Jessica Bravo has changed the nation’s immigration debate in a fundamental way.
With immigration legislation once again in play, Bravo has come out of the shadows and is urging more than 11 million other undocumented U.S. residents to do the same.
And this “dreamer” is not alone.
Given the heightened Latino vote turnout in last November’s elections, activists like Bravo, who became an advocate through her support of the California DREAM Act in 2011, are now benefiting from the political muscle of organized labor and religious leaders.
“This is my home. We need a pathway to citizenship,” said the 18-year old Costa Mesa resident as she sat in her family’s duplex near TeWinkle Park after returning from an advocacy trip to Washington.
Bravo, who was brought without documents to the U.S. by her Mexican parents at age 3, made headlines earlier this month over a confrontation with Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa) in his own Capitol Hill office.
While the two sides differ on what was said, it’s clear that their meeting went red hot.
Bravo said she was initially jarred by the nastiness of Rohrabacher’s rhetoric against undocumented immigrants, admitting the exchange brought her to tears.
Yet for her, the exchange underscores the fact that people in her situation have no choice but to confront the views of officials like Rohrabacher, not only at the ballot box but in Congress.
And while she fears for what could happen to her and her family for standing up to Rohrabacher, Bravo said she’s tired of being afraid all the time.
“It’s not just going into Congress,” Bravo said. “It’s daily-life fear that we have to live with. Even walking out of my door is fearful for me. And I put myself in that position because [citizenship] is something we need. I don’t want to live the rest of my life with fear.”
Unlike past immigration debates, last November’s election results have given Bravo some strong allies as immigration reform is debated in the 113th Congress.
On Wednesday, more than two dozen statewide and Orange County-based labor leaders announced on the steps of Anaheim City Hall that they would forcefully back immigration reform. Labor leaders declared they would put all of their political muscle into a historic campaign to change the nation’s immigration laws and offer a path to citizenship for the undocumented.
“We will not be a passive voice on immigration reform,” said Art Pulaski, executive secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation. It is time, he said, to “break the cycle of exploitation.”
Tefere Gebre, executive director of the Orange County Labor Federation, announced that Orange County would be a focal point in the national campaign, saying labor would put significant muscle behind immigration reform from city council chambers to the floors of Congress.
“This is our coming-out day,” Gebre said. “I’ve never seen the labor movement so united.”
And they’re ready to do what labor does particularly well: phone banks, marches, letter-writing campaigns, mailers, city resolutions and efforts to get out the vote.
And it’s not going to play out only in Washington.
“This is going to be an extensive campaign. We are taking this as seriously as any campaign we have launched in the labor movement’s history, and Orange County will be in the front of it,” Gebre said.
“There’s no better place to fight this fight than Orange County,” added Mike Garcia, president of the Service Employees International Union-United Workers West.
This week’s action comes after a push by a coalition of religious leaders with the Orange County Congregation Community Organization (OCCCO) to sponsor a series of visits to more than 112 members of Congress.
The Rev. Mark E. Whitlock from the Christ our Redeemer Church in Irvine is one of many religious leaders from across Orange County working with OCCCO who are slated to visit congressional and other locally elected officials and press for immigration reform.
“We must hold hands and say, if you mess with her, you mess with us," said Whitlock. “And if you mess with us, we are not afraid to speak back to you. … We won’t cry, but we will march.”
“The challenge for the religious community, as well as the African-American community, is we must begin to join and celebrate Jessica. But also stand behind Jessica, because she is the future,” he said.
Even some of Orange County’s most senior Republican leaders are looking at immigration reform differently this year.
“To constantly refer to undocumented immigrants, to refer to them as illegals, is a hostile message and not productive,” said OC GOP Chairman Scott Baugh, chairman of the Orange County Republican Party. He is trying to help his party refine a better approach toward the immigration issue and Latinos.
At an Orange County Republican Party Central Committee meeting, Baugh recently told his party members that backing a mass deportation for more than 11 million undocumented migrants was not only unworkable but unjust.
While the message wasn’t necessarily received well, Baugh isn’t backing down.
“You can’t sit back and with condemnation refer to people who could not even be prosecuted with a crime as illegals with the inference that they are criminals,” Baugh said. “It’s wrong as a matter of law and also wrong as a matter of communication.”
“We’re not criminals,” Bravo said. “My parents brought me here with the idea of a better life.”