They took to the streets by the tens of thousands last spring, some walking out of schools or off their jobs, to protest draconian immigration reforms under consideration by the then-Republican Congress. The sheer numbers of immigrants and immigrant-rights activists who protested from Los Angeles to Dallas, Boise to Milwaukee, Phoenix to Chicago, were unlike anything the country had seen since the 1960s.
They caught the mainstream media off guard, bedazzling with the power of Spanish-language media and the effectiveness of myspace.com as an organizing tool.
One year later, the worst of the reform legislation-a bill by Republican Congressman F. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin that would have criminalized not only undocumented immigrants but anyone, including teachers and church workers, who tried to assist them-is dead. Despite rumbling and posturing and much-discussed “behind the scenes” strategizing, it seems unlikely that any comprehensive immigration reform legislation will emerge from Congress this year.
The mobilization that was heralded as a new civil rights movement, however, still has a long way to go.
In the aftermath of the spring marches, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement-ICE, as it’s known-has conducted a series of nationwide workplace raids. A spate of anti-immigrant measures has emerged at state and local levels. In the Dallas suburb of Farmers Branch, for instance, voters will decide in May whether to approve a housing ordinance requiring apartment managers to verify the immigration status of prospective tenants.
President Bush continues to push his vision of reform, but can’t get around the stalemate with forces pushing for an aggressive border crackdown as the first step to stemming illegal immigration.
There are far smaller groups marching the streets this spring, but the hunger for a compassionate immigration policy remains, and a new generation of activists is finding its voice. Here, in their words, are two of them.
LUISSANA SANTIBANEZ is a 23-year-old senior majoring in government at the University of Texas at Austin. She is a member of the Austin Immigrants’ Rights Coalition.
Last year the Center for African and African-American Studies at UT wanted to do a May Day celebration, where they converged with people at the Capitol for the immigrant rights movement. I remember asking somebody if she could speak at the event and her basically saying, “Why don’t you speak? Your mom’s in detention.” I wasn’t going to do it, but there was one night my mom was so depressed and so demoralized that I just wrote something up and spoke at that May Day event. I started getting more involved in detention center issues, developing my consciousness about what this means, not just for me and my family, but for the larger community.
I was born in San Antonio and grew up in the East Side. My mom had migrated from Mexico and became a permanent resident. With her working from 4 in the afternoon to 6 in the morning, it made it easy for my brother and me to hit the streets, and for a time I would skip school. Then I dropped out. It seemed like it was relatively normal-everyone in my neighborhood had dropped out of school. My friends had dropped out around seventh grade, one in sixth grade. Eventually I went back, graduated from community college, and worked really hard to get into college. Everything I do, I do for my mother. I may not have recognized it back then, but I want to make sure I don’t take for granted everything she has done for us.
It’s hard to talk to people about my mom’s case because my mom is what the government would call a criminal alien. She was charged with transporting undocumented immigrants. She gave a group of folks in San Antonio a ride and got into a wreck in New Braunfels. The police officer who came to investigate asked everybody for their documents. She was charged with two misdemeanors and sentenced to four months in prison. After the four months, we went to pick her up and learned that she wasn’t going to be free because ICE had taken custody of her. We felt that we had a good case because there was evidence to prove that my mom was not intentionally transporting undocumented aliens; we scrambled for a lawyer. My mom was in the Houston processing center for 18 months. I not only had to take care of my siblings, I had to ensure that she had some sort of monthly income to buy toiletries, telephone cards to talk to us. Everything is sold at this private company. The only thing they would not sell to detainees was toilet paper-and even that was rationed sometimes.
She’s now in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. As soon as we knew she got deported, we went to visit her there. One of the hardest decisions for me to make was, should I drop out of school? I hadn’t physically touched my mom for almost two years. She was like, “No, you have to finish school; it’s almost over. After the semester you can come and visit.” But the kids were thinking the same thing. I came back to school and left them there with my mom. They were there for a week when she called to ask me how I felt about taking them back. We had always talked about when she came out, she would relieve me of this responsibility and work toward being a family again. But she didn’t want them to suffer. She doesn’t have ties to Nuevo Laredo. She’s from a small rural community in MichoacÃ¡n. We couldn’t enroll them in school in Mexico. The kids can speak Spanish, but they were born and raised in the United States. It’s two completely different worlds. She felt bad about them not going to school. My brothers and my sister are so smart, hard working, just trying to do well. My sister last year got the top GPA in her class; she’s in the Honor Society, and she’s thinking about college-it’s something that I would hate to see go away-that motivation to continue her education.
I get involved in activism and stuff, but I don’t know if it really helps. I know it’s important. Some people say that protests can be counterproductive, but when your voice is ignored and so much suffering goes on, there’s just nothing else that you can do sometimes-in an informal way let people know your side of the story.
We need to keep this movement alive. Whenever people think about the immigration debate in this country, they should really open up their hearts and realize there is real human suffering involved when a lot of the so-called anti-immigration bills are passed.
JESSE SALMERON is a 29-year-old filmmaker who grew up in Houston and recently moved to Austin. His film Undocumented offers an inside perspective on immigrant rights in Houston in 2006.
I came to Houston when I was three years old-undocumented-from El Salvador. We later qualified for amnesty because we had come here during the civil war. My mother would always have two jobs, fast food and some kind of maid service where she would go clean houses during the weekend. My mother had this idea that I would become a doctor or a lawyer. The arts were pretty much not in the picture until college; I majored in creative writing at the University of Houston. When you’re in the English department at U of H, you don’t have much contact with activist groups. But my writing was about issues of identity, being first generation. The stories were somewhat political: stories about the conflict of traditional values from the old country versus the new country, language and identity. Who you are-especially if you are undocumented. What does it really mean to be American? Am I American because I have a piece paper that says I’m American, or am I an American because I embody the struggle, the spirit for a better life?
After graduation I worked for a design firm as a copywriter, and a small production company that made local commercials. I was working at that company and saw what was happening that first day when students walked out. I was so impressed-shocked-that it was happening in Houston, which has practically no history of social activism. I knew it was going to be history-something that had to be recorded, so I took a leave from work. I had a little money saved up that quickly ran out.
There were people who were emerging as leaders, who had it thrust upon them, learning as they went. Some organizations were more conservative than others. There was every possible clash you could think of-young and old, differences in ideology. Conflict over the flag. If you should even bring a flag, if they should tell students to stay in school. Even race and nationalism. It was a coalition being built on the fly; no structure, no leaders, no bylaws. Just people coming together at a certain place and time to organize these marches. They didn’t have to rally to get people out: People were coming out in masses on their own, all united behind the struggle against the Sensenbrenner bill. Jezer UreÃ±a, the pastor you see in the documentary, he’s Dominican. He was one of the first people I befriended. I really came to admire him for his strength and leadership.
As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t actually be part of the movement because I was behind the camera. I realized this was my contribution, documenting our history. I also realized that I had a strength I didn’t know about before when I was sitting on my couch and just fuming at Lou Dobbs. I realized that I do have a voice, there are stories that have to be told. After April 10-and after the raids that followed-there was fear to the point where people were afraid to leave their homes. Somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 people did come out in Houston on May 1, but there was such fear that while you were out there, ICE would just come out and grab you. And that fear has been sustained. People are thinking that the marches aren’t adding up to anything, these raids are still happening, they’re being attacked, and they really can’t do anything about it.
Immigration is a complex issue. A lot more voices need to be heard. I think there will be a lot of people who emerge from the movement that happened last year. It’s going to be interesting to see the turnout on April 10 and May 1. I’ll be there-I’m not sure whether I’ll be filming. Sometimes you just want to raise your voice and not have a camera. Sometimes you just want to be part of that collective that’s raising their voice and being heard.
Barbara Belejack is a former Observer editor. Jesse Salmeron’s film Undocumented will be shown at the Center for Mexican American Studies at UT-Austin on April 30 at 7 p.m.