MIAMI - Six years ago, Evelyn Rivera, then a teenager on spring break from high school, saw her mother hauled away to jail and deported before her very eyes. This week, Evelyn marched on Washington to get her mother back.
As she tells the story, Rivera was riding in a car with her mother, Yolanda, when the police pulled them over. "It was for a minor traffic infraction. I can't even remember what it was," Rivera said. "But she couldn't produce a driver's license." Her mother, Yolanda, an immigrant from Columbia, was undocumented, her daughter says.
"She was arrested and handcuffed right in front of me. And then they took her and put her in the local jail. They ran her name through the computer and found she was undocumented, even though she had been here in the U.S. for 15 years.
"So they put her in detention for four months -- and then shipped her back to Colombia."
Neither Rivera nor her sister have seen their mother since. Her mother's deportation pushed Rivera into activism, and she's now the Southeastern Regional Coordinator for United We Dream, a group backed by the Service Employees and dozens of other organizations, that sponsored this week's descent of "Dreamers" on D.C. to campaign for comprehensive immigration reform.
SEIU also spent $200,000 to run pro-reform radio ads on Spanish-language stations in congressional districts of 10 potential House GOP "swing votes" on the issue.
The topic is particularly resonant for the Dreamers, 500 of whom took their own oath of allegiance to the U.S. on July 10. Coordinators and leaders of the Dreamers, youth brought to the U.S. by their undocumented parents, discussed their plans at a July 8 telephone press conference. The Dreamers have been credited with putting a human face and changing minds on the issue of immigration reform.
The Dreamers, like other groups campaigning for comprehensive immigration reform, want Congress to create a path to eventual citizenship for the 11 million undocumented people in the U.S. Of that group, 7.5 million are adults. Many are like Yolanda Rivera - longtime U.S. residents who only lack needed citizenship papers. The other 3.5 million are children, including the Dreamers.
Unions particularly support the immigrants' and the Dreamers' cause. That's because immigration reform would bring the 11 million people immediately - even before they become citizens - under U.S. labor law. And that change would not only lessen exploitation of the undocumented adults by venal and vicious employers, but also take away leverage those same employers use, threatening to hire the undocumented, to drive down wages and living standards for all other U.S. workers.
The Senate listened to the Dreamers, unions, and immigrants' advocates and approved a comprehensive immigration reform bill, with a 13-year-path to citizenship, by a bipartisan vote last month. The GOP-run House is another matter. Hence the Dreamers' descent on Washington.
House GOP leaders met secretly with their members in a mass caucus on July 10 to hash out the party's stand on immigration reform. The Dreamers - including Evelyn Rivera - were there on the U.S. Capitol lawn to remind them that, as United We Dream Director Christina Jimenez put it: "We are here. We are Americans, too."
"We need to create strong pressure in this fight, and the [GOP] leadership has to lead," Jimenez added. Her group organized the week's events and the Dreamers' lobbying in D.C., and in key states, such as Texas, Florida, Arizona, and Utah.
Jimenez says Republican leaders must marshal their reluctant - and often anti-Latino - followers to vote for comprehensive reform. Reform includes legalizing everyone, not just the Dreamers, and "no more militarization" of the U.S.-Mexico border. If the GOP doesn't produce, their party will suffer at the ballot box, warns another United We Dream coordinator, Carlos Barojas.
"It's not just a moral issue. If the GOP ever wants to see the inside of the White House again, they have to deliver for the Dreamers and their parents," he adds, referring to the growth of the Latino vote in the U.S.
There are more than 50 million Latinos, who are the nation's largest and fastest-growing minority. Most are citizens. In 2012, GOP nativism and anti-Hispanic attitudes produced a 71 - 27 percent Latino margin for President Obama over GOP nominee Mitt Romney.
"Our community is tired of injustice and tired of enforcement and family separation," Jimenez says. For her, and for Evelyn Rivera, legalization can't come fast enough - and they're determined to push it through, overcoming nativist opposition.
"My mother missed out on my high school graduation, on my sister's wedding, on her college graduation," Rivera says. "It's hard to see your mother torn away from you. I'm determined no other family should go through the pain my family went through."
Photo: Dreamers hit D.C. to campaign for immigration reform. United We Dream Facebook page