How can young student activists help repair a part of the broken immigration system?

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By Carla Mendoza, UnidosUS Líderes Avanzando Fellow, Columbia University Student

Overwhelmed. Helpless. Scared. Angry.

These are the emotions that ran through me the first time I watched video footage of immigrant and refugee families being tear gassed at the U.S.-Mexico border. To me, and to many, this was the ultimate manifestation of President Donald J. Trump’s hateful “zero tolerance” rhetoric becoming a reality.

Anyone who cares about human rights and democracy should have zero tolerance for these actions. As the daughter of Mexican immigrants and as a Columbia University student majoring in political science, ethnicity, and race, I certainly feel that way. In fact, it’s something I’ve been trying to address over the last year through my fellowship with UnidosUS’s Líderes Avanzando public policy training program.

Trump’s policies have resulted in the detention of innocent and brave mothers, children, fathers, and single men and women, the separation of vulnerable families, and the deaths of babies and individuals of all ages, under practices the administration considers not only legal but ordained by God. This government of ours has fanned the flames of xenophobia, even shut down the U.S. government in an effort to build a wall against people Trump claims are gang members, rapists, and drug traffickers. In reality, the vast majority of these people pose no threat to national security.

They are fleeing the very violence the Trump administration suggests they caused. In fact, their flight is rooted in the United States’ prior Cold War intervention policies that have caused people to migrate from this region for decades.

During the 1980s, the United States aided—often covertly—the militaries of Central American countries in order to squelch popular uprisings it feared could result in a spread of Communism. During that same time period, millions of Salvadorans, Hondurans, and Guatemalans fled to the United States in search of safety, only to find the U.S. government would not recognized them as refugees. This is because granting asylum would have forced the administration of President Ronald Reagan to admit it was funding outright wars that were provoking these people’s migration.

Finally in 1986, Reagan got around this issue by signing a sweeping immigration reform bill into law. But then in the 1990s, under the administration of President Bill Clinton, U.S. authorities began deporting masses of immigrants with criminal records. Many of those were Central American youth who had become involved in gangs while growing up in some of America’s most impoverished and conflicted neighborhoods. Their return to their impoverished ancestral homeland prompted a new gang culture that has since perpetuated a debilitating cycle of violence.

Collective Action

Líderes Avanzando Fellow Carla Mendoza.

Many Americans are just coming to understand this complex history, and it’s taken all those graphic images on social media to get us here. It makes me angry that’s what it took, and that even as we share our outrage on social media we can’t seem to figure out a collective solution. We can do better than this, and I believe students like me can be instrumental in showing the country how.

Through my course studies, campus and community activist work, and the public policy training I’ve received through the Líderes program, I have been able to apply a theory of change that I think could help get us there. Although the system may appear to us as overwhelming and frightening, there are small actions we can take to tackle this system!

1. Write Letters to Asylum Seekers in Detention

Writing an empathetic letter to individuals in detention is as significant as any other form of activism. It can have a direct impact on their self-confidence when you acknowledge their resilience and strength, and this can be key to the way they present themselves in court.

Making letter writing a group activity with fellow students creates a platform for raising awareness on the issue and bonds them together in a coalition. The process of promoting the event and having conversations with people about the purpose of the letter writing helps students see how these so-called holding centers for undocumented peoples are actually a carceral system that arbitrarily re-traumatizes innocent individuals fleeing violence in their home countries.

2. Host a Panel:

Modern U.S. detention practices began with the enactment of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act in 1996. Despite the overwhelming costs of detention and deportation, even the “progressive” administration of Barack Obama expanded these practices by targeting undocumented people with minor infractions of the law.

This shift away from the usual catch and release strategy meant that more asylum seekers got pulled into detention or deported without their cases ever being fully considered. This created an infrastructure for the Trump administration to expand on the system and justify his zero tolerance policy.

By hosting a panel about the history and current practice of detention, you can inspire others to engage with your vision for a more just immigration system. Panels can be composed of professors researching the topic, community activists working with local immigrants, and even students who have worked on migration issues or might themselves be immigrants affected by these policies.  The American Immigration Council is one helpful place to find related research ad reports:

3. Defend Due Process:

The American Immigration Council constantly invites students like you to participate in their advocacy campaigns. The most recent is the SIC’s complaint is calling for the immediate release of infants being detained at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas. The public version of the complaint highlights the concerns over the lack of specialized medical and mental health services. By sharing these complaints on social media or simply discussing them at activist organization meetings, you can raise awareness, and even reach important political decision makers.

4. Become a Volunteer Interpreter and Translator:

Immigration detention centers don’t always have enough Spanish-speaking lawyers or psychologists to assess and prepare clients for their cases. This is where you come in.

You can assist in the provision of legal services by providing telephonic interpretation or providing English translation of documents. Interpreters or translators need no professional certificates, just a letter of recommendation proving vouching for you as fully bilingual. This work is vital for detainees who need a fair shot at proving credible fear and who struggle to do so not only because of language barriers but because of the trauma they have experienced. To learn more about opportunities, click here.



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