A few weeks ago, I went back home to Los Angeles to host a conversation on immigration reform. More than 300 people packed the auditorium at East Los Angeles College (ELAC).
The immigration issue in communities like this one is about a lot more than numbers. For families in this neighborhood, it represents a daily struggle guided by great uncertainty, anxiety, and fear.
I was raised by immigrant parents in a town about fifteen minutes from ELAC, so I’m familiar with this story. Not surprisingly, many in the audience were, too. I heard about families that had been separated; about fearful workers who had been treated terribly; and about brilliant students, with big dreams who can’t make them come true. It broke my heart. It made me think about my story – about the people who raised me and how much they’ve meant to my life.
Storytelling is one way to learn about the immigration issue, one way to connect with it, and with each other. Stories help link our commonality – our common struggles, goals and victories. Stories bring us closer as people. But they also provide a unique framework from which to better make the case for 21st century immigration reform.
So I’m happy that panelists and audience-members alike were able to share them.
But we can’t just preach to the choir. We need to make sure that everyone – especially those who disagree – know about the many ways immigrants contribute to the wealth and prosperity of our nation.
Immigrant families boost local economies and pay into social security. They create jobs as small business owners and entrepreneurs and file three times the number of patents. And research shows that immigrants are 30% more likely to form new businesses than U.S. born citizens. Immigrants build our roads and harvest crops. And yes, immigrants are driven, smart and some of the best students we have in this country.
We need to spotlight this side of the immigration debate, too. And we need to make sure that people know about the progress we’ve made under President Obama’s leadership. At the Labor Department we’ve signed several agreements with foreign consulates to provide added safeguards to vulnerable workers.
We’ve also launched a campaign to make it easier for vulnerable workers to know their rights – in many cases, to let them know they actually have rights – to be able to speak up on the job and file complaints. Through new revisions to our H2A farm worker program, we’ve provided increased protections for foreign workers who come here to harvest seasonally. And we’ve begun the process of certifying U Visas for victims of crimes like trafficking and involuntary servitude.
Additionally, the Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) recently issued a letter to all of its field offices and special agents in charge. It provided new guidance about the proper treatment of immigrants in a number of sensitive situations. It directed agents to pay particular attention to safeguarding the rights of victims of domestic violence, human trafficking, and other serious crimes – provisions that are particularly beneficial to immigrant women.
We need to do more. We have to take hold of the way people talk about this issue and about all immigrant people. We have to prove to all Americans that comprehensive reform is in our national interest. It starts with changing the conversation – with telling stories. President Obama gets that, and events like the one we hosted in Los Angeles are an important part of the process.