An event in San Antonio, Texas designed to engage Latino voters grew tense Saturday when an activist confronted a Democratic congressman and a labor leader over immigration reform.
Rep. Joaquin Castro (Texas) and former SEIU boss Eliseo Medina had just finished a panel discussion with actress Rosario Dawson sponsored by Voto Latino. That’s when Marco Malagon, an activist from Dallas affiliated with United We Dream, started asking pointed questions about their stance on immigration issues.
Malagon also accused Voto Latino of not doing enough to include undocumented immigrants in its activities. Voto Latino president Maria Teresa Kumar defended her organization and disputed Malgon's argument. She said it's fine to quibble over strategy and tactics, but called for unity among Latino activists.
"I strongly encourage us to realize who our friends are," she said.
Malagon, 32, called out Medina, a veteran advocate, for signing a letter in May asking President Obama to delay executive action on deportation relief in order to give Congress more time to work on an immigration bill. Malagon implied that Medina was being hypocritical in expressing frustration over the president's decision to push back action until the end of the year.
Medina defended SEIU's decision, arguing the bill still had a chance of getting passed, so he thought it wise for Obama to give Republicans in Congress more time and space to work. He noted that the letter said that if a bill failed, then the president would have an "obligation" to act on his own to stop deportations.
After the event, the labor activist told Fusion that he had no problem with being confronted in public.
"I thought it was appropriate," Medina said. "Whenever there are any issues we should be able to have honest conversations about what's going on. The one thing I think is great about the Dreamers is their passion, and we saw it today."
Dawson, Castro, and Medina (from left to right). Jordan Fabian/Fusion.
Malagon also confronted Castro over a planned immigrant detention center to be built 70 miles southwest of San Antonio. Castro said he is talking with federal authorities about the center, which is designed to temporarily house families awaiting an immigration hearing. Castro said that conditions in detention centers have to be improved, but that it's necessary to build more shelter space for kids and adults who recently crossed the border from Central America.
The congressman then flipped the script, asking Malagon whether he has registered people to vote. In an interview, Malagon said it is illegal for undocumented immigrants to register voters, but he has encouraged family members to register, driven people to the polls, and registered young undocumented immigrants for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
"I think it shows the passion of the movement that DREAMers have been behind for years," Castro told Fusion. "Just the incredible spirit and passion—you have to keep it up, you have to hold politicians of every stripe accountable.
"At the same time, there is a challenge for DREAMers and for the movement also to make sure that in every way they put pressure on our elected officials to pass comprehensive immigration reform," he continued. "And that includes morphing into some kind of voter registration and mobilization effort."
Asked if he trusts the White House will take action before the end of the year, Castro said, "they realized they delayed it once and so they understand that there are stronger consequences if it doesn't happen around the holidays."
"I think it would have even deeper implications for the political landscape if it doesn't happen then,” he said.
Malagon and Kumar had an emotional discussion off-stage following the event. After that, Malagon said he did not mean to criticize Voto Latino, but said Democrats and labor unions need to be more inclusive.
"It's not fair to have someone who has nothing to lose, nothing whatsoever to lose to be in the conversation," he said.
Malagon said that mistakes made by Democrats during the immigration debate compelled him to speak out.
"I'm standing up for the families that have been devastated by the lack of leadership from the Democratic Party and from the labor movement,” he said. "I have to stand up because that's the only tool that I have to protect our families."
Jordan Fabian is Fusion's politics editor, writing about campaigns, Congress, immigration, and more. When he's not working, you can find him at the ice rink or at home with his wife, Melissa.