves, and are organizing and making themselves heard on
immigration," says Díaz.

In Utah, Colombian-American Isabel Rojas has begun urging leaders and
rank-and-file members of the Mormon Church - of which she is also a
member - to take a more explicit stance in favor of immigrants.

The Mormon Church or Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS
church for short) has spoken out in favor of compassionate treatment of
immigrants, but has stopped short of condemning Utah immigration
legislation that critics saw as too harsh.

Rojas hopes that as its immigrant membership continues to swell the LDS
Church will join the Catholic Church and some evangelical and
protestant denominations in advocating openly for immigrant rights.

But in the meantime, Utah's get-tough 2009 immigration bill had one
favorable consequence for her work with Comunidades Unidas, a
grassroots immigrant advocacy group.

"That scare was what got people looking again at re-energizing and reorganizing," Rojas says.

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