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‘We Are Not Illegal’

Flushing DREAMers on Obama’s deferred action announcement and dropping the I-word.

Part 3 of an Open City series profiling undocumented New Yorkers. (Click to read Part 1 and Part 2.)

On a sweltering day in June, down a hallway of empty classrooms, Room 306 was bustling with students. School was out for the year, but around a table scattered with papers, 13 students had just decided upon the recipient of a scholarship for undocumented students. “Oh my god, it was really hard,” said Edwin, a 19-year old senior, as several students echoed his sentiment.

For these students at Flushing International High School (FIHS), collectively addressing the challenges of undocumented students is a routine part of school life. FIHS itself is part of a network of alternative schools designed to welcome recent immigrants. The students I met were all members of two extracurricular student groups, the Multi Squad, which coordinates events to recognize the school’s diverse student body, and the DREAM Team, which is part of a nation-wide student movement that advocates for the passage of the federal DREAM Act through advocacy and direct action.

However, Flushing International’s DREAM Team, as the students shared proudly, is one of the only high-school level groups organized to promote the DREAM Act. We met only a few days after President Obama’s announcement declaring deferred deportation action for eligible, undocumented immigrants, ages 16 to 30. I was curious to learn how the students felt. After all, it wasn’t as if they had been spared the impact of immigration policy. When I asked the students what had led to the formation of the DREAM Team, there was a pause in the room. It turned out that last year, in the space of a single summer, three of their classmates had left the United States or had been deported due to their undocumented status. Edwin explained, “There was a student who had to leave. He was accepted into all these colleges, but he couldn’t go. He was our valedictorian.”

Another student had been detained while en route to Florida to visit his sick grandfather. When law enforcement stopped the bus and asked everyone to present identification, the student was taken to a detention center in South Carolina. While there, his sick grandfather visited him, returned to Florida alone, and passed away. The student was eventually released from detention and graduated last winter. “We all attended his graduation,” the students recalled. “We had never experienced so many incidents at once,” said Tania Romero, the school’s social worker and DREAM Team advisor. “Three kids in one summer! We were feeling it, and I’m sure the young people were feeling it even more.”

In forming the DREAM team, students carved out a space to discuss Arizona’s immigration law, the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy, or other marquee events shaping the reform debate. Undocumented students were able to openly share their stories and struggles with their peers, culminating in an event where some went public with their status and advocated for immigration reform before an audience of 500.

That event—called “We are Beautiful! Immigrant Rights Do Matter!”—was organized by the students themselves. Ellen, a 17-year-old from China, explained the message behind the title: “We wanted to show the beauty of our cultures and the beauty of immigrants. We are not criminals. We wanted to show our confidence.”

Flushing International’s DREAM Team has also received some media attention for carrying out a “Drop the I-word” campaign, adapted from the ColorLines initiative to eradicate the word “illegals” when referring to undocumented immigrants. “How did you decide to do this campaign?” I asked. Everyone looked at Montes, a soft-spoken 16-year-old from Mexico. “What?” he asked, and everyone laughed. “We call him the president,” students explained, to which he shook his head. Montes then said, “We did this because we believe this country is for everyone, and there should be no discrimination against people just because of their status.”

In order to launch the campaign, the students wrote a pledge (adapted from the original) that concludes, “We are not illegal! We are undocumented and unafraid!” Then the students, teaming up with Multi Squad, another student group, took this pledge to the school cafeteria. Some people were apathetic, and some were afraid it would get them into trouble, the students said. “What did you tell those who were afraid to sign it?” I asked. Seth, 19, said, “We told them that it would benefit all of us, and that their name would stay in the community.”

“We said, ‘Don’t be afraid. We are not alone,’” added Erica.

“Actually, before this campaign, most of us used the I-word,” said Joy, a 17-year-old from China. “They say it so much on TV.” Erica added, “Until I joined this campaign, I didn’t think about what it really means. Before I didn’t feel offended, but now I do.” Edwin interjected, “I think the campaign has been very successful. Do you know why?” He grinned. “Once, I said it in class when I was trying to explain something, and another student said to me, “Yo, don’t use the I-word!’”

To be clear, the work of the DREAM Team and Multi Squad is not only shared by students from many ethnic and cultural backgrounds, but also joins those who are documented with the undocumented. As one student shared, “Because I am a citizen, I feel I can speak up more; I am not afraid. What it means is, I need to speak up even more.” Tania, a 17-year-old from Ecuador, told the story of her cousin, an excellent student who is unsure if she can attend college because she is undocumented. “If you are documented, you have to support other people who are undocumented. That is why I am here.”

The students also shared that the DREAM Act, though a vital part of reform, doesn’t cover all the bases. Edwin shared, “My mother is very proud of what I do. My uncle—he is a little more… realistic. He tells me that we should try to help our parents, too.”

Overall, the students are hopeful, but cautious about how reform will unfold. Erica, a senior, and one of the early leaders of the DREAM team, described Obama’s announcement as “a baby step.” But, “if Obama is re-elected, will he forget all about us?” Karma, a graduating senior who had emigrated from Tibet, added: “It’s not our exact aim, but it gets us closer to our goal.”