Sponsored by Faith Action for Community Equity (FACE) and the University of Hawai‘i Presidential Center Initiative, the luncheon provided an opportunity for key legislative leaders and supporters of immigration reform to discuss issues facing Hawai‘i’s immigrant communities.
Senate President Donna Mercado Kim, Senator Will Espero, Representative Romy Cachola, and Representative John Mizuno presented Vargas with a Certificate of Recognition, noting his successful and unlikely career as a Filipino-American undocumented immigrant who has helped to raise the national consciousness of the experiences of undocumented people, and the need to reform America’s immigration and foreign policies. City Councilmember Stanley Chang and members of Senator and gubernatorial candidate David Ige’s staff also attended the luncheon, along with representatives from U.S. Senator Mazie Hirono's office.
Approximately 50 members of the public were also in attendance, including many members and supporters of the Compact of Free Association Community Advocacy Network (COFACAN). COFACAN has expressed strong support of comprehensive immigration reform, particularly measures S.744 and H.R.15, which would restore access to Medicaid for U.S. residents present under the Compacts of Free Association. Both measures are stalled in a Republican-dominated House of Representatives, with House Speaker John Boehner refusing to hear either measure despite mass protests, sit-ins, and hunger strikes throughout the country.
Topics of discussion at the luncheon included the need to provide access to drivers licenses for undocumented people, which would increase access to transportation and vehicular insurance, mitigate the high levels of racial profiling and civil rights violations reportedly occurring in Maui and Honolulu counties, and provide some security for the 5% of Hawai‘i’s workforce that are currently undocumented. Senator Will Espero noted that he was working on a bill draft to be introduced in the 2014 legislative session.
Also discussed was the need to address the public safety concerns around Secure Communities (S-Comm), a partnership between local police departments and the federal Department of Justice that has primarily resulted in the deportation of hundreds of minor offenders and others not convicted of any crime. The widely criticized program requires local police officers to provide federal agencies with data on anyone they take into custody, including those arrested for minor violations, such as driving without a license, or for “administrative violations.” Such a law enforcement practice has marginalized the immigrant community, which is often the target of criminal activity, by insulating undocumented immigrants from police protection while potentially facilitating racial profiling; a review of 2011 S-Comm data indicates that while the vast majority of those deported under S-Comm had only minor convictions, if any, almost none of those deported under S-Comm were arrested for serious crimes.
Vargas pointed out that fear-driven and unsubstantiated narratives such as the “immigrant drug smuggler,” while promoted in the media and used to justify programs such as S-Comm, only increase opportunities for criminal elements to further exploit legally vulnerable immigrant communities. Both Vargas and audience members indicated that undocumented immigrants do not immigrate to become a “menace to society,” but largely seek opportunities to work and to keep their families together in the same way that Irish, Jewish, and other immigrants have done throughout the country’s history. Vargas also noted how his own research indicated that foreign country conditions leading immigrants to seek better opportunities in America were almost invariably a result of American foreign policy over the last several decades.
America’s history of immigrant assimilation may in fact be repeating itself from a political perspective, as audience members noted that millions of undocumented people also belong to “mixed” families of both documented and undocumented family members, sometimes living together in the same household. Vargas cited studies indicating at least 17 million individuals in America live in “mixed” households, and that he personally was the only one of 28 family members in the United States that did not have a documented status. Most of these family members were voting American citizens, Vargas said.
Asked what the chances were of a drivers license bill passing, Senator Espero and Representative Mizuno both stressed that strategic grassroots engagement would be key. “Literally every one” of the audience members in attendance would need to contact key legislators to advocate for the passage of the bill, urged Senator Espero. In the end, he gave the measure a “50-50 shot.”