DNC 2016: Undocumented immigrants take the stage in North Philly
As protestors and delegates swarmed South Philadelphia on opening day of the Democratic National Convention, four undocumented immigrants took the stage in North Philadelphia and dared the country to judge them.
During a panel dubbed “Undocumented and Unafraid,” journalist Jose Antonio Vargas and his panel – Bernie Sanders spokesperson Erika Andiola, organizer Pamela Chomba and UndocuBlack activist Jonathon Jayes-Green – posed a question few Democrats have asked themselves publicly:
How do we live with the country’s first black president also being the country’s greatest deporter-in-chief?
It’s an inconvenient truth on the eve of Democrats’ biggest political bash. Obama tried to shed the uncomfortable nickname in 2014 when first he announced the Deferred Action for Parent of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents – DAPA for short – and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – or DACA. The legislation would have protected millions of undocumented immigrants, but instead the executive order was challenged by a coalition of states. Then the deportations started at the beginning of 2016 and immigrants were forced to endure raids, detentions and deportations.
Now, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is struggling to lure Latinos and other immigrants angry with a political party that hasn’t done enough to protect its undocumented constituents.
“It’s really interesting to look at the party of Donald Trump, which wants to deport us, and come to Philadelphia for [President] Obama’s party, which has been deporting us,” Vargas said.
“Democrats haven’t been great on immigration,” Chomba added.
The question of how to treat the undocumented community remains so acidic that Vargas found himself in the position of having to defend his work to critics and cynics alike even before sitting down for the panel discussion:
Dear journos @ #DemsInPhilly:
Stop referring to me as "an activist" or" an advocate." I'm a journalist. Like you. We ALL have our biases.
— Jose Antonio Vargas (@joseiswriting) July 25, 2016
The so-called line between activism and journalism is one worth blurring for Vargas, who first entered the public eye in 2011 when he revealed his undocumented status through an essay published in the New York Times. Prior to his grand unveiling, Vargas wrote for the Washington Post and extensively covered the 2008 Virginia Tech shooting.
The celebrated journalist was also born in the Philippines and came to the U.S. at his mother’s behest when he was just 12-years-old. He lived with his grandparents in Mountain View, Calif., and didn’t learn about his undocumented status until he turned 16 years old.
Vargas decided to risk both his career and his freedom to help other immigrants whose fates remained tangled up in detention centers and confusing legislation. The decision to publicly out himself caused a ripple among all immigrants, including people like Andiola.
The Mexico-born activist says she didn’t set out to become a spokesperson for immigrants, but she couldn’t remain silent after her adopted home state of Arizona started passing anti-immigrant legislation in 2010.
Andiola was a college student at the time and received a letter from her university threatening to cut off her financial aid if she failed to provide proof of citizenship.
“That’s when I started organizing,” she explained.
She created the DreamAct Coalition to push the national dialogue surrounding immigration in a more proactive direction. Her organizing efforts eventually landed her the coveted position of helping Bernie Sanders develop a progressive platform, which has since inspired Clinton’s campaign to do the same.
But before Andiola could enjoy success, she had to endure heartache. In 2013, as she became more and more vocal about her own status, immigration officials came for her mother and brother. Andiola blamed herself. She worried her high profile campaigning caused the crisis, and she considered retreating to the sidelines.
Rather than remaining silent and intimated, she took to YouTube and posted a video that quickly went viral:
The tearful plea softened at least some hearts in Washington. Her mother and brother were allowed to remain in the country temporarily, and are still enduring arduous legal proceedings.
As the fates of Andiola’s relatives hang in the balance, activists like Chomba pledge to never give up the fight for humane immigration reform.
“It’s hard to explain to a kid that at any moment your parents could disappear and you won’t know why,” she said while blinking back tears.
“If you deport us, it impacts the whole family."