Confessions of an Undocumented Reporter

FEATURE: A man without papers navigates the immigration rally

April 12, 2013

We were instructed to rise up out of the shadows. To band together, stand together, take our calloused hands and claw our way out of the shadows. To demand, to sit-in until the shadows had evaporated. Tens of thousands responded to the call, chanting "Si Se Puede."

But I stood alone: a coward, a fraud.

I arrived at Capitol Hill’s West Lawn on Wednesday afternoon to attend the Rally For Citizenship, which claimed to draw "more than 100,000 immigrant families and their supporters." I was no mere citizen partaking in a rally, however. I was press. At least that’s what the 5-by-3 inch card dangling from my black lanyard told me.

Except I wasn't press. Not really. I didn't have the documents. The website made clear the requirements: "To pick up credentials, press [sic] each registrant must provide photo identification AND a current, valid press ID issued by federal, state, or local government OR a letter from your editor / producer, on letterhead, from a bona fide journalism outlet … those without proper identification will not be admitted."

I had sent in an application for credentials on Tuesday with the help of a flack. She assured me I could pick up credentials. I had the white and green card issued by Virginia Capitol Police to ensure lawmakers that I was press. But that badge was issued in 2011, before I joined the Washington Free Beacon. It had now expired.

"Misuse of this card constitutes a violation of Section 18.2-204.2 of the Code of Virginia," it says on the back. So not only was I betraying the trust of the rally organizers, I also could be breaking the law. I balked at presenting the ID to the Capitol policemen guarding the press entrance and opted to proceed through the crowd, a hodge-podge of union members and immigrant families.

"Coming up, coming up, excuse me, I’m press," a man with a gray blazer draped over his arm declared, brushing aside anyone who stood in his way. He noticed my notebook.

"You press?"

"Yes," I gulped, following his lead. This man was bona fide, NBC all the way. My coyote. He threw up the rope separating the rabble from the PRESS and ushered me forward. He vanished before I could thank him, leaving me alone at check-in.

"McMorris, here you go," a volunteer said, dropping the lanyard into my shocked, shaking hands.

"You don’t need my ID, my credentials?" I asked, averting eye contact.

"I trust you," she said.

Being an undocumented reporter alters the way you cover a story. When my colleagues swarmed Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D., Ill.), I stood in the background, transcribing earth-shattering responses to hard-hitting questions.

"This is one of the make-or-break weeks," he said, when asked if this was a make-or-break week for Congress.

Gutierrez shared the stage with the rally’s sponsors: presidents of powerful labor unions, including SEIU and UAW, as well as representatives of CASA de Maryland, a nonprofit group that helps immigrants and day-laborers find jobs regardless of immigration status. President Barack Obama tapped former CASA president Tom Perez to head the Department of Labor in March.

Gustavo Torres, president of CASA in Action, fired up the crowd with chants of "Si Se Puede" while SEIU president Mary Kay Henry, UAW president Bob King, and National Education Association vice president Lily Eskelsen rambled on in Spanish.

"We’re going to demand that all workers, immigrant workers, and American workers have collective bargaining rights," King said to crickets, before adding "Hasta la victoria" to raucous cheers.

Organizers have worked hard to improve the optics of the immigration reform movement. Gone are the days of Mexican flags and Che shirts at rallies. They encouraged attendees to wear or carry at least one piece of patriotic paraphernalia. Several attendees wore American flag button-downs and shorts; most wore white shirts that, one attendee explained, "represented peace." Four Colombian immigrants I met at the Capitol South Metro stop carried a bag filled with small American flags. They declined an interview because "No English."

"It just shows us how American the 11 million undocumented workers that live in this country really are," a nurse in the crowd said.

Attendees were also told to wear red, white, and blue to hammer the point home. Many opted to hammer the point with soccer jerseys. Honduran and Salvadoran national uniforms seemed to be the most popular, along with Real Madrid. The jerseys fulfilled the white and blue requirement, but lacked the red. I asked one Salvadoran teenager to explain his color scheme to me, as a tarp of Central and South American flags stitched together with the stars and stripes passed over our heads. He pointed to his fading orange shoelaces.

Union representatives stood at various Metro exits to provide members with union colors.

A woman wearing an orange vest waved the yellow and purple of SEIU one block from the Capitol South Metro, as a black colleague called for members of 32BJ, the D.C. local, to sign in. Signing the green sheet had its advantages. While a third woman distributed stickers saying "TODOS JUNTOS PARA EL 10 DE ABRIL" to any passersby, members received a purple SEIU t-shirt, as well as a handkerchief to deal with the 80-degree heat.

"You’re doing a good job, hand everything away," the man said to the third woman. "Any members?"

"No members yet," she replied.

A man wearing a camouflage backpack approached.

"You a union member? Where you from?" the man asked.

"El Salvador," he said, winking. He took a 32BJ button as a consolation prize.

My guilt over my undocumented status only grew when I entered the expanse of the press pen. Attendee Aquila Alice Dixon beckoned me with a hard stare and gap-toothed smile, her body testing the tethered ropes organizers used to separate immigrant families from press.

"This is wrong," she said. "They have no jurisdiction over us. We’re free; we should be able to go wherever we want."

A toddler to our left crossed the media line and began plucking grass from the West Lawn. His age was a dead give-away: Not only was he not press, he didn’t have a drivers license.

I made my way back into the crowd when John Boardman of UNITE HERE Local 25, which represents 5,000 D.C. hotel and service workers, noticed my badge.

"Labor has been at the forefront of this issue and all civil rights for decades," he said. "We see what all people see and that’s individuals who contribute, who pay taxes and work hard. To keep them in the shadows hurts the fabric of our country."

I asked him if the rally would have been better served by inviting Republicans who support immigration reform such as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.

"The GOP has come to this issue from a different perspective, from practical politics," he said. "They realized that they weren’t going to survive."

Congressional Republicans are not the only ones who realized that. Labor groups have opposed immigration reform in the past on the grounds that it disadvantaged native workers. Half a decade ago, some of the most powerful unions at the rally had come out against George W. Bush’s push for amnesty.

But UNITE HERE and SEIU have seen membership grow by organizing immigrants in the service sector, while traditional labor unions, including the AFL-CIO and UAW, have hemorrhaged members in recent years.

"Did your organizing success have anything to do with other unions coming around on immigration despite past opposition?" I asked.

"People have different perspectives, but it is well known that all of labor now is coalescing around this issue," he said.

Labor was not the only Democratic constituency to rally behind legalization. Environmentalists say it will stop global warming. A gay advocate took the stage on behalf of "hundreds of thousands of gay, lesbian, and transgendered" immigrants, who live not only in the shadows, but also inside closets within the shadows. A few feminists carried signs proclaiming, "Immigration Reform is Central to Woman’s Equality."

Reform is evidently the cure for all that ails us, a help to a tired nation, or at least a help to those who lectured from the podium.

"We delivered the votes that delivered Nevada and Colorado and Nuevo Mexico … to the Democratic Party," Rep. Gutierrez told the rally.

His message was clear. Even to an undocumented reporter like myself.