How U.S. Immigration Officers Shackled My Ankle With a Device that Barked Strange Commands
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The following is an excerpt from Undocumented and Unafraid: Tam Tran, Cinthya Felix, and the Immigrant Youth Movement.It is part of a short series on the youth-led immigrant rights movement, produced in solidarity with the 11 Million Dreams Week of Action. For an overview of the movement, you can read the first piece of the series here.
The last ten years have been a time of unprecedented immigrant youth activism, and I have been proud to be a part of it. My family came to the United State from Argentina in 1999. My father, an accounts manager, lost his job during the Argentine economic crisis triggered in part by the policies advanced by global corporations. He decided his best hope to survive was to come to the United States to find work as an accountant. We were economic migrants in a world of migrating capital.
My mother, a kindergarten teacher by training, underwent the career transition many immigrants do when coming to America. She worked in the food service industry at Jack in the Box, the manufacturing industry in a sweatshop-like packaging company, and the immigrant entrepreneur industry, selling empanadas to fellow churchgoers. At the same time, my parents raised their children and held on to the same American dream they embraced when they entered the country: the belief that hard work and a commitment to education would result in a better life for us.
I learned English as a teenager reading Catcher in the Rye, watching World Wrestling Entertainment, and enjoying Top 40 hits. I did well in school and attended UCLA, where I was one of the leaders of IDEAS. One of my transformative events while at UCLA was a road trip with Tam and Cinthya to Seattle to get our driver’s licenses. Because California prohibits undocumented immigrants from obtaining licenses, we traveled to the state of Washington, where policies were more relaxed. Road trips are a rite of passage for many young people, but ours had a much more significant purpose. We were able to get licenses that could establish our identities, prove our dates of birth, allow us to travel, and afford privileges that most students take for granted.
At UCLA I worked on a campus radio show, wrote extensively about immigrant youth issues, and contributed to the publication Underground Undergrads: UCLA Undocumented Immigrant Students Speak Out, which captured my story and that of other undocumented classmates. College was a time when I carefully reflected on my condition as an undocumented person. Even though I was an adult, I was less than a second-class citizen, with no path to legalize my status. And to the government, I was a criminal, though I had broken no law.
The last decade of undocumented youth activism has been marked by a dramatic intensification of immigration enforcement. Increased budgets for border patrols, criminalization of immigrants, and biometrics-based identification systems are part of a large-scale government crackdown on undocumented immigrants. Deportations are on the rise, and the fear in immigrant communities is escalating.
Despite these increased risks, I took a chance to travel around the country to see what changes could be made and what people were doing to fight the backlash against immigrants. After graduating, I worked as an intern at the UCLA Labor Center and went on speaking tours to educate student, labor, and community organizations about the plight of immigrant youth. I went public with my story and appeared on national television, on the radio, and in newspapers. In April 2009, I moved to Washington, DC, to volunteer full time to work for the passage of the federal DREAM Act. I was one of the founding board members of United We Dream, the national network of undocumented immigrant students and allies working for social change.