UndocuWeek Seeks Progress

Whether it’s as small as a professor who won’t provide accomodations or as large as structural racism within the government, certain systems prevent people from succeeding. It’s often very difficult to reform these systems, and the people who attempt to are in for a Herculean task comparable to Oberlin’s current predicament.

Changing a system often takes months, years, or even decades. The average person will live about 75 years, which allows us only a few systemic changes within our lifetimes, assuming progress is always being made.

This week, Oberlin recognized UndocuWeek, an intentional time to think about the experience of undocumented immigrants in the United States. Immigration has been a pressing issue in recent years, particularly in light of President Donald Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric. Immigration in the United States is an incredibly complex issue, shaped by overlapping and often conflicting systems and institutions. UndocuWeek has sought to help community members understand these systems, which helps us move within them.

Because these systems take an incredibly long time to change, people will continue to suffer and be at risk in the meantime. Tens of thousands of people are deported every year, victims of the system. People trying to provide for their families are deported, women seeking asylum are deported, and even children brought into the U.S. before they have agency over themselves are deported.
Before coming to Oberlin, I lived all 18 years of my life in Phoenix, AZ — a border state where immigration is a pressing issue. While immigrants to the United States are diverse, my experiences of immigration revolve around Latinx immigrants because Arizona borders Mexico. The wisest piece of advice I received as an Arizona high school student was, “the complexity of the world needs to be taken into account.”

My school’s approach to discussing immigration recognized the complexity of the system at hand; since my school was only a few hours from the border, they would give us opportunities to travel to Nogales, Mexico for a day, to volunteer for the Kino Border Initiative.
KBI serves three main purposes. First, they reclothe recently deported immigrants. When they leave ICE detention centers, immigrants are given grey sweatpants and blue sweatshirts. This uniform is easily recognizable, potentially making them cartel targets — an outcome KBI helps avoid. Next, KBI gives individuals something to eat. One time when I visited, the meal was a meat stew along with tortillas fresh from the market. Finally, KBI also runs a shelter for women seeking refuge, as they are especially targeted by the cartels.
KBI, largely run by volunteers, encouraged us to go outside of our comfort zones. With our limited Spanish vocabularies, my classmates and I would sit down at tables of recently deported immigrants and talk to them. Some would be bitter, some angry, some happy, some crestfallen — a wide variety of reactions.

In particular, I remember the story of a young man named Ricky. Ricky was brought to Orange County, CA, when he was two years old. He lived in the States for 18 years after that. He started his own family, with a wife and two little kids. Then, one night, he decided to walk home inebriated after a party and was pulled aside by the police for public intoxication.

Ricky had one small prior charge, so he was checked for documentation; he had none. He was then deported to Nogales. He lamented on being a man without a country — he’d grown up in the United States, but was seen as illegal and deported. Then, when he’d arrived in Mexico without knowing any Spanish, he was very obviously out of place.

Deportation deeply affects immigrants not just on a structural level, but on an individual level as well. And in simply being there to serve and listen, I learned more than I ever would from any news article. I now understand that these issues affect real people. It motivates me to bring these issues to the forefront, and I’m happy that we take UndocuWeek seriously at Oberlin.

However, we must realize that changes around complex issues like immigration take time, and sometimes the best thing to do is interact with affected individuals on a personal level. Changing the world can start with something as simple as changing one person’s day.