It was supposed to be just another act of civil disobedience for Marcela Espinoza. On Nov. 4, the 28-year-old from Chicago marched into U.S. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez’s office and refused to leave.
Espinoza, a member of the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, wanted Gutiérrez to step up his efforts to get her fellow activists released from a Texas detention center. The activists–all undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children–had been held there since September, when they were arrested after taking a daring act of crossing the Texas-Mexico border and attempting to come back.
Espinoza didn’t get a sympathetic ear. She and Marco Pacheco–another activist holed up inside the office of U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, a Democrat from Texas–were arrested. Soon afterward, Gutiérrez’s office annouced that the Illinois Congressman was severing ties with Espinoza and other activits from the Youth Alliance and its affiliate, DREAMctivist.org.
Some advocates worry that this public split signals a deeper fissure within the immigration reform movement, and that it could be exploited by opponents in their push to defeat the pending immigration bill in Congress. But longtime observers say that, in the end, the pro-reform movement will face little consequences from the feud.
“I don’t think there are long-term implications for the movement,” said Angelica Kelley, vice president for immigration policy at the Washington D.C-based Center for American Progress.
Amalia Pallares, associate professor of political science and Latin American and Latino studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, agreed. “There has been the ability to work together despite having different perspectives” within the different immigration groups, she said. “In a bigger picture, they need each other.”
If anything, youth activists like Espinoza are helping keep this issue in the forefront by holding politicians’ feet to the fire, added Pallares, who co-edited the book “Marcha: Latino Chicago and the National Immigrant Movement.”
“They are using these strategies as a new way to bring attention to” the issue, she said. “They want Democrats to work harder.”
Espinoza said her civil disobedience was meant to make this very point. “We just wanted his help. I was surprised that he had me arrested. He chose not to drop the charges,” she said, referring to Gutiérrez. “I don’t understand. How can he say he’s for the movement if he’s not helping?”
For Gutiérrez, Espinoza’s action was the last straw. In a press release, Doug Rivlin, director of communications for Gutiérrez’s office, wrote that the Congressman is concerned about the groups’ radical tactics and what he sees as racist overtones in their rhetoric.
“The [Youth Alliance] leaders have expressed their strong opposition to immigration reform, expressed disturbing racism, and have put young people in harm’s way,” Rivlin wrote. “The Congressman continues to fight for the ability of DREAMers and their parents to remain in the U.S. or to enter legally if they have been removed or left the United States.”
The groups fired back by posting a blog challenging the points. “It’s a shame that Rep. Gutiérrez would attack us as being racist for simply believing that, in a struggle for the rights of undocumented people, undocumented people should be at the forefront,” the Youth Alliance wrote.
Espinoza is one of those undocumented immigrants trying to keep the issue in the spotlight. Her parents brought her to Chicago from Mexico when she was 6 years old. She grew up in Little Village and graduated from Curie Metro High School. But when she turned 18, she moved back to Mexico to take care of her dying grandmother and to continue her education.
Then, in September, Espinoza decided to join the youth activists, dubbed “Dream 30,” and crossed the border seeking political asylum. “I grew up here and I didn’t fit in” in Mexico, she said. “The cartels targeted me because they knew I had a family here. I was at risk for being kidnapped … and I was also a target because of my sexual orientation. I was afraid to go out.”
She was arrested and held in a detention center along with her fellow “Dream 30” activits. After four weeks, she was released. She’s now waiting to have her asylum case heard in immigration court.
At the end of the day, she says, immigrants like her have more to lose when they get arrested, but it’s important to continue pushing this issue forward.
“Politicians have been saying that there’s no time” to bring a vote to the house, she said. “We have to keep this issue visible.”