Irene Vasquez, Andrea Ortega, Jonathan Perez, and Isaac Barrera in Albuquerque. (Image: Chicano Hispano Mexicano Studies at UNM)

Cross-posted from CultureStrike, a new project that fuses immigrant struggles and the arts.

The Occupy movements mushrooming around the country have displayed the power of collective action when people organize and take to the streets. But alongside street protests, other more subtle uprisings are also exposing the hypocrisy of the political establishment from within. In Louisiana, undocumented youth have subjected themselves to the immigration gauntlet to expose struggles that countless immigrants face every day, trapped in a detention system that deprives them of basic due process rights. Their direct action coincided with the legal battle against draconian state laws that have emerged in recent months aiming to expand the profiling and detention of immigrants.

Their journey is documented on video by Arts of Aztlan.

On the xicana-ostudies blog of the Chicano Hispano Mexicano Studies program at the University of New Mexico, program director Irene Vásquez  and Levi Romero, New Mexico State Centennial Poet and Research Scholar, report on the youth’s experiences and their reflections on their ordeal:

Two undocumented student activists from California, Isaac Barrera, 20, and Jonathan Pérez, 24, took the journey of their lives and landed in a Louisiana detention facility to draw attention to the disparate treatment immigrants face in the United States.  The two undocumented human rights activists visited Albuquerque, New Mexico on their way back to California.  They attended the December 3, 2011, New Mexico Dreamers in Action State Congress.  Isaac and Jonathan shared with undocumented youth at the Congress the reasons why they took the risk of being placed in a Louisiana ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detention facility.  On that same day, Isaac and Jonathan participated in interviews with Daniel Sonnis of Arts of Aztlan from Albuquerque, and Levi Romero and Irene Vásquez, faculty members in the Chicano Hispano Mexicano Studies at the University of New Mexico.

Isaac and Jonathan, human rights activists from California, joined hundreds of social activists and hundreds of caravans to Alabama in October and November 2011 to shine a spotlight on harsh immigration laws that threaten the human and civil rights of thousands of families and communities.  Unlike the thousands of immigrants held in ICE detention facilities, Jonathan and Isaac walked into their situation voluntarily.  On November 10, 2011, they entered a border patrol agency in Mobile, Alabama as part of a direct action to prove that immigrants are currently undergoing punitive treatment by ICE and state officials.  Border patrol agents placed Isaac and Jonathan in custody for not having identification or papers proving their legal residency or citizenship.

While in the Louisiana detention facility, they spoke with other immigrants who had been forcibly detained and placed in the detention facility.  A common story shared with Isaac and Jonathan was that individuals were routinely pulled over for traffic violations and then forcibly incarcerated and detained for not having a driver’s license.  Immigrants then faced months of imprisonment without access to the outside world because they were not allowed to call their families or friends. When given the opportunity to communicate with family and friends, many detainees were unable to do so because they lacked the money needed to pay for the phone call. …

Isaac and Jonathan weren’t totally going it alone. Their actions were part of a broader direct action campaign, supported by NIYA (National Immigrant Youth Alliance) and DreamActivist California.  Though their willingness to be imprisoned may seem brazen, the youth said they understood that the impact of any civil disobedience tactic lies in its ability to reveal the moral bankruptcy of the status quo:

When asked by Romero and Vásquez, “What were you hoping to accomplish in Alabama?, Jonathan responded, “Our intention was to show what Obama’s [administration] had been doing,” in regards to knowingly detaining and deporting immigrants who have not committed crimes.   Jonathan said, “We want to challenge the system and policies like Secure Communities and 287G that are criminalizing immigrants.”  Isaac and Jonathan are part of the San Gabriel Dream Team that has been engaging in acts of civil disobedience directed at ICE.  Isaac stated that the San Gabriel Dream Team is focused on “empowering youth to get out and be active because when you challenge the system directly it falls apart.  You can see it with our action.  We challenged ICE directly and publically, and they didn’t want to put us in deportation proceedings.” …

In regards to the direct action, Jonathan said, “It’s been about escalation and so we wanted to take it to the next level and take it to Alabama where a very Draconian Anti-Immigrant law just passed and we wanted to, one, escalate there, but also to support the immigrant community there, empowering the undocumented youth there so they can begin organizing as well…”  Isaac and Jonathan were the only members of the group who were placed in detention.  Jonathan described “We went undercover and decided to pretend we were afraid, pretend we are not connected in anyway, and we walked into the border patrol office and started saying ‘we don’t agree with what you are doing, you are deporting people…”  He went on to explain , “this sets a precedent for more people to… begin organizing from within detention centers all over the United States, because we know that civil disobedience only takes you so far.”

Yet after their experience, in many ways, Jonathan and Isaac felt fortunate for being able to avoid detention in their day-to-day lives, rooted in a supportive community and connected to family and loved ones. Perhaps the cruelest aspect of the detention system is that to the extent that immigrants have any control over their economic or legal fate, they’re forced to choose between their dreams of carving out a better life in this country, and the families they risked everything to support by crossing the border.

“This desire to talk to family, be close to relatives, or to help support family members or loved ones,” reflected Vásquez and Romero, “can push some immigrants who have been detained to voluntarily sign their own deportation orders.”

The kind of destruction of that the immigration system imposes goes much deeper than police aggression or incarceration; it rips apart the very fabric of communities. For students like Isaac and Jonathan, crossing the line into the detention system allowed them to reveal an often hidden world, and to take that insight out of the shadows and into the streets.

Michelle Chen

Michelle Chen