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The American Dream?

Arlandria residents learn about the immigration debate in Congress.

Raul Luna came to Virginia in 2001 looking for the American Dream. A native of Peru, Luna saw America as the last, best hope for escaping the poverty of his home country. But now he is unsure about his future. With Congress at an impasse over immigration reform, Luna is beginning to question his ability to stay in Arlandria. And he is starting to wonder about the American Dream.

“It all seems so confusing, and nobody seems to be in agreement,” Luna said through a translator last weekend. “Immigrants are very confused. We hear one thing one day, then we hear something different the next day.”

To seek answers, about 50 immigrants from the Arlandria neighborhood met last weekend at the Cora Kelly Recreation Center on Saturday. The event was sponsored by Tenants and Workers United and the National Capital Immigration Coalition — two groups that are trying to use the power of grassroots politics to educate and organize this summer around the issue of immigration. Like many immigrants, Luna wants to know what he can do to prevent being deported.

“I came here looking for a better life,” said Luna between speakers. “I want to see the politicians agree for legalizing everybody.”

TENANTS AND WORKERS United, the grassroots activist organization that champions the cause of immigrants in Arlandria, staffed the event with a handful of organizers to answer questions and offer solutions. According to Edgar Rivera, an organizer with the Arlandria-based group, none of the proposals that have been made in Congress are adequate for the needs of local immigrants.

“We don’t see any comprehensive reforms out there,” Rivera said. “If one comes up, we’ll support it.”

For Rivera, “comprehensive reform” means that all the currently undocumented workers who are already here get to stay. They would be put on track to become citizens — a process that Rivera said is only fair for the hardworking immigrants who form the backbone of the Washington-area service economy.

“If the issue was about European immigration, it would be different,” Rivera said. “There is an element of racism here.”

Evelin Urrutia, an organizer with Tenants and Workers United, agrees that the immigration debate is tinged with racism against Hispanic people. She said that events like the one last weekend were important to spread the word about the potential threats that face immigrants in Arlandria.

“Who is doing the cleaning here?” Urrutia asked, pointing toward the bathrooms at the Cora Kelly Recreation Center. “What happens if they leave? Who will take their jobs?”

Urrutia said that undocumented workers who are already here should be able to stay. But none of the proposals currently before Congress meet this description, which is the reason that her organization and others are working this summer to organize a grassroots movement around the issue of immigration.

“It’s important for all immigrants to talk about how these proposals will affect us,” Urrutia said. “People immigrate here because they are looking for a better life, and they should be allowed to stay.”

IMMIGRATION HAS HISTORICALLY been one of the strengths of America, with diverse foreign populations mingling on the North American continent since the 17th century. Historians cite immigration in the country’s early days as a vital element in the formation of the United States as a land of opportunity and as its emergence as a world power. For example, a huge influx of European immigrants from 1880 to 1920 helped provide a continuous labor supply that was necessary to transform the nation from an agricultural society to an industrial powerhouse.

“We are a country of immigrants,” said Jorge Osterling, a professor of education and human development at George Mason University. “Throughout the history of this country, there has been many waves of immigration.”

Before 1875, anyone from a foreign country could freely enter the United States and take up permanent residence. Since that time, Congress enacted a series of restrictions based on race and national origin. In 1929, the National Origins Formula capped annual immigration at 150,000 and excluded Asians from entering the country. In 1952, the Immigration and Nationality Act reaffirmed national origin as the central criterion for eligibility. In 1986, the Immigration Reform and Control Act established a one-year amnesty program for illegal immigrants and criminalized the practice of hiring illegal immigrants. But the piecemeal approach hasn’t solved the problem of illegal immigration, which has spiked in recent years as demand for labor has grown.

“The reason we have 11 or 12 million undocumented workers in this country is because there is a big demand for labor in the service industry and agribusiness,” Osterling said. “The fact is that countless businessmen have employed these workers illegally for many years, and the government has turned a blind eye.”

IN DECEMBER, the United States House of Representatives passed a controversial measure to address the issue of illegal immigration. Sponsored by U.S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), HR 4437 would raise penalties for illegal immigration and classify illegal aliens as felons. It also required the federal government to take custody of illegal aliens detained by local authorities, ending the practice of “catch and release” in which federal officials instruct local law enforcement agencies to release detained illegal aliens because resources to prosecute them are not available.

U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter (D-Calif.) added an amendment to the bill that required up to 700 miles of fence along the Mexican border at points with the highest number of illegal immigrant crossings.

“Immigration is not going to be solved by building a new Berlin Wall,” Osterling said. “That’s a symbolic way of addressing concerns about immigration, which is an incredibly complex and multidimensional issue.”

Sensenbrenner’s bill sparked months of protest, as millions of protesters hit the streets of major American cities to oppose the House version of immigration reform. Meanwhile, a more moderate approach emerged in the Senate that included a path to citizenship for undocumented workers. The impasse between the House and Senate killed the reform for now, with members of Congress waiting until after the November election to take action.

“By January or February of next year, we are going to have a whole new bunch of laws,” said Elsa Riveros, a fundraiser with the Tenants and Workers United. “So this summer is crucial for us.”

Riveros said that she thinks efforts to target undocumented workers are prompted by a nativist impulse that many politicians are seizing on to gain popularity.

“We keep hearing about the American Dream, but what is the American Dream?” Riveros asked as the Cora Kelly event was drawing to a close on Saturday afternoon. “Is it for everybody or is it just for people with light-colored skin?”