U.S. Rep. T.J. Cox spent the early part of the day watching as Sanger veterans and local officials broke ground on what is expected to be a park and veterans memorial at the corner of Indianola and Jensen avenues.
Then a couple hours later on March 20, he sat in on an immigration roundtable discussion, featuring folks from all the way down in Bakersfield, to talk about one of the most divisive issues in partisan politics. Members of the panel all gathered in the back meeting room at the SAM Academy, where children learn science, music and hands-on robotics, on N Street in downtown Sanger.
“There’s one thing we all know we need to do — immigration policy,” Cox said to start the meeting. “There’s so much more to do.”
On one wall of Jerry Valadez’s academy meeting room, intricate masks created by students looked upon the assemblage, most from immigrant advocacy groups. From the other, a replica 1940 mural by Diego Rivera, depicting the struggle of laborers in the age of mechanization, witnessed the proceedings.
Cox, a Democrat who represents California’s 21st Congressional District, said it was his job to take “your voice and your issues and turn them into policy.”
Those attending included Father Lupe Rios of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Selma, Marichel Mejia and Vicente Reyes of the UFW Foundation, Willie Lopez of the SAM Academy board of directors, Karla Arana and Andy Levine of Faith in the Valley, Raul Garcia and Joseph Villela of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, Josefa Vega and Jeremy Barousse of Services Immigrant Rights & Education Network and others.
Cox immediately brought up what he called priority legislation, HR 6, a bill referred to as the Dream and Promise Act. The proposal combines a previous legalization bill for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, with a pathway some immigrants with Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, can use to apply for permanent legal status.
While HR 6 has little chance of making it through the Senate and getting Pres. Donald Trump’s signature, it does register immigration as a priority for Democrats as the 2020 election season gets into full swing. Cox also said the bill represents just part of the immigration issue. For instance, many within the immigrant community would like to open access to citizenship for those who have lived in the country illegally, in some cases, for decades.
Cox said the issue is one he can relate to. “My dad’s from China, mom from the Philippenes,” he said.
Mejia said there are about 7,500 DACA recipients in the 21st district. The Migration Policy Institute estimates there are about 700,000 DACA recipients nationwide as of August 2018 and about 1.3 million eligible. The institute estimated 200,150 recipients in California, representing about half those eligible.
Reyes, 19, is a Dreamer. He said he realizes his stay in this country remains tenuous. “I have to explain to my little brother that it’s OK if I don’t come home,” he said. “He started crying.” Reyes came to this country as a 4-year-old while his two little brothers were born here.
“Really, the injustice or the inhumanity of putting a young man through that anguish,” Cox said, responding. “You’re as much of an American as my kids.”
Lopez said he came from an indigenous background. “When I was 3 or 4, I saw my dad arrested,” he said. “Deported.”
But Lopez, 67, grew up in Sanger, graduating with 4.2 grade point average. “I got into all the Ivy League schools,” he said. “But I didn’t graduate from anything.”
The difficulty in getting college loans as a noncitizen contributed to his only getting close to a degree in psychology. He was, he said, 60 units shy. He said he’s too old to be DACA, but that his immigration status prevented his full participation in the American dream. “I worked for a long time,” he said. “But it was like driving with the brakes on. Fear kept me from going farther.”
Lopez eventually got a green card and an honorary doctorate.
Cox said the best way to help is through the ballot box. “We have to put pressure on the other side,” he said. “They know what they need to do.”
Gaby Encinas, coordinator of the Dream Success Center at Fresno State, said about 700 students at Fresno State qualify for DACA. “We’re running out of options,” she said. Former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in September 2017 that DACA would be terminated. However, multiple lawsuits challenged the decision and recipients can continue to renew their protected status.
“A question I ask my colleagues is how can you not support it (HR 6),” Cox said. “DACA is being used as a bargaining chip for a border wall, and that’s not going to happen.”
Arana also identified as a Dreamer. “I always hear this conversation that ‘It’s not your fault. You didn’t choose to come here,’” she said. But she said her parents need a pathway to citizenship, too. “I’m glad there’s something,” she said, pausing. “That’s going to happen.”
Levine said loved ones of DACA recipients also need to be protected.
“There should be a path for everyone,” Cox said. He said the economic loss of deportation could balloon into the hundreds of millions for the country. The California Budget & Policy Center estimated the state’s DACA workers contribute between $6.5 billion and $10.3 billion annually. The loss in the 21st district would be $404.7 million annually, according to USC’s Dornsife Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration.
“We need a system to get them out of the shadows,” Cox said.
Reyes said illegal immigrants suffer for their status. He said he has worked in the fields for different crops, many times when he was too young and had to hide in the car when the boss came around. Likewise, he said workers fear taking a break because they might get fired do so at the cost of their health.
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