Panelists discussed the policy, rhetoric, and the daily lives of undocumented immigrants in the discussion “Tearing Down Walls: Immigrant America,” during Emerson College’s Teach-In on Race Friday, October 13, in the Greene Theater.
The second Teach-In on Race was a day of workshops and discussions around race, diversity, inclusion, and activism. It was sponsored by Academic Affairs, Diversity and Inclusion, the Honors Program, and the President’s Office. The immigration panel was moderated by Professor Cristina Kotz Cornejo.
Nicolasa Lopez, parent and family engagement director at Gardner Pilot Academy in Allston, Massachusetts, said politicians take away voting rights as a way to oppress Latinx citizens. She said the redrawing of voting districts and the incarceration of large numbers within minority communities strips power from minority voters.
“If you don’t have the power to vote, you don’t have the ability to stand up and advocate for your rights,” Lopez said.
The panelists also spoke about the origins and development of today’s immigration debate.
Patricia Montes, executive director of Centro Presente, an immigrant and workers’ rights organization, said the issue dates back more than 20 years, to when former President Bill Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996.
Both parties are guilty of marginalizing undocumented immigrants, said Montes, who criticized the Obama administration for deporting 3 million undocumented immigrants.
“It’s important for us to hold accountable both parties for that horrible legacy,” she said.
Jenny Alexander, a filmmaker at Northern Light Productions, talked about her documentary The Vigil, featuring an undocumented Arizona woman who became a leader of a protest against the state’s restrictive 2010 immigration law.
“This legislation criminalizes every aspect of everyday life,” she said.
Alexander said she also created videos telling immigrants’ stories following the 2007 Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid in New Bedford, Massachusetts.
One story she told, involving a mother who was separated from her baby and was still breastfeeding, made its way to the late Sen. Ted Kennedy. After being separated, the baby’s health declined. Hearing this, Kennedy helped get the baby’s mother released. She said she could only film immigrants’ eyes because many feared retribution if they were exposed as undocumented.
The panelists also said fear plays a significant role in marginalizing immigrants. Lopez said undocumented immigrants avoid going to the doctor because the doctor might report them. They’re unaware of their rights and don’t know how to get help, she said. She said people are in fear, even in progressive states like Massachusetts.
“What happened in Arizona is happening here,” Montes said.
She criticized Gov. Charlie Baker for proposing a bill that would tighten immigration laws and the Commonwealth for not offering in-state tuition to undocumented students, she said.
“The Democratic Party doesn’t have the political will to do anything for our community, and we don’t have a strong movement to challenge the status quo,” Montes said.
Despite these challenges, the panelists urged advocates to keep fighting.
“We can all be aware of efforts to help to combat the legislation and policies that are happening right now,” Alexander said.