Internship Week 2: Privilege

Political cartoon depicting the unfair way in which we deny privilege to DREAMers merely because of the actions of their parents.

The week from June 18th to June 22nd marked the second week of my internship.  This summer, one of my main projects will involve developing a list of scholarships that require U.S. citizenship or legal permanent residency and creating a campaign to pressure these organizations to change their requirements.  In some cases, scholarship providers are more than willing to change the requirement once they realize their requirements exclude the more than 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school each year.  In other cases, pushing a scholarship foundation to change their requirements is met with firm resistance, revealing underlying prejudice against undocumented youth.  Citizenship or residency requirements may be in place for any number of reasons.  Applicants may need to submit a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), which requires a social security number, to prove their financial need.  Some foundations may have merely based their requirements off of those of a similar scholarship.   Certain scholarships are sponsored by companies that may seek to later hire scholarship recipients and need people who could legally work for their company.   Regardless of the reasons, now that the Administrative Relief policy is in place, scholarships have no legal reason to exclude undocumented students.  While a formal system for deferred action has yet to be put in place, the fact that undocumented students will be able to obtain work permits and have temporary relief from deportation removes any real need for citizenship or residency requirements on scholarships.  That being said, I anticipate that many scholarships will hold firm in their requirements due to the foundation’s desire to reserve the privilege of receiving the scholarship to those who are citizens.

Beginning the task of finding such scholarships was far more overwhelming than I had originally anticipated.  I sat down at my computer, eager to begin.  Within a few minutes, this eagerness melted into a sobering realization that I had no idea how to even begin.  Google, of course, was not much help, delivering over 157 million results for the search term “scholarship.”  I was naive to think there would be some master list of scholarships floating around the internet where I could easily check scholarship requirements.  No such luck.  Alas, I was forced to create a fake profile on Scholarship websites, such as Zinch and FastWeb, acting as a Hispanic female high school senior.  With few other specifications, I hoped these websites would return some relevant scholarships that could serve as a starting point.   While these scholarship search engines were somewhat helpful, they still produced a list with numerous scholarships that were no longer offered.  I spent days scouring these lists and sifting through complicated scholarship websites in search of their eligibility requirements, only to come up with a meager list.  The search gave me empathy for undocumented students, or any students for that matter, who search spend endless hours on websites in the hopes of finding scholarships (many of which are only around $1,000) to cover for the ever-increasing cost of higher education.

Searching for scholarships also heightened my awareness of the numerous layers of privilege afforded to me, which many others have been denied.  I will admit that I have never had to worry about how to pay for college.  I never filled out a FAFSA.  I never searched for scholarships.  I never took out a loan.  I never participated in a work-study program.    I would be lying if I said I was not conscious of this privilege prior to coming to Tucson, as I have met many students who are on substantial financial aid, who work part-time jobs to pay for their education, who cannot always afford to fly home for Fall Break or Thanksgiving, who make many more sacrifices than I do. The scholarship search (as well as my entire DukeEngage experience) forced me to think about another source of privilege: U.S. citizenship.   Prior to coming to Tucson, the privileges associated with U.S. citizenship were the ones that I took for granted the most.  As a citizen I can vote, work legally, travel freely, apply for federal financial aid, collect social security benefits, obtain a driver’s license, hold public office, among other things that undocumented immigrants cannot.  I had subconsciously accepted all of these privileges without ever thinking of the people in this country without the same basic opportunities as me.

Ultimately, the experiences this summer have led me question such privilege.  To me, privilege is the good fortune of not having to think, to sacrifice, or to compromise.  Take, for example, the privilege of being white (which many white people are often uncomfortable admitting is a source of privilege.  “Fortune” because being white is pure luck – luck that both of my parents happened to be white.  This luck is out of our control and completely removed from any judgements as to who is most “deserving” of such privilege.  “Not having to think” because as a white person,  I do not have to think about the fact that I might not be offered a job simply due to subconscious racism.  I do not have to think that if I wear a hoodie I might look suspicious because of the color of my skin. I can move about in my everyday life without having to recognize or question my white privilege, should I choose to do so.  My white skin affords me the privilege of “not having to sacrifice”  because I do not have to exert myself to overcome systemic and institutional racism.  White privilege involves “not having to compromise” because I never have to work with those in power in order to gain some ounce of power myself.  I already have power.  Minorities, on the other hand, are forced to lobby white Congressmen to pass beneficial legislation that often fails to meet a large majority of their needs.  While the DREAM Act is important (and has yet to be passed), is in some senses a compromise because it only addresses the citizenship needs of young undocumented students.  What about their parents and other family members?  Undocumented immigrants have been forced to compromise their universal need for citizenship, in the hopes that some of the most promising individuals from their community may be afforded that privilege.

The initial way I react to this privilege is to feel guilt.  I, just like undocumented students, had no control over where I was born, the color of my skin, or my parents’ income.  So what makes me deserve my privilege?  Nothing.  Just as nothing makes undocumented immigrants and other oppressed communities deserve to be denied such privilege.  Yes, I have always worked hard in school, but in no way have I earned many of the privileges that have been handed to me.  So I feel guilt.  Guilt that I cannot give some of my privilege to others that have little.  Guilt that I am no more deserving of such privilege than anybody else.  Guilt that I often take my privilege for granted.  Yet I have come to realize that such guilt can be paralyzing and counterproductive.  Paralyzing because by feeling guilty for privilege, we are focusing on the negative, allowing us to feel trapped and defeated.  Counterproductive because our guilt leaves us feeling bad for those who are less fortunate than us, which only serves to reinforce the current system of privilege.  Instead, we can chose to be empowered and progressive, to focus on what we do have control over: what we do with our privilege.  We can pledge to never take it for granted, to never use it to oppress others, to use it to fight against the system.  Guilt should only come into play if we fail to do these things. The best thing we can do is recognize (rather than shy away from) our many layers of privilege, peel them back, and begin to question the systems operating which create and maintain such privilege.  Why do some groups hold privilege while others do not?  How is the cycle of privilege perpetuated?  Can we ever hope to alter the current system of privilege?  As I continue on my DukeEngage experience, I will be grappling with these questions and many more.

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Internship Week 1: By the People, Of the People, For the People?

The ScholarshipsA-Z Press Conference held on June 15th to clarify Obama’s Administrative Relief for DREAMers and call for the release of Gilberto, a detained DREAMer.

June 11th – June 15th marked Week One of my internship at ScholarshipsA-Z.  As mentioned in an earlier post, ScholarshipsA-Z seeks to make higher education attainable for all students, regardless of their immigration status.  In Arizona, Proposition 300 bars undocumented students from paying in-state tuition or being eligible for state-funded financial aid.  As a result, paying for college is incredibly difficult for undocumented students from low-income families.  ScholarshipsA-Z recognizes this problem and (among many other services) provides students with an updated list of scholarships that do not require U.S. citizenship or legal permanent residency, helps students in writing scholarship essays,  and educates students and their families about how to prepare for college.  It is a predominantly student-run organization, and so far it has been wonderful to work with such a passionate group of students who have been so welcoming.

The most eventful and disturbing part of my week began on the evening of June 14th.  Around 8:30 PM, I received a phone call informing me that a young man named Gilberto, a student with ties to ScholarshipsA-Z, had been detained hours before.  After watching another car rear-end Gilberto’s vehicle, a witness called the police to report the accident.  When the officer arrived at the scene, he allowed the driver who caused accident to leave, while he forced Gilberto to stay outside in the sun for two hours waiting for Border Patrol, all because the policeman assumed Gilberto was undocumented.  After verifying his status, Border Patrol took Gilberto into detention to begin his deportation proceedings.  Upon hearing of this news, ScholarshipsA-Z used social media to campaign for his release, providing the contact information of the Tucson Border Patrol office and suggested scripts to follow for phone calls and e-mails to the office.   A bombardment of e-mails and phone calls aimed to show the Border Patrol office that Gilberto is a valued member of the community and as a result should not be deported.

That evening I called the Border Patrol office, an upsetting experience, to say the least.  After taking down my name, the first woman I spoke to put me on hold for around ten minutes.  When a man answered the phone, I proceeded to recite the script as had been set forth: “My name is Lauren McGuiggan, and I’m calling for the release of Gilberto–”  At this point he stopped me, asking me to repeat and spell my name again (despite the fact the first woman had already “taken down” this information).  Once I fulfilled his request, I proceeded to explain the purpose of my call, at which point he interrupted me again, “Wait, I didn’t catch your name.”  I recited and spelled my name very slowly and clearly, then moving on to the rest of the script: “Your office is currently holding Gilberto, but he is not a threat to the community. He is a DREAM Act eligible student who meets the requirements for prosecutorial discretion and should not be detained or deported. I request his release immediately so he is not divided from his family. Thank you.”  The Border Patrol officer paused for a second before giving a disinterested reply, “Sorry, I couldn’t hear any of that.  What is your name again?”   In total, he requested I repeat and spell my name five or six times, and each time I politely complied.  I knew his aim was to frustrate me so that I would give up and not call again, yet on the phone I fought to show no signs of frustration.

The conversation with the Border Patrol agent escalated from irritating to infuriating as he picked apart my every word.  He took issue with my use of “DREAM Act eligible”,  scoffing “I’m not familiar with a law called the DREAM Act.”  To which I responded, “Sir, I understand that the DREAM Act has not yet been signed into law, but the fact that Gilberto is eligible indicates that he is a low-priority undocumented immigrant eligible for prosecutorial discretion.”  To this he snarled, “Oh, so if someone is here illegally, I should just let them go because of some Act that isn’t even a law?”  Disregarding the fact that he was twisting my argument, I calmly explained, “Under prosecutorial discretion, low priority undocumented immigrants can have their cases closed.  This would be the proper course of action given that Gilberto is an active student and valued member of the community. He could then be reunited with his family.”  He retorted, “Oh, so you are telling me to violate the law and allow this person to stay in the country illegally just so he can be with his family?”   Yes, out of compassion I was asking that the Border Patrol agent release a young, hard-working man to his family, rather than deport him to a country where he would be lost and alone.  Furthermore, it would not be in violation of the law to exercise prosecutorial discretion and release Gilberto from detention due to the fact that he is considered a low-priority individual.

Throughout the rest of the conversation, the Border Patrol agent continued to belittle my claims and insult my intelligence, asking incredulously if I even knew what “prosecutorial discretion” meant.  He even concluded the conversation by falsely stating, “I have no idea who this Gilberto person is that you’re talking about, and even if I did I wouldn’t be giving out information about him.”  For the duration of the phone call his tone reeked of disdain, and his words stung with spite.  Within seconds of hanging up the phone, I burst into tears, though I had never even met Gilberto.

I reacted so strongly to the conversation for a number of reasons.  Firstly, I had never been spoken to is such a disrespectful and callous manner, especially not by a stranger over the phone.  Granted, I did not expect him to agree with my viewpoint or comply with my request, but I was still unprepared for his harsh words.  Secondly, I felt the Border Patrol’s actions were in direct violation of their organization’s purpose.  On the phone, the agent sought to aggravate and confuse me, to deter me from my mission of freeing Gilberto.  As Border Patrol agents it is their job to “protect and serve” our country.  By detaining a young man who poses no threat to society, Border Patrol was diverting resources away from catching drug, weapon, and human smugglers (whom they already struggle to apprehend), which certainly did not “protect” me. By verbally bashing me, a U.S. citizen making a calm and reasonable plea, Border Patrol certainly did not “serve” me.

For me this brought to mind the famous phrase from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”  However, the phone call with the Border Patrol agent made me question the last part of this statement.  As it stands, we do not have a government “for the people” as long as enforcement agencies seek to confuse and condescend U.S. citizens; as long as these agencies care more about using innocent people to fill detention centers (whose private contracts require them to have 96% occupancy) than about reprimanding true criminals; as long as these agencies use racial profiling to apprehend Hispanic-looking citizens and non-citizens alike.

This led me to examine the beginning of that famous phrase as well.  Are we truly a government “of the people”?  Hardly.  Our politicians are predominately white upper-class males.  According to the Congressional Research Service, of the 541 members of the 112th Congress, over 83% are white, only 16.8% are female, and only 5.7% are Hispanic or Latino .  Yet the 2011 U.S. Census reveals that our population is only 63% non-Hispanic white, 50.8% female, and almost 17% Hispanic.  While it is unrealistic to expect the gender, racial, and economic makeup of our government representatives to perfectly mirror that of our total population, the current disparities are both alarming and problematic.  In order to be a government “of the people”, we need to have a government that is more representative of the diverse American population.

As I have mentioned before, our government lacks effective immigration policies.  The system is broken.  Why should 60-year-old rich white men be the overwhelming majority of Congressmen on whom passage of immigration reform, such as the DREAM Act, hinges?  Many of theses Congressmen have no concept or understanding of the plights of low-income undocumented students.  Sitting in their offices in Washington D.C., they are often unaware of the deaths and suffering along the border resulting from immigration policies.  I have been immersed in Tucson for almost a month now, and I am only beginning to scratch the surface of understanding the complexity surrounding immigration.  I therefore find it hard to believe that many of these policymakers can comprehensively reform an immigration system from which they are so far removed.

To fix our broken system, we can start by electing officials that have greater understanding of the complicated issues surrounding immigration.  It would help to have officials from low-income Hispanic neighborhoods.  Or from border towns.  Or who personally know undocumented immigrants.  I do realize that campaign funding serves as a barrier to entry for would-be politicians who do not come from wealth.  I also am aware that the solution of having more diverse elected officials is far easier proposed than carried out.  Yet my hope is that people look not to the candidates who are the most well-spoken, or who have the flashiest commericals, or who have already served for numerous year, but look to the candidates who are humble, possibly inexperienced, and far more aware of the issues plaguing America.  It will take time, but once our Congressional members more accurately reflect the socioeconomic and ethnic diversity in America, we can hope to see more positive and sweeping immigration reforms.

The morning of June 15th was momentous.  At 11 AM, Obama held a press conference stating the policy change of Administrative Relief for DREAMers.   It grants eligible students (see previous link for specifics) with temporary relief from deportation.  This “deferred action” is effective for 2 years and subject to renewal, with those who are granted deferred action able to apply for work permits (also valid for 2 years and subject to renewal).  If this policy actually goes into effect, undocumented students will be free to come out of the shadows and finally seek employment to pay for their education.  Yet unlike the DREAM Act, it provides no path to citizenship for eligible students, and only impacts the close to 1,000,000 eligible students (out of the estimated undocumented immigrant population of 11 million).  Just as Obama acknowledged, it is a temporary fix for Congressional inaction.  It is a glimmer of hope, but not a solution.

The new policy also raises many concerns.  Since the government has 60 days from June 15th, 2012 to devise a comprehensive process by which to evaluate students’ applications for deferred action, it is currently unclear how long it will take for the government to review and decide on these applications.  It is also uncertain how long it will take for students granted deferred action to be approved for a work permit.  Furthermore, since students will be approved on a case-by-case basis, no one yet knows what might cause an eligible student to be denied deferred action.  As a result, it could easily be four or five months before eligible students are impacted by the policy.  Even more worrisome, if Obama loses the November election, this policy may cease to exist.  In the meantime, eligible undocumented students have no choice but to wait.  Therefore, the Administrative Relief policy yields only cautious optimism for undocumented youth, rather than an exhilarating sense of victory.

On the afternoon of the 15th, ScholarshipsA-Z held a press conference to both clarify the new Administrative Relief policy and raise further awareness about the detention of Gilberto.  Students from the organization boldly spoke both their new-found sense of hope and renewed fire to fight for a path to citizenship.  While I can never begin to understand the emotions coursing through these students, hearing them speak of the new policy was inspiring and heart-warming.  The message was clear: the battle for rights as undocumented students is not over.  ScholarshipsA-Z is more relevant as an organization than ever, for if students are eligible for deferred action, they need to find ways to pay for and continue their education in the hopes of one day securing a path to citizenship.

At the end of the press conference, the speakers announced the remarkable news that Gilberto was released to his family moments before.  As a result of the Administrative Relief policy, his family was able to bring documentation down to the Border Patrol station to prove his eligibility for deferred action.  His release and subsequent reunion with his family gave me a sense that a government policy finally worked “for the people.”  I can only hope that the Administrative Relief policy finally spurs Congress to pass the DREAM Act and secure further progressive reforms that grant undocumented immigrants the dignity they deserve.

Neither citizens nor undocumented students should become complacent as a result of this new policy.  We have to fight to have a government that is truly “of the people, by the people, for the people”, one that generates effective and intelligent immigration reform.  Our body of policymakers needs to be as diverse as our population, with a comprehensive understanding on the most complex issues afflicting immigration.  Our laws need to address the economic realities of immigration, not constantly seek to reinforce boundaries that are becoming increasingly antiquated in our globalized society.  Our views need to be progressive, not built on centuries-old prejudice.  Only when we meet these needs can we truly become, as Lincoln stated in the beginning of the Address, a “nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

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Delegation Day 4: Culpability

On the morning of June 4th, our group met with two men from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (more commonly known as ICE), Rick and Rich.  ICE is one of the twenty-two agencies within Homeland Security, which was created in 2002 as a result of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001.  Within ICE, there are two departments: Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO).   Rick and Rich for HSI, which investigates human smuggling, gangs, drug smuggling, employers that knowingly hire undocumented workers, weapons smuggling, money laundering, and many other crimes.  They essentially investigate and control what enters and leaves the United States, from people to pharmaceuticals to child pornography, receiving much of their information from informants and cooperating witnesses.  ERO, on the other hand, maintains the custody of undocumented immigrants and physically deports them.

Surprisingly, I agreed Rick and Rich in their assessment of some of the legal problems concerning immigration. They admitted that the U.S. has made it so difficult for people to cross legally (since there is a 10-12 year backlog on visas) that they are forced to cross illegally.  This is certainly true, which is why I am frustrated when some Americans voice that undocumented immigrants should just “wait in line” instead of crossing the border illegally.  While in an ideal world the government would have proper documentation of everyone who is in the country, I do not think it is just nor reasonable to expect some people to wait more than ten years to come to the U.S. when each day they are struggling to provide for their family.

Rich and Rick’s analyses of the drug war was similarly logical; they acknowledged that the increasingly militarized border has escalated drug cartel violence.  Since drugs have become more difficult to smuggle, cartels are willing to go to extreme lengths to protect their precious cargo.  Rick also rightfully professed that they have not managed to greatly reduce the supply of drugs in the United States, indicating that there needs to be a focus on adjusting U.S. demand for drugs rather than just cutting off supply.  Essentially, our government’s tactics in the “war on drugs” are not only ineffective but are also in part culpable for the rise in the horrific tactics used by the cartels.  By focusing their efforts on the root cause of the drug trade in the United States (i.e. the fact that we demand drugs), our government could be far more effective in their mission of reducing drug use.  Shrinking demand would also effectively dry up much of the funding and power of the cartels.

Yet beyond these two areas of agreement, the men from ICE and I hold very divergent views.  They continually stressed that they are law enforcement officers, and as such it is their job to arrest people coming into the country without documentation (even though they feel the immigration system is broken).   I could not understand how someone could work to perpetuate a bureaucracy they saw as flawed, to enforce laws that they did not see as effectively solving the problems at hand. Perhaps it is the naive young adult in me that aspires to work for an organization that helps rather than hurts, that favors confronting root causes over avoiding them, that is aligned with rather than incongruent to my views.  To me, it is wrong to work to reinforce an immigration system you are well aware is defective.

Rick and Rich’s comments surrounding the topic of detention centers were similarly problematic.  When we asked about the numerous reports of maltreatment and abuse both in detention facilities and during workplace raids, Rick explained simply that the standards for detention centers are much higher than they are for jails that house U.S. citizens.  Upon further pressure by our group, he admitted that the detention centers are run by ERO, not the HSI department, so they are not his “problem.”  He also claimed that citizens must deal with abuses as well and that “mistakes” and “accidents” happen.  His incredibly evasive answer disturbed me on many levels.  He prides himself on being a law enforcement officer, yet does not see it as his responsibility to ensure that rules and regulations are upheld in detention centers.  He is comfortable with conducting investigations that could lead people to be deported, but is not concerned with how they are treated once ICE officers take them into custody.  If ERO is not holding themselves to the standards set forth, is it not HSI’s responsibility, as the other ICE department, to step in?  If a person is aware that their organization is harming others and does nothing to effect change, then they become culpable for that harm as well.

Thirdly, Rick and Rich’s argument for “Secure Communities” was flawed as well.  “Secure Communities” allows for the sharing of information between law enforcement agencies, including the local police departments and ICE.  When a person is arrested, their information is run through the immigration database, which tells the police whether the person is here legally.  Every county in Arizona participates in the program, and interestingly enough, Illinois’ Cook County has been fighting its implementation.  Rich and Rick stressed that this was not a form of racial profiling because “a computer system cannot racially profile.”  While I agree with the obvious assumption that computers are not discriminatory, this ignores the larger issue that under such a program, officers could feel compelled (consciously or subconsciously) to pull over or arrest Latino people on just so they could run them through the immigration system.  Deporting murderers is necessary, but what about people who commit simple traffic violations? To me it makes sense that Cook County would not want to partake in this program unless provisions were made to protect against racial profiling.

My main problem with the men from ICE was their lack of culpability.  They assumed no guilt for working to sustain an admittedly faltering immigration system.  Nor did they assume guilt for the actions of others within their ICE agency.  Nor did they assume guilt for the racial profiling occuring as part of a program their organization has instituted.  They continually emphasized their role as “rescuers.”  They “rescue” workers from oppressive employers who knowingly employ undocumented immigrants.  They “rescue” immigrants from drop houses where they are being kept by “coyotes” who have just brought them to the United States.  They praised the successes of ICE without acknowledging its shortcomings, without accepting blame for their role as part of a larger broken system.

I understand that as government employees giving a presentation, they are trying to highlight the positives and downplay the negatives.  Yet their inability to speak candidly left me wondering if they ever questioned the work of ICE, or if they really did only see themselves as “rescuers” of immigrants and protectors of Americans.  It also made me question if people in other Homeland Security agencies, such as Border Patrol, spend any time critically thinking about their role in reinforcing the dysfunctional immigration system.

In the afternoon, we sat in on one of the hearings of Operation Streamline, known formally in Arizona as the Arizona Denial and Prosecution Initiative.  Originating in Texas in 2005, Operation Streamline began in Tucson in 2008 as a zero-tolerance program against immigrants who have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally.  70 people (many of whom have been apprehended only days before) are processed during the one proceeding that takes 45 minutes to 2-3 hours each afternoon.  Since Operation Streamline could not possibly process the more than 2,000-3,000 immigrants caught crossing illegally each week, the remaining people are immediately deported without being charged.  Zero-tolerance?  Not quite, but the intention is to make the process bad enough so that those who go through it will not attempt to cross again and will convince others to do the same.  Yet another brilliant policy costing taxpayers obscene amounts of money that has done absolutely nothing to curb the immigration flow. (Interested in learning more about the effectiveness of Operation Streamline?  Look here:

Those who find themselves in Operation Streamline have two options: plead guilty to a misdemeanor of illegal entry (i.e. not entering the country at a designated entry point) or request a their own trial.  The misdemeanor counts as a criminal offense on their record (which can be used against them to try them for a felony should they be caught re-entering) and carries a maximum penalty of 6 months in jail and a $5,000 fine.  Those who have never been caught before almost always take the plea, since their other option is to wait 3 months for a trial only to hear the same verdict (hardly any defense exists for illegal entry).   For those facing the felony of re-entry after removal (they have been prosecuted for entering the country illegally before), they almost always take the plea because it allows them to receive the lesser misdemeanor charge.  Therefore, while no one is forced to take the plea, for many it seems like the obvious option.

The migrants wear wearing headsets connected to an interpreter who translates the court hearing into Spanish.  In groups of 5 or 6, they walk up to individual microphones with their lawyers, are asked a routine set of questions, and are then given a sentence.  When asked how they plead, without fail each person said “culpable” (pronounced cool-paab-lay), the Spanish word for “guilty.”  But for what exactly are they guilty?  They are guilty of trying to break their cycle of poverty.  They are guilty of trying to unite with their families in the United States.  They are guilty of trying to pay for their children’s education.  Their illegal crossing is not one committed out of malice or greed, but oftentimes out of desperation.  It strikes me as sad to punish people so harshly who come with pure intentions.

A persistent jingling sound serves background noise in the courtroom – the clinking of the detainees’ chains connecting their handcuffs and ankle restraints.  To me these excessive restrains resembled modern-day versions of the chains that bound slaves in the United States more than 150 years ago.  To some it may seem to be a hyperbole to compare the undocumented immigrants to slaves, yet upon deeper examination I do not believe this to be the case.   Undocumented immigrants are paid sub-substandard wages (or none at all) by stingy employers who benefit from the criminalization of their labor, just as slaves were only given room and board in exchange for their forced labor.  Undocumented immigrants are dehumanized by the government who labels them as “illegal aliens,” just as slaves were counted as only 3/5 of a person.  Undocumented immigrants are discriminated against on the basis of their language and darker colored skin, just as slaves were classified as such on the basis of their skin color.

It seems that as Americans we have traded one kind of slavery for another.  Our policymakers shape it.  Our law officers reinforce it.  Our racism ingrains it.  And it is time for us to accept culpability.  Only once we as a country acknowledge our guilt in shaping the current problems with immigration can we hope to create effective solutions.

After watching Operation Streamline, we met with Heather Williams, a public defender in Tucson who has served as a lawyer on the Operation Streamline proceedings.  She explained that the Tucson Public Defender’ Office fought against the implementation of Operation Streamline when it was first proposed in 2007 because they felt it was a factory justice system.  They then sought to make Operation Streamline more personal than it was in other cities, dictating that each lawyer would be assigned to no more than 6 immigrants.   At each proceeding, 2 of the 15 total lawyers are public defenders, and the rest are private lawyers who have been contracted by the state.   Each lawyer (who is randomly assigned to a client by the judge) spends approximately half an hour with their client on the morning of the proceeding.

Many of the members of our DukeEngage group agreed that the proceeding we witnessed was in some ways more humane than we had initially predicted.  The judge seemed more compassionate than one would envision in such a program, each lawyer could speak on behalf of their client individually, and each migrant had the opportunity to speak as well.  The more just character of Operation Streamline proceedings in Tucson compared to other cities is in no small part a testament to the efforts of the Public Defenders Office.  As Heather put it, the role of the public defenders and contracted private lawyers is to give humanity to people in a system that is flawed.   The Public Defender’s office in Tucson sought not to be a complicit part of the broken immigration scheme, but instead tried to leverage their power and work on the system.  Unlike the men from ICE, Heather and her team recognized their duty to fix some of the flaws, rather than reinforce them.

Not only did Heather criticize Operation Streamline for being ineffective and far too costly, but she provided some concrete alternative solutions to mend the broken state of immigration in the United States.  She felt we need to create an environment in which people do not feel compelled to leave their home country.  To do so, there needs to be more educational and economic opportunities for people in Central and Southern America.  I could not agree more.  As discussed in a previous post, U.S. policies have created economic hardship in Mexico that continues to drive immigrants to search for job opportunities in America.  The United States government has also not hesitated to intervene in the politics and economies of Chile, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, just to name a few.  We, as a nation, need to admit our culpability in supporting and funding toxic regimes to serve American interests at the expense of foreign people and economies.  Only once we recognize this fact can we see that it is now our responsibility to address some the wrongs we have done to the Central and Southern American countries.  Rather than supporting dictators friendly to America, we need to support leaders who value education and economic development – leaders who work to elevate the people of their country, not leaders who exploit their people to help American businesses.  We should work with countries not on them, respecting their sovereignty.  While we can never fix the ills we have committed, we still have time to confess our guilt and shape more humane and effective solutions to the immigration crisis.

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Delegation Day 3: Walking 6.5 miles in Migrant Shoes

Stopping at a water station during the Migrant Trail.

On June 3rd, we participated in the final day of the Migrant Trail walk.  Over the course of 7 days, 50 individuals made the 75-mile journey from Sásabe, Mexico to Tucson, Arizona, representing the long trek thousands of migrants make entering the United States each year.  This year marked the nine-year anniversary of the Migrant, with participants now hailing from ten different states.  Their aim is simple: to end the deaths of migrants by calling attention to the human rights crisis occurring at the U.S.-Mexico border.   They walk to denounce the divisive borders in favor of human dignity for all.

Joining them on the last day of the walk gave the members of our DukeEngage group the opportunity to (literally) walk 6.5 miles in migrant shoes.  Yet on our walk there were water and food stations every 1.5 miles, there to hydrate and refuel us.  And on our walk there were trained medical personnel, there to ameliorate our dehydration or bandage our blisters.  And on our walk there were cars traveling behind us, there to shuttle us if we grew too tired.   We were afforded all the luxuries on our journey that migrants are not: water when we were thirsty, medical care when we were injured, rest when we were tired.  But after that 6.5 mile journey (only a fraction of that which migrants travel) in the blazing Arizona heat, I was still exhausted.

It was along the walk that I grew to appreciate the sheer amount of desperation and love for one’s family that it must take for many of the migrants to be willing to cross the treacherous desert.  They walk under the cover of night, with little food and water to help them along the way.  For those who survive, they arrive in the United States with gruesome blisters, symptoms of dehydration, and severe sunburns.  They are the lucky ones.  For those who do not, they leave behind families in the United States and in Mexico who will continue to pine for their return.

On the Migrant Trail, the walkers carried white crosses bearing the names of migrants who had perished.  Some were names of friends and family, others were simply “desconocido”, meaning “unknown”, representing the thousands whose bodies have never been recovered.  Since 1994, over 6,000 migrant bodies have been found.  6,000 fathers, sons, brothers, mothers, daughters, and sisters.  6,000 too many.

To me, the pursuit of better economic opportunities is a right, not a privilege afforded only to certain citizens or groups.  People should not have to risk their lives just to reach a land where they can hopefully find a way to finally provide for their families.  I am deeply saddened that American policies have pushed people to this dangerous path.  Our border walls have been created and militarized to keep American privilege and wealth inside the country, while attempting to keep poverty outside our walls.  They have become walls of privilege, excluding those without citizenship from the opportunity to seek a better life.  In a country that was founded as a land of opportunity for immigrants, it seems hypocritical to now deny others the right for economic advancement within our borders merely based on where they were born.

After the walk, we visited a place called Casa Mariposa (meaning “Butterfly House”), a spiritual living community in Tucson that houses immigrants recently released from the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detention center in Florence, Arizona.  ICE chooses to drop off newly released immigrants at the Greyhound bus station at 9PM, despite the fact that buses stop running at midnight.  Unless the individual was carrying sufficient money when ICE brought them to the detention center, it is very difficult for them to get home to their families upon their release.  Casa Mariposa recognized this problem and began making trips to the Greyhound Station each night, waiting for undocumented immigrants to be dropped off.  They offer these individuals a place to stay for as long as they need, providing them with food, phone calls to their family, and support.  For some, they need only to stay the night.  For others, their stay is much longer.  Last year, a total of 170 immigrants stayed at Casa Mariposa.  One undocumented immigrant who lives there currently was held in detention centers for 7 years.

The work at Casa Mariposa is admirable: they show hospitality to people whom have only ever been confronted with hostility.   They give dignity back to a population that the government has dehumanized by labeling them as “illegal.”  Our government’s policies force immigrants to walk for days in blazing heat, fall victim to racial profiling, and live in constant fear of deportation.  We have made undocumented immigrants feel as though they have no rights due to their unauthorized status.  Yet as a country we believe that allhumans we all have certain “inalienable rights”, as stated in our Declaration of Independence.  It is prudent for us to remember that at the heart of this issue, undocumented workers are human, just like us.  To treat them as anything less is a violation of our founding principles. The Casa Mariposa model reminds us that we can do better, that we can be better.  We can welcome immigrants who come with honest intentions, regardless of their documentation status.  We can be more compassionate, more humane, and more tolerant.  This is our duty as Americans and as global citizens.

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Delegation Day 2: Just as American

Our DukeEngage group at the Forever Young Farm with one of the UN refugees. Behind us are strands of garlic that have been cured.

On June 2nd, we began our day by making a trip to the Forever Young Farm, a small, organic family farm in Amado, AZ (one hour south of Tucson).  Joining us on our journey were members of an organization called Iskashitaa, which helps to empower refugees and rebuild their lives.  Among other programs, they identify and harvest crops that are going to waste in Tucson, redistributing this food to refugees.  We made our trip with five UN refugees, one woman from Iraq and four men from Africa, all of whom had been in the United States for less than six months.  Over the course of the morning, we worked as an army to harvest three types of garlic, tie them into bundles, and hang them on long ropes to cure.

While gaining perspective on the tough daily work of farming was valuable, it was also incredibly powerful to converse with the refugees about their path to the United States and experiences in a new country.   Three of the male refugees were from Eritrea, a small country in Africa that borders Ethiopia to the north.  In their home country, one man was certified as an electrician and the other as an auto-mechanic, but in America these certifications are no longer valid.  As a result, they explained to me, their job prospects are primarily work as busboys or dishwashers.  Despite the fact they could no longer work in their trained field and were uprooted from their home country, they remained positive and hopeful about the future.  One man explained that in Eritrea he had no job and no hope, yet in America he had the opportunity to have both.

Admittedly, communication proved to be challenging at times, as the refugees had only been learning English for a few months.  However, they made a strong effort to engage us in conversation and better their language skills whenever possible.   I marveled at their work ethic while harvesting the garlic as well: they worked twice as fast as I did and took fewer water breaks.  Whenever a new truckload of garlic pulled up, they were the first to jump up, unload it, and begin tying it into bundles.

As you can tell, my interactions with these men from Eritrea were simple and brief.   Yet in these small moments I was able to discern the character of these men.  They are hopeful, eager, and hard working.  They are curious, kind, and happy.  They are motivated, grateful, and earnest.  And they want better.  Despite only being in the country for a few months, the refugees I met that morning embody many of the principles upon which America claims to stand.  In a country which does not always uphold the values it espouses, it was refreshing to find men who do.  They gave me hope, and though they may not have the papers to prove it, to me they are just as American as we are.

In the afternoon, we heard from members of Scholarships A-Z, the organization at which I will be interning this summer.  First founded in 2009, and it serves as a resource to all students pursuing higher education, regardless of their immigration status.  The organization has created a list of hundreds of scholarships around the country that do not ask for citizenship status (i.e. a social security number) in their application process.  Additionally, they provide personal advising to students and tutorials on writing résumés, cover letters, and scholarship essays.  Each member of Scholarships A-Z told us of the difficulties they have faced as immigrants and as students striving to improve their education.

At age 12, one young woman witnessed her alcoholic father assaulting her mother.  The traumatic experience drove her, her mother, and her three brothers to come to the United States without documentation.  Though extended family members helped her mother to find employment, adjusting to her new life was challenging.  Shortly after moving, the young woman began to have seizures and was diagnosed with epilepsy at age 13.  Her constant seizures and feeling that she would never again be a “normal” kid plunged her into a deep depression.  Battling her mental illness as it worsened through high school, she maintained excellent grades as a cover-up for the hurt she felt inside.  Ultimately, she pulled out of her depression, her seizures are under control by an effective medication, and she now finds happiness in each day.

Enrolled in a community college, her current goal is to become a neurologist.  She desires to help others with medical conditions like her own and to provide for the college education of her younger brothers.  As an undocumented immigrant, achieving her goal is undeniably more difficult than it would be for a citizen.  Due to her status, she is ineligible for in-state tuition, ineligible for many scholarships, and as a result unable to attend many four-year institutions (though she graduated top of her high school class).   Yet these obstacles do not stop her.  She continues to study diligently and serve as a role model for her younger brothers.  Her courage, ambition, and love for her family are inspiring and unwavering.

The stories of the Scholarships A-Z students were similarly moving.  They are all bright and hardworking, often graduating in the top 10% of their high school class.  They are all family-oriented, wanting to help their parents and siblings.  They are all hopeful, never losing sight of their aspiration of a brighter future.  They face challenges that to some would seem insurmountable, yet their lack of citizenship does not prevent them from being just as American as we are.  They should be celebrated for their achievements, not criminalized for their lack of documentation.

So often we say we are “proud to be Americans.”  Why not let others who share our same values take part in this pride with us?  America was founded by hardworking, family-focused dreamers.  The refugees and undocumented students I met may lack U.S. citizenship, yet at their core they are just as American as we are.  We should stop treating them as “others” and open our eyes to the idea that America is a country of many: many languages, many cultures, many races.  Documentation is not what truly makes us American, and it should not be how we determine if others are American.

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Delegation Day 1: Push and Pull

A political cartoon depicting the United States’ contradictory actions towards Mexican immigrants.

Friday, June 1st marked the first of our DukeEngage group’s seven-day delegation.  We began the morning with a history of the U.S. border with Mexico taught by the Borderlinks staff.  Besides realizing that I have forgotten much of what I learned in my high school U.S. history class, I also gained new knowledge that helped shed light on the present situation with Mexico.   The U.S. relationship with Mexican immigrants has consisted of a series of pushes and pulls, with the U.S. pulling immigrants in when cheap labor is needed, and pushing immigrants out when their labor is no longer necessary.

The southern border with Mexico as we know it today was completed in 1853 by the Gadsden Purchase.  This final purchase of land, combined with the large amount acquired by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 (which ended the Mexican-American War), allowed the U.S. to build the Southern Pacific Railroad.  During the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century, many Mexican laborers were pulled in to work as cheap labor building this railroad and constructing other projects as part of the Industrial Revolution.

The Border Patrol was founded in 1924 for two reasons: 1) to prevent the flow of alcohol from Mexico during the era of Prohibition; and 2) to enforce the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924. This Act had restricted the number of immigrants allowed in from each country to 3% of the total number people of that nationality who had been in the U.S. in the 1890 Census.  It also completely excluded any Asian immigrants from entering the country.  Based on the use of this more than thirty-year-old census, the law favored immigrants from northern Europe over those from Mexico and Southern and Eastern Europe.  At the time, it was the most stringent quota system on immigration that had been put in place.

While many Americans think of the 1930’s as the time of the Great Depression, few probably know (myself included, until recently) it was also the time of the Mexican repatriation.  During this time, more than 2 million Mexicans were forcibly deported, over 60% of whom were actually U.S. citizens.  Rounded up by police and boarded onto trains in masses, Mexicans were seen by the U.S. as a burden to the ailing economy.  Deporting part of the U.S. labor force seemed to be a quick fix to easing some of the financial strain of the Great Depression.  The Mexicans that had worked hard on the Southern Pacific Railroad and during WWI were now no longer welcome, and the Mexican repatriation, combined with the quota system, was the U.S. government’s attempt to push Mexican immigrants out.

Shortly after, Mexican workers were pulled back.  The Bracero Program, beginning in 1942, brought Mexicans to the United States to work the land and fill other unskilled positions left vacant by the many men off fighting in World War II.  Thousands of Mexicans took advantage of this opportunity, which ultimately came to an end in 1964.  As the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum, the Program began to be seen as a form of slavery (due to the low wages and abuse suffered by many workers). Furthermore, the increasingly strong Trade Unions grew upset that workers from the Bracero Program were undercutting their wages and taking their jobs.  With the Program’s conclusion, thousands of unemployed Mexican men left for their home country.  Once again, Mexicans were pulled in by government policies, and pushed out when the U.S. felt they were no longer necessary.

In 1994, NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) was created, aiming to eliminate all barriers of trade between the United States, Mexico and Canada.   In theory, eliminating tariffs and subsidies was supposed to improve the economies and welfare of all involved countries.  In practice, there was a far different result.  Subsidies in Mexico dropped off after 3 years, while U.S. subsidies on corn and other farmed goods continue today.  With no tariffs to protect them from the artificially cheap prices of U.S. corn, over a million Mexican farmers were driven off their land, fleeing north to the U.S. in search of better economic opportunities.  Though unintentionally, our government policies are once again pulling Mexican immigrants into the U.S.

Project Gatekeeper also began in 1994, marking the beginning of the militarized border we know today.  The militarization has also largely been in towns along the border, forcing immigrants into dangerous desert terrain to avoid the Border Patrol.  Before 2006, 136 miles of fencing ran along the almost 2,000 mile U.S.- Mexico border.  Today, there are 649 miles of fencing.  Almost 250 people die each year crossing the border, and over 5,000 have died in the past 15 years (which does not account for the many bodies that have never been found).  Border militarization has been the government’s aggressive attempt to once again push out immigrants coming from south of the border.  The pushes and pulls that have defined the U.S. relationship with Mexican immigrants are so accurately depicted in the political cartoon I included at the beginning of this post.

After learning about border history, we heard from Pan Left Productions, a group of artists, activists, and organizers who believe in the power of media in telling stories and effecting social change.  By providing free video equipment, media production classes and workshops, and help in filming and editing, they allow people tell their stories through documentaries.

We watched part of “Under Arpaio”, a film produced by the organization that documents people impacted by the notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio (the Sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona since 1992) and his anti-immigration policies.  Arpaio and his deputies have targeted day laborers with arrests and raids, as well as used racial profiling to pull over suspected undocumented immigrants, creating a climate of fear.  The documentary highlights the abuse that many immigrants face at the hands of Arpaio and his 160 deputies; One woman had her jaw broken during a workplace raid and was degraded for 3 months in prison while she awaited her deportation trial.  Conditions in the Arizona deportation jails are inhumane, with people dying or getting abused each year before they even reach trial for their deportation case.  “Under Arpaio” emphasized how anti-immigrant officials with harsh tactics and staggering power push Mexican immigrants out of the United States.

After hearing from Pan Left Productions, we sat down to talk with a public defender (who represents non-citizens charged with felonies), and a former professor of Chicano studies who now devotes her time to immigrant humanitarian aid organizations. The public defender had an incredibly interesting perspective: she saw migrants (across the world) as “the revolutionaries of our time” in that their movements are reshaping our global economy.  She also felt that the nation-state borders were becoming an archaic concept, as ideas, funds, and technology all flow freely across borders.  From her perspective, migrants across the world were to be celebrated, not labeled as “illegal.”

Both women also mentioned that U.S. immigration policies have followed the same pattern for many decades: the use of a quota system to push immigrants away, but once per generation there is a regularization in which all people present in the country at that time are registered as citizens (pulling them back in).  The use of a regularization process once per generation is almost an acknowledgement by the government that our immigration policy to that point has failed.  In 1948, the regularization served as a “thank you” to foreign-born citizens who had helped in the war effort.  Another regularization took place in 1972 as part of the Black Power and Chicano Movement, and yet another in 1986 with the implementation of the Immigration Reform and Control Act.  The Act was not only gave amnesty to all undocumented immigrants who had resided in the country for 5 years or longer, but it also made it illegal for companies to hire people without proper documentation.   This spawned the creation of a whole group of workers who could be subject to victimization due to their “illegal” status.  With an estimated 12 million undocumented people in the United States today and no talks of regularization in the near future, the U.S. has put itself in a situation without precedent.

Thousands have already died trying to cross the border, and it remains to be seen how much longer the government will leave undocumented people in legal limbo before standing up to such a tragedy.  With the United States’ continual and conflicting pushes and pulls towards immigrants coming through our southern border, the “immigration issue” carries far more complexity than the simplified rhetoric of our politicians would suggest.  My 8-week journey has just begun, and my hope is that I will continue to ask questions, refuse to feel defeated, and discover my own relationship to immigration in the United States.

My apologies for such a long post; I am learning so many new and important things that I want to share!  Feel free to comment with any questions or opinions – discussion is welcome!

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