This essay is a guest post by Glenn Hutchinson.
Campus initiatives to encourage everyone to vote must be sensitive to how many voters remain disenfranchised. Students with DACA (Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals), for example, are unable to become citizens under existing immigration law and are excluded from voting—even if they have lived the majority of their lives in the United States. Yet, even without the power of voting, organizers in the immigrant rights movement have placed pressure on politicians to adopt more pro-immigrant policies.
Over the last decade, universities often have lost the trust of undocumented students. Although some colleges have attempted to be “sanctuary” campuses where ICE cannot deport students, and other universities have instituted support structures for undocumented students, many have adopted anti-immigrant policies. In North Carolina undocumented students were once banned from the classroom. In Florida, undocumented students used to be charged out-of-state tuition even if they had lived in the state for most of their lives. Although these two policies have since been changed, undocumented students continue to encounter unfair treatment on the college campus. Student organizers in the immigrant rights movement have challenged and reversed many of these anti-immigrant policies.
These student organizers do not necessarily view the movement for pro-immigration politics as particularly partisan. On the one hand, student organizers from the immigrant rights movement work to stop the Trump administration’s manifold anti-immigrant policies. On the other hand, they acknowledge that Democratic lawmakers also have exploited immigrants, particularly the deportation of over three million immigrants during the Obama administration. Indeed, during the primaries, some activists disrupted Biden events to draw attention to the Obama administration’s immigration record. Initially dismissive of this criticism, Biden eventually adopted a pro-immigrant platform. And in the final presidential debate, he admitted that the lack of action on immigration reform was a mistake during the Obama years and he wouldn’t make the same mistake as president.
The 2019 documentary, The Infiltrators, vividly illustrates the ramifications of this mistake. The film follows a group of young people from the National Immigrant Youth Alliance who in 2012 infiltrated the Broward Detention Center in South Florida. Two undocumented organizers, Viridiana Martinez and Marco Saavedra, intentionally got arrested so they could help other immigrants. Once inside the detention center, they organized the release of immigrants, many of whom qualified for DACA but were being imprisoned and deported. In reflecting back on the action and film, one of the National Immigrant Youth Alliance leaders commented in an interview that President Trump is continuing the deportation machine that was present before he took office:
We always joke that people finally care about us as immigrants under the Trump administration because he’s so vocal about what they’re doing. He’s so vocal about separating children. These are all things that we witnessed under the Obama administration and we were screaming into the void. We had to literally send ourselves into detention centers to be able to show people the type of people getting deported and now under the Trump administration, people actually care. They’re actually listening and they’re looking for the information. Our communities can remain safe if we’re at the forefront.
These young organizers helped people escape deportation, including students. In Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, the North Carolina Dream Team helped many college students and high school students stop their deportations through campaigns that used media, petitions, and other actions to raise the profile of student cases. These points are not to underestimate the negative effect of Trump’s immigration policies that have made things worse, including travel bans directed at predominately Muslim countries, asylum restrictions, and more immigrant families being separated. Also, President Trump has stopped the expansion of DACA and wants to end the program; the Supreme Court will rule soon about its future
The actions of immigrant rights organizers significantly impacted President Obama’s decision to sign DACA prior to the 2012 election. These organizers planned marches, sit-ins, and other actions to encourage him to act. DACA has since helped 800,000 young people get a work permit and avoid deportation, 15,000 of whom have entered the teaching profession. Despite DACA’s successes, there are many college students who cannot access its benefits; of the 454,000 undocumented college students only half meet all the DACA requirements.
Student organizing for pro-immigrant policies has also been effective at the state level. In Florida in 2014, students organized petitions, rallies, and other lobbying efforts to advocate for in-state tuition for DACA eligible college students. This political pressure led the then Republican Governor Rick Scott to change his position on the issue and to sign a bill enacting that measure.
Encouraging students to vote is largely understood to be non-partisan, which allows for its widespread promotion on college and university campuses in election years. But as the pro-immigrant movement highlights, organizing is not necessarily partisan either. The fact that some university administrations acted forcefully in the courts against more restrictive visa policies for international students suggests that there is room to consider how student immigrant organizing might be supported on campus in ways not dissimilar to get out the vote campaigns. College courses can feature the work and writings of student organizers, including those in the immigrant rights movement. Faculty can connect with student advocacy groups on campus, find ways to help, and invite organizers to speak in class. Student organizers have much to contribute to classroom dialogues about social change, even if those contributions extend beyond the ballot box.
Glenn Hutchinson teaches writing at Florida International University in Miami. His forthcoming book, Writing Accomplices with Student Immigrant Rights Organizers, focuses on the work of student immigrant rights organizers and emphasizes teachers’ responsibility to act in solidarity with immigrant students in changing anti-immigrant and white supremacist laws and policies.