by Carolina Drake
Two recent news stories have been very upsetting to me. The first, “Deportations Creating a Generation Scarred by Parental Loss,” is about the thousands of kids who spend each day either fearing or grieving the deportation of their undocumented parents. The article cited a 2007 study in the Journal of the National Medical Association that found that “just the fear of deportation — not deportation itself — was associated with worse health outcomes and greater emotional distress for children of immigrants.” The second story was about a grotesque “mock immigration sting” to be held by a campus group at the University of Texas (UT). The Young Conservatives of Texas organized the “catch an illegal immigrant” game, though after a lot of uproar, it has since been cancelled.
As a teacher, I have worked with immigrant kids. I am also an immigrant who went to college with conservative classmates who held views similar to those of UT’s conservative student group. This is why I think it’s important that immigration reform advocates not only ask for laws that protect hard-working, undocumented immigrants, but also share their stories and struggles in the hope of getting others to stop seeing their community as “aliens” and “illegals.” They are working to put an end to the normalization of racist, dehumanizing views, the kind that made UT students think a mock immigration sting was a good idea.
Last week, almost 200 children gathered in Washington D.C. for an event organized by the Fair Immigration Reform Movement. The organization fights for immigrant rights at the local and state level and the march in D.C. was an effort to pressure House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) to move an immigration reform bill forward.
The children who participated in the march represent so many facets of our broken immigration system. They have full or partial citizenship status; they have lost parents to deportation; they are haunted by thoughts of losing their loved ones. These children have uncertain futures and limited educational and career opportunities. They will sustain their working-class backgrounds while asking for respect from a public that dehumanizes them. They will navigate their young lives haunted by private and public fears, categorized as “illegal aliens.”
While the march was taking place in the nation’s Capital, Boehner was eating at his regular breakfast joint when two teenagers, 13-year-old Carmen Lima and 16-year-old Jennifer Martinez, approached the congressional leader.
The conversation was captured on video, with Boehner’s discomfort apparent. He did not look the young women in the eyes, though he pretended to listen. (Later that day he asserted he would not allow any House-passed immigration legislation to be blended with the Senate’s reform bill, saying, “We have no intention of ever going to conference on the Senate bill.”)
One of the young women in the video asks Boehner, “So, you are a father, how would you feel if you have to tell your kids… that you are never coming home? That happened to me.”
Boehner’s response was vague: “Well, I’m trying to find some way to get this thing done.”
The video received countless offensive comments on YouTube, with the primary message seeming to be that the two girls were not human enough to go talk to the speaker of the House. These comments reflect something bigger – and so does the mock sting at UT: they are a consequence of the dehumanizing discourse haunting immigrant communities. Labels based on legal status turn the lives of immigrants into disposable ones, while simplified opinions like, “Their parents chose to come here,” are used to disassociate the U.S. from the reasons why immigrants flee their homelands.
My own experience working with middle school students whose lives are dictated by these daily fears has shown me that their status weighs on them, on their self-esteem, and on their hopes and dreams. As teachers, we need to begin addressing this issue, adding more critical thinking to our lesson plans and more activities where reflection is encouraged.
Last year while organizing a writing project about identity in the United States, one student, who was born in Puebla, Mexico, asked if I thought she would be able to go to college.
“Of course you will,” I answered. “You just have to keep up the great work you are doing in school.”
She contested my easy answer, saying, “Ms. Drake, I don’t have papers. My friend told me that I can’t go to college if I don’t have papers, is this true?”
This past June, Colorlines published an article about the physical and mental threats caused by deportation’s effects on children, writing:
“A new report released yesterday by the Oakland-based health advocacy group Human Impact Partners finds that the congressional failure to pass immigration reform, coupled with the Obama administration’s historic levels of deportation, has punishing effects on the mental and physical health of the nearly 5 million American kids whose undocumented parents are threatened with deportation.”
These children – and the affects that our broken immigration system will have on them – cannot be ignored. They are the next generation of Americans who, along with their families, will actively fight for laws that will one day take them out of the “alien” sphere and into the human one. In 1925, philosopher and educator Jose Vasconcelos wrote about how people in Ibero-America, with its ancient civilizations and richness in traditions, represented a “cosmic race.” Who would have thought some would take this idea so literally?
The free range of dehumanizing opinions about how these “illegals” are invading our territory and should just come back “the legal way” (conveniently ignoring the realities of the system, as USCIS is only now processing applications from 1993) is nothing but dismissive. Dismissive of the children growing up like lost kids without their parents, dismissive of how broken our immigration system is, and dismissive of the poverty, violence, and forces of capitalism that cause people to migrate.
Luz Aguirre, director of Mano a Mano, NYC’s community organization for Mexican culture, expressed to me, via e-mail, how the term “illegal” and “alien” are already limiting people’s identity and humanity:
“Sometimes when I write I don’t even want to use the term ‘immigrant’. I am part of a leadership program and many young community leaders talk a lot about illegal immigrants and how to help them. They don’t realize that the problem is that society has told them they don’t deserve anything and that, until that part of their lives changes, there is not much to do for them,” Aguirre said.
The “illegal” label is used so often by so many media sources that Colorlines actually created a campaign called Drop the I-Word in 2010 with the goal of shedding light on the “dehumanizing and inaccurate aspects of the I-word” at a time when “anti-immigrant sentiment and hate crimes against communities of color” were on the rise.
The act of dehumanizing people because of their citizenship status works as a tactic to avoid feeling empathy for someone deemed “the other.” This perverse game of treating humans as animals to be “caught” and deported back to their countries is sustained and supported by our own government. Those who fail to recognize undocumented immigrants as human are essentially categorizing lives as those that are worthy and those that are not. As long as this line of thinking persists, when alien lives are lost or treated inhumanely, their loss can never be our loss. It leaves me wondering why someone’s status as a human being is so difficult for some people to recognize.
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Carolina Drake is a NYC-based teacher and writer who thinks critically about Latin America and intersectionality within feminism. She writes poetry in Spanish. Her picture was inspired by Mexican, NYC-based artist Chris Alfaro.
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