Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Si, Se Puede

There were rallies nationwide today and last week against legislation approved in the House of Representatives that would make it a felony to be in the US without proper papers. Although it is an open secret that America is built on institutionalized racism, this is embarrassing, even for us. I met with two members of Washington D.C.’s Youth Action Research Group this Saturday and again on the National Mall yesterday afternoon to talk about this proposed reform, their experience in America as the children of Latin immigrants, and the walkout they helped stage at their high school last week as a form of civil protest.

Jose Andrade
Originally uploaded by chinese_fashion.

Jose Andrade is the 19-year old son of two illegal immigrants from Honduras. He is a senior at Bell Multicultural High School in Northwest D.C., works two jobs outside of school and hopes to attend college after he graduates.

“Before my mother hooked up with my stepdad,” he says, “she was terrified she’d be deported and me and all my brothers and sisters would have to go to foster homes. And she had the pressure of having to provide for us on top of that. She is the kind of woman that tells you her problems, too, and that gave me a lot of anxiety, growing up.”

“Now my mother and father both have temporary work permits. My dad works in an auto body shop. Every year, he has to renew his permit, and it costs $500. Even if he gets the application off on time, it takes so long for his new permit to come in the mail. It might take seven months of us hoping he gets it, checking the mail every day until it finally comes. Then he has to turn around and reapply in 3 months for another one.”

Judith Reyes
Originally uploaded by chinese_fashion.

Judith Reyes is also a senior at Bell Multicultural High School, hoping to attend college in the fall. Her parents came to the U.S. from El Salvador to escape the civil war and give her and her siblings a shot at an education that means something. “In El Salvador,” she explains, “the best schools in El Salvador are full of people from gangs. You get good grades by threatening the teacher, not by studying and working hard.”

Judith’s father is a cook, and her mother works cleaning office buildings at night. Her parents have temporary work permits as well, which also cost $500.

“My friend Jose (a different one) is an illegal immigrant to America. He’s only been here five years, and he’s a senior in high school now. He’s been in the honor society since 9th grade, and has a 4.2 GPA. He tutors kids, and he helped us organize this walkout. He might not be able to go to college because of his migration status. His parents came here, though. Was he supposed to just stay home in eighth grade?” Judith asks.

On Thursday, April 6th, Jose and Judith and several other members of the Youth Action Research Group organized approximately 150 students into a walkout at Bell Multicultural High School here in Northwest Washington, D.C. The students are protesting proposed immigration laws that would make it a felony to be in the United States without proper papers. Therefore, the families of millions of people would be abetting felons, thereby breaking the law themselves. The students also wished to show support for the DREAM act, which would essentially allow the immigrants and immigrant’s children to attend colleges in their state of residence at in-state rates, thereby making college infinitely more accessible.

Cheering

The school has traditionally been a place for immigrants and the children of immigrants to attend high school. “It’s not like this walkout was the protest of the school,” Jose says. “Actually, we knew the school officials supported us, but they just can’t officially say it.”

But when you’re a senior in high school with a fast-food job, and zero political power, one of the only ways you can be heard is by walking out of school, even if the administration’s hearts are on your side.

“One of our teachers was mad at us, kinda,” Judith explained. “She was like, ‘if you had asked, we could have done something’, but if we had asked and then got turned down, we thought we might get in more trouble, so we decided to walk out alone and accept whatever consequences came.”

Jose was scared the walkout wasn’t going to happen at all. So was Judith, and I would bet all the students involved were pretty terrified.

“We left at 1:50, and by lunchtime, I was real nervous, hands all shakin’ and everything,” Judith says. “Kids was telling me ‘Judith, we’re scared, they’re threatening us with suspension if we leave.’ We said ‘nobody’s making you do this. It’s got to be what’s in your heart, what you feel is right. If you don’t feel it, don’t do it. You can only do this if you want to. ‘”

Jose was really scared at first, too. “I thought to myself, ‘man, if we go to leave and only like ten people walk out the door, I’m staying my ass in class,’” It is true that of 300 students who verbally committed to leaving the school in protest, only about 150 actually made it out the doors. Judith and Jose were really glad for their peers that joined them, and really disappointed in the ones that didn’t make it.

“After we left, though,” says Judith, “I felt like we did something good.”

Students Marching

It had to be scary to go outside school as part of an organized walkout and see the parking lot lined with cop cars. The students knew that police were going to be there to preserve the peace and keep everyone safe, but this student body has good reason to take a dim view of any sort of police involvement. A lot of spoiled honkies (myself included) read this blog, and we think nothing of the cops except when they busted up our beer parties and punk shows in college. These kids see them differently, which is a whole other post. Long story short: that shit must have been scarier that most of us reading this can imagine.

“ We had asked people not to confront the police, and kept reminding everyone that the cops were just doing their jobs, just watching,” Judith said. After the students walked out of school, they remained in the high school parking lot and conducted a peaceful march. Some flew flags, others waved banners, and some talked to reporters from the Washington Post.

Jose and Judith Talk to Reporters

The Washington Post. A small group of frustrated, orderly minority teenagers were able to attract attention to their cause from one of the greatest newspapers in the world. They were mentioned twice in the paper in the same week. If that doesn’t give you faith in the future and hope for America, The Man has bitten an artery in your soul, and now you, too are The Man. The truth hurts, honkies.

Jose elaborates, “We assigned people positions to keep the group together, like sheepdogs. We couldn’t have people just going home as an excuse to skip school.”

I asked Jose if he considered the opposing point of view at all.

“If you were to sit me down across from one of the Minutemen, and ask us to debate migration, they could probably out-argue me with a knowledge of the law. They probably know the history of the laws, the precedents, and they could make a case. But where I’m coming from, it’s a moral standpoint. They might be able to out-argue me by saying ‘the law say this and that,’ but the law is wrong. It’s going to be very difficult to convince them of anything when we argue values and morals, because they will have to share mine to see my point. It’s gonna be tough, man.”

I haven’t considered the opposing side at all, personally, and I’m not at all prepared to start anytime soon. I don’t have to be, either. This is a blog, not a newspaper.

I don’t want to hear a fucking thing from anyone about America’s immigration problem unless it’s from a full-blooded Apache. Once someone in Congress open his speech with a prayer to the Great Spirit and addresses America’s long-neglected permeable border in eastern Virginia, my mind will begin to open up. Until then, I’m digging in my white liberal heels.

I was an illegal alien in Australia for the better part of a year, and it was miserable. I worked as a dishwasher, a furniture mover, a kangaroo shooter. I wore a hairnet and sat in a windowless, A/C-less warehouse in the middle of the desert, stuffing plastic cutlery into plastic bags so that people on airplanes could eat without using their fingers. One job, I worked in the blazing sun heaving boulders into a wheelbarrow and pushing the wheelbarrow uphill. The world’s most poisonous snakes lived in among the boulders.

I was supported by a loving girlfriend, too, so I didn’t even have it that bad, all things considered. When I pinched a nerve in my back and had to lie on the floor and weep for several days, someone that loved me brought me food and icepacks.

Even though my basic needs for food and shelter were being met, I felt terrible pretty much around the clock. I could see how much stress I was causing her, and I felt the pressure of every stretched dime. I used to haunt the town center looking for work, looking at vineyards and hostels and construction sites. Some days I had to choose between paying for a vegemite roll at lunch and paying for a train ride home, or shoplifting lunch and paying for a train ride. Other days, I didn’t have to choose. I stole my lunch AND snuck onto the train because I didn’t have enough money with me to do either one.

All I wanted to do was work hard, pay my share of the rent and groceries, and pay taxes. That was all I wanted in the world.

When she came over here, the same thing happened. She was hired at an Indian restaurant in DuPont Circle and treated like a retarded dog. They routinely underpaid her, lied to her, and one time another guy tried to bludgeon her with a telephone. The whole staff was either Indian or Latin, and something tells me that that place’s tax returns were highly fictionalized. Now, whenever someone says that Heritage of India is a nice restaurant, I have to correct them. I say “the food is wonderful, but it’s not a nice restaurant at all.

If enough upper-middle class American white boys like me had had the same diluted illegal alien experience I did, we would not be debating “immigration reform” today. We would just be reforming it, and in a whole different direction. The last time I checked, America was built on the dreams and sweat of foreigners. That’s the beauty of this place: nobody is from here, and everyone is supposed to be working towards the same dream.

6 Comments:

At 10:40 AM, Anonymous Anisha said...

your blog is awesome; keep up the good work!

 
At 3:59 PM, Anonymous sprite said...

Great post!

 
At 4:41 PM, Blogger DC Cookie said...

I couldn't have said it better myself...

 
At 7:58 PM, Anonymous Douglas Clifton said...

Thanks for the link to your article on Metroblogging DC, which you don't have listed under Local Acts. Wink, wink.

 
At 11:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

yes, the beauty of the United States is it's great diversity. However, do you feel any obligation to mention the legal aspect, such as the fact that illegal immigration is just that....illegal. Make it legal, respect your surroundings to include the presentation of the American flag and a halfway decent command of the English language. That is respect and love, not arrogance.

 
At 11:37 AM, Anonymous Judith Reyes said...

I am happy that Jeff interview Jose and me about the walk-out. This issue is very important to me.
Also, I look nice in the pictures he took. (LOL)

 

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