January 10 was supposed to be a day of celebration for Erika Andiola. That was the day she accepted an offer to work as an outreach director for Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.).
But instead, the day turned into a nightmare for the 25-year-old Dreamer and well-known immigration reform activists when Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers raided her Arizona home at night and arrested her mother, Guadalupe Arreola, and brother, Heriberto Andiola Arreola.
“At that point, I thought it was my fault,” Andiola said of the arrests of her family members. “I thought it was my fault because I had come out so many times saying I was undocumented in front of the cameras and in Congress — everywhere.”
But Andiola put her guilt aside and quickly jumped into action. She reached out to every member of Congress and White House staff member she had ever met and asked them to help stop the deportation of her mother and brother. She created a video, pleading others to call ICE and ask for her family members to be released.
Her work paid off. In less than 12 hours, her brother was released. As for her mother, she was in chains and on her way to Mexico on a bus when ICE ordered the bus to turn around and release Arreola.
Arreola said it was the “most horrifying experience” she has ever been through.
“They treated me like a criminal, which I’m not,” she said.
The 55-year-old mother was fleeing domestic violence when she decided to leave Mexico and bring her five children with her to live in Arizona in 1998. They entered the country illegally after she was denied a visa to come in legally.
Upon her release in January, Arreola was granted a one-year deportation reprieve and work authorization. However, she must report back to ICE on Jan. 2 when she will find out whether she’ll be allowed to stay in the country or be deported.
Andiola springs into action to stop her mom’s deportation
Now, a year after working as a congressional staff member using the work permit she was granted under the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, Andiola is leaving her job on Capitol Hill. She announced her decision on Wednesday at a press conference held just steps from the U.S. Capitol.
She said she wants to dedicate her time to prevent her mother from being deported. Not only that, she also said she is discouraged by Congress’ inaction on immigration reform and feels she can be more effective in fighting to stop her mother’s and other undocumented immigrants’ deportations outside of Congress.
“After a year that I’ve been working in Congress, I’ve learned that Congress is a really hard to place to be,” she said. “Congress right now is a place where politics are more important than people.”
Andiola insisted that members of Congress are “worried more about the next election” than on working to fix the nation’s broken immigration system and to keep families together.
“I cannot be there as a Dreamer who doesn’t even have a driver’s license because Arizona denied it, who has a mother who could be deported soon and who knows that Congress right now is not doing what it’s supposed to be doing to protect my family,” she added.
With the help of the Dream Action Coalition, which she co-founded, Andiola plans to spend the next few weeks working on a campaign to stop her mother’s deportation. She is encouraging people to visit the website keepustogether.org to sign a petition in support of her mother. The signatures will be handed over to ICE in an effort to show how much support Arreola has from the community.
Andiola and her mother have also been making congressional visits, calling on members of Congress to sign a letter in support of her mother.
Sinema said during Wednesday’s press conference that she plans to sign on to the letter as well as make a personal appeal to ICE. The Arizona congresswoman also said Andiola and her mother’s situation “is not unique.”
“Thousands of families across the country and thousands of families in Arizona face a similar situation every single day because our Congress has failed to take action on immigration reform,” she said.
Immigrant families press for action on immigration reform
Andiola and Sinema aren’t the only ones who are frustrated with Congress’ lack of progress on immigration reform.
Since October, families from various states — including Arizona, New York and Florida — have been pressuring House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and other House leaders to get the ball rolling on immigration reform.
They’ve held vigils at Boehner’s congressional office, as well as outside his house in Washington, D.C., and in Ohio. They’ve also attended events where Boehner was scheduled to speak, such as the lighting of the Christmas tree outside the Capitol on Tuesday, to pray for the Ohio congressman to act on immigration reform.
Reyna Montoya, a 23-year-old Dreamer from Arizona, is one of the organizers leading the efforts. She and a group of families traveled 43 hours on a bus from Arizona to Washington, D.C., over the weekend to highlight the urgency of passing immigration reform legislation in order to protect families from deportation. The Arizona families were joined by another group of families from Florida that also traveled by bus to the nation’s capital.
Montoya said that on Tuesday morning, she and Andiola bumped into Speaker Boehner in the street near the Capitol. Montoya told the speaker that she and others have been praying for him, to which she said he responded, “I know.” She said she tried to shake his hand but he refused to do so.
The encounter came the same day Boehner hired Rebecca Tallent, a longtime advocate of immigration reform, to be part of his policy team. Tallent currently serves as the director of immigration policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center. She also served as chief of staff to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and played a major role in drafting immigration reform legislation in 2006 and 2007.
Some observers see the move as a sign that the speaker is serious about moving forward on immigration legislation. Meanwhile, immigration reform supporters, like Montoya, also see it as a good sign but stress that they want to see action on immigration reform as soon as possible.
“Right now, the House of Representatives is not acting, and we know that inaction is not the answer,” Montoya said during Wednesday’s press conference. “We are asking the leadership to do something. If they believe in a step-by-step approach it’s ok. They need to show us what they have.”