What began as a campaign to keep University of Illinois-Chicago student Rigo Padilla in the country has morphed into something larger. Many of those same students are now turning their fear and frustration into an organizing campaign under the Immigrant Youth Justice League, setting their sights on helping to push national immigration reforms through Congress.
When Rigo Padilla, an undocumented Chicago college student, was facing deportation last year, the local campaign to keep him in the United States became intensely personal. And not just for Padilla. In the 21-year-old, thousands of young Illinoisans saw themselves and were reminded that playing by the rules and making their best effort was no guarantee for success. Rigo's case proved that merit doesn't exempt you from the harsh realities of America's broken immigration system.
As more high-profile officials -- from congressmen to city council members -- stood at their side, we watched numerous young immigrants step forward and tell their stories. These students opened up about their deepest fears: of their families being torn apart; of being sent back to countries they don't even remember; of failing their parents who sacrificed so much to bring them to the United States.
What began as a campaign to keep Padilla in the country has morphed into something larger. Many of those same students are now turning their fear and frustration into an organizing campaign under the Immigrant Youth Justice League, setting their sights on helping to push national immigration reforms through Congress. "We realize that if not now, it's going to be a long time before we have another chance," 18-year-old Reyna Wences tells us. "We feel like we're fighting for our lives."
The big goal for 2010 is to a pass a bill through both chambers of Congress by May, according to Salvador Cervantes, an organizer with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. The movement is going to need powerful allies on their side if they plan on moving Sen. Chuck Schumer's (D-NY) forthcoming bill through the upper chamber quickly. For that, they're calling on Illinois' own Sen. Dick Durbin -- a longtime advocate for reforms -- to flex his leadership muscles.
To up the pressure, the students have set a goal to send 10,000 Illinoisans to Capitol Hill on March 21 as part of a national campaign urging Congress and the White House to make immigration reform part of the 2010 political agenda. Getting those numbers to D.C. will be expensive. But during a single afternoon of phone banking this past Saturday, the students managed to raise $243,000. They also signed up enough people to fill 66 buses. One supporter even pledged to sell the family car to help raise money.
Last week, President Obama's State of the Union address included only one line on immigration reform, adding to the disillusionment of advocates. Illinois' Rep. Luis Gutierrez (who recently introduced his own immigration bill in the House) told the Washington Post: "There's almost universal consensus that ... it was too little. He was very weak on immigration, lackadaisical."
But organizers here in Illinois aren't backing down. Rather, they're turning this latest disappointment into action. "We've not seen this anger and energy of young people before," Cervantes tells us. "They know that we're the reason that [Democrats in Washington] are a majority now. We need to hold them accountable. We need to show that we won't be taken for granted."