Washington’s Undocumented Community Makes Its Stand

The Other Smoke-Filled Room

On a chilly March evening in Washington, DC’s Mt. Pleasant neighborhood, more than 20 activists, labor organizers and students packed into a small room at a Latin American diner called Haydee’s. The air was thick from sizzling fajita platters and filled with conversations in Spanish and English alike. The topic, as is usually the case with this small but passionate group, was immigration.

“We’re not ‘illegal!” Leticia Ramirez, a mother of three visiting from Arizona on a protest tour, told the group to applause. “We just want to work and raise our families!”

There are smoke-filled rooms in Washington, DC where lobbyists and senators meet in secret to negotiate the details of a national immigration bill. Then there’s Haydee’s, the smoke-filled room where the people whose lives hang in the balance gather. The restaurant serves as an informal base of operations for a network of local immigrant activists, many of whom are undocumented themselves.On this particular evening, the topic du jour was a bill being taken up by DC’s City Council to issue drivers licenses without making residents prove their legal status first. It’s an issue deeply important to many throughout the city, and to many in the room there.

“We’ve been working on the drivers license campaign for four years as well as other local issues,” Sarahi Uribe, a coordinator for the National Day Labor Organizing Network, told TPM. “But it also intersects with the national debate. Cities that are progressive really need to set an example for the rest of the country. If DC isn’t deporting people, other places will follow.”

“They live in this gray area. It’s like they’re floating. They can’t really do much and they’re scared all the time.”

Cindy Zavala, a junior at American University, told TPM these issues have taken on a greater urgency for her in recent years. Zavala was born in Alexandria, Va. to Salvadoran refugees. But many of her classmates from high school, where she was president of the Latino club, lack legal status and the implications have grown starker since graduation.

One of her friends with elite academic credentials and dreams of becoming a surgeon couldn’t apply for financial aid at most universities and ended up going to a nearby junior college — and even then she ran into trouble when the school discovered she was using a fake Social Security number. But she’s even more concerned about her old classmates who, seeing little alternative, have turned to off-the-books jobs to make their living.

“It can be awkward to go home,” she said. “They live in this gray area. It’s like they’re floating. They can’t really do much and they’re scared all the time. Even little things like driving can be terrifying since they don’t have a license.”

TPM spent a few days in March following some of the district’s immigration activists as they organized their local campaign. Their work serves as a reminder that immigration issues are hardly limited to border states like Arizona and Texas. In fact, members of Congress debating immigration reform are surrounded daily by a city of foreign-born residents whose lives will be drastically affected by their votes.

Washington, DC councilmember Jim Graham meets with immigration activists in March 2013.
Undocumented DC

A study by the Pew Hispanic Research Center estimated that between 20,000 and 30,000 undocumented immigrants lived in the district as of 2010, about one in every 20 to 25 residents overall. Within the city’s labor market, it’s about one in every 16 workers, one of the highest proportions in the nation. Prominent immigrant groups include DC’s rapidly growing Central American community, most of whom hail from El Salvador, and its significant African population, which is dominated by immigrants from Ethiopia.

Unlike states like Alabama, which have directed their own police to crack down on illegal immigration, DC’s government has an official policy of tolerance towards its undocumented population, making it one of the so-called “sanctuary cities” often derided on the right in political debates.

“Our laws are a little more immigrant friendly,” Roxana Olivas, director of the District of Columbia’s Office on Latino Affairs, told TPM when asked about the undocumented community. Olivas noted that Mayor Vincent Gray issued an executive order barring police from asking about residents’ immigration status, for example. The city council also passed a measure last year limiting a federal program that calls on local police to detain suspected immigration offenders.

Another factor boosting immigration of all kinds is the region’s economy, which has fared significantly better than the nation at large since the 2008 financial collapse. The resulting recession led many migrant workers to leave the country for lack of work.

Lila Zamora, 25, left El Salvador three years ago after her father died, leaving her mother and siblings without a primary breadwinner. With economic opportunities for women scarce back home, she headed to DC in hopes of providing them some support.

“I have dreams for myself,” she told TPM. “I want to be an independent woman and to help my family.”

Unlike states like Alabama, DC’s government has an official policy of tolerance towards its undocumented population.

Zamora sports a perpetually bright smile and seems to have an endless well of energy. It’s a major asset. To make ends meet, she has to work two restaurant jobs, one as a busser and another as a server. In her spare time, she takes classes in English at Carlos Rosario International, a local charter school that caters to recent immigrants. Her dream is to build up her skills enough to apply to a culinary arts program and become a chef.

But there are still barriers to being able to live and work normally. One of the biggest revolves around just getting a piece of identification, and Zamora is volunteering her time with the activist community to lobby on behalf of the license bill.

Similar legislation has been controversial in other states, but the latest legislation in the city council has significant momentum. Neighboring Maryland passed a bill in its assembly on Friday loosening eligibility requirements for licenses. The district’s own lawmakers appear interested in following suit themselves.

For undocumented immigrants, having a license can have such an impact on one’s daily life that it’s discussed with almost talismanic reverence. It’s not just that it allows individuals to drive without fear — a valid state ID is often necessary to apply for jobs, open a bank account, or apply for housing. When Washington Post journalist Jose Antonio Vargas came out as an undocumented immigrant in 2011, a large portion of his essay describing his struggles dealt specifically with his efforts to obtain an ID, which he wrote “meant everything to me — it would let me drive, fly and work.”

“I would not have been a reporter for eight years without a drivers license,” Vargas told TPM. “I was only able to cover the presidential campaign for the Post because I got a license from Oregon.”

Immigration activists crowd the office of Washington, DC councilmember Mary Cheh.
A DREAMer Melting Pot

Just as immigrants around the country have turned themselves into a lobbying powerhouse in Congress over the last decade, DC’s immigrants have benefited from an activist boom of their own.

One advantage the immigrant community in DC has is that the city is already a magnet for politically minded transplants from around the country, many of whom honed their organizing craft for years before moving. The usual flow of idealistic young transplants who come to DC for school, advocacy jobs, or legal work, brings with it a number of 20-somethings with immigrant backgrounds as well, many of whom have lent their political savvy to local causes on the side.

In recent years, the intense interest surrounding the DREAM Act, which if passed would provide eventual citizenship for accomplished illegal immigrants who came to America as children, has helped funnel new arrivals into a tight-knit circle.

Jennifer Angarita, a Colombian immigrant, arrived in DC after graduating from Yale in 2010 just as the DREAM Act was heading towards its final vote in the 112th Congress. She had already been active in the DREAMer community in her native Texas and at school in Connecticut, and it wasn’t long before she had connected with an array of fellow immigrant activists in the Washington area through Facebook, Twitter, and message boards. Having personally endured a long journey through the molasses of the family-based visa system, Angarita found they had plenty to talk about.

“It was reassuring to find people right as the DREAM Act went to Congress,” she said. “Just the experience of going through the immigration process, lacking access to travel to see family, the infinite ways your life is restricted — it can be hard to relate. Having people in your life going through it can be transformative.”

In late 2010, the DREAM Act died in the Senate, leaving the short term prospects for any kind of immigration reform bleak as Republicans took over the House the next January. With national legislation stalled, Angarita’s “Capitol Dream Team” began to take a stronger interest in local issues affecting the community, like protecting people from deportation, directing legal and health services to those in need, and passing a drivers license bill.

“There were a lot of immigration groups in DC, but they handled national politics,” Alejandra Saenz, 23, an early Capitol Dream Team member who moved from Massachusetts, told TPM. “I became involved because even though we had so many major organizations around, there wasn’t enough being done on the local level.”

Washington, DC councilmember Mary Cheh speaks to immigration activists at her office.
Activism In Action

Two days after dinner at Haydee’s, much of the same crowd gathered at the John A. Wilson building on Pennsylvania Avenue, where the DC City Council meets. Their goal was to meet with members and staff about advancing the drivers license bill, which enjoys strong support but has yet to be scheduled for a vote.

To save time they started to split up: several purple-clad SEIU workers formed one group, while the rest, led by Uribe moved to the other side of the room. Before they could take off, however, one of their prime targets entered through the front door in thick winter clothes: former Mayor and current Councilman Marion Barry, who delivered a few impromptu words of encouragement.

Uribe led her group to the office of bowtied Councilman Jim Graham, whose Ward 1 district includes a number of heavily Central American neighborhoods.

Graham’s vote is not a problem; he’s sponsoring the bill. Upon joining the group in his office, he asked them to explain the difference an ID would make to their community to help get a sense of their needs. One mother described how she feared she wouldn’t be able to drive her son to the hospital in an emergency. Another woman said she was turned down for an apartment because the landlord wouldn’t accept a foreign passport as identification. A younger participant relayed a common complaint from immigrants in her age group — that it’s nerve-wracking using a passport to get into a bar or club knowing how difficult it would be to replace if it were stolen.

“There are 13 members of this council, 10 — diez — of whom are supporting this bill,” Graham said after hearing their stories. “That puts us in a very strong position to move quickly.”

“It gives us more options, more confidence in applying, and it reduces exploitation. It’s very difficult to get a bank account without one.”

That was great news to the group, especially given that similar legislation has been a tough sell even in relatively progressive states. One of the first chinks in Hillary Clinton’s armor during the 2008 primaries came after she waffled on a drivers license proposal in her own state, which ended up failing despite support from then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D-NY).

But majority support doesn’t mean a bill will pass. The next step, Graham explained, was to get Councilwoman Mary Cheh to hold a hearing in her committee on the bill as a prerequisite to a vote. And with budget issues taking up most of the council’s time these days, it could be difficult to get the bill past the finish line before summer recess on July 15. The group left determined to pin members down on the timing.

One of the participants was Carlos Castillo, a recent immigrant from Peru who was nursing a bum arm that had kept him from his usual work doing odd jobs outside a department store. But he was also leading an effort to organize his fellow day laborers and he described to TPM how the ID issue was holding them back.

“We need it to acquire better jobs,” he said. “It gives us more options, more confidence in applying, and it reduces exploitation. It’s very difficult to get a bank account without one.”

As the group met with staffers for more council members, they kept hearing the same refrain. The bill has the support of the council, including mayoral candidate Muriel Bowser and Chairman Phil Mendelson, but they’ve heard that Cheh had “reservations” about scheduling a hearing. One aide said she might have new concerns about some of the language in the bill.

By the end of their third meeting, Uribe was growing concerned. Gathering up as many participants as possible — about two dozen — she marched into Cheh’s office ready to demand a hearing ASAP. Cheh spotted the large crowd from a meeting room and walked out to greet them.

“We’ve come here in force,” Uribe told Cheh, pointing to the activists around her. It was a tense scene. But one quickly defused as Cheh immediately identified and addressed their concerns.

“We’ll probably set up a hearing in May,” she said.

Uribe changed gears.

“We also came to thank you!” she said.

The gang left the office happy. It was just another small rung on the legislative ladder, but one that could lead to a dramatic improvement in their quality of life and all in just a few weeks time. Congress may produce far broader reform eventually, but DC’s immigrant activists aren’t going to waste their time holding their breath while there’s change sitting right in front of them.

Photographs by Benjy Sarlin. DC map by Donald Sawvel / Shutterstock