Silence is a blanket so thick it leaves you gasping for breath: The necessity of civil disobedience

 

It was clear from the beginning that the community was taking charge of the public hearing on Secure Communities (SComm) on Wednesday August 17 in Chicago.

The crowd at the hearing at IBEW Hall was tense, angry, and restless. A group of us from the Immigrant Youth Justice League (IYJL) were waiting for the hearing to start. We had met barely several days before to figure out how we were going to show the task force and the rest of Chicago the anger over this tragic system that has succeeded in only tearing apart families and instilling a sense of fear in immigrant communities. To bring attention to this unfair system, we collectively decided a group of us who were undocumented to carry out a civil disobedience.

And every time we make our status public, and risk arrest, we are also risking deportation. Undocumented students throughout the country have sat in politicians’ offices, in federal buildings, on street intersections, immigration offices, repeatedly throughout the country including AZ, GA, CA, DC, WA, and IN to raise awareness of a broken system, to push for change, and demand human rights. For this, we have been called ‘reckless’ and ‘irresponsible.’

I completely reject the argument that what we do is reckless.

An organizing team from the Immigrant Youth Justice League, Nuestra Voz, and Latin@ Youth Action League meticulously, carefully, and strategically planned the walk out and sit-down with a greater goal in focus, and an entire community standing by in support. We talked about the risks, the legal consequences, our rights in detention, our choices, our fears. But we also talked about why.

To paraphrase King, we did it to bring this “injustice under the scrutiny of America’s conscience.” It is cruel to ask us to wait until the time is right. We cannot bear to live in humiliation another day, and we won’t wait for the media to tell our stories for us. We initiate the action, we frame the conversation, and we determine the messaging. We tell our own stories. That in itself, is a liberating feeling.

Of course it’s easy to say “Wait” when you aren’t denied a license, a chance to go to college, a job, a living, when you don’t live in a limbo.

We simply can’t wait any more. I’ve been waiting for 18 years.

We risk deportation to bring attention, raise awareness, and confront unjust laws and broken systems. Is it controversial? Of course it is and it is meant to create tension, to force the oppressor to confront the issue and to confront our stories, and our humanity. The movement is not limited to S-Comm or the DREAM Act; it is about human dignity, respect, and the simple right to be able to live without fear. Look at us, look at me, we are undocumented, unafraid and we will no longer remain in the shadows! That is our mantra.

The cry for justice is not some abstract, theory based ideology. It is a hard, harsh reality. It is in the abused person who is afraid to call the police for help, it is in the parent’s fear that they when they leave the house, they may never get back to their children, it’s the youth who is one wrong move away from being detained and deported. It is in the one million deportations that have happened since Obama took office. That’s one million people, one million faces, one millions stories. In the fiscal year 2010 alone, almost 400,00 people were deported, aided in part by Secure Communities.

I talked to my mother about Secure Communities for the first time the night before the action. It broke my heart to hear her say, almost whispering, “When are they going to leave us alone?” For the first time, she told me that my father and she have constantly lived in fear since immigrating here with us 18 years ago. Every time they heard of a friend who was detained and deported they thought, we’re surely next. She began to name all the people she knew who were deported. I had no idea she had lived like this for so many years; no idea that she knew so many people who were deported. None of them were criminals.

As an undocumented person fighting for immigrant rights, I still have not completely conquered that fear. Because the truth is, no matter how many times I come out as undocumented, no matter how many rallies I attend, the fear is still there. I testified at the hearing, speaking to the task force and the community expressing my anger and frustration at a broken program and asked everyone to walk out with us. Over 300 hundred people followed us outside as we made out way to the streets. I was so taken back by how many from the media followed us as we walked out, that when several came up to me and asked me for my name I hesitated. I, who came out publicly to the media more times than I can count, actually hesitated, and at first couldn’t give my last name.

So ingrained is the systematic fear of the law and of the system in me that I still get scared, I still have to fight the urge to step back, to leave, to stay silent.

But the silence is a blanket so thick it leaves you gasping for breath.

It took me less than a minute to shake that fear away before we were in the middle of the intersection of Desplaines and Washington shouting at the top of our lungs, letting the world know that we are undocumented, unafraid, and unapologetic. Because even when that fear is with us when we’re alone, our courage, our trust in each other, and our awareness of the significance of the situation trump our fears. Such is the power of community.

The Chicago Police didn’t know what to do with the six sitting in the middle of the intersection. They physically removed them from the street but the six ran back and sat down again. Some officers were waiting for a fight to break out, directly daring some to hit them, but we, including most people at the rally, were determined to remain nonviolent. When the police began to maneuver traffic around us, the six moved to block one side of Washington. Traffic maneuvered around them again. We took it one step further: we blocked the highway exit off the expressway. The six were finally arrested. And they trusted us enough to know that we’d be right behind them, working to make sure that nothing happens to them.

It is by no accident that the six arrested are not in deportation. It is by no accident that every undocumented youth who ever participated in a civil disobedience was released from jail and continues to live in this country. It is not because ICE pities us or actually follows through with its own memos advising it to refrain from targeting certain undocumented people including those raised in the US. A direct action is a manifestation of all our organizing work. It directly breaks people’s fear of a broken system. It is a testament to the power of our organizing efforts and community support network that when a group of undocumented youth willingly chooses to be arrested, no major action is taken against them, and they are released early the next day. It is an assurance to those wanting to speak up about their status to know that they will be all right. The community is stronger than the system.

There will be more hearings, more rallies, more press conferences, more walk-outs, and yes, more arrests. ICE’s patience with us seems to be wearing thin, the police are becoming rougher, and the stakes are higher.

The week before Chicago’s hearing, on August 10, organizers in LA made a powerful request for the task force to resign before walking out.

On August 18, DHS announced they will allow undocumented people with no criminal records to be allowed to stay in the United States.

Two weeks later, on August 24 five undocumented youth were arrested in LA in front of an immigration building blocking buses full of deportees from leaving.

On September 6, in North Carolina, 7 youth blocked traffic at a busy intersection. The police quickly arrested them without any warnings, and arrested three more undocumented youth who were not participating in the sit-in. Again, without any warnings. The ten were placed in deportation, but were later released. The reason wasn’t because of the DHS announcement (if it was, they wouldn’t have been placed in deportation to begin with). It was because of the communities’ pressure to have them released.

Without a doubt, change to the broken immigration system will happen. When it does, it will because of community support, grassroots organizing, and the fearless risks undocumented people take every day.

 

Originally wirtten by Alaa Mukahhal, IYJL organizer, for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Alaa was the person who made the call for the walk out form the Secure Communities hearing. You can read her speech here. 

 

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