Alan Gomez, USA TODAY
As Congress prepares to resume debate on overhauling immigration laws, a group engages in a little civil disobedience to make their point about citizenship.
WASHINGTON — Maria Guadalupe Crespo recalls the hardship she endured while illegally crossing into the United States from Mexico 12 years ago.
Her group of about 20 people spent days evading Border Patrol agents in the southern Arizona desert. Hungry and dehydrated, by the time they reached their safe house the food that was waiting for them had spoiled and their one jug of water was nearly empty.
As Congress prepares to resume debate on a possible overhaul of immigration laws, Crespo was among seven undocumented immigrants who chained themselves to the gates outside the White House on Wednesday to protest deportations of people here illegally who had hoped to be legalized by now. One was her son.
"There is so much suffering in our communities. I don't want anyone else to experience what I've been through," said Crespo, 53, who lives in Atlanta.
Crespo and the others chained themselves to the fence Wednesday morning on the north side of the White House — a popular area where tourists flock to snap pictures and security is high.
An organizer working with the group said all seven were released by early Wednesday afternoon. Officials at Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not comment on their release, but the agency has generally not initiated deportation proceedings against other undocumented protesters in Washington in recent years, saying they prefer to focus their deportation efforts on those with extensive criminal records or pose a national security threat.
But their decision to focus their pressure on the Obama administration instead of House Republicans who control the fate of a proposed overhaul to the nation's immigration law has stirred a debate over how Washington should move ahead.
Marshall Fitz, director of immigration policy for the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington, said immigration advocates would be better served by keeping the pressure on House Republicans.
The Senate passed a sweeping immigration bill in July that would spend $46 billion to secure the border, revamp the nation's legal immigration system and allow the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants to apply for citizenship. Republicans in the House have advanced smaller bills that tackle border security and revamp the legal immigration system, but have not even filed a bill that addresses the fate of undocumented immigrants.
Fitz and others pushing for Congress to pass a bill think there's still time.
"To think that we've reached a point that you can declare the legislative process dead is, I think, shortsighted," he said. "Until that time, it makes no sense to shift the focus to something that would, at best, be a temporary form of relief when we are as close as we are to providing the type of lasting solution that has been the objective since Day One."
Marisa Franco, a campaign organizer for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, which organized Wednesday's action, said activists in Washington have been trying to get Congress to pass an immigration law for decades with no success. In the meantime, about 1,000 people a day are being deported by the Obama administration.
"Our community simply can't afford to put all our eggs in one basket," Franco said. "The D.C. Beltway might have a particular thinking that they have the right way, but when you talk to people whose lives hang in the balance every day ... they can't wait."
That's why her organization is pushing for Obama to expand on the program he created last year that defers the deportation of undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children, known as DREAMers. The new program has halted the deportations and given work permits to more than 450,000 undocumented immigrants.
The fact that immigration advocacy groups are shifting attention from Congress to the White House speaks volumes.
"To me, it's like 'All right, we won,' " said Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA, an Arlington-based think tank that advocates for lower levels of legal and illegal immigration.
On Tuesday night, President Obama was asked during an interview with the Spanish-language network Telemundo whether he would consider expanding his deportation-deferral program to more of the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants.
He answered that he was well within his rights as president to decide that undocumented immigrants who had no say in the way they immigrated to the U.S. should be allowed to stay. If he stopped deporting larger portions of the undocumented population, then, he said, his administration would risk violating immigration laws passed by Congress.
"What we can do is ... carve out the DREAM Act folks, saying young people who have basically grown up here are Americans that we should welcome," Obama told Telemundo. "We're not going to have them operate under a cloud, under a shadow. But if we start broadening that, then essentially I would be ignoring the law in a way that I think would be very difficult to defend legally. So that's not an option."
House Republicans say Obama is already skirting his duties to enforce immigration. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee that is handling many of the chamber's immigration bills, says any step Obama takes to stop the deportations of more undocumented immigrants would sabotage any hopes of an immigration bill reaching his desk.
"If the president unilaterally grants relief to the entire unlawful population, such an action would effectively kill immigration reform," Goodlatte said.
Instead, the chairman said, they would continue to "take the time to get immigration reform right."
For those who chained themselves to the White House gates Wednesday, that is too long.
Narciso Valenzuela Siriaco said he has seen an immigration police state build up over his 14 years working as a day laborer in Tucson. The day laborer was caught himself 10 years ago, leading to a deportation. He and some co-workers got lost earlier this year and ran into a Border Patrol checkpoint far from the border, initiating a new deportation case.
Because of all that, the married father of two boys — the oldest was brought to the U.S. illegally, the other was born here and is thus a U.S. citizen — understands that Wednesday's action could get him kicked out once again.
But he says he did it because he doesn't see another realistic way to accomplish the group's goal.
"Things have only gotten worse," said Siriaco, 38. "More police. More immigration. I'm doing this because we want to stop the deportations. With the grace of God, it will work."
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