*The Importance of Defiance: ‘Undocumented’ Students and the Desire for Freedom

A rather remarkable conference, which seeks to empower immigrant youth and focus attention on the rights of undocumented students, was held at UCLA today. I had the good fortune to be asked to deliver one of the keynote addresses to a gathering comprised of students at high school community college, and four-year colleges and universities such as UCLA – and some of their parents. What is common to all those present is that they are ‘undocumented’, and have displayed much courage and conviction in coming to this gathering; and, of course, they share the same aspirations and dreams that do others who are ‘legal’ or ‘lawful’ residents. This is in part what I said:

I am a permanent resident of the US, and have been one for over a decade. But there are people very close to me who for many years were ‘undocumented’, and lived often in fear of being caught. I have long held that no one in the US who has not had some experience of the inaptly named department of immigration and justice – I say inaptly, or inappropriately, for the reason that this is the most draconian arm of the government, the one that has least shown any spark of humanity, and I think it would be better called the department of immigration and injustice – can really say anything about whether this is the land of freedom or something else. I could tell you at some length about my own experience with the Department of Immigration and Justice, now subsumed under Homeland Security, but I will keep my narrative short: twice, as I sought permanent residency of the US, I had to arrive at the immigration building in downtown Los Angeles in the middle of the night, around 2 AM, and stand in line for something like 12 hours on the first occasion and ten hours on the second occasion, all so that I could submit an application for permanent residency. The supposition, of course, is that only citizens have rights, as though the rights that accrue by virtue of being human do not supersede the rights one acquires as a citizen.

What is this category called ‘undocumented’? Let no one tell you that you are ‘undocumented’, and understand that before they break you in the flesh, they will break you in the spirit and in the mind. To say that you are undocumented is to suggest that you leave no trace, that you leave no mark on the present; indeed, to characterize a person as undocumented is to wish that person away. Let me say outright that I recognize no such category, by which I mean that I make no distinction between legal immigrants and those who are undocumented. What has been your fault? None, whatsoever. Let the fault be put squarely on the shoulders of those, among them the so-called leaders of this nation in the previous administration, authorized the torture of human beings, engaged in a fraudulent war, and thus violated the letter and spirit of the American constitution. If at all anyone has to be deported, it should be those leaders who, betraying the trust reposed in them by ordinary people, debased the US constitution and have brought shame to this country.

Whatever others may call you, I am quite certain that you embody the finest aspirations of human beings. Indeed, you have exercised to your capacity your right, the right of every human being and yet to be recognized as a birthright, to absolute unhindered freedom of movement. In thinking about the intrinsic desire of humans to be free, I want to place before you a metaphor and will ask you to turn your attention for a moment to water. What is the nature of water? Its very nature is to be free, to go the path of least resistance; water will travel wherever it can, down gullies or roads, through cracks, around corners and wherever there is an opening. When a civil or hydraulic engineer sees water, his immediate instinct, if I may put it this way, is to dam it, contain it, throttle it if you will; and so there are those in the public sphere whose instinct is to allow some (chosen) people freedom but prevent others from the exercise of this freedom. Yet, as I have said, water will go where it will. Some of it will merge with other bodies of water, and these streams join together and become a river; and rivers in turn flow into the sea. Similarly, you will find that once you leave your fear behind you, and begin to think of yourself as free, you will soon find others who are like-minded; what begins in an individual’s mind turns into a sea of people striving to be free, a movement of freedom.

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