Since election night 2016, the streets of the US have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this ongoing "Interviews for Resistance" series, experienced organizers, troublemakers and thinkers share their insights on what works, what doesn't, what has changed and what is still the same. Today's interview is the 71st in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.
On Tuesday, September 5, the Trump administration announced a "phase-out" of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program for immigrant youth. This decision leaves hundreds of thousands of young people vulnerable to deportation -- young people who voluntarily gave the government personal information about themselves in order to gain protections in the first place. Around the country, emergency protest rallies were held.
In Kingston, New York, outside of the office of newly elected Republican Congressman John Faso, I spoke with two immigrant organizers about the decision to revoke DACA and the struggle for justice for immigrants. First, I spoke with Alan, an organizer with Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson (Nadie Se Va Del Mid-Hudson).
Sarah Jaffe: So, we're outside of Congressman John Faso's office at a rally for DACA right now, Tuesday, September 5. Tell us your story.
Alan: I came to this country very young, over two decades ago, my family brought us here. I started kindergarten all the way to high school, everything was working fine, I didn't worry about my status or anything like that, I was young. It wasn't until I was 16, I wanted to get a license just like everyone else -- that's when it hit me. I didn't have papers to show. Then I let that slide. I was like, OK, I can live without that.
Then when I was trying to go to college, my counselor was telling me, do the FAFSA, do this, you have good grades, don't worry about it, you're in. But when I found out that for FAFSA you need Social Security, you need a legal primary residence ... I still did it, I went to college. [After a] couple of years it was kind of hard, it kind of got expensive. It was good that New York had in-state tuition, that's a great thing, but I needed to bring my parents' taxes, passport, all these type of IDs -- just to prove that, and it was very hard for me. It was also very embarrassing for me when everybody else showed their license and I had to show a passport -- everybody found out that I was undocumented.
My major is engineering. I'm still continuing, I'm still going back to school for that. It's a struggle at my job. I'm a technician, industrial technician with a very good job, I'm afraid of losing it. I'm happy now, I'm content. But you know that DACA's going to end pretty soon. What if when it ends my job is going to ask me for my papers and I can't show them anything? I lose a pretty good base salary. And then go back to hiding. I don't want to do that anymore. I feel like the country needs to unite and pass bipartisan legislation.
There's a lot of things going on; one of them is racism. I can't see it any other way. I took economics for that reason, to understand the economy of this country. The numbers are there, immigrants will raise the economy up, they will, the numbers are there. They keep saying, "America First, America First," I just don't get that because there are jobs, [but] Americans aren't going for them. That's what the visas are: immigrants coming in to fill those spots. Instead of saying America First, they need ... trade schools or something else to help the American economy.
I just feel like they keep saying that, it's just racism toward us. We are the minority now and we're going to become the majority eventually and they're afraid of that.
Like I said before, my parents are not criminals. They're not.
You mentioned, and I think it's an important point, how much money DACA recipients paid to get DACA. For people who don't know how it actually works, tell them what you had to do to get this protection that Trump wants to take away?
The fee is around $465 -- that includes biometrics and applying for a work permit. We pay basically for everything. There are no fee waivers, nothing like that. Maybe for residents to become citizens there are waivers, but for DACA there's nothing. There's 800,000 DACA recipients, and that's just low-balling; if you do the math, 800,000 times $465 comes out to be $400 million. That's a lot of money into the economy. That's not counting when you go purchase a car, that's not counting when you go to get a driver's license, [pay] taxes.
We did that. We had to ask people for money because we didn't have $465. It's a lot of money for a low-income household.
They have to really understand our struggle in order for them to do something about it. Everybody says "Oh, just apply for citizenship." But there's no path for that. They don't know how hard it is. They keep telling me "just be a legal resident," they don't know how hard that is. Especially now that the fees are going up. The fees are going up even to become a citizen ... to become a legal resident it's $300 more. They're making money off immigrants. That's why I think they want to keep it at that level, to get money from us.
If they did a path to citizenship, we'd pay our dues, but they'd lose money in incarceration... They make money when we go to jail, they make money at a state level and a federal level. And then, when you try to come back, after you pay whomever is going to bring you back to this country, to get to this country, now you become a criminal because you crossed a border, even though you're just trying to have a better life. It's a very tough situation we're in right now.
What can the state of New York do, if the federal government is going to eliminate DACA? Is there something you would like to see the state government do?
Yes ... take the "Temporary Visitor" off our license; that shows the cops that we are temporary visitors. If that expires, we can't renew our licenses. If Gov. Cuomo was in front of me, I would tell him [to] take the temporary visitor mark off... If we're driving and we're pulled over, we could lose a lot of stuff with that. And that's something that I want the state to do.
And protect our information. Even though the federal government has our information, just protect us at your state by not taking away our license when it expires.
What would you say to Rep. Faso if he popped his head out of the office and came to talk to people?
I would definitely tell him to listen. Read about DACA, read the benefits, don't listen to Fox News.... I would tell him just listen to us, help us out. There's a lot of immigrants in this community, in the mid-Hudson Valley. Help them out.
Not just for economic purposes. Economically Kingston would grow but [this is] also moral....
Tell us how you got involved with Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson?
The main organizer, Ignacio, I've known him for quite some time. I've done work with Rural Migrant Ministry, farmworkers advocacy, so I've been in this type of group before, but now he brought me in, he said, "Listen, you're a DACA recipient, I need your voice, not just for Kingston but for many." That's what I'm doing here.
It's a great organization. He tells me, "I'm there for you but I also want you to help yourself. I'm going to be right there backing up for you." If people could donate to it, it's a great cause. Membership is not that much: it's $25. You would greatly benefit from it, from learning, from being more diverse.
How can people find out more about it?
Go to the website, NobodyLeavesMidHudson.com
Anything else you want people to know?
We're humans. Treat us like humans. Treat us like citizens of, not the country, citizens of the world. That's what I want. We are humans. I am tired of people saying "What are you?" I'm human. Treat me like a human.
Next, I spoke with Renee Oni-Eseleh, an activist, organizer and artist.
We're outside of John Faso's office; you were just speaking. Give people a short version of your story.
Renee Oni-Eseleh: Basically, I am what happens without DACA. I didn't get DACA, I was two months too old for it, and I missed out on being able to go to school. I don't have a work visa. I haven't been able to work for a year. I actually would be on disability for various reasons, but I can't claim anything that I've paid into it since I was 16 because of my status.
One of the things I wanted to ask about is that a thing that often happens is that different groups of immigrants get played off against each other as "good" and "bad." I wonder if you could speak to that.
Oh, I hate that. And I am part of a forgotten demographic of immigrants: Black immigrants tend to be completely left out of the conversation. It's not at all right to play any of us against each other because we're literally all in the same position. There are different benefits with the immigration system depending on where you come from, but that's not our fault, that's the American immigration system. I think that as immigrants we need to come together, as our own bloc of people and say, "We're here, we are some of the biggest contributors to American society, we start most of the businesses, we get the job done."
So, we need to come together and make our voices heard.
Talk about how you got involved with the different organizing you do, with Community Voices Heard.
It started with going to the Millions March in NYC just as a protester. I went to the Women's March, and it just started with this feeling that now was the time to kind of take control of our destiny, it was time to make our voices heard.
I would really rather do anything else, but at this moment in history, I have to speak out or I will fall by the wayside.
In New York, what can be done on the local level if the federal government is in Trump's hands?
At the local level, I live in Poughkeepsie, I helped get safe city legislation passed in my city just by showing up to Common Council meetings, by meeting the mayor, befriending him on Facebook, by talking to people that I know locally and just making sure that people know that I'm here and this is a concern that I had, and put a human face on an issue.
And we're outside of John Faso's office, if he were to actually come out and talk to you, what would you say to him?
I would say that it is cruel to dangle DACA in front of so many people's eyes and then snatch it away. I would say that it's shortsighted and fiscally irresponsible to get rid of something that's actually making a lot of money, but it's a cruel and unusual situation to put people who have done nothing wrong but show up and try to live their lives, into a situation where you're telling them that they don't deserve anything.
What else do you want people to know?
I want people to know that we're just people. The strain of being undocumented for a really long time puts a lot of stress on you mentally. I am very high functioning and I'm very outspoken, but I know that it's because I'm a strong person -- I speak for the people who can't speak for themselves. I just want people to know that we're here and we aren't trying to take anything from you, we're trying to add to the whole melting pot.
How can people keep up with you?
Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.