Josemaria Islas and Rosa DeLauro would seem to make an unlikely political couple. He's an undocumented factory worker from Mexico now scheduled for deportation; while she's one of the richest and most powerful people in Congress.
The connection is the ongoing immigration crisis and the fact that Islas is a resident of and was arrested in Connecticut's Third Congressional District, which DeLauro has represented for more than 20 years.
Until recently, DeLauro was keeping her distance from the whole Islas affair, which seriously pissed off a lot of New Haven-area activists.
It apparently took a sit-in by demonstrators at her New Haven office earlier this month to get the congresswoman moving.
Islas' attorney, Danielle Briand, says DeLauro's staff has since asked for more information on his case. And DeLauro's press secretary, Sara Lonardo, adds that her boss has written to immigration authorities asking that undocumented folks like Islas not be deported solely because they kept trying to come into the U.S.
DeLauro (whose 2011 federal filings listed assets worth nearly $6 million) and her advocates say she's got a great record pushing for reform of this nation's dysfunctional immigration system. She voted against building a fence along the border with Mexico. She supports "a path to legalization" for undocumented immigrants, and backs the compromise reform package now before Congress.
In the eyes of many New Haven activists, that simply wasn't enough. They say she's taken far too long to take a stand on the deportation of Islas, who is facing an April 29 deadline to report to immigration authorities and has become a symbol in Connecticut of everything that's wrong about our immigration system.
"She should be outspoken about this," insists Luis Luna, a member of Unidad Latina en Accion (ULA). "She has a lot of power, a lot of weight," he says, and that weight could make a difference with the powers that be at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
After repeated pleas for DeLauro to take up Islas' cause, a bunch of protesters occupied the congresswoman's New Haven office in the first week in April. It was a move that apparently hit home.
"I think that after we did that sit-in, Rosa DeLauro is paying attention to this case," says Megan Fountain, a Unidad organizer. "She hadn't been paying attention, and she hadn't been paying attention to the deportations."
According to Briand, DeLauro's "staff is doing research to see if this is a case she could support," Briand says. "I have confidence [DeLauro] will publicly support his case."
DeLauro's apparent sluggishness on the Islas case contrasts sharply with the attitudes of Connecticut's two U.S. Senators, Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy. Both have strongly and publically supported efforts to prevent Islas from being deported.
Briand last week filed a request that ICE officials use their discretionary powers to grant Islas a stay on his deportation order. She points out that the immigration agency is supposed to only be deporting major bad guys who have serious felony offenses on their record, like drug dealing or assault — which doesn't include Islas, Luna insists.
"He never should have been handed over to ICE in the first place," Luna argues.
One of the big triggers for that recent protest involving DeLauro was a new wave of ICE arrests in Connecticut. Agents swooped in to pick up 27 people they say have committed serious criminal offenses.
ICE officials say Islas was determined to be a "priority for removal." But his worst "crime" was repeatedly trying to get into the U.S. to find a job. Islas was picked up four times in August and September 2005 as he tried to cross the border from Mexico.
When he finally made it, Islas came to Connecticut, found a job at a Hamden factory, and has been quietly working and living here until June of last year. That's when Hamden cops looking for a "short, brown man" wanted for an attempted bicycle theft picked Islas up while he was on his lunch break.
Under normal circumstances, Islas shouldn't have been transferred to ICE. That's because this state has a policy of requiring that corrections officials review all federal immigration requests for someone in custody to make sure the person involved had done really nasty stuff.
But Islas fell through a big loophole in the state's policy: he was handed over to ICE by state judicial marshals who weren't covered by the state review policy. Fountain says legislation now working its way through the General Assembly is designed to close that gap and prevent cases like Islas' from happening again.
Lonardo said in an e-mail response for this story that DeLauro, "along with Senator Blumenthal, wrote a letter to ICE requesting the Director (John Morton) consider a temporary suspension of removals of undocumented individuals who would be deported based solely on immigration violations." Murphy sent Morton his own letter urging that the Islas deportation be put on hold because of the likelihood of a major reform action.
Fountain says members of Congress like DeLauro seem to be waiting for some big immigration reform plan — like the compromise measure now being considered — to win approval and solve everything.
Except that, in the eyes of activists like Fountain, the partial reform now up for debate won't do enough to correct everything that's wrong with the current system.
The biggest flaw in this reform plan, she says, is that it doesn't stop ICE from continuing a deportation program that critics insist hits far too many people like Islas, whose only real crime is wanting to live and work in the U.S.