As President Joe Biden was inaugurated at the nation’s Capitol, San Jose residents gathered to demand legal status for the country’s 11 million undocumented residents.
“What do we want?” they shouted. “Papers! When do we want them? Now!”
Local advocates since November have pressed the Biden administration to prioritize comprehensive immigration reform, including a pathway to citizenship for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, ending ICE raids and reuniting separated families.
“The message today is that we want papers for everyone,” said Salvador “Chava” Bustamante, executive director of Latinos United for a New America (LUNA). The San Jose-based nonprofit organizes Latino residents to lobby for local, state and federal legislation related to poverty and immigration.
Bustamante helped organize the protest along with many groups — including San Jose-based Amigos de Guadalupe, Decolonial Action Lab, La Voz de los Trabajadores and Pangea Legal Services — to organize a car caravan protest to San Jose City Hall from Emma Prusch Farm in East San Jose on Wednesday. The protest, attended by more than 100 people, was scheduled for the date of Biden’s inauguration in order to pressure the new administration to enact immigration reform as soon as possible. About 140,000 undocumented immigrants lived in the San Jose area as of 2016, according to Pew Research.
Gabriel Manrique, a community organizer in East San Jose who works with LUNA, said he remembers when former president Barack Obama and then-vice president Biden were elected in 2008 and advocates were hopeful changes were on the horizon.
“Democrats won control of both the Senate and the House (of Representatives),” Manrique said. “Unfortunately, nothing happened.”
The Obama administration enacted the DACA program in 2012, which gave temporary protection to undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children. Manrique said while the program was welcomed, it only addressed the needs of roughly 1 million of the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants, many of whom have lived and worked in the country for decades.
“We have a lot of people who’ve been waiting 10, 20, 30 years for a green card,” Manrique said. “Most undocumented immigrants can’t apply to the program.”
On his first day on the job, Biden introduced the Citizenship Act of 2021, which gives undocumented immigrants the ability to apply for a green card, or lawful permanent resident status, in five years if they pass background checks and pay taxes. They could apply for U.S. citizenship after holding a green card for three years and passing additional background checks.
Under the legislation, DACA residents, agricultural workers and people with temporary protected status would be able to apply for legal status immediately. It also would boost border security with screening technologies and deliver financial aid to Central American countries.
The ambitious immigration reform bill would be the most sweeping immigration reform package since the 1980s.
But Manrique said five years is too long a wait for most undocumented residents, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic.
“COVID-19 has affected all people,” Manrique said. “(Undocumented people) don’t have money for rent, but they also don’t have the stimulus check… They don’t receive any help at all.”
Undocumented workers pay $120 billion per year in local, state and federal taxes, according to the Center for American Progress, many using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number rather than a Social Security number.
But despite paying taxes, as well as billions in rent and mortgage payments, undocumented residents do not receive the same benefits as legal residents.
Luis Moreno, an organizer with Decolonial Action Lab and an undocumented San Jose resident, said living without legal status in the United States during the pandemic is like living “in a sci-fi dystopian movie.”
“We are treated as second-class citizens,” Moreno said. “We are not asking for a favor; we are asking that they recognize who we are.”
Veronica Avendaño, an organizer and undocumented resident who’s lived in San Jose for 20 years, said through a translator that she’s been lucky to have remained employed during most of the pandemic. However, when she was temporarily furloughed for three months between March and June, she had no access to unemployment insurance, rent relief or other services.
“I would like better immigration reform, because politicians make promises but do very little,” Avendaño said. ““Enough lies from presidents.”
Contact Sonya Herrera at [email protected] or follow @SMHsoftware on Twitter.