Latino celebrities use star power to push for immigration reform

While the “Gang of Eight” Senators continue to meet behind closed doors to debate border security, temporary workers and the economy in hopes of creating a comprehensive bipartisan immigration reform plan, Latino celebrities have gone public in their support of changing current immigration laws.

Hispanic stars have lobbied Congress for a change in legislation, filmed compelling public service announcements, created grassroots campaigns to spread awareness and even penned music with poignant lyrics to tell the personal stories of immigrants across the country. Through their efforts, Latino celebrities have made it clear that there’s no time better than the present to push for an immigration reform deal that would include a comprehensive plan for legal immigration and provide a way for 11 million undocumented immigrants already living in the United States to earn citizenship.

“This country was totally built on the hard work of immigrants and I strongly believe that the people who come here need to have a voice,” says Edward James Olmos, who appears in a public service announcement for the immigrant rights advocacy group Keeping Families Together. “Immigrants come here to work and create better lives for themselves – and right now, our government is punishing them for that.”

Olmos is adamant about his belief that current U.S. immigration laws under President Barack Obama’s administration – which includes deportation as part of its commitment to immigration enforcement –represents a “broken system.” Olmos says this leads to “separating family members in a way that causes so much pain.”

“It doesn’t make sense to see children and parents torn apart,” explains Olmos, who has been a staunch advocate of Latino issues over his forty-year acting career in Hollywood. “Children who have high grades, who could help create future innovation, get in trouble because they don’t have legal documentation,” he says.

“Parents who are working every hour of the day are at risk of being deported,” Olmos adds. “The situation has now reached a crucial point and it’s time for our government leaders and the president to end immigration policy that has encouraged bias against Latinos in the country.”

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Olmos says that he’s encouraged by other celebrities speaking out on behalf of immigration reform. Actress Eva Longoria has been an outspoken supporter of immigration reform, citing the need for policy change throughout her time as co-chair of President Obama’s re-election campaign. Fellow Hollywood starlet Rosario Dawson has created an immigration reform awareness campaign titled “I’m Ready for Immigration Reform,” which has the support of America Ferrera and actor Wilmer Valderrama. The actor recently told Politico that his top priority during President Obama’s second term is drawing attention to the people “here in this country, working for this country, as well as providing and producing.”

And Hollywood’s elite aren’t the only ones speaking out in support of immigration reform. La Santa Cecilia is a young, Latin Grammy-nominated band whose latest single, “El Hielo” (“ICE”), highlights their personal experiences with some of the struggles undocumented immigrants face.

“Within our families, we’ve been afraid of being deported and living in the shadows,” says lead singer Marisol Hernandez, who goes by the stage name La Marisoul. “The millions of immigrants forced to leave this country are more than just numbers and we wanted to [tell] their story – which is our story.”

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“El Hielo” weaves the story of three different immigrants impacted by immigration, all based on real experiences. There’s mention of Hernandez’s mother, who has been deported twice. Then there’s the story of band accordionist Jose Carlos, who until recently, was unable to drive legally or travel to band gigs via plane because he didn’t have proper documentation. And there’s Martha, a Dreamer and “a real fighter,” says Hernandez, who is fighting for her education despite her legal status.

“We’ve never mentioned immigration in our songs before,” says Hernandez, of the Los Angeles-based band that includes bassist Alex Bendada and percussionist Miguel Ramirez. “Deportation is a sad thing, but there’s truth in sharing the personal experiences we’ve had. This is our story.”

But could Latino stars add even more weight to the push for comprehensive immigration reform?

The answer is a firm “yes,” says Arlene Davila, a professor of Anthropology, Social and Cultural Analysis at Rutgers University, who thinks that Latino stars need to push themselves to become real power players in pushing an immigration policy overhaul.

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“We have to remember that President Obama was re-elected thanks to Latinos who organized themselves at the grassroots level,” explains Davila, who says that celebrities would do well to follow deceased singer Jenni Rivera’s example of grassroots campaigning for immigration reform. Rivera marched in front of Arizona’s state capitol to protest SB 1070 when it was announced in 2010 and was one of the first to call the state’s law racist, a move that Davila calls “daring.”

“I wish all celebrities would do what Jenni did on a large scale and take to the streets to demand immigration reform,” says Davila. “Celebrity endorsements don’t take the role of grassroots efforts – but they can absolutely help in motivating people across all ethnicities to demand immigration reform and making it less taboo.”

After all, says Olmos, at the core of the battle for immigration reform are families – and their pride of being Latino.

“I’ll never forget my first day of kindergarten, when my father took me to Belvedere Elementary in East Los Angeles,” says Olmos. “I looked up as I entered the school courtyard and written at the very top of the archway was a sign that read ‘If it isn’t worth saying in English, it isn’t worth saying at all.’ That’s what greeted me in during my first day of school in 1952.”

That painful memory – and many others, says the Mexican-American actor – is why he will continue to fight for immigration reform.

“Ending that type of discrimination and prejudice against immigrants is something that I think can be done through immigration reform – and that’s why I’m passionate about encouraging our government to create change, now.”

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