In February, just as the Pima Community College (PCC) Governing Board in Tucson, Arizona, was ruling on whether to allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition, members of the Mexican Studies youth coalition United Non-Discriminatory Individuals Demanding Our Studies (UNIDOS) seized the moment to demand that the board drop the word “illegal” from its curriculum and update its anti-Hate Speech and anti-Harassment policies, signaling the confidence of the young people who comprise the immigrant rights movement.
The demand was related to a campaign lauched in September of 2010 by the Applied Research Center and its news site, Colorlines, to drop the i-word from public discourse under the banner of “no human being is illegal.” Since then, the campaign has garnered wide support from civil rights groups and media outlets, ranging from Fox News Latino to ABC News to Ms. magazine to Feministing to In These Times to The Nation.
“We are calling on Pima College to support Scholarships A-Z tuition proposal and to symbolically rip out this ugly and dehumanizing word “illegal” from your institutional culture,” said Danny Montoya, 20, a sophomore at Pima Community College, at the hearing. Pointing to the class underpinnings of undocumented labor and the discrepancies between enforcement and human rights, Montoya added: “Unless you are willing to stigmatize US business owners as ‘illegals’ when they hire undocumented workers; unless you are willing to attack US policy makers as ‘illegals’ when their Border Patrol agents commit brutal violence against migrants, then no one should degrade people as ‘illegals’ just for committing a civil infraction for crossing an international borderline unauthorized.”
Montoya told The Nation that branding undocumented people with the slur “illegal” was nothing more than the “criminalization of a whole population.” Recounting past family travails and a recent incident of police harassment involving a friend, Montoya said what the movement demands is to be “liberated from fear” and given “equal rights.” As for the mission of UNIDOS, “we want an educational system that works for everybody.” In order to realize that vision, Montoya believes “demeaning students” with words such as illegal has got to end because of how fellow students—friends even, he said—internalize their supposed illegality as definitive of their human worth.
Campaign coordinator, Mónica Novoa, writing this past August, framed the psychological terms of the debate through her own experience. Reminiscent of James Baldwin’s essay “Stranger in the Village” and Countee Cullen’s poem “Incident,” both of which infuse the experience of racialization with the palpable whimsy and heartache of innocence lost, Novoa relates the time a classmate in second grade welcomed the Spanish lesson kids with: “It’s the wetbacks!”
“It’s 2012, and in the US kids are going through childhood afraid that their parents are in danger of being deported or taken away for being ‘illegal,’ ” Novoa writes. According to a study by the Center for American Progress analyzing the effect of media on child development, children “begin to view immigration as equivalent to illegal.”
The radical proposition should be a clear and unequivocal demand: No human being is illegal. As J.A. Myerson argued in “The Case for Open Borders” in Jacobin magazine, “When the post-national North American capital created the conditions [through NAFTA] that made mass migration inevitable, it entered into an ethical contract with the migrant victims of its wealth accumulation scheme.” Therefore, “when the Right charges the Left with advocating amnesty, we should show them to be correct. No penalties, no electric fences, no drone surveillance, no papers, no fear.”
No fear was what the members of UNIDOS showed in February when in the context of a “historic decision to allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition,” they lifted their voices and settled for nothing less than institutional transformation at PCC. Arizona was a “laboratory to create a monstrosity,” says UNIDOS member Gabriel M. Schivone. Now, students like Schivone and Montoya and their allies in Tucson are building a culture of resistance in the belly of the beast.