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.”