Revolution #244, August 28, 2011

"Undocumented and Unafraid!"

Learning from youth resisters against Georgia's fascist anti-immigrant law

From readers in Atlanta:

In the weeks leading up to the July 1 implementation of Georgia's fascist, anti-immigrant law (HB87), a refreshing wave of youth resistance fearlessly hit the streets. In a time when far too many are passively waiting for change, these youth, many of whom are undocumented, have taken part in courageous acts of resistance against HB87.

On June 27, a federal judge blocked parts of the law that penalize people who transport or harbor illegal immigrants. He also blocked provisions that authorize police officers to verify the immigration status of someone who can't provide proper identification. Despite this partial and temporary success in the courts, the youth recognized the need to continue the fight against the many other repressive measures contained in the bill. On June 28, hundreds of students and youth of many nationalities gathered at Georgia's capitol building to speak out against the bill. Following the speak-out, nearly 200 youth blocked the intersection in front of the capitol for nearly 45 minutes, surrounding and protecting a group of six undocumented students who were all wearing caps and gowns. The cap and gown signifies opposition to the Georgia Regents ban on undocumented students from the state's top five universities (where only 27 undocumented students attend). The crowd chanted "Undocumented and Unafraid!" as they locked arms trying to prevent police from arresting the six undocumented students (ages 16-24). As the cops moved in, handcuffed, and arrested the six students, the crowd broke into chant, "Who do you protect? Who do you serve?"

Despite their arrests, the students have continued to organize and have formed a group called Georgia Undocumented Youth Alliance (GUYA). Recently, several distributors of Revolution were able to sit down with a group of undocumented students and their supporters. The youth shared their stories and this is some of what we learned:

Growing Up Undocumented

There were very different experiences being undocumented and growing up in this country from an early age. One recent high school graduate, who came to Georgia when he was nine years old and grew up in the suburbs where there weren't many other immigrant families, said he generally knew he was undocumented in his early years. His family joked about being undocumented but he never took it seriously until he wanted to get a driving learner's permit in 10th grade. Many of his friends were getting their permits, however his mom told him he couldn't because he didn't have the necessary papers. In high school the impact of not having papers really hit him. Most of his friends had been accepted to college and many were leaving in the fall. He lamented that he could not go to college because Georgia had banned undocumented students from the top five universities and he was unable to afford the expensive out of state tuition at the others. As his friends left to pursue their degrees, he felt alone and depressed.

A young woman, who crossed the border with her mom when she was three years old and lived in Los Angeles, was very aware that there was something different about her, but she didn't understand what it was. She was sent with her grandmother to live in New York when she was still little because it was "safer" there. She eventually moved back to California where her mother home schooled her. She described the constant harassment and fear of the Border Patrol in her neighborhood. Her mother feared letting her go to the public school because of the threat of deportation by la Migra who were going through their apartment complex regularly. Her mother encouraged her to assimilate and speak without an accent; she wanted her to try to fit in as an American as much as possible. When she finally convinced her mom to let her go to school in 10th grade, she found herself an outcast. She recalled feeling that she "wasn't Mexican enough for the Mexicans and wasn't American enough for the Americans." Feeling out of place, she ate her lunch by herself in the bathroom for the first three months of school.

Another young man called his experience "being undocumented twice." While his mom was still pregnant with him, his father had come to Georgia to find work to be able to support the family. His father became a migrant worker and the rest of the family was able to come here five years later. Through the amnesty program, his father eventually became a citizen, which extended citizenship to him as well. But he had gotten involved in gang life and spent much of his youth in jails, eventually finding himself in prison for five years. The prison authorities claimed he was undocumented and started the deportation process. He fought deportation and through studying the law while in prison and with the help of an attorney, he proved he actually was a citizen. He prevented deportation, but for retribution the prison officials kept him in prison until the last day of his full original sentence. When he got out of prison, he faced the "New Jim Crow" affect of not being able to get a job due to being a convicted felon. Now he faces the burden of oppression as an immigrant and a convicted felon.

One person described how it feels to be undocumented this way: "The media has done a good job of portraying undocumented people as illegal, being a burden on the system, not paying taxes. People who are undocumented are looked down upon as criminals, not contributing to society. It's actually the opposite... It makes you feel unwanted, unneeded—trying to send you back to a country that sometimes you don't even know. It can be depressing and really lower your self esteem."

Becoming Politically Aware and Active

There was a common theme among all the youth that for a long time they thought they were the only ones going through what they were going through. They felt isolated and all alone. Many described forming bonds with teachers that helped them through. They each discovered that they weren't the only ones through different means, but when they came to that understanding, they all were compelled to fight for change and let others know that they're not alone either.

The young woman who grew up in California got an opportunity to go to college there through a church-based refugee program. Once in college, she got involved in social justice activism on campus, at first avoiding immigrant rights issues because of conflicting feelings about her identity.

The young man who spent time in prison actually became socially and politically conscious while in prison. He said, "The whole experience of being in prison for me was actually positive, because it opened my eyes to see the different injustices people suffer. It really helped put our society in perspective and the need for people to be engaged with the community and the social injustices that happen to people from all different backgrounds and cultures."

The Role of Youth

These activists have an appreciation of the significance of their role in the resistance. And they want to tell their stories and let everyone understand the fundamental injustice of what undocumented youth are up against in this country. There is an acute awareness and understanding that youth, historically, have been on the front lines of change. Many still have hopes of reform and are seeking solutions within the system. However, the escalation of reactionary attacks on immigrants by the Georgia legislature and the federal government has shown the need for independent political action. One person described the role of HB87 and its impact on the community, "HB87 is really being used as a scare tactic, to instill fear in people. To cause people to not speak out, keep quiet and run away from the situation." Despite the threats coming down from the legislature, the youth's resistance has been uncompromisingly bold. They have come out fearlessly announcing that they are "undocumented and unafraid," putting themselves at great risk and boldly challenging others to act.

Another youth described the critical role of youth at this moment, "If you look at the civil rights movement, there was always the point when the youth got involved, and that's when the message got out to people. With Obama, a lot of people were disappointed that he wasn't able to do anything, or he didn't do anything about it. People are getting restless; people want to see something done. It's been years, and nothing's been done. Just to see the youth stand up, and actually bring awareness to college students in general, and nationwide, is very exciting."


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