Fernanda and Cesar Marroquin were not afraid of the police last month when they joined 11 other activists in an act of civil disobedience in Montgomery, Ala.
While Cesar and another activist waited in the lobby of the capitol for Sen. Scott Beason to respond to their letter asking for the repeal of an anti-immigration bill, Fernanda and 10 other activists blocked traffic in the street and displayed a banner that read “We will no longer remain in the shadows.”
The demonstration led to the arrest of all of the activists. After the arrests they spent two nights in jail.
Fernanda, 22, and Cesar, 21, are two siblings involved with DreamActivist Pennsylvania, a youth-led organization that fights for immigrant rights at the local, state and national level. Fernanda and Cesar are undocumented immigrants from Peru who currently reside in Wyndmoor, Pa. Their older sister, Maria Marroquin, is a co-founder of the national organization, DreamActivist.org, which sparked their interest for getting involved with the group.
The group said it decided to demonstrate in Alabama because of all the fears the undocumented community was facing due to the new anti-immigrant legislation. The bill would require police in Alabama question and investigate anyone who gives “reasonable suspicion” of being undocumented. It also requires that elementary and middle-school teachers report undocumented students to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
“What we saw in Alabama is that a lot of people live in constant fear of everything, like even stepping foot outside their door. ICE is always there,” said Fernanda whose family came to the United States on tourist visas in 2000 and stayed here.
She said she heard that ICE was making weekly rounds in the immigrant communities in Alabama, stopping people, raiding homes and detaining immigrants for their statuses.
“We all took a stand, all 13 of us, and fought for our communities, because, you know, an attack to the undocumented community in Alabama is an attack to the undocumented community all around the country,” Cesar said. He explained that even though the risk of deportation was high in Alabama, one of the most anti-immigrant states in the country, he said he knew he had to fight for the rights of his community. Cesar and Fernanda’s parents were nervous when their children went to Montgomery.
“We told the community, basically, that it’s time to come out of the shadows and fight back against laws like HB 56, and that we can no longer be afraid of being so public about our status,” Fernanda said.
Fernanda explained how the community had a large presence at the demonstration. People lined the street chanting along with the activists.
“I think that was the biggest part of it. This little kid, literally five years or six years old, was chanting ‘undocumented, unafraid’ with his fist in the air, and his parents were right behind him, “Fernanda said. “That’s kind of one of the things that was very rewarding, that we saw the community there backing us up and we knew that we had their support.”
When the police arrived at the sit-in at the Alabama Statehouse. Fernanda noted that many of the cops who came were African American.
“We called them out on the fact that just like people fought for their rights during the civil rights movement, we’re also fighting for our rights as well. So they shouldn’t be arresting us, they should be sitting down there with us,” she said.
The presence of DreamActivist Pennsylvania and other groups affiliated with them in Alabama inspired the start of The Alabama Youth Collective, an undocumented, youth-led organization that fights for dignity in their communities. This organization rallied public support to get the activists out of jail.
It is this kind of community support that Fernanda and Cesar said is important to their safety and strength as a group.
“The thing that I know for sure is that if I didn’t have the support of my community, I would still be in [jail] and I would probably be already deported,” Fernanda said.
While DreamActivist Pennsylvania is currently in the process of trying to get the Dream Act, an in-state tuition equity bill, passed, another one of the core goals is encouraging undocumented immigrants to come out and be public about their immigration status. The organizers said they think that being public about one’s status is actually safer than remaining secretive about it.
“We’re trying to tell the community to come out of the shadows because the more public you are, the safer you’ll be,” Cesar said.
However, Alabama is not the only place where immigrants are facing issues. It is a nationwide struggle.
“It’s a dark moment for immigrants in the United States right now. Probably the worst it has been since the 1920s when the current immigration legal regime was put into place,” said David Bennion, an immigration attorney in Philadelphia.
“There’s a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation in the public discourse that is promoted and capitalized on by both political parties, and the result is that 400,000 people are deported every year and there’s 11 million or so undocumented people in the United States, most of whom are living in fear,” Bennion said.
He added that while the youth-led movements sprouting up across the country are gathering momentum, they are up against a lot. Bennison claimed the Obama administration may be the worst in recent history on immigrant rights.
“That’s going to be the conflict over the next year, is this burgeoning immigrant rights youth movement versus the democratic machine,” Bennion said.
And while the struggle continues, undocumented people living in the United States face a number of restrictions. They cannot get a driver’s license, vote or be legally employed, he added.
“But one of the biggest things is that I can’t join the armed forces, which I’m really passionate about, and I wanted to join after high school, but the recruiter told me I couldn’t because I lacked a social security number,” Cesar said.
College is another issue for undocumented youth. Often undocumented students have to pay international rates. Fernanda said that she went to Montgomery County Community College and paid almost $1,000 per class. Since she cannot work legally in this country, making enough money to afford college was difficult and she only took a few courses at a time.
“Undocumented students can go to college. There’s no ban or anything at all here in Pennsylvania, it’s just that you have to know the right people to go to and you have to be very persistent. Somebody will turn you down and I have been turned down,” Fernanda said.
Regardless of the struggles they have faced, Fernanda and Cesar said they will continue to advocate the importance of coming out publicly as an undocumented immigrant and how it will alleviate some of the dangers and fears that go along with the immigration status.
“I think it’s important to come out as undocumented because you’re just taking back your human rights, and you’re just taking back who you are. Living in the shadows and living in that fear is not really the way someone should be living,” Cesar said.
For more information about DreamAcitivst Pennsylvania, visit dreamactivistpa.org