Rachel Maddow   |  June 12, 2013

Families divided by immigration law anxious for reform

Jose Antonio Vargas, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, immigration activist, and undocumented immigrant, talks with Rachel Maddow about the chances for immigration legislation working its way through Congress and the plight of "Dreamers" in America, struggling for citizenship in the only country they've ever known.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>> thanks to you at home for joining us this hour. this is evelyn rivera, 24 years old, evelyn moved to the united states from colombia with her family when she was a toddler, she was just three years old when she got here. you might be able to tell from the family resemblance and the similar smiles, the lady standing beside evelyn in this photo is her mom, yolonda. they look-alike, right? this is the portion of the fence that separates the united states and mexico . it's located in the towns of nogales . it separates nogales arizona from the town in mexico that is also called nogales . this particular part of the pennsylvania is new. the old one was torn down about a year ago. this one was built in its place. it's said to be safer, better at keeping people out. it's 20 feet high in most spots. that 20 or 30 foot high fence made of steel and concrete. that is the physical thing that you see in this picture. that is the structure there that separates evelyn from her mom in this photo. evelyn is on the american side of the fence, her mom is on the mexican side. before this picture was taken yesterday, evelyn had not seen her mom for more than six years. she's 24, she had not seen her mom since she was a teenager. evelyn is called a dreamer, someone who grew up in this country and has never really known any other country in her whole life. she does not have legal status here. evelyn 's mom yolonda was deported after being pulled over in a routine traffic stop in florida more than six years ago. evelyn cannot leave the united states to see her mom, if she left she would not be allowed back into the united states . and her mom obviously cannot enter the united states to see her daughter either because she was deported and she's barred from coming back. a pro immigration reform group called united we dream raised donations to pay for their travel and arranged for evelyn and two other dreamer kids like her to travel to that specific spot at the fence in nogales , arizona yesterday. united we dream arranged for their moms to meet on the other side of the fence in nogales , mexico . the moment these kids get to see their mothers for the first time in years is an amazing moment. and as you watch this, you'll notice there's a second -- there's a moment in this tape where the sound drops out, but that is on purpose. there's nothing wrong, watch this, it's incredible. [ sobbing ] [ silence ]

>> the fact that for these young people , the price of staying in the only country they have ever known as home, the price of that is no longer being able to see their moms without a steel and concrete fence between them physically, the human pain caused by separating these mothers and their children has no up side. causing this barrier between mothers and kids benefits no one. nothing good comes of the circumstance for our country or mexico or the country where they came from or anybody else. whether or not you like the policy that causes this result nobody can argue that this result itself has positive value. it is the end result of the immigration system that we have right now in this country. the pain that comes through in these images today. that pain is acute. it is also not necessarily unique. this particular greeting through the fence is something for which these folks had help yesterday in nogales , it has not only happened that way because some group organized it. in regular, unorganized just personal family life , there are people who -- this is how they see their families. they routinely see their families through the fences that we have built at our borders. they cannot leave because they maybe would not be let back in. their families cannot come here to see them. we split up the family. this cannot be the thing we're trying to do as a country. the goal cannot be let's divide families. whatever you think about the role of imgrarnts in this country and a nation of laws. we have a system where kids who live here their entire lives in this country to give their moms a hug get banished. that's the deal now. everybody has different values when it comes to immigration , right? ideological values, personal values, things you may have learned in your own experience, in books. but when these are the outcomes of the unfixed system that we have right now, pretty much everybody has to recognize that the system that we have right now that produces these bizarre and pointless outcomes is a problem. it's one thing to realize that sometimes policy hurts people. it's another thing to see a policy hurting people in ways that are stupid and pointless. that seems to be what president obama was getting at yesterday when he talked about immigration at the white house .

>> right now our immigration system keeps families apart for years at a time. even for folks who technically under the legal immigration system should be eligible to become citizens but it is so long and so cumbersome, so bizantyne that families end up being celebrated for years because of a backlog of visas, people who came here legally, were ready to give their all to earn their place in america , end up waiting for years to join their loved ones here in the united states . it's not right, but that's the broken system we have today.

>> the young woman who introduced president obama yesterday is herself a dreamer. she's originally from nigeria. she grew up here since she was 14. she has a degree in chemical engineering . she found herself unable to get a job in that field because she doesn't have legal status here. and yet here she is introducing the president at the white house saying she is ready to come out of the shadows. today this video featuring immigrants and the children of immigrants who themselves work at the white house was released by the white house itself.

>> we haval these stories and we have this interwoven experience of having come here for a common purpose which is to make a better life . and from that we can aspire to so much as people as immigrants as children of immigrants to achieve really amazing things .

>> i think what's at stake here is that we need to make sure that we are in a place where our actions match our ideals and continue to be a place of hope for the rest of the world .

>> these are stories of real people , real families, husbands and wives, kids who want to be together in one country.

>> my parents left everything behind in iran.

>> i learned english, mostly through sesame street , we began to make friends and do really well.

>> we look forward, when you think about what's at stake through immigration reform . it's a continuation of what we've always been, both a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants.

>> monica the woman who learned english from sesame street is now a staff assistant at the white house . the deputy assistant of broadcast media was featured there. the white house deputy director of operations and continuity all immigrants or children of immigrants. this is what it looks like when the white house is working hard to make a pitch on policy. in this case on immigration policy . making the case that we as a country need to fix our dumb system and we need that to happen as soon as possible. immigration working well is really important for our can't. historically, it's more important than it has been for any other country in the whole world. the senate yesterday cleared by a bigger margin than anybody thought. yesterday they cleared the first hurdle toward passing immigration reform . they needed 60 votes, they got 82. the vote was 82 to 15 to beat the republican filibuster and start the debate. now that that debate has started we expect to see the senate wrangling over this for weeks. the wrangling is underway. as that debate wrangling begins for real. the people who want immigration reform the most, the people with the most at stake, the immigrant communities to whom this legislation makes a huge impact in their lives and this white house , who has been pushing for this so hard, we see them with events like this, and tapes like this that they're releasing pulling out all the stops. doing everything they can to make their case by giving this issue a face that makes it not justess sew terik policy. it's not just the white house and not just immigrant communities who are making that case. the case including the personal case is now coming from some previously unexpected corners like this guy, congressman paul ryan . after the bill gets through the senate, it will go to the house. and republican house speaker john boehner spoke yesterday positively -- or at least not negly about the possibility of reform passing the house too. he hinted he might bring it up for a vote, even if it is mostly democrats in the house who support it, and only a minority of republicans. there's paul ryan today doing an event to talk about the need for immigration reform to pass. and talking about it in a personal way. he's got his phone out there, what he's referring to on the phone is something he has brought out before when he talked about this issue, to make it personal. it's an 1850 poster that he says was a poster of advice to immigrants from ireland. which he says his ancestors read about life in america as they were trying to get to america . he's telling his personal story. also, nbc news reporting today that a group called republicans for immigration reform is about to start running ads in favor of reform. even targeting individual house republicans to persuade them to vote yes. a republican vote. a really mainstream republican group is doing that. if this happens, it's as big a deal as health reform or wall street reform, or anything else legislatively that's happened in this post bush and cheney era of politics. but weighing the prospects for whether or not it's all going to happen means paying attention to how the republicans and democrats talk to each other. we watch the people most directly affected by these policies make their case too. the people who are not advocating on behalf of their ancest ancestors. not talking about immigrant values and how their families got here generations ago, they're dealing with right now, fighting for a change in the law that will change their own lives today. and that will change their children's lives definitely. and maybe even change their mom's lives. those people at the center of this debate making their case. joining us now is jose antonio vargas, he lived in the u.s. since he was 12. he didn't know he was here without documentation until he tried to get his driver's license. he's travelled the country talking about immigration reform . it's nice to see you.

>> thank you for having me.

>> you as a reporter and as somebody who's just a generally articulate guy, you've been able to make the policy case from the beginning, but you made this decision personally to try to tell your personal story as a way of making the case. why does the personal part of this matter so much?

>> it matters a lot, because i was inspired by people like ronada and carlos and evelyn . those are the three young people you saw on that fence. i was inspired by them. not enough credit can be said of the united we dream. this is one of the most singularly most powerful actions that any immigration group has taken in this debate. the fact that they took the chance and planned this, and really boiled down what this is about. we had this wrangling happening within the republican party and the congress, what is immigration reform about? that's what it's about. it's about what separates us from each other being a fence. this is not republican or democrat. people ask me all the time, what is immigration reform to me. to me, it's a driver's license, a green card , and it's a passport so i can see my mother who i haven't seen for almost 20 years. that's what immigration reform is about to me.

>> when you make that case, and you've been making that case now --

>> two years.

>> it's been almost exactly two years, hasn't it?

>> yes, my first time was on this show, two years ago next week, can you believe that?

>> that's amazing. do you feel like the conversations you were having with people, once they hear the story from you, have changed over the course of two years? we're as close as we've ever been to this happening.

>> i think we've hit -- the tipping point certainly has happened. and i think now we have different voices coming -- let me give you an example. this morning in the front page of the new york times above the fold was ronada one of the three young dreamers and her mother. i posted it on my facebook wall. i think shared 600 times by various people, republican, democrat saying this is what immigration reform is about. i feel like as we get distracted by the numbers and by some of the amendments that rubio and grassley and all the other republican senators are introducing, people are realizing we're talking about individual people with individual stories and a broken immigration system means broken families which means broken lives . that's what this is about.

>> when you look at the way that it's starting in the senate now, there was a giant vote to move forwa forward.

>> yes.

>> you can go down the rabbit hole focusing on all the issues of the amendments. everyone's guessing it's going to pass the senate. are there changes you see brewing in terms of what could happen to this legislation that you think would make it not worth it? is there anything you think is a game changer or game breaker you're worried about?

>> this question of citizenship. this question of citizenship. a lot of the amendments coming to the floor right now are about, should there be a path to citizenship for people like me? all i know is in 21st century america there is no thing as second class citizenship. our senators are only revealing themselves to history. when history comes down looking at grassley and jeff sessions of alabama what is it going to say? this is inevitable. this bill is going to pass the senate and it's going to get through the house. the country has changed. it will continue to change. you're absolutely right, rachel. this is just as big a deal if not more so than health care reform . this is the way our country looks.

>> jose antonio vargas is a pulitzer prize winning journalist. written and directed a new film about his story. it's called documented, it's going to premiere at an american film institute screening next friday. not nervous, are you?

>> i'm just happy we're going to make it and the premiere is next friday. if you're in d.c. check it out.