When politicians promise to get tough on immigrants, what do they mean? Campaigner Carlos Saavedra suspects they are not talking about people.
“We are not murderers, rapists, drug dealers. Most of us are actually pretty adorable,” Peru-born Saavedra says.
Saavedra, 26, is former National Field Co-ordinator of United We Dream, an influential immigrant rights activism group in the US. It would be no exaggeration to say that his movement almost single-handedly changed the direction of the Obama administration’s immigration policy.
In a highly symbolic act, President Barack Obama signed an administrative order for the first stage of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, the DREAM Act. It was a crucial move to help win him 71% of the Latino vote in November 2012
Saavedra is convinced UK politicians can learn from that. He is visiting Britain, touring cities and meeting activists and politicians to tell them his story, and how he believes positivity about immigration can be a vote winner.
In an interview in London, where he was hosted by anti-racism campaigners Hope Not Hate, Saavedra told HuffPost UK: “I think that speaking positively about immigration can, in some instances, be a vote winner.
“Once you have someone standing up in public, telling their story about escaping violence, escaping persecution, coming here as a baby or a child, it’s hard for a politician to point at that person and say, yes you ‘the immigrant’, yes you are one of those murderers, one of those criminals, one of those rapists, sex traffickers. Because an immigrant, a person, is right in front of them.
“It sounds too awful. It sounds bad to voters. So we have to confront politicians with the true face of migrants. They are working hard in our economy, taking care of our children.”
Saavedra has lived in the US since he was 12 but only acquired a US passport four years ago. His experiences as an undocumented teenager, unable to travel, unable to attend university, and watching his younger brother about to go through the same experiences made him extremely angry.
The United We Dream network began after his local campaign in Massachusetts to allow undocumented students to pay local fees, not international student fees of $20,000, to universities. It was voted through by lawmakers, but blocked at the last stage by the state’s governor.
“You might have heard of him,” Saavedra smiles bitterly “His name is Mitt Romney.”
He began a job as a waiter, but the anger wouldn’t go away. And finally, after telling his undocumented 14-year-old brother that he would have to miss a scholarship trip to China because he does not have a passport, Saavadra was so affected, it sparked off a national campaign.
Part of a team of like-minded students, nicknamed the DREAMers, Saavedra helped train 2,000 undocumented students to speak out about their stories, the movement held a DREAM university with professors teaching them on the steps outside the White House, students went on hunger strikes and held blood drives asking if the country would accept their “illegal blood.” They occupied the offices of Senators, wearing caps and gowns.
“In 2010 we pushed the US legislation all the way to the senate, but we lost by just five votes," he recalls.
The legislation has stalled countless times, but states like California and Illinois are beginning to introduce their own versions of the law.
He told HuffPost UK the States was beginning to change its attitudes irreversibly.
Politicians, especially Republicans, now have to realise that “if they continue to talk crap about minorities – like Latinos and Asians – there is no way they can win the White House.
"So they have to change, if they want to win. It is pretty clear that after this election there is no turning back.
“There’s a battle still, but compared to 10 years ago, I think we’re in a place now in the States where people are beginning to see past the negative connotations of immigration.“
He sees a similar situation arising in the UK in 2015, especially with ugly arguments over EU migrants from places like Romania likely to dominate.
Nick Lowles, Hope Not Hate’s director, brings him a newspaper every morning he has been here, he says, to show him how the media here portrays people like him.
In Manchester, on the front page of one paper, it said ‘Immigrant Crime Rises’, and had “an ugly picture of an immigrant getting arrested,” according to Saavadra. “How do we change that? We don’t feel like we are one of those people described in that story?
“And there’s not a single immigrant in any of the stories about immigration. It’s just ‘them’.
“I think those immigrants in the UK who care about how they are being portrayed in the media should speak up. Their stories need to be told, and not once, hundreds of times.”
“I think we also have to figure out what is the goal for migrant rights in the UK? What do you want to achieve by the election in 2015?” he added. “That election is going to focus on immigration, and it’s going to focus on the negative side, from what I’ve seen.
“They are going use this issue to get votes, competing about who is going to exclude the immigrants the most. So what is our goal, here, in the UK? For those who believe in migrant rights.
“The challenge this country faces, what I am hearing, is what kind of country does Britain what to be? And there are really only two choices.
"So we want to be a country who prioritises people who have been here for a 100 years or more, a country essentially for white people, only?
“Or are we a country which embraces diversity, protects people from persecution, who wants people here who can contribute to our society and our economy. That’s the choice we have to confront people and politicians with.”
No such organisation really exists to fight for immigration rights in the UK, but Saavedra sees a similar anger from refugees and asylum seekers he has met here.
“I have heard some deeply touching and disturbing stories. There is no end to their refugee status in sight, they don’t work, they don’t go to school, they live on vouchers. It destroys people psychologically and emotionally.
“It makes me so sad, and so angry. I have met people here who spent 65 days in detention with their children, what does that say about this country? But there’s a lot of people determined to fight, excited to do something here, to achieve change.”