Undocumented Students: The Change We Can Believe In


Photo: elcanche.com/blog

They’re  smart, hip and politically motivated.  Undocumented students  want a path to citizenship, and they’re not stopping there.  They want comprehensive immigration reform for their families and  environmental justice for their communities.  Growing up in inter-racial neighborhoods, they have broad world views.  They can envision a different kind of future where open borders and fair labor practices exist throughout North  America.

On Memorial Day, I joined a bus caravan of undocumented students and their supporters on a trip from Los Angeles to Phoenix.  They students there to protest Arizona’s tough new immigration laws and speak out for passage of the Dream Act, a federal bill that would give young immigrants a path to citizenship.

Looking for inspiration?  Forget Obama.  These kids get that democracy starts from the grassroots.  They may be progressive America’s best hope for “the change we can believe in.”

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June 21, 2010 – By Lydia Breen

She looked like any other college kid on UCLA’s campus.  But for most of her life, Nancy Meza, 23, was afraid of being deported from a country that in every way but one is her own.   Last month, Meza’s long-held dream of a university degree was about to come true.  Why did she risk it all by publically revealing she is an undocumented immigrant?

Born in Mexico, Meza moved to the United States with her parents when she was six years old.  College was her long-held dream.  An excellent student in high school, she was offered a full scholarship to Berkeley then had to turn it down because she wasn’t  a citizen.   Ineligible for government loans, she held down  jobs and slowly worked her way through community college before transferring to UCLA.

At  commencement exercises last week Meza and her family were jubilant.  But reality was already setting in: without citizenship,  her hopes for going on to  law school would not come to pass.  A low paying job in the grey market economy may be the best she’ll get.

UCLA grads. Photo: UCLA

During UCLA’s commencement exercises, keynote speaker Gustavo Arellano gave a nod to young people who fight for immigrant rights.   A UCLA alum and journalist, Arellano writes the award-wining column  “¡Ask a Mexican!”.  The son of immigrant parents,  his said his father “came to the States in the trunk of a Chevy in 1968.”  In spite of the odds, his parents had three children, all with college degrees.   Speaking of the battle for comprehensive reform Arellano said:

Think what you will of our current immigration wars, but don’t dismiss their courage as weepy-moany propaganda. Gustavo Arellano, keynote speaker at UCLA’s 2010 commencement exercises

Dream Activists say they'll keep fighting for the rights of their families and communities. Photo: Lydia Breen

“Ya Basta!”

Over the past six months, a growing number of  smart, committed and savvy undocumented students like Nancy Meza are speaking  and acting out.   Frustrated by the inability of Congress to fix the country’s broken immigration system, they have focused their attention on one particular piece of legislation –  the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, commonly called  the Dream Act, designed to  provide undocumented young people with a six-year path to citizenship.

Young immigrants  must have entered the U.S. before they were 15, have a high school diploma or G.E.D., and be “of good moral character.”  Once approved,   they have to complete at least two years of college or military service, then wait 6 years to apply for legal residency.The Dream Act has been stalled in Congress for nearly a decade. (Dream Act  requirements are spelled out in this site: The Dream Act Portal.)

Undocumented students like Meza say they have been holding up their end of the bargain – getting good grades, staying out of trouble, contributing to their communities but  they still can’t get a break.  She and other “Dream Activists” claim that each year that the Dream Act is not passed, 65,000 high school graduates are doomed to live their lives in the shadows.   (In 2007, the bill failed by 8 votes in the U.S. Senate.)

A growing number of young immigrants are speaking out and  participating in acts of civil disobedience.  It is not clear why – perhaps it is the anti-immigrant sentiments epitomized by events in Arizona.  But Dream Activists seem fired up with a fierce determination  reminiscent of grassroots efforts like those carried out by the Farmworkers Movement for dignity and fair labor practices or the  Freedom Riders in the South.

Politicians on both sides of the Congressional aisle express concern about the Dream Act.  On the right, opponents say the Dream Act  would reward law-breakers at the expense of our own citizens and  those who came to the country legally.  On the left,  some  immigration rights activists say passage would require them to make unacceptable compromises with Republicans, that would dilute their desire for more fundamental economic reform.  For example, Republicans want a border fence a proposal that would effectively kill  hopes  for open borders and  fair trade policies that incorporate  just labor practices throughout North America.

But Dream Activist Prernal Lai writes that young  immigrants need a win. She argues that the Dream Act energizes young people of color, gets them interested in the political process and encourages them to stay in school.   She and others don’t wait another four or mor years to set out on the path for citizenship for some that would be too late.

Father and son team joined the caravan from Los Angeles to Phoenix. Photo: Lydia Breen

Support for the Dream Act may be gaining ground in Congress.  If passed, Dream Activists say they won’t  forget their undocumented family members and neighbors; they’ll keep on fighting for comprehensive immigration reform.

###

Dream Activist bus caravan from Los Angeles to Phoenix Photo: Lydia Breen

On Memorial Day weekend, Nancy Meza joined  more than 100 members of the Dream Team in Los Angeles and Orange County, travelling by bus caravan from Los Angeles to Phoenix to protest Aizona’s tough new immigration law, SB 1070 (see Cafe Libre’s previous post)  and to show solidarity for the state’s young immigrants.  Some in the caravan were undocumented, others were U.S.-born or naturalized citizens.

During interviews conducted  on the trip,  many said they felt hurt by the passage of SB 1070, a bill which they say turns them and their families into  criminals.   Some expressed disappointed with President Obama who campaigned on the promise of   immigration reform. (As president Obama has increased deportation  by 5 percent. Although the program promised to target criminal,  the majority of those deported  have no criminal record.)

Before leaving the students decided to leave their i.d. at home.  If the caravan were stopped,  they decided to take an act of civil disobedience. If asked, they would refuse to identify themselves to state troopers in defiance of SB 1070.  .

Freedom Riders rode on interstate busses in the 1960s to challenge racist laws. This bus was burned in 1961 near Anniston, Alabama.

En route, trip organizer Nadi Dominguez was interviewed by telephone, explaining the trip would shod how young people acting together they have the power to change society:

“For a long time the youth have been existing in institutions where we were told invisible and silent to make sure that we could survive.  …Now we are seeing an uprising of the youth who are saying: ‘ Enough is enough… I am going to stand up for myself,  my family and  my community… More than anything that has been the driving force for the youth, to be able to tell a young person in high school that to be undocumented is not something we should be shameful of and that we have power and we can create change.” - Nadi Dominguez interviewed on KPFK’a Uprising, Friday, May 28, 2010

Thousands took to the Phoenix streets to protest SB 1070. Photo: Michael Schennum, The Arizona Republic

An Arizona man chats with a veteran civil rights worker from Louisiana at a rally held after the march on grounds of the state capital building in Phoenix. Photo: Lydia Breen

With the passage of SB 1070, Arizona’s conservative politicians  did what the progressive movement has  failed to do: bring a coalition of brown, red, black and

white people middle class, working and poor-out into the streets.

Mural from the Museums Without Borders Conference in Los Angeles. The painting was a collaborative effort between the street artist RETNA, Mear One and conference visitors. Credit: digitalretna.com/blog

Protestors at the Memorial Day event in Phoenix included undocumented families pushing children in strollers, veteran black civil rights workers from Louisiana ,   white university students from Maine, peace workers from Tennessee, church-goers from Tucson and Native Americans from South Dakota.

As they marched and sang under the desert sun young people energized the other protestors,  including some high school and elementary students who walked by their side along the five-mile route.

Dream Team Orange County joined by local youngsters. Photo: Lydia Breen

Young people were the most important element at Saturday’s event.  They are the key to the immigrant rights movement.  There is no doubt about that.  As we speak, they are mobilizing. Isabel Garcia, Coalción de Derechos Humanos interviewed on KPFK in Los Angeles.

Favianna Rodgriugez, San Francisco artist who designed this "Undocumented Unafraid" poster along with Orange County Dream Team member Bao Ngiyen Photo: L. Breen

 

After the march, Nancy Meza was one of the speakers who addressed a crowd of thousands at a rally.  She said she was “undocumented and unafraid ” to  fight for passage of the Dream Act and defeat SB 1070. Standing by, Arizona State troopers made no arrests.

credit: Lydia Breen

Stalled in Traffic, Hate Radio Host Cries: “Wah!”

It wasn’t the first time this year that Meza flirted with deportation.  Weeks earlier,  she helped but did not directly participate in an act of civil disobedience that blocked rush hour traffic for a few hours in Downtown Los Angeles.  Acting as media coordinator for a group of Dream Activists,  she wrote a press release saying where the event would take place, identifying herself as an undocumented student and providing her cell phone number.   The action was taken to highlight the failure of Congress to pass  the Dream Act.  Nine protestors, all U.S. citizens, were arrested.

Spot the accountant. Radio hosts Jon and Ken Photo: KFI-AM

Ken Chiampou was one of many Angelenos caught up in the jam on plush Westside of town.  A nationally syndicated co- host of KFI-AM radio’s  “Jon and Ken Show,” Chiampou was outraged that a bunch of “illegals” had wrecked his day.  Chiampou, an accountant in his previous life, gave out  Meza’s cell phone number over the air and urged his listeners to call ICE and have her deported.  KFI listeners – (the station has one of the largest audiences in the country) responded enthusiastically to his clarion call. Meza was inundated with calls and emails :

“On the first day I got more than 500 calls and hundreds of emails and text messages,” explained Meza during an interview on the bus to Phoenix. “They wrote all sorts of things from  ‘Go back to Mexico’ to  ‘Who the f#!k do you think you are?’  I couldn’t believe it.”

Sidebar: Venom as fashion accessory

T-shirt, $23.99 Photo: Skreened.com

Skreened.com  in Columbus, Ohio offers a “Deport Nancy Mesa” T-shirt for  $23.99.  The  company website  says:  “Don’t let this illegal immigrant cause any more disruption in your life! The back of this shirt has the toll-free number to report illegal immigrants.”  ( Ironically,  Skreened promotes itself as an ethical company that sources  to green manufactures committed to fair practices for workers.  It also claims to make Kiva microloans to entrepreneurs in developing countries. )

 

poster design: Favianna Rodriguez

The police are investigating some of the more serious threats made against Meza, but she says her personal safety is no longer her primary concern: “When we say undocumented and unafraid, we mean it. It’s more of a risk to remain silent. But it’s a risk that I am ready to take. Once we put a human face on the problems we face, most people are very receptive.”

Her chief frustration with the protest in downtown Los Angeles was that the media focused its gaze on her instead of the Dream Act.  Of the nine protestors arrested that day, all were U.S. citizens. Until now, none have been interviewed by the media.

Jonathan Bibriesca, Dream Team Orange County

Jonathan Bibriesca was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor for blocking traffic in downtown Los Angeles. Born in Mexico, he is a naturalized citizen, he was attached to the Marines, serving six years as a medic in Iraq.   He is currently a  full-time student at UC Santa Anna.   A few years ago Bibriesca  joined the  Orange County Dream Team after observing  undocumented students struggle through college.  “Students work hard to get where they are,” said Bribesca while interviewed on the bus caravan. “They work two, three jobs and still manage to get into college and get good grades.”

In addition to his advocacy work for passage of the Dream Act, he also  gives pep talks at high schools where he encourages undocumented students to keep their grades up and follow their dreams, no matter the odds.   The support he gives seems especially to kids in Orange County, a conservative GOP stronghold where immigrants can have a hard time.

The Dream Continues

Patriots come in all colors

Undocumented students are chasing the same dream that Martin Luther King imagined for young people like Barak Obama.  They want dignity and hope for a better life for themselves, their families and a country that is, short one piece of paper, their own.  They are eager to contribute their energy and talent.

They just want a chance.

 

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