What the Youth of Alabama Taught Me
Editor's Note: This story originally appeared in First Focus, an advocacy organization for children and families.
Last week I had the honor of joining women leaders from around the country as part of the We Belong Together human rights delegation to Alabama, whose recent passage of the most draconian immigration law in the country has resulted in a man-made disaster for communities across the state. HB56 is also the first law that most directly harms children by barring undocumented students from enrolling in public universities and requiring elementary and secondary schools to check and report the immigration status of students and their parents. In Alabama, I had the opportunity to hear from advocates, educators, direct service providers, and community members about the impact of HB56 on the daily lives of children and families. While every story was incredibly moving, the voices of the young people of Alabama are those that have stayed closest to my heart.
Fourteen year-old Jocelyn is one of these brave young people. Like any other teen, Jocelyn is eagerly anticipating her first year as a high school freshman. But unlike other girls her age, she was recently forced to bid farewell to her family, including her 3-year-old sister, when they decided it was necessary for them to return to Mexico rather than face the daily threat of detention and deportation under HB56. Jocelyn made the difficult decision to stay behind, not only because she calls Alabama her home, but because she is determined to pursue her dreams and be the first in her family to achieve a higher education. Jocelyn wept as she talked about missing the way her mother used to wake her up every day for school or spending time with her little sister. Even through her tears, however, Jocelyn committed herself to speaking out against laws like HB56 so that no other family has to endure the pain of separation.
Jocelyn is a member of the Immigrant Youth Leadership Initiative of Alabama (IYLIA), a youth group that has significantly grown since the passage of HB56 and has played a critical role in the movement to advance immigrant rights in Alabama. The group organizes vigils and other demonstrations as well as provides a safe space for peer-to-peer networking and support. The We Belong Together campaign delivered hundreds of letters written from children around the country to the youth of Alabama, and IYLIA received them gratefully. Children as young as eight wrote about how they believe it is wrong to take a parent away just because they lack a “sheet of paper” and how “racism is bad because we’re all the same.” These heart-felt letters represent the sentiment of America’s youngest members of society, immigrant and non-immigrant alike, who understand why it’s wrong to implement laws that force children to live in fear and tear families apart, even while policymakers continue to turn a blind eye to the consequences of their decisions.
The fact remains that relatively soon policymakers will no longer be able to ignore these young citizens. Already politicians are working to appeal to the Latino vote, and the number of Latino voters is only expected to grow. Furthermore, children of immigrants currently comprise 1 in 4 of all children and represent the fastest growing segment of the child population, and the vast majority (88 percent) are U.S.-born citizens. Thus, it is critical to our nation’s future prosperity to ensure that children in immigrant families have access to the resources they need. We as a country will pay the price for denying our children the supports they deserve to grow into thriving citizens, and extremist anti-immigrant legislators will eventually pay the political price for pushing laws that rob hard-working immigrant families of their dignity and human rights. Already immigrant youth, their U.S.-born siblings, and their friends have led the way in several state and national campaigns to advance pro-immigrant legislation, including the federal DREAM Act. Make no mistake about it—these powerful young leaders are here to stay.
Before I left Alabama, one of the 16-year-old co-founders of IYLIA told me something that deeply moved me. He had just read all the letters from children in other states, and he told me that the message that brought him the most comfort were those letters that stated, very simply, “you are not alone.” As a daughter of immigrants myself, I am truly proud and humbled to stand with the youth of Alabama and their families, to share their stories, and to continue the fight for equality and justice for immigrant families around the country.
To the children and youth of Alabama—and to all the children around the country who have spoken out against inhumane immigration policies—thank you for teaching me so much through your stories. Indeed, you are not alone.