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Undocumented students risk deportation for their dreams

UPDATE: We are happy that Mohammad, Yahaira and Lizbeth, who had been detained for staging the sit-in at Sen. McCain’s office, were released from ICE custody late on Tuesday night. All four students entered not-guilty to trespassing charges and were assigned a court date of June 16th. Raul Alcaraz, who is a lawful permanent resident, was released on the condition that he would appear before the court on the designated date. The three undocumented students were released much later after being issued a field released supervision by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). They will face Federal trespassing charges and will have to fight deportation. In the meanwhile, they plan to remain in Arizona and fight for the passage of the DREAM Act before the end of June. Please show them, and all the others who are fighting for their dreams your support! Go to dreamactivist.org for more info.

Yesterday, on the 65th anniversary of the landmark civil rights case, Brown vs. Board of Education, five courageous students staged a sit-in at Senator John McCain’s office in Tuscon, Arizona, to demand his support for the passage of the DREAM Act, a legislation that will set up a path to citizenship for undocumented youth who were brought to the U.S. when they were very young. At 6pm last evening, four of those young immigration activists, three of whom are undocumented, were arrested on misdemeanor trespass charges when they refused to leave the office after closing. The three undocumented students, Yahira, Lizbeth and Mohammad, have been detained and are “expected to face deportation proceedings.” According to the New York Times, “It was the first time students have directly risked deportation in an effort to prompt Congress to take up a bill that would benefit illegal immigrant youths.”

Spurred on by Arizona’s new anti-immigrant legislation, SB1070, the students staged the peaceful sit-in as a challenge to local and federal law, hoping to garner the attention of grassroots organizations and media outlets and highlight the urgency for Congress action on the DREAM Act. Dressed in caps and gowns, the students began the sit-in at lunchtime on May 17th, with a group of supporters cheering for them outside McCain’s office. Four of them, Lizbeth Mateo of Los Angeles, California, Mohammed Abdollahi of Ann Arbor, Michigan, Yahaira Carillo of Kansas City, Missouri and Raul Alcaraz, from Arizona remained in the office till 6pm, when they were arrested. The fifth young activist, Tania Unzueta of Chicago, Illinois voluntarily stepped outside to be the spokesperson for the group before the others were arrested. When asked why she would risk such an act given her undocumented status, Tania told a journalist-

Precisely because we feel that undocumented people need to be at the forefront of our movement think we are tired of not speaking for ourselves and not being able to tell our story…This is my country. This is where I’ve grown up. This is where I’ve learned everything. How to write, how to love, how to be with my community. I feel like where you’re from isn’t always where you’re born it’s the country you learn to love and this is the country that I love.

The DREAM Activists chose Senator McCain’s office as he had initially supported the bipartisan legislation, and only recently, reflective of his new hard-line stance on immigration, had withdrawn his support from it. Although Senator McCain’s office offered the students a meeting to talk about the DREAM Act, they refused it, saying that this late into the debate, they would not take anything short of a statement of support from him. Speaking to the local news, Lizbeth Mateo said-

We’re not going to move, we’re not going to move until Senator McCain cosponsors the Dream Act, so whatever it takes, we’re going to stay here.

Her fellow activist Mohammad, originally from Iran, expressed confidence in garnering a response from John McCain-

We’re here, knowing that he will support the DREAM Act, knowing that he has supported it in the past, ask him to step up and cosponsor the DREAM Act and so we’re waiting at the office until he cosponsors the DREAM Act and writes us a written statement…

Even after a vigil outside the detention center that is holding the three students, there was no statement from Senator McCain’s office. 24 year old Mohammad, who co-founded Dreamactivist.org and led the sit-in, has lived in the United States since he was 3, and feels like fighting for the passage of the DREAM Act is definitely worth his life. For Mohammad, who is openly gay, the repercussions of being sent back to his country of origin, Iran, are frightening. Profiling Mohammad’s story for the Michigan Messenger, Todd Heywood writes-

His action, however, is far from just an act of civil disobedience. As a young gay man, he faces deportation to a country where he knows neither the language nor the culture — and worse, where homosexuality is punished with torture and executions. His supporters say he is literally putting his life on the line by “coming out” as an undocumented, gay youth.

These students risked everything to stage the sit-in yesterday, but the truth is that for them, and the thousands of undocumented students that they represent, the stakes are high regardless. Every year, 65,000 youth graduate from high schools after spending most of their childhoods in the U.S., but are unable to pursue their dreams for higher education and careers because of their undocumented status. According to the College Board, the passage of the DREAM Act would provide about 350,000 undocumented high school graduates with the “legal means to work and attend college,” allowing them to capitalize on their education and contribute to the economy of the country.

Until the DREAM Act is passed, legislation like that passed in Arizona, which allows local law enforcement to question people about their citizenship status based on “reasonable suspicion,” is highly dangerous for the thousands of undocumented youth who were brought to the country when they were children, and have fully assimilated into American culture. With young people taking the lead on demanding immigration reform, there is a silver lining to the dark cloud that Arizona’s SB1070 has brought with it. The good news is that it is the American youth, across racial, ethnic, geography and class lines, that are showing support and positivity on issues of diversity and immigration.

A New York Times article published today finds that there is a glaring generational gap when it comes to the immigration debate. While older Americans, including the baby boomer generation, take a conservative stance on immigration enforcement and reform, polls show that Americans below the age of 45 are much more agreeable to a “welcome all” approach. The article attributes this to the vastly different environments that these generations grew up in. It says-

Those born after the civil rights era lived in a country of high rates of legal and illegal immigration. In their neighborhoods and schools, the presence of immigrants was as hard to miss as a Starbucks today. In contrast, baby boomers and older Americans — even those who fought for integration — came of age in one of the most homogenous moments in the country’s history….In 1970, only 4.7 percent of the country was foreign born, and most of those immigrants were older Europeans, often unnoticed by the boomer generation born from 1946 to 1964. Boomers and their parents also spent their formative years away from the cities, where newer immigrants tended to gather — unlike today’s young people who have become more involved with immigrants, through college, or by moving to urban areas.

While this polarization complicates the movement on policy when it comes to issues like immigration, it is heartening to know that with the future belonging to these optimistic and open young Americans, the future is sure to be brighter than the present. In the meanwhile, we salute the courage of these brave young activists, and ask you to take a moment to think about two leaders of the DREAM Act movement, Tam Ngoc Tran and Cinthya Felix, who we lost in a tragic accident this past weekend.

Photo courtesy of nytimes. com

Hadn’t we decided on equal education for all?

It was like discovering gold.

When she was in college, Sandra Mendez discovered something about her past that changed the way she looked at her parents forever. An American of Mexican-Puerto Rican descent, Sandra grew up unaware that her brave immigrant parents had been responsible for paving the path to racial desegregation in schools.

65 years ago, this month, Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez joined four other families to fight a lawsuit against Orange County, California because their Mexican-American children were not allowed to attend white schools. They won the case, Mendez vs. Westminster, which then set the stage for the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case of 1954. Although Sandra had not been born at the time, her elder sister Sylvia remembers it well:

I remember being in court every day. They would dress us up really nice…And I’d be there sitting very quietly, not really understanding what was going on….

It was only later that she began to understand that she would have to continue fighting even after her parents had won the case. In a conversation between Sylvia and Sandra which was recorded as a part of the StoryCorps Historias project, Sylvia describes the vivid memory of having a white boy at school tell her that she did not belong there and that “they shouldn’t have Mexicans here.” When she cried to her mother that she didn’t want to be at that school her mother would have none of it. “Don’t you realize that this is what we fought for? Of course you’re going to stay in that school and prove that you’re just as good as he is.”

The Mendez’s never really spoke about their monumental victory to anyone, so much that Sandra herself didn’t hear about it till she was in college. She came across her father’s name in a coursebook, and shocked at the coincidence, asked her mother about it. Her mother nonchalantly said, “Oh yeah, that was us. We did that”. Her reason for not mentioning it before – whenever they spoke about it they could be accused of bragging.

The Mendez’s story is like so many other moments in history that have been silenced or forgotten over the years, denying people a sense of shared heritage and community history. One of the largest oral history projects of the time, StoryCorps has launched the StoryCorps Historias, an initiative to record the diverse experiences of Latinos in the United States, capturing the stories and memories for generations to come.

While education has come a long way from 1945 when the Mendez’s won their case, and 1954 when racial segregation in schools came to an end, it is important to note that even today we face a number of problems with immigration education. Those opposed to immigration use the argument that bilingual educational programs hamper a child’s academic development, and that by allowing school children to retain their foreign language in school, the system is posing a threat to the future of English in the country. The controversial No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which promotes English-only instruction, is based on this skepticism at bilingual learning and has resulted in the nation’s 5 million immigrant children being left behind.

In her new book, “True American: Language, Identity, and the Education of Immigrant Children”, Professor Rosemary Salomone counters these myths about bilingual education. She argues that in fact, bilingualism increases mental dexterity, creative thinking and problem solving. And as in the case of Europe, a push towards multilingualism would benefit the nation in the long run, politically, economically and socially. Isn’t it time that our lawmakers started embracing the strength of our diversity rather than burying their heads in the sand?

Photo courtesy of npr.org