Earlier this month, President Obama dubbed himself as the “champion-in-chief of comprehensive immigration reform” stating that “until Congress passes new laws, I am constrained in what I am able to do.” This addressed accusations from undocumented activists frustrated with Obama’s administration deporting more people than any of their predecessors and nicknaming him “deporter-in-chief”.
As an undocumented immigrant myself, I have experienced first-hand having to live in the shadows. At the age of sixteen, when everyone else was getting a jobs and driver’s licenses, I came up with endless excuses to avoid causing suspicion as to why I had not done any of those things. It was frustrating not being able to do everything my friends were able to do because I lacked a piece of paper. I was extremely lucky to have the option of going to a public university for an in-state tuition price and to receive financial assistance from the state after Governor Jerry Brown passed the California Dream Act in 2011. Currently, seventeen other states allow in-state tuition for undocumented students and four states (CA, WA, TX, NM) provide financial assistance. Other undocumented students are not so lucky. In states such as Alabama and South Carolina, undocumented students are prohibited from even enrolling at a higher education facility.
When it comes to my parents, they work twelve hours, five to six days a week for less than an average pay. They do not have much of a choice. They are also in constant risk of being pulled over while driving and possibly being deported. It is a constant fear thousands of other undocumented immigrants experience, a legitimate fear of coming home and finding out one of their loved ones is gone and — unless they risk going back to their home country as well — they might not be able to see them for a long time. It has come to a point that people are willing to speak up, and risk deportation, just to let politicians know that it is enough.
Obama has not been completely idle when it comes to providing solutions, even if temporary, to undocumented immigrants. On June 2012, his executive order to pass Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, gave thousands of undocumented youth who met the requirements protection from deportation and a work permit for up to two years. However, deportations and separations of families has extensively continued. Undocumented immigration has become more of a political tool to collect votes, mainly from the Latino population, rather than an issue that affects thousands of individuals trying to achieve (the now almost mythical) American Dream. Promises from both the Republican and Democratic parties have been continuously broken and hopes of this issue being solved before the next elections are dim.
In a video posted on the National Immigration Youth Alliance page to raise awareness and support for their campaign “Bring Them Home”— of which the objective is to bring back members of families that have been separated due to deportations — Jose Hernandez voices a relatable thought among the undocumented community:
“We’re tired of hiding from the police, tired of being a business for this country, tired of President Obama’s promises.”
I had the opportunity to see activists fighting for this cause at the San Francisco Organizing Project (SFOP). There I met the most inspiring and courageous group of people. These are mothers, fathers, students, and workers who step out of their comfort zones and speak up for their community. They are not afraid to bring their personal narratives into the public eye despite the risk of being judged by those who are in opposition. They recently spoke at the rally “Fasting For Families” — a campaign across the United States that seeks to raise consciousness and urge Obama to stop deportations. I also had an empowering experience at a meeting at San Francisco State, in which various representatives from groups dedicated to the immigrant community united. It included organizations focused on legal services such as housing rights to educating the youth about their opportunities to achieve a higher education. It gave me insight into how much power the people have as long as they are willing to come together and organize. It makes me extremely proud of my community that even though we have been marginalized and labeled as “lazy and uneducated” we are stepping up and proving them wrong.
In reference to the United Farm Workers Movement, César Chávez said that “once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot un-educate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore” and that could not be any more true with the undocumented community.
The most important lesson I learned from these incredible human beings is that change starts within. I hid the fact that I was undocumented for so long for fear of being judged and rejected, but at one point I had to speak up and it was the most liberating experience. I am now determined to let people know we are here, we exist, we are part of your community. We are human beings, we should be acknowledged, and we are undocumented, unafraid, and unashamed.
If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, come to the screening of DOCUMENTED April 3rd at the USF Human Rights Film Festival (3:00 pm in the Presentation Theater). Members of SFOP will attend and there will be a panel with undocumented students from our campus, including the author of this story.