"Without Work, What Would You Do?"

Diana Marin
Diana Marin

I joined MIRC in January of 2019 to help support MIRC’s expanding farmworker and immigrant workers rights litigation team. MIRC’s focus on equity and belonging for immigrants in Michigan communities is work that resonates with my lived experience. I was born in Honduras and came to the States a couple of months before I turned 4. I grew up in the Bronx in the 1980s and like many first or second generation Latinx immigrants, I learned and spoke English at school and Spanish at home and church. My parents emphasized working hard, following the rules, and keeping close to family and the small Central American community around us. They instilled a deep belief in the value of education as a means to move out of our “working poor” existence.

As most first-generation immigrants may understand, a crucial first step to “arriving” and getting settled is finding and keeping a job. Even if the work leaves you sapped of all physical and mental energy, even if the way you are treated is demoralizing, even if your hours or pay are not quite enough or right, you keep working. The moral value of work was so ingrained in everyone around me growing up that when I began representing workers and bearing witness to the decisions they made or couldn’t make, it all felt very familiar. And it wasn’t just that I saw my mom, dad, cousins, uncles and aunts reflected in the faces of my clients. Some who worked alongside me and did not grow up as I did asked questions like: Why would a day laborer continue to work for a contractor who didn’t pay one week and will likely not pay the next week? Why would a nanny continue working for a family who takes away so much time from her own family and doesn’t pay very much? Why would a farmworker not speak up when pesticide is being sprayed around him? The obvious and straightforward answer is a need for money to provide for oneself and family or a lack of knowledge of one’s rights but I know that is only part of the explanation. Without work, what would you do? How would you define yourself? How would others perceive you?

Since beginning my legal career I have come across countless low-wage immigrant workers who have been harassed at work, shorted hours, exposed to dangerous work conditions, threatened with deportation, or quite simply robbed of their wages by unscrupulous employers who rely on these illegal tactics to maintain a competitive business advantage. Yet every worker I have come across or represented has believed in the dignity of their work and has been proud to do the work so many of us won’t do for the pay or conditions offered or can’t do because we lack the skills. Our clients’ steely resolve to maintain their dignity and humanity is what most motivates me to support our community partners and ensure that the right to “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work” is extended to all low-wage immigrant workers, regardless of immigration status.

Wage theft1 and workplace exploitation exists in our immigrant communities because of weak state laws2, current attacks on federal workplace protections3, and lack of enforcement by state and federal agencies4, but also because of our immigration laws and how those laws are used by employers to control or dispose of workers who assert their rights. At MIRC, we understand deeply the interplay between immigration and workplace rights and in alliance with our community partners, we will continue to represent and support Michigan’s most vulnerable immigrant workers in their fight for dignity and equity. I am proud and excited to be part of the growing network of Michigan immigrant rights groups that MIRC is a part of. Together, we can raise the voices of Michigan’s immigrant workers and take action toward change. If you are interested in learning more about MIRC’s Immigrant Workers’ Rights team, please contact me or our amazing outreach paralegal Eva Alvarez.

Wage theft can occur in many different ways: shorting hours, not paying the minimum wage, not paying required overtime, requiring unlawful deductions or kick-backs are some of the most common. In 2017, the Economic Policy Institute surveyed the 10 most populous states, including Michigan, to determine the rates of minimum wage violations in those states. Their findings revealed that Michigan minimum wage earners lost $63 per week or $3,300 per year due to minimum wage violations alone. Michigan low-wage workers experienced more minimum wage violations than workers in North Carolina, Texas, Pennsylvania, and Georgia.
While Michigan has a higher wage standard than the federal minimum wage, state laws allow a greater number of exemptions than federal laws. In Michigan, farmworkers are excluded from state paid sick leave, overtime pay, and some minimum wage protections.  No private right of action exists for workers who experience the most extreme form of wage theft. Meaning, if a worker is not paid for her work, her only option is to file an administrative complaint within one year and she is not entitled to file a lawsuit for her unpaid wages.
This current administration has sought to diminish workers’ rights by supporting mandatory arbitration, rolling back updates to federal overtime regulations, blocking regulations that protect workers’ pay and safety, and seeking to expand the flawed H-2A program. These anti-worker policies, along with anti-immigrant rhetoric and devastating immigration policies have a disproportionate negative effect on farmworkers and low-wage immigrant workers.
Lack of enforcement is often connected with the underfunding of government agencies tasked with enforcing employment and labor laws and anti-worker interpretations of laws and regulations by agencies. For an example of harmful state agency interpretations, see the lack of minimum wage protections for workers on certain farms in Michigan.


Seeking Dignity and Opportunity in Washtenaw County

Sarah Schoettle
Sarah Schoettle

I am a Washtenaw County-focused staff attorney with the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center. I have held that position for about a year and a half.  

The Washtenaw County immigration legal services grant that funds my work was born of the work of local community advocates and the County Board of Commissioners. In 2017, community advocates such as the Washtenaw Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights (WICIR) saw the need for increased practical support for immigrants and their families dealing with the enormous—and often devastating—repercussions of increased and indiscriminate immigration enforcement. The Board of Commissioners responded to advocates’ mobilization by approving then-Commissioner Conan Smith’s resolutions for additional funding to assist immigrant communities. The Board approved additional short-term funding for emergencies brought about by immigration enforcement—such as rent assistance for families and children left struggling after the deportation of a parent. It also created new funding for a new attorney at MIRC to provide direct legal services to immigrants in Washtenaw County, community education, and technical assistance to government agencies and organizations who work with immigrant communities.  

MIRC has greatly expanded the scope of services through the Washtenaw County program. In many ways, the U.S. immigration legal system is designed to deny individuals’ dignity in various areas of life. Depending on your immigration status, you may lack access to safe work, healthcare, housing or even a valid ID card to prove who you are. We are fortunate that the Washtenaw County grant allows us to address any immigration-related issues people might have, both in direct immigration legal services and in those other challenges that are exacerbated by immigration status. Over the past year and a half, I have had the privilege to work with clients at all different stages in their journey—from teenagers who have just arrived seeking asylum, to adults applying for citizenship, to people who have spent decades living in the U.S. but are still waiting for legal recognition that this is their home and they have a right to stay. I have also had the opportunity to advise clients on public benefits, options for healthcare, and tenants’ rights.  

A unique aspect of the Washtenaw County program within MIRC is that it is defined by a small geographic area. The community is defined by supportive partners—WICIR, the Washtenaw Health Plan, the Washtenaw ID project—whose work aids clients in accessing non-legal resources, and who share technical support on their areas of expertise for our clients.  

I also am reminded every day how vibrant and interconnected each member of the community is. When a client is detained or threatened with deportation, I know that not only she and her family will be devastated—coworkers and congregants she worships with will suffer, and children who go to school with hers will be forced to wonder if the same will happen to their parents. This threat to our community is what motivates me in this work. I am also a Washtenaw County resident and I want support my neighbors as they seek the same dignity and equal opportunity in this community, their home.  


Defensores de Derechos Migratorios: Caminando en Encrucijadas

Tania Morriz Díaz & Erika Murcia

Representantes del Michigan Immigrant Rights Center encuestaron a sus colegas sobre sus propias experiences navegando raza y otras posicionalidades en medio del panorama político actual.

* Originalmente publicado por Race Forward en su página web ColorLines aquí.

Nosotras trabajamos en el Michigan Immigrant Rights Center (MIRC) o el Centro de Derechos de Inmigrantes de Michigan, un centro de recursos legales con la misión de construir un ambiente donde las comunidades migrantes tengan “equidad y sentido de pertenencia.” Este es un mandato amplio en el ambiente actual.

Estamos conscientes que la migración en los Estados Unidos está firmemente arraigada en valores racistas. Nuestra experiencia navegando este marco intrínsecamente racista, en un contexto diverso y contra el trasfondo geopolítico de una identidad hegemónica de raza Blanca dominante, nos coloca en una posición compleja mientras lidiamos con temas como raza y otras posicionalidades.

Un primer paso crucial hacia la concientización es el reconocimiento de nuestras propias posicionalidades y privilegios. Sin tal conciencia, las limitaciones nos impiden a desempeñar un rol efectivo y restringe nuestra comprensión sobre las dinámicas de poder. Nosotras encuestamos a nuestras colegas en relación a sus experiencias, y hemos incluido algunas de sus respuestas para reflexionar a lo largo de este artículo.

 “Yo soy graduada universitaria, de clase media, heterosexual, Cristiana protestante y todas estas identidades intersectan con mi raza y me dan privilegio, [ambas] en la sociedad en general y en relación a nuestros usuarios.”

  “Yo soy multiracial. Principalmente Indígena, y una amplia gama de otras razas. Soy trigueña. Soy consciente de mi color de piel más claro y comprendo cómo esto es un privilegio viniendo de comunidades que, a través de la colonización de nuestra vida, hemos heredado el racismo en forma de colorismo..”

Es elemental diferenciar entre reconocimiento de barreras raciales y la experiencia de opresión racial, la última es la que nuestros clientes más navegan. Ambas animan un deseo a usar cualquier privilegio que tenemos para terminar con el poder que es inconsciente y no crítico.

“Hay ciertos aspectos de mi experiencia personal que me dan perspectiva para simpatizar personalmente y  también motivan intencionalidad sobre como estar presente y dedicada a la lucha, pero mis privilegios me mantienen honestamente alineada como una aliada.”

“Nací en un campamento de refugiados. Haber nacido sin país me ofreció la oportunidad de concientización sobre mi posicionalidad como refugiada y me inspiró a trabajar como una defensora de los derechos de migrantes.”

 “Intento usar mi posicionalidad como una armadura para mis clientes y como una espada contra perspectivas de la sociedad sobre raza.”

Abogando por migrantes implica interacciones cotidianas repletas con el racismo tanto interpersonal como internalizado. Identificando y esforzándonos por ser tan conscientes como podamos en nuestro rol, nuestra lucha está enraizada en los ideales de la concientización racial. Creando “equidad y sentido de pertenencia”  es una tarea que abrazamos como una práctica consciente en nuestras interacciones dentro de nuestros espacios laborales.

 “… fácilmente soy capaz de navegar espacios habitados por otras mujeres blancas. Hay tantas mujeres blancas en el campo/mundo de la defensoría de derechos migrantes … al menos en Michigan … muchas veces me pregunto si tiene sentido para mí ser otra mujer blanca haciendo trabajo en este campo … en Michigan. Por ahora, trabajo para usar la respetabilidad que tengo en estos espacios por muchas de mis identidades, empujando a descolonizar y rechazar la perspectiva de proveedor de servicio dominante. Y convertirlo en menos blanco.”

 “Con colegas que son líderes en comunidades de color, el privilegio blanco es algo de lo cual necesito estar muy consciente mientras hablo … y mientras determinamos prioridades de defensoría colectivamente.”

 "Yo tengo tendencia a preferir y sentirme mas comoda con personas de color que con personas blancas. Sin embargo, también soy consciente que trabajó en un campo que está dominada por mujeres blancas. Intento no dejar que mis prejuicios afectan mi interacción con colegas.”

Como defensores de derechos de migrantes, nuestra interacción con el sistema legal nos expone además al racismo estructural en el terreno de migración.

“Tengo dificultad con la idea de que existen ‘migrantes merecidos’ y que eso sea medido a través de qué tan precaria ha sido su vida y que tan terrible ha sido el sufrimiento de una personal.”

“La ley de migración es racista! Personalmente siento que si no presiono por reformas y cambios que se esfuercen por la equidad entonces estoy básicamente justificando, habilitando y perpetuando una institución racista.”

“Comprendiendo que las leyes migratorias han sido siempre determinadas para perpetuar el dominio blanco y están siendo re-armadas en algunas nuevas maneras ahora mismo, promoviendo su límite es crítico en nuestro trabajo. Como persona blanca con privilegio, tengo la habilidad de elevar este fin con  audiencias  de personas blancas y líderes institucionales influenciando mi posición como ya lo hago … he llegado a comprender esto como una responsabilidad y no meramente una opción.”

Los defensores de derechos de migrantes tienen una posición particular en la inequidad racial que marca nuestra sociedad. Por lo tanto, existe una necesidad urgente de crear espacios valientes en nuestros lugares de trabajo para dialogar lo cual nos ayudará a reflexionar en nuestra práctica e interacciones cotidianas.

El objetivo de este artículo fue invitar a un proceso de diálogo, reflexión y acción para incorporar la praxis. Como Paulo Freire expresó en su libro  Pedagogía del Oprimido, “Sin un sentido de identidad, no puede haber una verdadera lucha.”


Increasing Access: Integrating Holistic Well-Being

Erika Murcia

I am an intake coordinator with the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center since March this year. My position is to support all our staff in the Washtenaw county office with the management of our robust intake system and with capacity building in the Detroit Metro area. This year alone, we have had an increase in detained intakes of 500% and our overall intakes have doubled. This only means that human rights of immigrants are being violated more and in various new ways.  Through December 3, we have opened 2,678 cases this year. Most of these cases were opened via our two phone intake lines.

In 2018, between March and June we developed a customized Needs Assessment survey questionnaire which was used to gauge the gaps in immigrant legal services in the Detroit Metro area, and to identify the barriers that exist for immigrant legal service providers in satisfying the most pressing unmet needs in the community. Representatives of 19 immigrant legal service providers completed the survey. The report & findings helped us better understand the gap in needs and services available especially for individuals who are in removal proceedings.

Thus, through our Detroit Front Door Program we have added a new intake line. Since 2010 a general public intake line has been available to ask any immigration inquiries/consultations (734-239-6863). This year a detainee intake line has been destined specifically for low-income immigrants who are in detention. These clients can call directly from the detention center at no cost (734-794-9963). Therefore, our phones have been literally ringing more than twice as often as last year.

Our work at MIRC also includes creating partnership and building capacity in collaborative ways. I noticed the need to have more social workers exposed to our legal immigration pro bono work. In September we officially became a field placement for social work students from the University Of Michigan School Of Social Work. We hope this will create long lasting opportunities both to educate students on the great legal needs immigrants face but most importantly to take into account the voices and skills of social workers within legal settings. This may strengthen our work from an interdisciplinary standpoint.

Working at a legal office has offered the opportunity to better understand the various challenges attorneys face when representing immigrants. Among these challenges, we've shared in many accomplishments over this past year. First, I have worked on developing mindfulness strategies at MIRC to enhance awareness when working with trauma survivors and at the same time understanding how vicarious trauma impacts our own life as advocates. MIRC has also established our Racial Equity Working Group where I participate in its space for dialogue, reflection and action steps to improve our direct services, capacity building and coalition building work. Finally, our work has been showcased through two pieces I have co-authored and shared in Race Forward’s publication ColorLines Driving While Black, Riding While Brown and Immigrant Rights Defenders: Walking in Crossroads.


Call to Action: Support Saving the Flores Settlement Agreement

Rebeca Ontiveros-Chavez

I’m an attorney at the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center (MIRC). I represent children and youth who are in deportation proceedings and metro Detroit area residents on a variety of immigration matters. Over the past year alone, MIRC has represented approximately 280 children in immigration matters as a part of the Unaccompanied Minors program.

Like all the children I represent, I am an immigrant. I immigrated to the United States when I was a toddler. I became eligible to apply to become a permanent resident and eventually became a United States Citizen. Undoubtedly, my work is a life calling and a dream come true. I do this work because of my personal story and because I realize how incredibly lucky I’ve been. And it wasn’t because of anything special that I did. My personal experience helps me relate and connect to the people I serve. I make sure that I take appropriate care to develop their cases and seeing me hopefully inspires them to continue hoping for a better future.

Today, I need your help to demand that all children are protected. On September 7, 2018, the administration published a Notice of Public Rulemaking (NPRM). With this NPRM, the administration is pursuing the indefinite incarceration of vulnerable children and families thereby seeking to end the Flores Settlement Agreement (FSA). The FSA has been in place for decades. It is designed to protect the well-being and basic rights of children in the custody of the federal government, including people seeking asylum. It does so by setting basic standards of care and prevents the U.S. from detaining children indefinitely in prison-like conditions. The administration’s proposal would transform the child welfare protections of the FSA and punishes children and their families seeking protection in the United States.

We urge organizations to submit robust comments detailing their opposition to the proposed rule and we will commit to supporting organizations in those efforts as we have done for the Michigan Civil Rights Commission (MCRC). We are grateful that the MCRC continues to defend the civil rights of immigrant children and their families. In our own comment, we partnered with the National Association of Social Workers - Michigan Chapter to express our strong opposition to the proposed rule to amend regulations relating to the apprehension, processing, care, custody, and release of children. We believe the proposed rule undermines the purpose underlying the FSA. Rather than advancing the child welfare principles for immigrant children seeking protection in the United States, the proposed rule expands the authority of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to jail families in impoverished conditions and dismantles established protections for immigrant children in DHS and Health and Human Services custody.

Anyone can submit a comment. Please visit www.stopfamilydetention.org to directly submit a short, individual comment rejecting the administration’s latest cruel attack on immigrant families. A child is a child no matter what country they are born in. A child is a child even when they cross the border. And our children deserve to be safe.

The deadline to submit a comment is Tuesday, November 6th.


Fighting for Francis Anwana

Tania Morris Díaz

I joined the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center in March of this year as part of their newest program to expand legal services to the Detroit Metro area. The past six months have been filled with challenges and lessons learned. However, the past few weeks alone have been especially challenging with the case of Francis Anwana.

 Many are familiar with his story by now. Francis was born deaf in Nigeria. He was completely unable to communicate up until he was thirteen years old and came to the U.S. on a student visa to study American Sign Language (ASL). Because he overstayed his visa, he was ultimately put in deportation proceedings and has been checking in with ICE for the past decade. In September, ICE suddenly gave Francis five days to return to Nigeria. His advocates immediately went into action to prevent that from happening.

The first time I met Francis, we were alone in a room waiting for an interpreter. He flashed his signature smile and I smiled back. He then signed something to me and I awkwardly tried to signal my lack of understanding. He chuckled and took my hand with his and with the other began signing. An ASL speaker came into the room and let me know he was signing “work?” The question was if I was there working. I then, through the interpreter, explained my role. Every time I would see Francis, he would smile at me and sign and every time I would clumsily sign whatever I had just learned. Through him, I’ve learned how to sign “hearing,” “thank you,” “yes,” “no,” “Francis” and “T” for Tania.

Thanks to the help of many advocates, friends, journalists, co-workers, and countless others, Francis will be able to stay in the U.S. for another year while we continue to fight for him to have legal status. Currently, there is a private bill that, if passed, would allow Francis to be a lawful permanent resident.  I urge any supporters to call your reps to support Rep. Dan Kildee's Bill to make Francis a lawful permanent resident. It is H.R. 6829: For the relief of Francis Anwana.

The last time I saw Francis and told him the most recent news about him staying for a year, I learned how to sign “celebrate.” The battle continues and I’m hopeful that by the end of this I’ll learn how to sign “citizen.”


My Mother is from Mexico

Tania Morris Díaz

My mother is from Mexico. That’s the response to the inevitable question posed by anyone who gets to know me.

The question comes in different packages depending on the person asking. “How did you learn Spanish?” “Where are you from?” “What are you?” “Why do you have a Mexican flag hanging from your rear-view mirror?”
Growing up I would test out different answers to gauge people’s reaction. “I’m Mexican.” “I’m Mexican-American.” “I’m half Mexican.” “I’m Latina.”

But across the board, the reaction was normally either surprise or confusion.

So, for those who don’t know me: I LOOK white. And, depending on who you ask, I AM white.

I also happen to have a Mexican mother (who recently naturalized!) and a U.S. American father.  I happened to have been born in the United States I happened to have lived in Mexico throughout significant and scattered moments in my life.*

Somewhere along the social construction of the concept of race in the United States, a nationality (Mexican) was conflated with an ethnicity (Latino/Hispanic) and sometimes even a race (brown).
However, for me: whether I’m white passing or actually white are really just spaces that I navigate between rather than existential questions I ask myself.

So to sidestep that issue, my default answer would focus on my mother rather than on me. Also, I felt that being white passing in a way erased my Mexicanness and thereby my mother. However, being white passing/white certainly shaped how I think about race.

An added element was my environment and locations. I grew up in southern Alabama. I even attended a Brown v. Board of Education legacy school still under court mandate to integrate blacks and whites.

But I was neither black nor white, (ok, maybe white-ish).

Because of this, my perception of race came from a kind of peripheral position. An outsider. A foreigner. I realized early on that my mom looked —and was treated— very different than me.

In school, I was friends with mostly international students and fellow children of immigrants. But because of my mixed-race and white appearance positionality, I was also close to a lot of white U.S. Americans.

Being on the side lines yet somehow on Team Hegemony meant that I was able to see first-hand the privilege that came with my whiteness and, in consequence, the unfairness of it to my family and friends.

I think this led me to have such an interest in social sciences, especially topics such as race, identity, equality, migration, justice, and interculturalism.

Progress is slow since my childhood. Fortunately, the U.S. view of race has evolved since that time and my whiteness and Mexicanness don’t seem to confuse people as often anymore.

So now when I answer “my mother is Mexican” I see a sense of relief in my clients, a sense of commonality among peers, a sense of understanding among the immigrant community, and for me a sense of strength in my passion.

*For those interested in the notion of being neither from here nor from there, I recommend the work of Nina Glick Schiller on “transmigrants.” In contrast to the adage ni de aquí ni de allá, Schiller contends that transmigrants are actually from both places simultaneously. 


Keynote Speech for the Welcoming Michigan Statewide Convening & MCIRR Summit

William Lopez

[Maria Ibarra-Frayre shared the poem, The Right Way, prior to this presentation]

Good afternoon, and thank you for inviting me to speak at the Welcoming Michigan Statewide Convening and Michigan Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights summit. It is an honor to be invited to speak in front of a group of so many inspirational advocates, scholars, social workers, researchers, teachers, organizers, and yes, even lawyers.

My name is William Lopez, and as you heard in the generous and perhaps even exaggerative introduction, I’m a clinical faculty member at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, where I spend most of my time thinking, reading, and writing about how immigration enforcement impacts mixed-status communities, specifically my Latino community in Washtenaw County.

I also have played various roles as an organizer with the Washtenaw Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights and, together with a few amazing people, one of whom — Maria Ibarra — had her amazing-ness acknowledged today — organize the Urgent Response system that WICIR operates.

Now, I’ve been doing this work for a while, and what that means it that I witnessed many of the accomplishments of the stellar group of advocates here today in front of me. For example, thanks to your work, you have kept foreign driver’s license valid for those without access to state licenses. You have started municipal ID programs throughout the state. And you keep winning anti-deportation campaigns like that of Fredy Mencia, Papa Doumbia and Francis Anwana, even though, allegedly, those are supposed to be impossible to win now. Following Trump’s Muslim ban, you filled the airport with your screams and posters and laptops and your energy. And you also returned every single child separated at the border of Texas and Mexico who was brought to Michigan into the arms of their parents where they belong.

Indeed these are great victories for our communities and they deserve a round of applause.

But I’ll be honest with you. When I look at the audience, I actually know a good portion of the people out there, mostly from advocacy and field work I was doing while I swore to my committee that I was indeed writing a dissertation. So when I look out at the audience, I don’t immediately see your collective accomplishments. Instead, I see people. I see individuals. l see advocates, organizational founders and leaders yes, but I also see friends.

And, as a friend, the memories that stick with me, are not always of these collective accomplishments. But the times you, as an individual, reached the limit on what you could handle. In fact sometimes, what sticks with me are not the times you succeeded, but the times you failed. The times you cried. The times, numerous as they seem to be as of late, when I have seen you at your breaking point.

I remember a case that I worked on with a dear friend. We received a call on the WICIR Urgent Response phone that a woman I’ll call Veronica was to going to be deported, leaving her undocumented husband, two US citizens and one DACA recipient son behind in the US. As this work often goes, my friend happened to be the one holding the Urgent Response phone, and thus he happened to be the go-to person for Veronica’s case. He took this role gracefully, not complaining that the next three weeks would be among the hardest he had ever experienced in his long advocacy career.

He worked tirelessly for Veronica. He called the family every day. He left messages with lawyers and advocates and pastors and friends. And he visited churches to see who would house her if she sought sanctuary.

When he had tried everything there was to try, he coached her family through what it meant to have a mother and wife removed, and agreed that he would join her, silently, at the airport to bear witness to the cruelty of the deportation machine.

I got a phone call from him at midnight on the night she was to be deported.

“She’s in the emergency room” he told me. So disturbed was Veronica by the thought of being forced to return to Honduras, where she had not been for 15 years, that amid her attempts to pack her Michigan life in to two suitcases, she feel to the floor unconscious.

So I went with him to the ER and I watched him stand by her ER bed, hug her husband and her children, talk to her doctor, and make sure she got home again safely.

By this point, Veronica had missed her deportation date, so he started all over again. Calling and meeting and talking and trying both to prevent Veronica’s removal and prepare the family for her absence.

A week later ICE had decided that Veronica had sufficiently recovered from her ordeal and ordered her back to the airport for deportation.

So again he went. Again he stood in silent protest as she walked onto the plane to San Pedro Sula, her husband and daughters sobbing besides him.

I didn’t see him for months after that. I, and others, were pretty sure the moment broke him. And to be honest, none of us would have blamed him if you never came back to this work again.

Of course this is just one story. I’m sure you can all think of the losses that have impacted you and your friends most deeply in the last few years.

A few others come to mind for me as well. I think of the time the founder of a legal services organization told me that she could barely keep herself together as she completed the U Visa application for a girl the same age as my daughter who had been so brutally sexually assaulted that she needed reconstructive surgery.

And I think of the time I had just finished speaking to incoming Latino students at the university of Michigan when they walked out onto campus to see a well-known campus landmark spray painted with “fuck latinos” and “Make America Great Again.

These moments of darkness are real. This violence and trauma that our community experiences, that makes its way into our own lives and bodies, its real. For me, they are formative, and I can only come to this work knowing that they exist, and that they will color and shape my world and that of my family for the rest of my life. So I cannot come to this work, cannot invite you to this work, while pretending these moments don’t exist.

These moments keep us up and night, and they also force us to ask hard questions of ourselves.

If our work is so frequently and deeply challenging, Why do we keep doing it? Why do we come back to it?

Simply, why am I up here and why are you there right now?

Now, frankly, I’m not really the best person to answer this question. I know what a keynote talk is supposed to do, and that’s provide a rah-rah speech, to pump you up for the road ahead. I’m not the person for that. For those of you with whom I’ve worked — or for like anyone who has literally just listened to my speech thus far — you know that it’s pretty dark.

Now that’s largely because I am health researcher. My job is to diagnosis illness and disease, and illustrate precisely how damaging they can be and in what way. Thus I spend my time focusing on the social disease of immigration enforcement, in describing how this disease spreads fear and panic, and draws on the worst parts of our humanity to create deep racial divisions and strip our communities of rights. I talk about how this disease somehow pushes people to argue that separation of families at the border is their parents fault, that a door kicked in when a mother. nursing her baby in a raided an apartment is somehow the natural conclusion for not quote doing it the right way. I want to spend my career diagnosing and describing what I believe to be among the worst social disease of our time.

So no, I’m not the person to remind you why you are here, or to pump you up to continue doing this work tomorrow.

But I do know someone who is perfect for this task. I know someone who can explain to you why you are here, because, at one point, she did the same thing for me.

Lourdes Salazar Bautista came from Mexico to the United States on a tourist visa. She arrived in a cold Michigan day on January 25th of 1997. When Lourdes arrived in Ann Arbor, she liked it. She liked being close to a university, and felt that there was ample opportunity to find work.

So Lourdes did what so many of us do when we find a place in which we feel happy, healthy, and secure. Lourdes started a family. She bought a house. She found a church. And she went on with her daily life.

Along the way, Lourdes gave birth to two daughters and a son. All three children, were born in the US and thus, unlike their undocumented father and the mother who was still on a tourist visa at that point, were US citizens. Eventually, Lourdes’ older daughter accomplished something that made everyone who knew her proud: She got a scholarship to attend Michigan State University, and became the first member in her family to attend college.

Now I want to take a second and pause, because I think we can all empathize with Lourdes story in some way. For some of you, you may even be like Lourdes, and have crossed the border yourself to start a new life in the US. For others, including myself, we are more like her daughter, the first in a bloodline to attend a university in the United States. And for a large portion of you, we are the people and organizations who supported Lourdes and her family along the way. We are the ones who helped her daughter with her fafsa or who helped Lourdes with her tourist visa.

And this story, Lourdes’ story, up to this point, is an image of the immigration world exactly as we want to create it. It’s the story of migration to a better place, following of a dream to a world in which one’s children can be upwardly mobile. It’s a story of laying town roots, planting seeds, and watering and nurturing them until they bloom.

But like most of the immigration stories we deal with in our work, the world we want to create fell prey to the world as it is, and in 2010, Lourdes’ life took a drastic change.

Lourdes’ tourist visa had expired, so ICE agents showed up at her door to arrest and detain her and process her deportation. Thus, it was in her own home that she was cuffed in front of the first child in her blood line to go to college and taken to Battle Creek where she was stripped naked, searched, and imprisoned for 23 days.

Then ICE made a deal, and instead of deporting Lourdes, they traded her for her husband.

You heard that correctly. ICE traded human beings, allowing Lourdes to stay if her husband agreed to be deported in her place.

So Lourdes’ husband joined the other 400,000 obama era deportations of majority men.

Lourdes walked out of the ICE office and back to her family, and agreed to check in with ICE every year for the indefinite future. She did so religiously, from 2011 to 2017.

But in 2016 we elected a man who made a career out of saying that a Black man had faked his papers, who said our mexican parents were rapists, who said immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and other African countries were from shithole countries, who said the football players who kneel to protest racially disparate police killings of african americans are sons-of-bitches, and who said gang members quote are not people, these are animals.

If the deportation of Lourdes’ husband represents the cruelty of the allegedly patterned deportations of undocumented men during the Obama era, what happened next to Lourdes is the very definition of immigration enforcement under president Trump.

When Lourdes, who had checked in for six years at that point, checked in at the ICE office on Wednesday, July 19th of 2017, she was told to return on Monday to review the plan for her deportation.

So Washtenaw County did everything we knew how to do. We emailed, we called, we marched, we prayed, we gathered, we fought.

And we lost.

We lost.

This woman, a mother whom we had come to know and love, who had been in Michigan for 20 years, was to be forcibly removed to Mexico.

So yet again, we found ourselves at the Detroit Airport.

And yet again, we found ourselves standing in silence, bearing witness to the unmistakable cruelty enacted by the party of family values that is determined to break families apart.

Now for me, I remember this moment, and I know there was nothing left in me. I know that every cell within my body had been wrung dry, and I stood frozen in my own futility.

Then Lourdes reminded me why I was there.

As Lourdes moved from the airport entrance to the metal detector in the security screening area, it felt like a funeral procession.

She passed the people she knew from the first decade of her life in Michigan.

Then the second decade.

She hugged the advocates who had fought — and lost — for her, and cried on the shoulders of the teachers who would be the stand in for her children’s absent mother.

She hugged cousins and uncles and friends until finally she arrived at the metal detector, the last barrier between her and the plane to Mexico.

But before she stepped through the metal detector, she turned around.

And I will never know how she did this, but in the span of about 10 seconds, Lourdes managed to make direct eye contact with what felt like every single person in the entire airport, and she said simply, and loudly,

“La lucha sigue.”

La lucha sigue.

The fight continues.

If you thought we couldn’t handle ourselves before that moment, you can’t imagine the puddle of tears we became after.

Here was this woman, a woman who had found herself in the crosshairs of a billion dollar deportation industry, somehow with the presence of mind to remind us why we are here, why you are here, telling us, don’t you dare quit, don’t you dare stop, dont you dare let these moments of darkness cloud out the light of the movement.

What Lourdes helped me understand was that the losses, our seemingly constant and painful losses, these are just moments. They pass. We break down and we cry and we crack and we retreat and we are wrung out and exhausted. But these are just moments.

We have become part of something much larger. We have tapped into a movement that touches the deepest parts of who we are as people.

We are here because we have coalesced around a core set of beliefs that no human being is illegal, that all children deserve to be with their parents, that black and brown and native and queer lives matter.

We are here because we see a vision of a better world, a world we want to create, a world rooted in human dignity, and we know that to arrive at that world, struggle, lucha, is inevitable.

I think back to my friend who disappeared after Veronica’s deportation. When he came back, the first thing he texted was, “what can I do?” He wasn’t done. He wasn’t done losing. He wasn’t done being part of the movement.

So we persevere because Lourdes does. We are out there, we are up here, because people better than us have been removed. We get up in the morning to lose again because our movement is growing stronger, our work is growing stronger, and our power is building. We get up every morning because we must, because, though the day may end darkly, la lucha sigue.

Thank you, and sigan luchando.

*Reprinted from William Lopez’ Medium site with permission of the author.


Embracing Family Unity and Resilience

World Refugees Paint Their Journey at Stuttgart, Germany; Led by Artist, Joel Bergner. All rights reserved.
Erika Murcia

I was born in 1985 in “Mesa Grande”, a refugee camp in Honduras. I was born there because, during the Civil War in El Salvador (1980-1992), my family had to flee from the state-led Armed Forces in 1981. We repatriated to our home country of El Salvador in 1988 with the support of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This was four years before the end of the Civil War in 1992. My experience inspired me to advocate for immigrant and refugee rights globally.

I vividly remember how normalized violence was at that time. Nowadays, with the recent crisis of children being taken away from their parents when presenting themselves at the Mexico-US border, I find myself thinking that we are facing another human rights violation crisis. A crisis that is stemming from normalized violence. This needs to change. Currently, in the United States, citizens hear little about why people want to risk their lives in order to enter the country as well as about their experiences and hardships before and during their journey.

Most immigrants don’t necessarily want to leave their home communities. How many of us want to leave home? Most immigrants are fleeing from various types of violence. One type of violence immigrants face is structural violence through bureaucratic institutions and organized practices that marginalize them and perpetuate endemics like extreme poverty. With violence and trauma chasing behind them, many immigrants do not have options. They do not get to choose. Instead, they are forced to leave.

There is a dichotomy within the US: alien and citizen. Immigrants within the US are portrayed as aliens. However, the very same immigrants built the economy and society of the US. While we appear to be “different,” we are very similar though with different life experiences and journeys. We all have the common goal of having access to what we need to fulfill our basic human rights: the ability to live at peace, access employment, education, health care, and protect our family unity.  Local institutions from our countries of origin have failed to fulfill those needs. This is a form of systemic violence best known as extreme poverty. There are many other factors that have historically forced people to migrate. Does this mean the US has to be responsible? I think as a global human community we are responsible for one another. Immigrants have existed since the beginning of time. We have to learn how to recognize our collective humanity.

Za’atari Syrian Refugee Camp, Jordan. Joel Bergner

I understand how challenging it can be to see immigrants as good people when citizens in the US learn the opposite about us. At the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center (MIRC), we support family unity. Thousands of families have been separated in the US due to deportation without relief. Mixed-status families go through multiple trauma-related emotions when one of their parents are put into the deportation process. Emotions like fear and anxiety are common. I deeply empathize with these emotions because of my own experience.

The Salvadoran Civil War was supported by US government administrations.  I recall being in the middle of a war-zone at my humble school. During those moments, I felt fear deeply in my body. I was not at home with my family where I always felt safe. In the midst of my fear, I was struck by the reactions of my caring teachers. They were almost children themselves. They did not express their fear in front of us. Instead, they invited us, with respect and love, to sing one of my favorite kindergarten songs: “De colores.”  "De Colores" carried all of us to a peaceful moment, turning tears into song. I felt a sense of protection. These women showed me that even during adversity, collective hope created through solidarity can make us resilient and empowered.

MIRC help so many immigrants who are seeking legal assistance to live permanently and freely in the US. My time working at MIRC --surrounded by a great team of attorneys, law clerks, and volunteers, along with other legal service providers--has inspired me to celebrate our mission more: to build a thriving Michigan where immigrant communities experience equity and belonging. As an organization, we are in the hearts of thousands of immigrants who appreciate the support we provide to ensure family unity.  Our organization represents for them in a way what the UNHCR means to me-- an institution of supportive and caring human beings who advocate for those who lack the privileges that US citizens have. Our team reminds me of my two teachers who gave me a sense of protection while my school was being bombed. We are successful because we support immigrants so that they can have a dignified life. I honor immigrants’ stories and I am grateful to be part of this wonderful team that has created ongoing positive change in the life of many immigrants for over nine years in Michigan.

Community Mural at Central Valley in California. Joel Bergner


The Central American Child-migrant Crisis

children sleeping in a holding cell

Children sleep in a holding cell in Brownsville, Texas. Photo courtesy Eric Gay/AP Photo.

Rebecca Cao

As many of you might already know, there has been an ongoing Central American child-migrant crisis since 2011. This crisis is at an all-time peak and more unaccompanied minors are attempting to enter the United States than ever. Most of these children are escaping gang violence in Honduras and El Salvador. Although many are fleeing to the US, others are also seeking asylum in Mexico and other nearby nations.

The U.S. federal government is poorly equipped to deal with the present influx of immigrant children, and the Border Patrol has been tasked with the overwhelming challenge. Under the Bush Administration, Congress stipulated that Border Patrol is required to screen the children and send them to the Office of Refugee Resettlement. This inflexibility has led the Obama administration as well as experts to propose alternative laws. The proposed laws, however, do not resolve the problem at hand, which is the overburdened Border Patrol. Furthermore, if the changes are implemented, it would mean that Border Patrol could make the sole determination of whether or not to allow children to proceed in immigration.

According to a recent report by the UN, half of these children would qualify for humanitarian legal status under existing immigration law. Unfortunately, the U.S. does not have the capacity or motivation to help them. While about half of the children are allowed to stay, most of them get stuck in immigration court and very few of them are petitioning for asylum. Out of those who did petition for asylum, the approval rate was only 35%.

It is likely that this crisis will continue to impact our work at MIRC. Due to the Obama Administration's efforts to speed up migrant children's immigration cases, other immigration cases are being further delayed in court.

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