Christopher Lewiswas speaking to a group of students at Mount Vernon High School last spring. Some of the students had participated in April protests that took place across the region over proposed changes in U.S. immigration laws. He was impressed by the students’ passion and knowledge about the issue. “Young people were actually interested in what was going on in congress and the state house,” he said. Lewis is the state director of Generation Engage, a non-profit, non-partisan organization seeking to draw young Americans into the political process. He is working to expand the group’s activities into Northern Virginia. After the meeting the Mount Vernon students, he thought to himself, “Since [immigration] has the attention of the young people, why not get them involved through it?”
Meanwhile, Cristina Schoendorf, the executive director of Progreso Hispano, a non-profit located on Route 1 that helps immigrants learn English and attain citizenship, was searching for a way to encourage her clients to feel more connected to the politicians making decisions that effect every aspect of their lives, including whether they will remain in America.
Schoendorf was referred to Lewis, and on July 14, after several months of planning, Progreso Hispano and Generation Engage took a big step towards helping area residents experience a more visceral sense of participation in American politics. Rep. James Moran (D-8th) and State Attorney General Robert McDonnell (R) met at Progreso’s headquarters on Mohawk Lane to describe their stances on immigration issues and to answer questions from participants.
Schoendorf said she hoped both sides would learn from the event. “We’re hoping that this generates some activism and some citizenship responsibilities within the immigrant community,” she said. “And we want to put a face on immigration for Congressman Moran and the Attorney General.”
At the forum, Moran and McDonnell had many faces too chose from. More than fifty people jammed into Progreso’s small conference room to hear the two officials speak. Men and women were pressed against the walls and huddled outside the door.
“Young people don’t suffer from a lack of interest,” said Lewis as he introduced the two guests. “They suffer from a lack of access … Demonstrations speak loudly, but direct access is really what you need to make a difference.”
WHEN DESCRIBING his platform, Moran said he was the grandson of Irish immigrants and pointed out the immigrant origins of everyone present who was not descended from American Indians. He said that historically immigrants have performed a “disproportionate” amount of the labor for the country, and been paid less compared to Americans whose ancestors had arrived in preceding generations. “And that’s how it is today,” he concluded. He said that immigrant employees were vital to many Northern Virginia industries, which would “collapse” without them.
Moran labeled as “un-American” the efforts of some politicians to criminalize aid to undocumented immigrants and to deport millions of them. He said he supported the McCain-Kennedy legislation on immigration and its requirements that all immigrants should learn English.
Moran said that as a security measure, the United States should issue tamper-proof, national identification cards to everyone in the country. “We need to know who’s here,” he explained.
He also called for undocumented immigrants to be given in-state tuition to colleges and said a greater emphasis needs to be placed on making sure all children get an elementary and high school education that will allow them to succeed.
Moran said he opposes a guest-worker program that would allow people to live in America temporarily in order to do a specific job. He said a similar approach had failed in Europe, alienated immigrant workers by making them think “they didn’t belong.”
“Everyone that’s here should be on a path to citizenship,” Moran said. “If you can’t vote, you’re marginalized.”
MCDONNELL, a Mount Vernon native, began by describing his roots in the area. Pointing out the window towards a chicken restaurant on Route 1, he said his first job was in a Dairy Queen that used to be at that site.
After invoking America’s identity as a nation if immigrants, McDonnell said he supported “legal, organized immigration … We need to do everything we can to encourage that.” He explained that his stance on immigration is conditioned by his position. As Attorney General, he said, “I’m a law enforcement officer.” He noted that seven of the 19 hijackers of September 11 carried fake Virginia driver’s licenses.
McDonnell had four recommendations for improving immigration law.
He said the country’s first priority must be to improve border security.
He then called for immigration procedures to be streamlined. “We need a coherent … easy way to navigate the federal system for visas and guest-worker permits,” he said. Next he called for better enforcement of all immigration laws. Finally, he called for America to “embrace the melting pot.” He said a key component of integrating all cultures and nationalities was a common language. He called English, “the currency that makes everyone successful.”
WHEN THE AUDIENCE had the opportunity to ask questions, most people focused on the confusion and complexity of the path to citizenship, and the “wall” as one questioner put it, created by out-of-state college tuition fees that prevent many high school graduates from going on to earn a higher degree and breaking out of a cycle of low-wage jobs.
Moran reiterated his support for in-state tuition for illegal immigrants, but McDonnell said he opposed it because of his legal interpretation of what the effects of such a law would be. He said he believed granting in-state tuition to undocumented residents would make it impossible for schools to charge out-of –state tuition to anyone.
When Claudia Evans took the microphone, she described herself as the wife and the mother of U.S. citizens. “I cam here because I fell in love with a U.S. citizen,” she said. But the native of Honduras said she and her husband had to wait one year before their request for a fiancé visa was granted. In the meantime, she could not visit her fiancé in the U.S. because she could not have a tourist visa while her application was pending. After finally arriving in America and getting married in November 2004, Evans had to wait one year and three months for her conditional residency visa. She said the wait was nerve-wracking because she was not convinced the temporary papers she had to reapply for would keep her from being deported.
“These are the things that we go through,” she told the elected officials. “I do want to become a U.S. citizen. I want to affect the laws that affect my son.”
In response to another questioner, Moran reiterated the importance of the right to vote and criticized the effectiveness of other forms of political influence, at least on the subject of immigration. He said he thought no amount of activism would influence government leaders to change their stances on immigration. “I don’t think, frankly, that we’re going to change the views of people that are in power today,” Moran said. “Help elect people who have a different point-of-view.”
PARTICIPANTS and organizers said the forum was a success.
“We thought we should do this because our families have questions, Hispanics have questions,” said Anna Espinoza. She said she wondered how the 12 million immigrants estimated to be in America without visas could earn their citizenship when it had taken one member of her family 20 years to do the same thing.
“It’s a great experience,” said Evans, about having the opportunity to tell some of her elected leaders about her struggles as an immigrant.
Schoendorf said that the number of participants “went way beyond my expectations.”
“The place was packed,” said Progreso Board member James Dunn.
Lewis said Generation Engage was also pleased with the event. “We were really happy,” he said. “We thought the questions were good … We hope that makes an impact.”