The empty highway was lit up with floodlights. I slowed to a stop and rolled down the window. A young man with a twangy accent leaned into the air-conditioning and beamed his flashlight over my fast-food wrappers.
“You a citizen, ma’am?” he asked while a fellow border-patrol agent circled the car with a German shepherd.
A recent road trip from Albuquerque to Austin took me to the US side of the Rio Grande, a front line in our country’s political debate over immigration.
Checkpoints are an everyday occurrence along the Mexican border, but these days you don’t have to go to Texas to feel the intensity of this issue.
President Obama’s declaration in a Las Vegas speech that “now’s the time” for comprehensive immigration reform was seen as a call to action. Many predict there will be an immigration reform bill up for vote in 8-10 weeks.
It was the issue of the evening at a State of the Union watch party thrown by the immigrant rights organization OneAmerica and hosted by a local chapter of the Service Employees International Union in South Seattle.
“While it will still be a difficult fight, in some ways, compared to past years, we’re almost running downhill,” says Rich Stolz, executive director of OneAmerica.
Stolz was an immigration reform advocate in D.C. during the first push for immigration reform in the mid-2000s but says this time around it feels like there’s more bipartisan momentum.
“When such overwhelming majorities of Latinos and Asian Americans…voted in such overwhelming numbers for President Obama…I think that was a wake up call for Republicans,” says Stolz, taking a break from his computer set up at a folding table in a corner of the union hall.
“[Now] Republicans and Democrats are competing for attention on who is responsible for writing this bill.”
The audience at the watch party is young and diverse. Blue light from phones illuminate faces in the dark as people follow the speech on Twitter.
Jenesis Garcia, 16, is in the front row. For Garcia, whose parents came from Mexico before she was born, this issue is personal. Recently her mother faced deportation, prompting Garcia to become an activist.
Since then she has spoken to the school board on behalf of a resolution that would help secure financial aid for undocumented students; helped organize immigration reform Town Halls in her community and recently attended “Immigrants Day at the Capitol.”
“My mom was about to get deported and I was really scared about not seeing her and I thought ‘how can I help?’ ”
There may be growing bipartisan support for immigration reform when it comes to strengthening the border and opening up more visas for skilled workers.
But the fate of the millions of undocumented people currently in the United States (like Garcia’s mother, who is now on track to obtain legal residence) is sure to be a contentious issue.
After the speech, the audience was ambivalent.
Obama devoted five paragraphs (they were counting) to the issue of immigration. There was an emphasis on border security but no mention of prioritizing keeping families together over deportations–a potential sore spot for immigration-rights groups given that deportations have not slowed under the Obama administration.
Garcia wasn’t impressed by the speech. She says she gives it a grade of ‘C’ or maybe even lower, but she doesn’t want to be “that rude.”
“Their primary concern is family and community,” says Rep. Adam Smith who represents Washington’s newly drawn 9th district, which is home to a large population of immigrants, referring to the young immigration-rights activists he’s spoken with “Their primary concern is that current immigration laws are ripping families apart.”
Seattle may be a long way from that lonely southwestern highway dotted with white Border Patrol SUVs. But wherever you are, the immigration debate is in all of our backyards now.