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Students Fight to End the Discrimination of Undocumented Americans

Edward Menefee is the co-founder of Vamos Together (an organization that fights against discrimination in the South based on citizenship and HIV status). In addition, he is the proud boyfriend and supporter of Bryn Mawr Student Jessica Hyejin Lee, who bravely announced her undocumented status, alongside UPenn student Tania Chairez, in front of the Philadelphia Immigration and Enforcement Field office.  This act of “civil disobedience” was done to protest the violent injustice that undocumented Americans have to endure in private and alone in fear of being deported.  It was also done in support of Miguel Garcia, who is undocumented and has been held in a jail cell for months although his fiancé Jessica Love is expecting their second child.  Finally it was done to show other undocumented Americans that they do not have to be afraid, nor should they remain quiet and be forced to rely on documented Americans to fight for their human rights.  This year Jessica and Edward have worked with Haverford to extend its need blind policy towards undocumented students and are launching the Students for Undocumented Dreams and Decision Equity Now Movement.

Who are the co founders of VamosTogether? What inspired you guys to start it?
My brother and I started VamosTogether, a non-profit organization with a few volunteers and a website, last summer to help organize against HB56, Alabama’s anti-immigration law.  We had both lived and worked in a small town in rural Guatemala where the people were extremely welcoming and kind.  I was there when Arizona’s SB1070 (another “papers please” law) passed, and it instantly made this small rural town look at America differently.  A lot of the kids that we worked with didn’t know their fathers because they were working in the states to support them.  These kids were better off than most of the other kids in town.  They were cleaner because they had a concrete floor and healthier because they had bottled drinking water and a refrigerator, while many kids in the town lived in a one-room tin roof shack and worked in the coffee fields.  My brother and I were ashamed that Arizona and our home state of Alabama would be so cruel and unwelcoming.  In a sense, we felt we needed to try to return the favor of hospitality that had been shared with us when we were strangers.  We also felt that we could so clearly see evil triumphing, that we morally couldn’t choose to do nothing.  We built a website to help people organize, get emergency information, get updates, and hear the stories of HB-56. 
What is VamosTogether? What are the organization’s goals and focus?
VamosTogether also organizes the community and helps with casework when we can.  We organized a rally at the state capitol last summer and a boycott last fall, garnering local, national, and international coverage.  We’ve also worked with NBC and the Human Rights Watch to produce reports on HB56 and share the stories of the families that we were working with and their human rights violations.  We recently helped a coalition of local and national groups that was being led by Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network to pull off a very successful 5 day march from Selma to Montgomery. Thousands of people marched including Delores Huerta, Martin Luther King III, Jesse Jackson, and Rev. Al Sharpton.  The effect of the marches on the Republican controlled legislature, which has said it will tweak but not repeal HB56, is unclear; but they help highlight this important issue and frame the discussion of immigration in the national media.  The Selma to Montgomery March helped people and the national media see immigrant justice as an extension of the Civil Rights movement- helped them see that these laws “are not immigration laws- they’re Jim Crow laws” that systematically oppress a group of people and attack their human rights and human dignity (Al Sharpton).

What is Hb-56 and why is it important to repeal it?
Alabama’s HB-56 is the nation’s harshest immigration.  Much of it has been struck down by the courts, but it at one point said that school children had to show proof of citizenship, that it was illegal to aid, harbor, or transport an undocumented American, and that undocumented Americans could not form legally binding contracts or conduct business with the state.  This resulted in an exodus that has been called a “humanitarian crisis.”  We worked with two families that had been denied running water.  This is the story of one of them- the mother, Maria, had been undocumented since she was carried across the border in her mothers’ arms at two years old and now is my age and has a one year old daughter who is an American citizen.  The father had not been paid for his construction work because his employer said he “didn’t have to pay an illegal anything.”  They were afraid to drive and to go outside.  They were afraid of the police and of hate crimes.  HB-56 must be repealed because it hurts good people.

What is the current situation that undocumented Americans face?
It’s hard to imagine what it it means to be undocumented day, after day, after day, forever; but it’s a hidden existence for 4% of the population (which in comparison is roughly the size of the of Asian American population.) I’ve learned a lot from dating Jessica about what it means to be undocumented- it means not being free.  She can’t legally work, which is a human right.  She and her family could be deported at any time.  There is a 95% chance that her siblings will never attend college.  She can’t call the police when she’s been victimized by crime.  She can’t travel abroad or get loans from the bank.  She never chose to be undocumented, but being undocumented reveals the intersection of identity and freedom.
Why did Tania Chairez and Jessica Hyejin Lee publicly announce their undocumented status?  
Jessica and Tania are two of my heroes.  They both came out in their school newspapers as undocumented last semester and have spoken at Bryn Mawr about being undocumented.  Jessica has been patronizingly warned by professors and others about the risk she was taking from coming out or from doing civil disobedience.  Both acts are certainly courageous, but Jessica and Tania believe in a chant that they used at the rally, “no courage! no change!”  Nobody, even out of concern, should tell them that they should stay in the closet and be patient and let their documented allies work for their liberation.  It will continue to take young undocumented people coming out and committing civil disobedience in order to reclaim their identities, to fight fear and shame, to challenge the system of power, to reveal the injustices, to expose ICE’s hypocrisy, and to create change. 

What positive (or negative) outcomes have resulted from their arrest and release?
Their action and release increased the pressure on ICE to release Miguel, who has been detained for over 7 months, separated from his citizen fiancée and their two young sons. The action also raised awareness, not only in the Tri-co and UPenn, but also throughout the country of the inspiring courage of Jessica and Tania and the horrific injustices that plague them and their communities.  The response in the Tri-co has been amazing.  Seven hundred Bryn Mawr alumni signed a petition for their release within 6 hours.  Hundreds of students, faculty, and alumni welcomed them back to campus. 
Every Bryn Mawr student and parent of a student received an email from the school that recognized Jessica’s arrest, and Bryn Mawr’s support for her.  Still, the email mischaracterized Bryn Mawr’s policies towards undocumented Americans as something that doesn’t chang, saying ” A foundational principle of the College’s admissions policies is that we do not discriminate on the basis of citizenship or national origin when making admissions decisions. Moreover, once a student is admitted to Bryn Mawr and makes the choice to attend, the College will fully support that student in all aspects of her (or his) pursuit of a Bryn Mawr education.” Yet currently at Bryn Mawr, undocumented Americans receive a different admissions process than documented Americans, are unfairly recognized as “international students.” They are denied funding for summer programs solely because of their immigration status. Jessica and others are organizing a petition to change these policies.

Jessica and I and a few others (shout out to HC’s Gwen Morgan) worked this semester to change policies regarding undocumented Americans at Bryn Mawr, Haverford, and Swarthmore.  We had a historic victory at Haverford, which will become the 7th college in the country to extend need-blind admissions to undocumented Americans. Currently 95% of undocumented American youth will not attend college; we think this is an injustice that no institution should have any role in maintaining.  We want to expand on Haverford’s victory for justice, so we’ll be launching the SUDDEN Movement, Students for Undocumented Dreams and Decision Equity Now Movement, and bringing it to over 30 campuses next year. 

Jessica and I had been dating for over three months when she told me that she was undocumented.  Turns out you can’t tell a person’s immigration status by looking at them or even dating them.

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