“I am convinced that the Dreamers, at least the Dreamers of today, would rather live white than free”- Ta-Nahesi Coates “Between the World and Me”
I found Elvira Arellano wiping Cuban sandwich crumbs off a table at a Deli in Humboldt Park in Chicago last October, across the street from the church where she sought sanctuary from deportation on August 15, 2006. That year Chicago had launched the first of many major national demonstrations or “Mega Marchas” against HR 4437 (a bill that would have made felons of undocumented immigrants and all individuals or institutions that helped them) and in favor of a comprehensive immigration reform. At a time when few undocumented people advocated for themselves, Elvira’s story came to represent the hypocrisy and unbearable reality of immigration laws in the United States, Time Magazine named her and her son, Saulito, Person of the Year and was dubbed The Face of Millions.
The next time another prominent undocumented person appeared in Time Magazine was in 2012, it was Pulitzer Award winning José Antonio Vargas surrounded by 35 other young undocumented people referred to as Dreamers. The headline: We Are Americans * Just not legally we’re some of the nearly 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. Why we’re done hiding. The article was written by Vargas on the anniversary of his New York Times Op –Ed, where he described at length how he was able to bypass laws and restrictions to become a successful journalist despite his immigration status. Despite the cover and headline, Vargas and the 35 other Dreamers were more representative of the Country’s undocumented exceptions: the young, the educated, English Speaking, more “American” than foreign immigrants. Vargas’ articles helped change the national narrative surrounding immigration by casting aside the stereotype that most of those 12 million were Mexican, under-educated, and criminal cheap labor. The personal testimonies of eloquent young people from diverse backgrounds, eager to integrate into the Apple Pie fabric of America, and their strategic direct action Civil disobedience served to push the stagnant needle of the immigration debate, which led President Obama to pass an executive action granting Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, shortly following the publication of Vargas’ article in Time.
On August 19, 2007, after a year of resisting her deportation in sanctuary, Elvira Arellano was physically apprehended by ICE agents in front of Saulito at a Los Angeles church while galvanizing for immigration reform. The agents escorted her to Tijuana alongside an official from the Mexican Consulate, she returned to Michocan, where her parents lived. While there, she co-founded an organization that fought for the rights of Central American migrants in Mexico. When I interviewed her in 2014, she described how she rode La Bestia, the train that migrants ride from Central America in hopes of making it alive to El Norte, to organize and aid the travelers on their journey alongside other activists and priests. She ran for public office in Tijuana but lost. For her, organizing in Mexico and the U.S. is different in that, in the U.S. there is at least a chance for justice, in Central America and Mexico, impunity and collaboration between government and organized crime make peace impossible. The terror infiltrated in the communities is unscrupulous and aided by the lack of educational opportunities for young people. Without work or education, young people are forced to go into organized crime and commit atrocities against their own communities. Women and children are especially vulnerable, Elvira shared an anecdote of a tactic employed by drug cartels to infiltrate terror in villages by kidnapping women, sending back wives before daughters, the daughters returning after them, traumatized and pregnant. She says things like this happen all over Latin America without protections or justice from governments, fueled by the labor needs and addictions of the U.S.
I asked Elvira if she felt safe, if she was at all concerned for her safety- was she scared? Arellano returned to the same Chicago neighborhood where she sought sanctuary in 2006. She was able to return to the U.S. by seeking asylum through an action organized by the National Immigrant Youth Action in March, 2014. “No, back when I was first living here, when there was so much xenophobia and anti-immigrants against us, I would receive death threats, but I would just pray to God, I asked God to please protect me and Saulito, that whole year I prayed so much, and you know, at that time, there were so many people all over the world that were praying for us too. To this day, there are people who recognize me on the bus and tell me that they prayed for me. People that say they hate me, or will tell me to my face this or that, don’t say anything when they see me, some even say hello.”
Regarding immigrant and African American solidarity, she speaks of the coalition work being done by her church alongside African American leaders like Rev. Jesse Jackson and Congressman Gutierrez. “What is needed in the Latino Community is immigration reform, in the black communities it is over criminalization, we work in solidarity for each other’s struggles and that is how we connect movements.” The case of the missing students in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero was still gaining international momentum and analysis when we spoke, but has now evolved to also represent State Repression and indigenous sovereignty. It awakened spontaneous grassroots political participation from Mexican immigrants in the US, something that had gone missing from the reformist movement. The current situation of repatriation of people of Hatian decent in the Dominican Republic has also sparked political participation from the diasporas in the U.S. The immigration movement is being forced to shift gears to confront the White Supremacist vision of the American Dream that immigrants came to get.
Vargas recently released a documentary on MTV called “White People,” 46 minutes devoted to young white people talking about being white and their opinions of people of color, everyone in the documentary is very concerned about their wellbeing and take the time to explain to them why they aren’t getting scholarships and why people of color are bothered when you call them “ghetto” or “chinks.” Again, Vargas’ job here is to begin a “conversation” with mainstream “America” about something they can only grasp in stereotypical bites. The most interesting narrative in the film pertains to a larger issue affecting young people worldwide,how unaffordable and inaccessible education has become. The ways that governments systematically exclude people without financial means from getting it, the alternatives, and how it pits young people against each other.
I asked Elvira how she felt about Vargas, she had this to say: “This guy, José, he’s representative of the reality that thousands of young people in this country are faced with, the insecurity of their future, fear of a country and language they do not remember. I represent the reality of family separation, of hypocritical laws, not the millions of people themselves, but the reality they face. That’s what we are, we all do what we can with what we are given and we need to support each other. People see us being attacked and scrutinized and it discourages them from speaking out, from actively participating in changing their realities.”