What happens to a dream deferred? (non-fiction essay)

By I. Cruz

I. Cruz works with Mississippi Immigrants’ Rights Alliance. She is currently making contacts all over the state and South to increase awareness of the importance of immigrants’ rights, and hoping to form significant partnerships with immigrants and allies on the way. I, Cruz is busy because there are 6 anti-immigrant laws here and they all suck.

Numbers have never looked so ugly or seemed so sinister. I remember having attended the FIRM summit in Montgomery, Alabama on December 17, 2011 and thinking about how terrible it would to have to fight against HB 56. I was surrounded by resilient mothers, fathers, children, brothers, sisters, and allies who had come together to declare that they will fight to repeal that terrible anti-immigrant, unconstitutional law. I remembered the look.

The students who participated in the acts of Civil Disobedience displayed the look as they were getting arrested, yelling that they are undocumented and unafraid.

For a long time I had wondered, when will people here get the look?

Will immigrants here ever rise up?

Well, as a quick anecdote, in certain conferences and national events, even some DREAMers had given me a skeptical look and said things like “I didn’t know there were immigrants in Mississippi.” It felt like a slap in the face, but I forgive them because I know I say ignorant things too sometimes. Before 2011, I’m not sure if undocumented students in Mississippi had ever stood up for themselves openly, but this is beginning to happen. There are other things people don’t know about Mississippi. It’s hard to live here even when you have status, so life without one sometimes doesn’t feel like a life at all. At least that’s what I hear.

Factoid 1: Undocumented students who had gone to high school here all four years have been able to attend universities and colleges here with in-state tuition. Some undocumented students not only got in-state tuition, they got full scholarships. This has been going on since 2006. This is something even California didn’t have up until recently. This system was not without its flaws and I have so far met only two people for whom this has worked out. It’s basically “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Now there as an anti-immigrant bill that is trying to take that way (SB 2022), there is a copycat anti-immigrant law (SB 2090), a bill that would make it illegal to try to seek a job (SB 2089), a bill that would take away the ability to form sanctuary cities* (SB 2232) and two more horrible laws that I don’t want to talk about because I want to be able to sleep tonight and eat tomorrow.

Factoid 2: When E-Verify was introduced, various corporations used it as a tool to commit human rights abuses and get away with them. As people had to buy identities to be able to bypass the system, they made themselves susceptible to abuse, sexual and psychological harassment, extortion, wage theft, and discrimination. For example: one of my friends had no papers and had to pay his supervisor $100 per week for almost two years and I told him to stop. Two weeks later he suffered an unfortunate accident. He broke his clavicle on concrete floor and was fired immediately. Then there was a raid and about 700 people lost their jobs because they were undocumented. But I can’t write about everything else I saw right now, because I wanted to talk about my message of hope…

I had been hoping to be able to take time off work once in a while to help out the neighbors in Georgia and Alabama, but now the terrible laws have come here and I’m going to be extremely busy.

I had often heard comments that immigrants here don’t rise up. I had heard from several so-called “allies” that they must take the lead because senators here “don’t listen to Latinos” and that if we want to win we have to take middle-class college students who happen to be white. That we should only take African-Americans who can vote, and although they should come too, being an ally myself I wanted to vomit as I heard this. So I decided to simply start organizing my own way going to churches, libraries or any area in which people will allow me to have open forums for undocumented immigrants. I decided to take an undocumented student, someone who had benefitted from Mississippi’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy about undocumented college students, someone who wasn’t afraid to be undocumented in public.

I told the “allies” that I’d explain these terrifying bills that I would talk about all the states that have passed them and that I’d explain that these bills are nothing but ideas that idiot senators have thought of to make a profit off of any immigrant because of private-prisons. I told these “allies” I would invite anyone who wanted to come, to go lobby at the Capitol, and have rallies, vigils, anything they wanted to do. I told them that these meetings would end with strategy sessions in which people would decide and commit to certain ideas that they would hold themselves accountable for and that each meeting will last no more than two hours and be open to all ages.

These “allies” told me to go on, hoping that I would fail. In the beginning all I could think about was how heavy the air felt in Alabama. How I had written my attorney’s name on my hand with a Sharpie last time I was there because I was scared. I didn’t tell my DREAMer friends because they’re scared enough as it is, and they didn’t need to hear me whine about my having to live under HB 56 for three days while they had to live with it until it’s repealed. There seemed to be a sinking feeling even through the most joyous of moments. The weight of the world seemed to be on everyone’s shoulders.

And so I told Mississippi immigrants about these stories, and they listened.

I thought I’d fail to get people involved, but as it turns out, both of the communities in Mississippi I’ve visited so far are sick and tired. I met someone who had run away from Georgia’s anti-immigrant law, and it’s caught up to him. He said this time he will fight. I met some Alabama refugees who don’t want to run away again because they know this time there might be nowhere they can go. People are sick and tired. They don’t want their water cut off, they’re tired of being seen as the lazy immigrants of Mississippi who never complain, but of all, the only thing they really needed was for someone to believe in them.

In two sessions people have decided that they would have a day without an immigrant, a coming out of the shadows, that they’d come to the capitol, phone bank, and organize other churches. Some even said they’d be willing to get arrested for what they believe is rightfully theirs: civil rights. Some people said they’d be willing to recreate James Meredith’s March Against Fear, a walk from Memphis, TN to Jackson, MS because they know that we can get people involved, that people can help, that this will change hearts. People who had once been scared realized they were not alone. This is what makes me think that no matter what happens, we will have someone the politicians will never take away from us.

As I sit and type this I think about the monumental task of attempting to organize over 80.000 immigrants, some of whom are here because of the terrible laws in Georgia and Alabama. I try to remember that Paulo Freire once attempted to teach illiterate adults how to read in 45 days. And he did. My own mother, who had always criticized protesters in Los Angeles, is now realizing that maybe this is the only way we can win. She encouraged undocumented immigrants to speak out. My own mother, who had disapproved of my quitting my job to help immigrants, is now attempting to help me in whatever way she can. (Actually, the trip this weekend happened because of her). I would try to incorporate the words of a friend from Alabama, I’m going to paraphrase them like this: Tell them to do anything, rallies, vigils, marches, anything! These laws are poison and you don’t want them. Don’t let anyone tell them that this can’t possibly happen here.

Don’t let anyone tell them that this will be good for the economy or anything. Do anything! Because once these laws pass, it’s too late. I will have to continue making these trips, hoping that anyone I meet will be enthusiastic enough to start working on this. This message of dread is now turning into a message of hope. These ideas will be confronted by the very people they want to kick out, because people here are tired of having their dreams deferred. Because life after an anti-immigrant law makes the air sag like a heavy load and no one here wants this.

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