Immigration Activists Clash at Queer Democratic Club

Immigration-rights attorney Lilia Velasquez and Mary Moreno Richardson, reverend canon of St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral, were brought in to speak at the predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club May 24. While they largely agreed on the need to protect immigrants' rights against abusive Border Patrol enforcement and private Minuteman vigilantism, they disagreed dramatically on the merits of the current "compromise" immigration bill before the U.S. Senate. Richardson hailed the bill as a start for a long-needed discussion on the issue, while Velasquez denounced it as repressive and said that no bill at all would be better for immigrants than the one being proposed now.

Mary Moreno Richardson
Mary Moreno Richardson
Lilia Velasquez
Lilia Velasquez
Activists Clash Over Immigration at Queer Democratic Club


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Lilia Velasquez, immigration rights attorney and adjunct professor at California Western School of Law; and Mary Moreno Richardson, daughter of undocumented immigrants and reverend canon at St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral near Balboa Park, were supposed to be part of the same program at the May 24 meeting of the predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club. But, though they agreed on a lot — including the need for humane treatment and civil-rights protection of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S. and their opposition to the Minutemen and similar racist anti-immigrant vigilante groups — they came to dramatically different views on the so-called “compromise” bill on immigration currently being debated in the U.S. Senate.

Velasquez gave an in-depth, point-by-point analysis of the bill and said that its total effect would be a disaster for humane immigration policy. According to Velasquez, the bill would weaken the rights of families under current immigration law, create a guest-worker program that would rival the abuses under the bracero program (in which Mexicans were imported as farm workers from 1942 to 1964, and some braceros report that 43 years later they still haven’t received all the money due them for their work) and do more of what hasn’t worked before: border fences, additional Border Patrol agents and sanctions against employers who hire undocumented workers.

Richardson, who throughout her presentation went for the heart while Velasquez had aimed at the brain, was guardedly optimistic about the current bill and said it meant that “we’re finally at the table from both sides. There’s a lot of work to be done because a lot of what’s being asked for is not practical. A lot of politicians have used this issue, and all they’ve created is more racism. Hopefully, we can sit down and work this out. … The big picture is we should all share and love each other. The bill is something they threw together and hoped might pass.”

Velasquez, on the other hand, said the current Senate “compromise” bill was so badly flawed she’d rather see no bill at all. She said that if Congress doesn’t act this year, they probably won’t revisit the issue in 2008 because it will be an election year, and by 2009 there will be a new president and maybe the political climate will be more favorable for a genuinely positive reform. Velasquez argued that the structure of the current proposal is based on leftover dissatisfaction from Congress’s last major overhaul of immigration law, the Simpson-Mazzoli bill of 1986, which provided amnesty for the estimated three million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. then and in return was supposed to sanction employers who hired undocumented workers. The amnesty happened; the employer sanctions didn’t.

“Now we have 12 million, and President Bush has said it would take 70 years to deport 12 million people,” Velasquez said. “That’s the big question. We can’t deport them, and we don’t want to give them ‘amnesty’ because House Republicans say we’re ‘rewarding criminals’ if we give them any kind of legal status.” Velasquez reviewed the four so-called “triggers” contained in the currently proposed Immigration Reform and Control Act: “First, you have to certify you’ve achieved ‘border security’ before the rest can be implemented, which is why Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is staging raids on undocumented immigrants. The second trigger is increasing the Border Patrol. The third is employer verification, and the fourth is setting up a ‘tamper-resistant’ national ID card, like they had in the former Soviet Union.”

Velasquez made no secret of her opinion that the so-called “border security” provisions won’t actually secure the border. She cited immigration authority Professor Wayne Cornelius’s study that “Operation Gatekeeper and the triple border fence have not stopped people from coming.” According to Velasquez, the tamper-resistant national ID isn’t needed for employer verification and could be used to facilitate discrimination against Latino citizens, documented immigrants and undocumented immigrants alike. “If employer sanctions have not worked in 21 years, why would you think they would work now?” she asked.

In return for the four “triggers,” Velasquez said, the proposal offers not one but two guest-worker programs. One, for agricultural workers, duplicates a program that’s already available under current law but which most growers don’t use because they find it too bureaucratic and cumbersome. The agricultural worker program in the proposal “would not allow people to get permanent status in the future,” Velasquez explained — saying that this would make it another bracero program, as abusive to workers’ rights and income as the original.

The other guest-worker program, Velasquez said, would “gut the family reunification system” at the heart of current immigration law by dramatically restricting which relatives an immigrant who’d become a citizen or achieved legal residency could sponsor. Instead, it would assign legal visas on the basis of a “point-count” system similar to those used now in Britain, Canada and Australia. “They give you points if you speak the language [English] and/or have certain job skills,” she explained. According to Velasquez, the point-count system hasn’t worked in the other countries that have tried it and there’s no reason to think it would work here.

“Finally, there’s the so-called ‘Z visa,’ which is giving the Republicans fits,” Velasquez explained. “For $5,000, they give you a temporary card for five years, which can be renewed for four years for another $5,000. Then there’s a ‘touchback’ provision that says you have to return to your country of origin and report to the American consulate there, and then you can return. In 13 years you can get full legal status.” Velasquez said she thinks the reason the fines are so stiff is “a weeding-out process” to ensure that only the most successful or affluent immigrants can win permanent status and the much-ballyhooed “path to citizenship.”

“We think we’re better off with the bad status quo than with a bill that will make things worse,” Velasquez said. “We’re hoping it won’t happen this year. I think the issue is too controversial for any of the presidential candidates to take it on next year. If it doesn’t pass this year, it probably won’t happen until 2009, and until then we’ll have the Minutemen and all that chaos.”

Asked if she thought the Senate bill would help immigrants if it passed, Richardson was a good deal mellower about it than Velasquez had been. She said she wasn’t as bothered by the $5,000 fee for the Z visa because “these people are paying that much money to a coyote (smuggler) to get them across the border in the first place.” She also pointed out that immigration is a worldwide issue, not just one restricted to the U.S.; “I’ve talked to kids from Guatemala who’ve been abused by police in Mexico.”

Richardson accompanied her talk with a PowerPoint presentation consisting mostly of pictures she took while on the Marcha Migrante Dos, organized by Border Angels founder Enrique Morones as a follow-up to his nationwide march in 2006 calling for a humane alternative to the punitive anti-immigrant bill passed in late 2005 by the then Republican-controlled House of Representatives. This year’s march was a bit less ambitious — instead of criss-crossing the entire country it focused on the U.S.-Mexico border and traveled its entire length, from San Diego to Brownsville, Texas.

Much of her recollection was of their run-ins with the Minutemen along the way — and the incredible level of their pettiness and hatred. “There’s a cemetery in Orange County where they bury the immigrants who have died,” Richardson said. “We put up crosses and flowers, and the Minutemen came in and took the crosses and flowers away. One lady found the flowers on the side where the Minutemen had thrown then, got them and put them back.”

The march moved on to Phoenix, where they joined in a vigil by a local group which had reserved a full block for a vigil for immigrants’ rights; and to Tucson, “where there’s an adobe wall where people leave flowers and crosses,” Richardson recalled. “I met a Maryknoll nun whom I’d met before at the United Nations, lobbying for the status of women and against human trafficking, and the next year I went to the U.N. but she didn’t. She was serving a six-month prison sentence for protesting the School of the Americas.”

In El Paso, their march was greeted by the city’s mayor, “an Irish-Catholic who said he would do whatever it takes not to have a fence put up on their part of the border,” Richardson said. “In a lot of the places we came to, the mayors would come and meet us. We stopped at every city and planted crosses — and every time we stopped the Border Patrol would also come up, stop and watch us.”

Richardson said she’s involved in a wide variety of projects to raise awareness of the rights of undocumented immigrants, including an art group where teenage girls paint themselves as the Virgin of Guadalupe. She boasted that she took some of their pictures with her when she went to the U.N. this year. On one of her U.N. trips, she said, “I met a woman from Mexico City who had the second highest position of any woman at the U.N. She took me to Michóacan, where whole villages are almost totally empty because so many people have migrated.”

She showed a slide of one such village — the picture of empty buildings and streets was indeed worth more than 1,000 words — and also pictures of their regular confrontations with the Minutemen outside the Home Depot store where many undocumented immigrants are hired as day laborers. Asked if anyone is documenting the Minutemen’s desecration of shrines to deceased immigrants and their strident confrontations with immigrant-rights supporters, Richardson said that the Minutemen are doing it themselves because they’re proud of it. “There are all kinds of stuff on YouTube,” she stated. “You can go on their Web site and see it.”

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