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Two whole months after self-deporting to Mexico, walking up to the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) with a humanitarian parole and asylum application to come back to the United States and spending 17 days at the Eloy Detention Center in remote Arizona, I still remain in awe of the Bring Them Home action organized by the National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA).
At first, it made no sense to many as a political action. Then again, the 2010 sit-in in Senator McCain’s office in Arizona, which sparked a series of civil disobedience actions across the country for a standalone DREAM Act and brought the legislation up for a vote twice, also made no sense to many. In the past two months, and through speaking to the DREAM 9 — now released from detention — I have discovered that Bring Them Home is not just an escalation action to defy Congress and the President in order to reunite families, but that it provides us with many other lessons. I am noting some of these lessons below.
Expanding the Dreamer Label
It is perplexing that we talk a lot about immigration reform, but not about immigrant lives. Instead, whenever the immigration reform debate comes up, advocates cherry-pick a few “aspiring American” undocumented youth (“Dreamers”) to highlight, preferably with a “We are Not Criminals” banner. I am a survivor of this tactic so I have a lot of empathy for the undocumented activists who have to act like perfect poster children because they have either testified before Congress or had their photos splashed on magazine covers. The exceptional framing of the “Dreamer” borne out of the DREAM Act, a rather conservative and Republican idea, comes with a loose noose of limiting who deserves citizenship. The noose gets tighter as we start talking about who deserves a pathway to citizenship, and it strangulates the dreams of millions who will be left out of reform.
While I believe the entire exceptional framework should be thrown into the dustbin, the recent escalation tactics are trying to expand the notion of a “Dreamer” and who is deserving of American citizenship. Indeed, Claudia Amauro, one of the DREAM 9, is 37 years old, and people may not see her as technically a Dreamer. She tells me that she “had lost faith in people caring about other people” but through the original Bring Them Home action, she met wonderful people who were doing good work for their community in trying to reunite families.
“I felt like Dorothy trying to get back from the land of OZ,” says Claudia.
I am glad Claudia is back in the U.S. with her U.S. citizen son, through the DREAM 9 Bring Them Home action. She is the real Dreamer.
The Many Faces of Mexico
Mexico is often painted in the mainstream media as a poor country, knee-deep in drug cartel violence, corruption and cronyism. While that is partly true, some of the DREAM 9 who self-deported, also experienced a different Mexico.
“I loved Mexico,” Marco tells me. “Through my American, first-world, colonized eyes. I loved it but I was only there for three days. Little did I experience the violence there, which has scarred and killed too many. But I loved how everything is not a sanitized, box store, even though it is getting there. There is spontaneity in the terrain, for now.”
Not all is beautiful, and I do not want to romanticize Marco’s experience in Mexico as the only experience. He was only there for three days after all.
Adriana Diaz, one of the DREAM 9 who had been forced to leave the U.S. due to the terror of Sheriff Arpaio tells me “I never expected to live at an immigrant shelter for 7 months. It is very sad to realize that you have almost no family support whatsoever in the place you were born in.”
“I would see all the frustration and desperation transform into so many tears on so many faces of mother’s who only ask to be with their children and families. Honestly, to me, that is the furthest thing from respect,” says Adriana when she describes her experience in detention.
Six of the DREAM 9 were placed in solitary confinement after they went on a hunger-strike, as a punishment for trying to organize within the facility. Lizbeth Mateo lost 1/10 of her body weight in solitary confinement. Lulu Martinez and Maria Vargas were sentenced to 15 days in solitary for providing legal information to other women detainees, and for encouraging them to “chant and speak out against injustices that were happening in the detention center.” While in solitary, Maria Vargas was also placed on suicide watch.
“Solitary confinement was the most psychological horror thing that could ever happen to me,” says Claudia.
Marco gave us a more refreshing take on the horror of confinement: “I feel like the depression we undergo through years of fear takes a concrete body in detention. That’s where empowerment kicks in and the hope of hearing our loved ones in the outside fighting.”
DHS had promised to look into the use of solitary confinement in federal facilities in March 2013. However, it was not until after the DREAM 9 were solitary confined and brought the issue more national attention, that ICE released a memo restricting the use of solitary confinement in immigration detention. Whether or not the memo is implemented is another story for another day.
Putting the Pressure on the Executive Branch
Both parties bear responsibility for the state of our immigration system. Some immigration reform advocates — never to be confused with immigrant rights advocates — hate to hear this. The overall Reform Immigration for American, now Alliance for Citizenship, campaign has poured millions into messaging immigration reform to be about “aspiring Americans” craving to assimilate into the “melting pot” of the U.S. by becoming citizens. They have made the unyielding GOP the target of their campaign for immigration reform, even while the Obama Administration continues to deport people in record-breaking numbers.
Now, no one taking part in these escalation tactics is opposed to immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship. That is beside the point. But pointing out that Obama is still deporting our parents and children sends chills up the spines of some Democrats and immigration reform advocates as it shifts from the partisan multi-million dollar narrative of the GOP killing 11.7 million dreams to the Democrat President tearing apart 1.7 million families.
At the same time even as members and supporters of NIYA take the heat for changing the message, their actions have created more space for various different non-profit groups to put pressure on the Obama Administration to stop all deportations. Indeed, Puente Arizona, NDLON, the Arizona Dream Act Coalition and various organizations across the country are coming together to escalate and put more pressure on the Administration to stop deportations, and extend deferred action to all persons.
Earning Citizenship vs. Pathos of Belonging
The UN Declaration of Human Rights stipulates that “everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”
The Bring Them Home campaign presents a different way of looking at immigration reform beyond the partisan blinders of Democrats, GOP and the pathway to citizenship–a debate that has stalled the Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR) legislation. For a long time now, the “Dreamers” have been seen as a low-hanging fruit in the immigration debate, and the “chosen ones” for politicians to support. The good immigrant/bad immigrant dichotomy created by the exceptional framework of the DREAM Act has made its way into the “earned citizenship” concept of the current CIR legislation, which leaves millions behind. Instead of hand-picking which migrants have earned themselves a pathway to citizenship based on how aspiring they are as Americans, Bring Them Home focuses on notions of belonging, based on the simple idea that everyone has the right to live, work and reside in the place she or he considers home. The Immigrant Youth Justice League, a sister organization, describes it best:
Even when a person is removed from their home, held in detention, or deported, they are not forgotten. They, like everyone else, are integral keys of the magical piano that are our communities. The idea of home transcends borders, it transcends nationalism, singularities, it defies definition, redefines belonging, and breaks away from the imprisonment that holds many stationary. And yet an increasing militarization of our streets and borders, and economic and social policies that target marginalized communities, continue to shatter those ideas and keep loved ones apart. As fellow community members, we have the responsibility to support our neighbors and loved ones, although far away from us they still live and exist. Their ideas of home are as important here as they are there.
Everyone has the right to come home.
Migration and Love
If there is a common thread in all of these stories of the deported and departed, it is the story of love. Undocumented youth act out of love for their families and communities when they put bodies on the line to escalate against nefarious, wrong-headed, devastating immigration policies that continue to separate far too many loved ones from one another. I believe Adriana puts it best:
I admit that my entire experience in Mexico was very harsh and very desperate. However, I do think that I would participate in the whole Dream9 movement all over again, just to shed the tiniest of light to all those women who still remain locked up in the Eloy Detention Center. I’m sure that all nine of us would repeat what we did because in my opinion, part of being a “dreamer”, and part of being human is giving hope, respect , and dignity to people. Especially to those who are being brought down every single day only for the color of their skin, their language, or even their sexual preference.
Many undocumented non-citizen parents left their beloved homes and traveled long distances to give their children a better home and hope for the future. They made the courageous, dangerous and heart-breaking journey across many borders, seas and oceans out of love for their children. Through the actions of the NIYA, I see the deported and departed young adults and children of these parents doing the same today. Migration may or may not be beautiful, but somewhere, in all these stories, there is a common thread of love. And that is the bridge between all our differences.
The NIYA is now working with 30 other immigrant youth to Bring Them Home through Laredo, Texas. Unlike the last action, no one has self-deported to Mexico in an attempt to come back. These are all “Dreamers” who grew up in the U.S. and were either deported or forced to leave the country. The action will stream live today at 11 am EST.