MONTGOMERY, AL (RNN) - As lawmakers debate granting amnesty to illegal immigrants who are already living in the United States, immigrant advocacy groups are attempting to win over opponents by telling their personal stories.
At a rally in downtown Montgomery, AL, illegal immigrants and supporters gathered at the State Capitol Building to protest Gov. Robert Bentley's decision to appeal parts of a federal court decision to strike down sections of the Alabama immigration law that critics have called the harshest in the nation. Protestors also wanted to move the focus of the debate to how the law affected their families.
"For us, this is about people - and that's what Gov. Bentley has missed," said Melissa Murrell, Communications Director for the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice. "This is about people and families and folks that are just like everybody else in Alabama. Many of them who are citizens or residents or kids who have been here their whole lives, and this is the only home they know. So we want to put a face on it."
Murrell, whose group is one of the leading voices in Alabama working to reform immigration laws, said she hopes the message of family and unity connects to people who are not convinced that amnesty is the answer.
"The ways in which the deportations are happening are pulling people apart in ways that are really unjust," she said. "What would you do if somebody grabbed up your husband and took him back to Mexico and you were left with your kids, or they grabbed both of you and your kids were just left there? It sounds dramatic. It sounds overly dramatic. But that's what happens."
Preventing families from being torn apart has been a theme among immigration reform activists for several years. But recent campaigns seem to be focusing on it exclusively. President Barack Obama's grassroots organizing arm, Organizing for Action, recently announced a campaign to invite those affected by immigration laws to share their story online.
The website has a growing number of stories about immigrants' experiences, including those who came to the U.S. illegally as children but otherwise grew up as Americans. That's a common theme among DREAM Act activists, also known as DREAMers, who want reform for children of immigrants who were brought to the country by their parents.
"I am a 26-year-old Mexican graduate student. I have lived in the United States since I was 2 years old. I have been illegal most of my life, and I know from firsthand experience the invisible pains, hardships and limitations all dreamers face," wrote Jose E., of Riverside, CA.
At TheDreamIsNow.org, an interactive documentary is being created that aims to encourage illegal immigrant youth to share their stories.
A video on the website features several illegal immigrant young adults who grew up in the U.S. telling the challenges they face, including the threat of being deported to a country they do not know.
"Whenever I've heard the term, 'illegal alien,' I just never identified with that. I just feel American," said one of the participants in the video.
Like Organizing for Action, the Dream is Now project is backed by powerful people like Laurene Powell Jobs - the widow of tech icon Steve Jobs - through her group, the Emerson Collective.
The emotional appeals for amnesty come after several think tanks published studies about immigration laws' negative impact on families.
The Applied Research Center, a group that focuses on racial justice, estimated that at least 5,100 children are in foster care because their parents were detained or deported. That number is expected to triple in the next five years, with the cost of foster care for one child close to $26,000 annually.
The number of families affected by deportation has risen steadily over the past few years. The Obama administration, despite publicly supporting immigration reform, has deported more people per year than any other, with a record-high 409,849 deportations in 2012, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
And according to a study by the Center for American Progress, roughly 25 percent of all deportations result in the removal of a parent from a household. CAP also says that often, the family breadwinner is the one deported, which creates economic hardship on family members who remain in the U.S.
The stories seem to have had an effect on lawmakers from both parties, including conservative stalwart Eric Cantor (R-VA), who reversed his 2010 opposition to the DREAM Act, citing families as a factor.
When David Gregory on NBC's Meet the Press asked Cantor if he would support the DREAM Act, Cantor avoided a clear answer, but implied that he would.
"There is a balance that needs to take place. But the best place to begin, I think, is with the children. Let's go ahead and get that under our belt. Put a win on the board," Cantor said.
Other Republicans who have supported paths to legalization while avoiding the word "amnesty" are senators Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, potential 2016 presidential candidates.
Evangelical Christians have also been a force in urging Republican lawmakers to change its party's unofficial stance on immigration.
A group of evangelical leaders created the "I Was a Stranger" campaign, which asks people to pray and read immigration-related scripture for 40 days and are pushing members of Congress to pass reform. The website does not give specifics about what a reform bill would include. But it echoes the message of immigrants rights groups, asking for compassion and understanding for immigrants' situations.
Nonetheless, many still oppose amnesty plans like the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act signed into law by Ronald Reagan. The reasons are varied, but among the most common is the belief that rewarding people who broke the law encourages more illegal immigration.
"An amnesty simply attracts more illegal immigrants, now conservatively estimated at 11 million," wrote Temple University Law School Professor Jan C. Ting, in an op-ed for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Ting, who has criticized amnesty plans for years, added: "If those immigrants come anyway in violation of our immigration laws, we have to be willing to deport them, in order to raise the costs and decrease the benefits of illegal immigration, and to deter future immigration-law violators."
Dave Seminara, a former consular officer who has served as a fellow for the Center of Immigration Studies - a think tank critical of amnesty-like immigration reform programs - wrote in the Chicago Tribune: "Any plan that [rewards] those who flouted the law is a mistake. The message to the hundreds of millions around the world who aspire to live in the U.S. will be clear: Those who broke the law still got green cards. Their decision to come illegally will be perceived as a smart one in their home countries, which will only encourage more illegal immigration."
At the Alabama rally, Jose Perez, a 17-year-old high school student who was born in Mexico but has lived in Alabama for the past 14 years, said he would ask people to look at the reasons immigrants come to the U.S.
"I'd ask them what are you willing to do to protect your daughter, your son, to ensure that tomorrow your wife and your family will have food? That you won't be assassinated by a cartel? That you won't be stifled for money, that you won't be put in danger?" he said.
Perez also pointed to NAFTA as a policy that caused many Latin American immigrants to come to the U.S. According to a Congressional Research Service study, NAFTA has had negative impacts on poorer workers, especially farm workers.
"The agricultural sector experienced a higher amount of worker displacement after NAFTA, in part because of increased competition from the United States but also because of Mexican domestic agricultural reforms," according to the CRS.
"I'd ask people to think about that and I'd also ask them to look at the laws put in place that have pushed my family to come here," Perez said.
Attempts to contact groups critical of amnesty plans, including Numbers USA and the the Federation for American Immigration Reform, went unanswered.
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