Excerpted from Dreamers: An Immigrant Generation’s Fight for Their American Dream by Eileen Truax (Beacon Press, 2015). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.
UNDOCUMENTED AND UNAFRAID
Out of the Shadows
“MY NAME IS FERNANDA MARROQUIN. If you’re watching this video it’s because I was arrested in Alabama.”
As she stares into the camera, Fernanda tries to look defiant. Her little-girl face tenses and she tries hard not to cry. Her jaw is set, but her big, black eyes reflect pure desperation. Originally from Peru, having lived in the United States for the past twelve years, she brushes back a wisp of her hair, which is gathered into a ponytail. She tries to keep her voice from trembling as she addresses the thousands who will see her the next day on YouTube. She says, “I am undocumented, I am unafraid, and I’m unapologetic. It’s time for us to come out of the shadows.”
The following night, Fernanda’s video, along with those of twelve others, was uploaded and began circulating around the Internet. Each of the young people who had been arrested on the afternoon of November 15, 2011, in Montgomery, Alabama, talked for two minutes, explaining why they had taken part in an act of civil disobedience that they knew would result in their arrest. “I was born in Guanajuato, I came to this country when I was four months old, and I’m still here. Sometimes people say, ‘Go back to Mexico,’ but I don’t even know what Mexico’s like,” says Krsna, an eighteen-year-old boy with a dark complexion, long, curly hair, and an ever-present smile who lives in California. In another video, Ernesto, a handsome, self-assured twenty-five-year-old with dark hair, looks directly at the camera: “I live in Los Angeles. I came here when I was a year and a half. I felt ashamed, like my friends were going to judge me because of my immigration status. But I realized that admitting that I’m undocumented and not being afraid gives you the power to help your community.” “My name is Diane,” a young girl in another video says, struggling to hold back tears. “I’m undocumented, and if you’re watching this video, it’s because I was arrested.”
For anyone who’s been involved with the human rights movement in the United States, civil disobedience is nothing new. At several key points in modern American history, citizens have effectively utilized nonviolent resistance to push for social change, from protests against wars and foreign occupations, to the civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was also very active in Alabama, to the demonstrations against globalization in Seattle, to, most recently, the Occupy Wall Street movement. But for undocumented youth, such actions could have grave consequences: those arrested could wind up not only in jail but at a border station from where they would be deported. It’s not just their freedom that is at stake; it’s the only life that most of them have ever known, in the country where they have grown up.
Although they are all different, the young people who have come here today to block a street in downtown Montgomery in front of the state capitol and try to get arrested have several things in common. They did not voluntarily come to the United States but were brought here when their families made the decision to come, and they are all undocumented. They have no access to a college education at a reasonable cost because they are considered foreigners, even though the government has invested in twelve years of public elementary and secondary education for them. They cannot get hired for a good, well-paying job, but they want to be productive members of the labor force in the only country they know. And even though many of them have never met before, once they decide to take part in the protests, they eventually come to know one another as well as only prisoners sharing the same jail cell can.
THE FIRST TIME I talked to Mohammad Abdollahi, the leader of the DreamActivist Undocumented Students Action and Resource Network, was in Alabama, just a few days before the protest as he prepared the handful of undocumented students from several states who had come to participate. Mo, as his friends call him, is a slender young man who at first glance looks older than his twenty-six years, but watching him talk with the young protesters is enough to confirm that he is clearly one of them. His thick, jet-black hair falls over his forehead. He has an expressive face, with dark, melancholy eyes and heavy black eyebrows. He always seems to be in need of a shave, with razor stubble masking acne scars that give away his youth. When his mouth breaks into a smile, the sadness disappears from his eyes. Although he is very tall and gestures animatedly with his hands when he talks, Mo is all face.
I had to go through several people before eventually getting in direct contact with Mo. When I did, he turned out to be open and even warm. After a few brief phone conversations, when I assured discretion, we agreed to meet in person in Montgomery. It was early November 2011, and DreamActivist had planned its act of civil disobedience for midmonth. Eleven students and two parents, all undocumented, would take part in the Alabama protest, one of about fifteen actions that DreamActivist had organized over the past two years.
Mo had attended every one of them: training the participants before the event, educating them about the risks they would be taking, and sharing stories about his work with undocumented students, a vocation that grew out of his own life experience. One day in 2007 his mother had sat him down to have “The Talk,” which in his case, as with hundreds of thousands of other families in the United States, was not about sex but about his status as an undocumented immigrant. This didn’t especially surprise Mo. Although it wasn’t something his family often discussed, he had grown up knowing his status and over the years had discovered the serious limitations it placed on him. But now something new had come up: a law known as the Dream Act was being debated in Congress, and if it passed, Mo would have the opportunity to legalize his immigration status and continue his university studies.
“But don’t look it up on the Internet, because surely the government will find out and come after you,” his mother had warned. So, of course, Mo went straight to his computer and did a search for “Dream Act” on Google, and with that his life had taken a turn.
MO WAS BORN IN IRAN. When he was three years old, his father, a young mathematician, had been accepted to study at the University of Michigan. The family had moved to Ann Arbor, a city of 113,000 residents forty miles west of Detroit. After Mo’s father had finished his studies and his student visa had expired, he decided to stay in the United States with his family. Mo didn’t understand the full implications of his immigration status until he graduated from high school. In a city where three in ten residents are University of Michigan students, Ann Arbor’s economic engine, ironically, this was the first door to slam shut. As Mo applied for college, he found out he couldn’t attend because he was undocumented.
“That was when it really hit me. They reviewed my grades and said they were perfect, and they gave me an acceptance letter and a student ID number. A few minutes later, somebody came in and said, ‘We’re very sorry, but you didn’t say you were from Iran. When you straighten out your status, then you can come back.’ And they took back the acceptance letter,” Mo tells me, smiling ruefully.
He first heard about the Dream Act that same year, shortly before the initiative would suffer one of its many defeats in Congress. But by then, Mo was already immersed in the issue. He had found a Myspace page where other undocumented students facing the same problems exchanged stories and offered advice on how to apply for scholarships or get a driver’s license. One day, six members of the group started talking about creating a network for people who were in the same situation, and they began to organize, in spite of the fact that they were spread out all over the map, were from different countries of origin, and had never met in person.
“I think that because of some of our cultural differences, it’s harder for some to stop feeling ashamed, or they feel more insecure,” he says. “Those of us who have crossed that line are privileged, and we have a responsibility to work for everyone else.”
That is the guiding principle behind DreamActivist: to openly recognize that their members are undocumented and invite them to come out from the shadows. The group believes that the more visible and better organized they are, the lower the risk that they will be arrested and deported. “We don’t need the legislators, we need each other,” Mo says. “That’s the heart of it.”
In 2010, once the group was established, Mo held a meeting in Minnesota with some undocumented students. When they returned to their respective states, they each got a phone call: one of their group had been detained at the airport because he didn’t have an official US ID. By this point, DreamActivist had relationships with other organizations and people working for their cause in government agencies. So they got to work making phone calls, explaining that the young man who had been detained was a student, and succeeded in getting him released from custody.
“We had already been working on a number of deportation cases,” Mo says, “but after that we realized we could stop deportations just by being really organized, so we thought, ‘We’re involved in this, we have the energy, why don’t we do it on purpose?’”
And that’s how Mo got the idea to organize civil disobedience protests.
LIKE MANY CITIES in the United States, Montgomery is made up of several suburban neighborhoods surrounding a downtown area that provides jobs and services for most residents. Only 4 percent of the local population is Latino. Alabama law HB 56, which was passed in June 2011 and denied basic services to undocumented immigrants and criminalized the hiring or renting of an apartment to them, effectively terrorized this small, vulnerable community. The law was a copycat but even harsher version of the Arizona law SB 1070. Under Alabama’s law, elementary and secondary schools were required to report the immigration status of their students. Undocumented immigrants could be questioned, arrested, and deported at any time, and the natural reaction to this kind of persecution is to isolate oneself. People do not venture outside their homes, they stay within their own neighborhoods, and self-segregation becomes the status quo for those living with the stigma of not having a Social Security number. Some families chose to get out of Alabama and move to another state, leaving everything behind.
That is why the young Dreamers have come to Montgomery. Their theory is simple: If we hide in the shadows and stay divided, it’s easier to intimidate us. If we unite, go out into the light, and demand to be treated with dignity, we can fight for our rights. This strategy has been tested before; along with the national coalition United We Dream, members of DreamActivist have carried out similar protest actions in other states, including Georgia, Arizona, and California.
My journey to Montgomery involved two flights and a three-hour drive on the highway from Atlanta. During those three hours, gazing out at the green landscape stretched along both sides of the road and very little else, I could see how hard it would be for anyone living in the area to get involved in activist organizations.
Communities are very isolated and spread out, and it’s practically impossible to get around if you don’t have a car. Large expanses of green woods and fields can almost make you lose your sense of time and place; surely that landscape did not look any different two hundred years ago, and it may stay relatively unchanged for a hundred more. Driving down the highway with the Atlanta skyline fading into the distance in my rearview mirror, I couldn’t help but think of some episodes I had seen of the zombie TV drama The Walking Dead, which takes place in that city. Night fell a half hour later, and I had the strange sensation that I was fleeing farther from a zombie attack with each mile southeast that I drove.
The DreamActivist group arrived in Alabama two weeks before I got there. The students had traveled from faraway states to participate—California, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Indiana—and most had driven for many hours to get there. In the days leading up to the action, they went to the neighborhoods where undocumented immigrants lived. They spent a lot of time in a trailer park, with a cluster of ramshackle mobile homes. For families who could not rent houses or apartments because they lacked the necessary documents or because they simply couldn’t afford to, the trailer park was an option within reach. The dilapidated trailers, meant for temporary use, over time became a permanent neighborhood where children grow up.
I know of families who have managed to scrape together enough money to buy a trailer home—la traila, in Spanglish—and rent a small lot of land to install it. So they own four walls of flimsy aluminum and rent a plot of land that will never be theirs. The DreamActivists focused on the trailer park. Some of them have spent months or even years fighting for the cause in their home states, and they know from experience that it’s much easier to organize people in environments that are more welcoming to immigrants than in places with few Latinos where anti-immigrant sentiment is strong. That is why they believe the work has to be done here, in Alabama.
In May 2011, at a meeting with Hispanic legislators, President Obama assured them his administration would concentrate its deportation efforts on detained immigrants with prior criminal offenses and not deport young immigrants who could benefit from the DREAM Act. The White House’s announcement of this compromise reassured the DreamActivists that they would not be deported if they were arrested for engaging in acts of civil disobedience, and that prompted them to develop their current strategy.
In the days spent with the families in the trailer park, they explained to them that when people are organized, they form a network, a kind of safety net. So if you are detained, or receive an order of deportation, or are abused by the authorities based on the Alabama law, it is easier to defend yourself if other people know about what’s happening, immediately react, and closely follow the situation as it unfolds. And they told them that, in their experience, when the authorities see that a community is organized, they tend to be more careful. And if the members of the community have legal advisers and know their rights, they are even more protected.
A few months earlier, Mo had been arrested along with others at a similar protest action. When they were released without charges, they were emboldened to replicate the model that Mo believes serves two functions: it helps the Dreamers to exercise and consolidate their leadership; and it sends a message to people in states with anti-immigrant laws, so they know they are not alone. The law of the strongest versus the law of dreams.
CHARISMATIC, WITH A FIRM yet friendly tone of voice, Mo knows he makes a strong leader. He tends to delegate but always maintains ultimate control. The day before the action in Montgomery he was preparing for battle, marshaling the troops. After asking me a few questions and staring intently into my eyes, he decided I could sit in on a session where the protesters would get acquainted. In these training exercises, each person shares their story, talks about their biggest concerns, and asks questions. They learn that if they are arrested during the civil disobedience action, they do run the risk of being deported. But because they are well organized and will put the media’s spotlight on the situation, it will become a visible political matter. And because of that, in the end they will be released.
Even though he moves with a nervous edge and talks very fast, paradoxically, Mo never seems to be in a hurry. Putting a hand on my shoulder, he invites me to walk with him. His gaze fixed on the floor, he summarizes the DreamActivist mission as we head down a hallway in the building where the training sessions will take place, a red-brick Christian church that reminds me of the buildings the nuns would use for weekend spiritual retreats in Mexico when I was a child in Catholic school. Like those buildings, this one is practically empty and gives me the impression of a church undergoing some act of penance. Several young people involved with DreamActivist sit in a stairwell, sending text messages and talking softly. Mo talks a mile a minute, explaining the group’s philosophy and strategy in an assured voice, as if he is merely pointing out the obvious.
Sitting around tables arranged in a circle in a large meeting room, the tenuous light of a rainy day filtering through the windows, the thirteen who would be participating in the civil disobedience action got ready to share their personal stories to break the ice and bring themselves closer together. In the situation they were about to put themselves in, knowing as much as they could about one another was crucial: the net that would support them over the next hours was based on trust, Mo told them repeatedly. The group’s cohesiveness and ability to work together as a team would make it possible for them to emerge from the action without any trouble.
The session got under way, and people took turns talking about themselves, their experiences, and, especially, their frustrations. Catalina had made the trip all the way from Michigan. Her family came to the United States when she was just four years old. Now she is eighteen, although she looks younger: short and very slender, with a fair complexion, delicate features, and curly auburn hair. Twisting her hands nervously, looking down at the floor, her feet in sneakers crossed at her ankles, Catalina quietly tells the story of an ordinary girl whose world collapsed when she found out she had no opportunities.
“Everybody says your senior year in high school is the best, but for me it was the worst year of my life,” she says. “It was time to apply to college, and I came home all excited. I sat down in my room with the application, and when I looked at what you had to fill in, I saw you had to put down your Social Security number. I cried and cried; I couldn’t stop.” Catalina’s voice breaks, and she starts crying. “At school, all my friends talked about it, all excited. They talked about what colleges they wanted to go to, what applications they had sent already, and they asked me where I was applying. I said I hadn’t decided yet.”
Tears of empathy well up in the eyes of several of the others. Catalina pauses, sobbing.
“The day of my graduation, I didn’t want to go because I knew they were going to announce which students were going to which colleges. When they started saying the names, something strange happened. I knew they weren’t going to say my name, because I hadn’t applied anywhere, but I closed my eyes and wished with all my heart they would say it. ‘Please, please, please say my name.’ Of course, they didn’t.” She pauses again, and the others wait patiently, respectfully. “I grew up thinking this was my country and I’d be a nurse someday.”
Sitting across from her at the table, Belen looks at Catalina, her eyebrows raised, her expression compassionate, maternal. Like Catalina, Belen also made the fourteen-hour drive from Michigan to Montgomery. She is not a Dreamer, but her daughter Diana is. A few months earlier, Diana had been arrested and released without charges in Georgia. Knowing that Diana wanted to participate in another civil disobedience action, this time Belen decided she would be the one to take the risk. Full-figured, her eyes sadly peering from behind a pair of large, lightly tinted glasses, Belen seems happy most of the time. She doesn’t speak English very well, but the passion she conveys inspires in those she talks with the patience to hear her out.
“How can we not support them, if they are being so brave? A lady I know tells me, ‘We parents should be the ones getting arrested because we brought them here; it is not their fault.’ And I tell her, ‘Okay, then go sign up,’ ” Belen says, and the others in the room break into laughter. But the laughter trails off as they grow thoughtful, realizing that is the fate that awaits them in just a few hours. Until that day, the protesters getting arrested had always been students. But in Montgomery, for the first time, two parents would be among their ranks, one of them Belen. The other is Martin Unzueta, an activist from Chicago and father of Tania and Ireri, who are also members of DreamActivist.
A pervasive sense of hopelessness has marked the lives of these young people. Cynthia Perez, a chubby girl with a fair complexion and curly brown hair, is twenty-seven and came to Indianapolis from Mexico when she was twelve. Her mother had told her they were going on vacation, but after they got to the United States they never went back. Having never been consulted on this major family decision, having left without saying good-bye to her friends, Cynthia entered adolescence carrying the heavy stigma of being undocumented. Looking down at the floor, tears flowing down her cheeks, she remembers what it was like to have to deny her immigration status, every day. One day, the radio station where she worked broadcast a story on undocumented immigration. She was the one who told her coworkers, far removed from that reality, about all the challenges people living under those circumstances have to face.
“They asked me why I knew so much about it, and I admitted that I was undocumented,” she says. “But we shouldn’t feel ashamed because it’s not our fault.”
Cynthia wonders why, ten years later, anti-immigrant laws like Arizona’s and Alabama’s are getting passed.
“So, all the work we’ve been doing doesn’t work? Maybe it’s time to escalate and do something different.”
The escalation is civil disobedience, resulting in arrest.
FOR POLITICAL ACTIVISTS, few things are more dangerous than talking to a reporter. Access to the press can ultimately determine if the action that has been carefully planned for months is a success or a failure, or results in a legal outcome diametrically opposed to the one intended. A clumsy or misinterpreted statement, an offensive or poorly chosen word could be all it takes to make a good strategy blow up.
Having worked in the field for a few years now, Mo understands this. After sitting on a tabletop in a corner of the room for the past several hours, arms crossed, staring at a fixed point on the floor, listening intently as thirteen individuals in the process of coalescing into one unified group told their stories, Mo takes over the reins in the afternoon to begin the hardest part of their training: preparing the team to confront the police, anti-immigrant spectators, the press, and, above all, their own fear.
“When you talk into a camera, you’re not talking to a reporter; you’re addressing everyone who will see you on television,” he says. “What you say should be directed to the people of Alabama, because most of the media that’s going to show up will be local.
If a reporter from a Spanish-language station interviews you, they’ll probably be nicer to you. But reporters from hate radio— anti-immigrant shows have had a resurgence in the last few years, including a really popular one hosted by two guys named John and Ken—some from TV shows who don’t want us here, reporters who will make direct accusations and ask incriminating questions to try to get the right sound bite for the story they want to run—what questions are they going to ask?”
The press would be notified about the event only a few hours beforehand to minimize the chance that police would find out and block access to the group. Until that moment, no one aside from the people in that room and a few others would know what was going to happen the next day.
The group started role-playing exercises, practicing answering likely questions from different kinds of reporters. When it was her turn, Belen froze. Everyone agreed that if a reporter from an English-language outlet approached her, someone else would step in to support her. The members of the group who spoke Spanish would handle the media in that language. The group spent quite a while memorizing short phrases to use in their answers that could help them avoid making a prejudicial statement. At first it was like a game as they took turns interviewing one another, but as the questions became more complicated, the moodin the room grew serious, formal, and even a little tedious.
The next step was to decide how far they were willing to go, something that only the thirteen participants who would be arrested could determine. There are three potential outcomes in civil disobedience actions. Mo carefully explained each one. Everyone in the room fixed their eyes on Mo, as in their minds they envisioned the different scenarios:
1. Try to make sure the immigration authorities do not get involved by having a strong, visible presence of immigrant rights organizations. In this case, an arrest would remain a matter with the local police force, and anyone detained would be released after posting bond.
2. Let the arrest take its course, which could mean that ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) will get involved, depending on how the local police decide to act. At some previous actions, in the interest of avoiding a media circus, the local authorities had chosen to ignore the immigration status of those arrested. This option was equivalent to leaving the outcome up to fate.
3. The protesters could openly identify themselves as undocumented immigrants by showing the arresting authorities a form of official identification from the country where they were born. The purpose would be to demonstrate to the public that the immigration authorities would not deport them, despite their undocumented status. In this case, the police would be obliged to call ICE. If ICE chose not to respond, then the local police would have to release those arrested within forty-eight hours. If the protesters arrested were called before immigration authorities, ICE could still decide not to initiate deportation proceedings against them.
Evidently, the further they decided to go, the greater the risk that they would be deported—but the stronger the message they would send. After almost an hour spent debating the pros and cons, the group decided to go with the third option. They would push it to the limit and deliberately place themselves on the brink of deportation.
“The more closely connected you are to the community, the safer you will be,” Mo reminded them, validating their decision. “You will tell a different story. ICE is obviously afraid of the community, they’re afraid of public opinion, of hurting their image. If they detain somebody and nobody pays any attention, nobody speaks out, that person will be deported within a few hours. But if there’s a group of us and we send out an alert, we get the media involved, then people ask what’s going on, and ICE doesn’t want to take the risk of being scrutinized by the public.
“When people are afraid, they lose their power. We need to overcome our fear and cause a moral crisis for the Republicans. Traditional protests are no longer enough. We have to take drastic measures.”
What happened next was like a scene out of a James Bond movie or Mission: Impossible, where the hero explains very carefully what the plan is and what everyone has to do—failure is not an option. Mo and the other trainers who had participated in other actions gave precise instructions. Every sentence they spoke had a reason behind it and had to be followed to the letter. The plan was so minutely detailed, you could set your watch to it: they knew exactly when they would arrive at a specific location, what street they would walk down, where they would be stopped, and even toward which side of the street they should be looking. Seemingly unimportant details like what they would be wearing or how they should get up while they were being arrested could mean the difference between getting released or getting into serious trouble. That day, I learned exactly how one should go to jail peacefully during a civil disobedience action.
First, if a protester wants to be arrested, then the goal is that the charges brought be for a minor offense, not for a felony or anything serious. It’s important that no police officers get hurt in any way during the action, and there must be no damage to public property. No resistance should be put up whatsoever, and the person being arrested should not do anything that could be interpreted as “disturbing the peace,” the most likely charge to be brought.
Next, when the detainees arrive at the jail, men and women will be separated, and they will spend most of their time there sitting in plastic chairs. They will probably be cold, because the blankets in jail are very thin. They might want to put their arms around one another just to stay warm, but touching is strictly prohibited. They are not allowed to talk, either. Detainees are allowed to wear only one article of clothing above the torso, so they should make sure they dress in long sleeves. The best thing to wear from the waist down is a comfortable pair of jeans, and detainees should also be sure to wear socks, since sandals or open-toed shoes will be taken away. If women are wearing bras, they should be wireless, because wires of any kind are not allowed inside jails or detention areas for security reasons.
Once the organizers had explained all of this, one of them passed around a list to make note of who needed a long-sleeve shirt, jeans, a pair of socks, or a wireless bra. Someone would go out and purchase those items for them first thing the next morning.
The last part of the training was an exercise simulating an arrest. Now it was dark outside, and everyone was getting a bit tired. But the thirteen participants sat down on the ground, just as they would the following day to block the street. A heavy-set young man from the organization played the role of an arresting police officer. He roughly brought each of the thirteen to their feet, one at a time, loudly barking orders at them:
“Get up! Get up! Spread your legs!”
Of course it was just a simulation, but everyone in the room looks on silently and wide-eyed as the make-believe police officer gets Cynthia to her feet and gruffly puts her hands in handcuffs behind her body. After putting the handcuffs on, he puts her face against the wall and uses his foot to kick her feet out, separating her legs. I feel a shiver up my spine, that paralyzing feeling of dread you get while watching violence being inflicted on someone else but not wanting to risk getting hurt yourself. Cynthia doesn’t resist but starts to cry. A sad hush falls over the room until Mo says the exercise is done. The big “police officer” removes Cynthia’s handcuffs as gently as he can and apologizes to her. Mo points out that in real life no one would offer them any kind of apology, ever.
As the other protesters take their turns, the group decides on what slogans to shout at the protest the following day. They will start with “No courage, no change” and “No justice, no peace.”
Mo reminds them that they should always be friendly and courteous toward the police: “You can’t treat them the way they’re treating us—just the opposite,” he says. “You have to kill them with kindness. While they are arresting you, make the experience as personal as you can for that officer. This is a chance to be face-to-face with authority; talk to them straight from your heart. That same officer might arrest somebody else the next day.
How they treat that person the next day could depend on how you act. And while they’re arresting you, hold your head high, because the media will be there. Do you want to look ashamed or proud?”
The final instruction of the day is about a telephone hotline put in place and available to them around the clock. Right before they get arrested, they will write the hotline number down in marker on their left arms so they will always have it with them. While they are being transported to the police station, they can communicate through text messages with the organizations supporting them. “You all know the plan, and we do too,” Mo says. “We have to trust each other.”
MOTELS IN AMERICA are practically all the same, no matter where they are: ugly buildings, rows of doors that seem too small leading into rooms that are just that and nothing more, the best you will get for the price. The cheapest are always on the outskirts of town, usually right next to the highway so that the roar of traffic is heard all night through the thin windows. But if you try, you can imagine it’s the roar of the ocean, and it could even become a soothing sound to get you to sleep.
The DreamActivists stayed in this sort of motel in the outer reaches of Montgomery. The parking lot, a flat sheet of asphalt in front of a row of identical doors, became an extension of their headquarters for three days. The morning of November 15 passed slowly for everyone. By noon, a heavy heat filled the motel rooms, the parking lot, and seemingly everywhere. The DreamActivists were four to a room: towels, clothes, empty pizza boxes, water bottles, and a few cans of beer were piled on top of the few pieces of motel furniture, a reminder that the people staying there were barely more than kids, poised on the brink of adulthood. As one o’clock approached, they all checked their watches, looked around at one another, and got into cars for the ride over. The press had been invited to come at two. Each protester was fully prepared to be arrested, searched, handcuffed, questioned, taken to jail, and locked up in a cell.
People had started to gather around the capitol building in the heart of downtown Montgomery. A steamy heat very typical of the South rose in the air, the kind that makes your clothes stick to your body. The lush green lawns surrounding the municipal buildings already bore the marks left by curious onlookers: little holes in the grass from the high-heel pumps worn by reporters in tight skirts, pacing around, trying to get an interview with one of the protesters.
There were holes left by television camera tripods and footprints of the young people ready to take videos of their friends on their cell phones to be uploaded to Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter so the world would know that on that day in Alabama, thirteen undocumented people sat in the middle of the street blocking traffic, knowing that they would be arrested but that they were unafraid. Alabama’s capitol building is like most in the United States: an immaculate white dome over stately columns along the entrance, surrounded by carefully manicured lawns and sidewalks that are not very crowded on a typical weekday. Suddenly, at the agreed-upon hour, a rising murmur outside prompted workers in the government offices to go to their windows and see what was going on. They saw an incredible sight: a line of students wearing black T-shirts, fists raised high in the air, marching through the city streets. The first chants began: “Undocumented and unafraid, undocumented and unafraid!” Behind them marched a group of about fifty people, many of them mothers and children from the trailer park, carrying signs they had made to support the protesters: “Don’t separate families.” “We want an Alabama without fear.” “Governor Bentley, stop attacking my family.”
Four of the protesters calmly planted themselves in the capitol building’s entryway. Seated in a circle in front of the metal detectors at the entrance, they declared they would stay right there until the governor agreed to meet with them. “But the governor’s not here,” a harried receptionist told them. “That’s all right, we’ll wait,” one of the protesters responded. Her eyes wide, an African American reporter asked them how long they planned on staying there.
“Until Alabama stops enforcing these racist laws.”
The reporter looked back at her cameraman with an expression of disbelief, trying to understand the logic behind this seemingly irrational position. I pictured her telling the story to her friends later, still puzzled. Maybe someone would then explain to her that was exactly what civil disobedience was.
“But laws can’t be changed in one or two days,” she said. “You can’t stay here that whole time.”
“Yes I can,” said a protester. “We’re going to stay right here.”
While this was going on inside the capitol building, outside, on Washington Avenue, the rest of the group spread a large black blanket out over the street, with a slogan printed on it reading,
“We won’t stay in the shadows.” Then they sat down on it, blocking traffic.
The police arrived a few minutes later, blocking off adjoining streets with patrol cars and patrolling the area while talking into walkie-talkies. Passersby who stopped to watch what was going on could hardly believe what they were witnessing, something that had not happened in Alabama in recent years: a group of young people deliberately trying to get arrested, as the police called for reinforcements. The bravery of another can often counteract our own apathy. A few minutes later, people gathered around, shouted encouragement, and applauded the protesters. Nico, one of the student protesters, stood and addressed the growing crowd through a megaphone. “We have been here protesting for an hour and the police haven’t arrested us. If this were a raid, they would have arrested us by now. This shows that when the people are organized, they can’t hurt us. Not having papers does not mean you have no rights.”
Although the day before Mo had kept a relatively low profile, on the day of the protest he was a highly visible, rock-star presence, a messiah for the cause. He closely supervised all the details of the protest, greeting sympathizers, giving instructions to volunteers, watching out for the arrival of the police, talking to the media. The quiet, almost childlike Mo of the night before was now a leader who talked with the police force’s negotiator. At times he was surrounded by microphones and television cameras.
His carefully worded comments, structured in short phrases to provide the media with the sound bites they needed, would play perfectly on television.
Several police officers exchanged looks and awaited instructions. An African American officer wearing a rain jacket issued an alert: the protesters had fifteen minutes to get off the street or they would be forcibly removed. Another African American officer who spoke Spanish repeated the message in that language. Not a minute had passed before it started to rain, right on cue, like a scene out of a movie. Big raindrops pelted the police, the protesters and their families, the stunned residents of Montgomery, and the even-more-stunned members of the press. The rain soaked the protesters, their blanket on the street, and the handmade signs held up by children standing on the lawn. The rain eclipsed the arrival of a yellow bus that looked like an elementary-school bus but which was used to transport people in police custody. The rain signaled the start of the arrests.
Diana went over to her mother and hugged her tightly. Belen whispered in her daughter’s ear, the rain serving as the perfect backdrop for their teary good-bye. The support team for the protesters rewrote the hotline number, which had been blurred by the rain, on their arms. Family members and friends hurried to offer their last hugs and words of encouragement to the Alabama 13, until a police officer stepped into the street.
“Please stand up.”
“Am I under arrest?”
“You’re under arrest.”
Their hands bound with plastic rather than metal handcuffs, in front of their bodies rather than behind, the arrest procedure was somewhat less brutal than what they had anticipated and trained for the day before. One by one, the protesters were escorted onto the bus, and once seated inside, they held their hands up to the windows, waving good-bye. Myasha, an angelic-looking, slender eighteen-year-old, easily rose to her feet when two officers ordered her to stand, her long, straight, black hair dripping wet. She stared sadly down at the ground as she was handcuffed. The two officers led her to the bus, one on each side. Suddenly, she seemed to remember one of the instructions from the night before. Still walking, she straightened up as tall as she could, held her head high in the air, and shouted through the rain, “Undocumented and unafraid!”
The arrests of the Alabama 13 ended at five o’clock that evening. Taken to a detention center in Montgomery, they remained in jail for two days while their supporters raised money for their bonds, three hundred dollars each. They were charged with disturbing the peace, but even though they all openly admitted they were undocumented, not one was placed under ICE jurisdiction. Hours later, they found out that Todd Strange, the mayor of Montgomery, had made sure the matter would not attract any further scrutiny by talking with immigration authorities in Washington. The mayor assured them that the protesters had not provided them with correct information and, according to records that the mayor had personally reviewed, that all thirteen were in the country legally.
A picture of the thirteen standing outside police headquarters in Montgomery, their fists raised high, smiling broadly, ran in all the newspapers that day and on the television news. Even the families in the trailer park saw it.
Excerpted from Dreamers: An Immigrant Generation’s Fight for Their American Dream by Eileen Truax (Beacon Press, 2015). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.