WE are the Future

By: Lori F. Khamala, AFSC NC Immigrant Rights Program Director 

March 28,2012, Raleigh, NC--We arrived more than an hour in advance to put our names down, hoping later to be chosen to speak to the NC House Select Committee on the State’s Role in Immigration Policy. As our Greensboro AFSC contingent joined the snaking queue waiting for the speaker sign-up to begin, there was a stark contrast between different parts of the line. One section of the line displayed hardened, bitter, angry white faces of an older generation. Another section of the line was peppered with faces of all shades and all ages, diverse, vibrant, excited and hopeful. These faces were smiling, despite the challenges ahead, and they joked with each other and enjoyed the company of friends old and new, all ready to take a stand for fairness for immigrants in our state. As one person pointed out, we were looking at North Carolina’s past on one side, and our future on the other. 

We packed the room of the hearing. The NC House Select Committee is made up mostly of legislators who have a decidedly anti-immigrant agenda. Many of them were co-sponsors of bills last year that sought to question c hildren in schools about their legal status, regulate which IDs local law enforcement agencies accept (targeting Durham’s Police Department which officially accepts a Mexican ID card to simply identify individuals), deny even more services to immigrant residents, and require electronic verification of employment eligibility.  We fear that the Committee plans to propose “show me your papers” style legislation similar to that which passed in Arizona, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, which would be disastrous to North Carolina’s economy and sense of fairness.  

The Committee has been less than transparent with meeting materials and agendas, and yesterday’s meeting was the first time any immigrant had been given the chance to speak, or that public comments were accepted.

The past/future contrast was on display throughout the hearing.  And to me, this is ironic, because undocumented immigrants and people of color themselves have so many reasons to be hardened and bitter. The inability of undocumented immigrants to obtain drivers’ licenses turns every trip to work, school or the store into a potential minefield; a routine traffic stop could lead to detention, deportation and family separation. Young people who have grown up in the United States and attended school their entire academic lives –paid for by taxes that they and their families pay—now find themselves at a dead end as higher education remains out of reach. With no way to regularize their status in this broken immigration system and no federal legalization program in sight, hardworking immigrants with decades of investment in this country are at the mercy of an enforcement-only policy.

But instead of bitterness and resignation in the voices of all the young people who spoke, we heard optimism, a commitment to keep moving forward and a determination to succeed despite the odds. We heard stories of immigrants themselves, for the first time since the start of this Committee. We heard speaker after speaker from the faith community describe the Biblical mandate to welcome the stranger and treat immigrants fairly. We heard immigration attorney’s talk about how broken the immigration system is and what a myth it is to tell undocumented immigrants to just “get in line.” We heard a business owner share that her best employee in 35 years was an undocumented immigrant, and how frustrating it was that she could do nothing to change his status.   Episcopalian Bishop Michael Curry beautifully quoted the Langston Hughes poem “I, too, sing America,” hammering home the point that we are all equals.

We also heard less encouraging words. We  heard individuals on the other side of the issue talk about the “illegal invasion” and insist on calling undocumented immigrants “alien,” claiming they weren’t good enough to be called “immigrant”. We heard that everything undocumented immigrants do is “stealing”, from jobs to services to school placement.

 
But those voices were in the minority.  The   34 speakers chosen at random favored  immigration reform and opposed anti-immigrant legislation at a rate of nearly three to one.  Immigrant supporters of all backgrounds wore t-shirts with the message “Do I look undocumented?” underscoring the point that you cannot identify someone’s legal status by looking at them. When supporters were asked not to applaud speakers, they utilized the Quaker / Sign Language applause of waving fingers above their heads, until this, too, became distracting for the representatives.  The shirts, the finger waves, the poetry, the presence of so many young people all created a beautiful and spirited movement in the normally drab legislative halls.
 
The speakers yesterday made it clear that we in North Carolina have a choice- move backward or move forward.  (And, as one speaker put it, since when does North Carolina aspire to be like South Carolina?)  There is virulent hostility and downright hatred towards our immigrant brothers and sisters, and this opposition will not stop.  But looking at the crowd, I think it’s obvious which way we are going.  We are going with youthful energy and optimism over tired old negative arguments, hopes and dreams over hate and bitterness. We’re going towards our beautiful and colorful and courageous future.
 
I, Too BY LANGSTON HUGHES
 
I, too, sing America. // I am the darker brother. / They send me to eat in the kitchen / When company comes, / But I laugh, / And eat well, / And grow strong.  //  Tomorrow, / I’ll be at the table / When company comes. / Nobody’ll dare / Say to me, / “Eat in the kitchen,” /Then.  // Besides, / They’ll see how beautiful I am /
And be ashamed— // I, too, am America.