Give the Undocumented a Voice in the Election

Give the Undocumented a Voice in the Election

Give the Undocumented a Voice in the Election

STUDENT FINALIST: The harrowing irony of our current immigration system is that those who will be most affected by immigration policies can’t participate in the election process.


We’re delighted to announce the winners of The Nation’s seventh annual Student Writing Contest. This year we asked students to send us an original, unpublished, 800-word essay detailing what they think is the most important issue of Election 2012. We received close to 1,000 submissions from high school and college students in forty-two states. We chose one college and one high school winner and ten finalists total. The winners are Tess Saperstein of Dreyfoos School of the Arts in Boca Raton, Florida, and Andrew Giambrone of Yale University. The winners receive a cash award of $1,000 and the finalists $200 each. All receive Nation subscriptions. Read all the winning essays here. —The Editors

These last couple years Arizona, and in particular Tucson, where I was born and grew up, has rated national and international headlines—mostly for the worse. In this hot, airless climate both the upcoming local and national November elections intersect in a unique way, creating wide reverberations for the entire country. Issues like immigration and education impacting the Mexican-American community especially continue to dominate public life but also fill a surplus of invisible human stories of people who are most affected.

I met and came to know Marco Galdino upon his release from an assortment of US prisons—among them a for-profit private enterprise—wherein he endured seven years in immigration detention in sultry Southern Arizona. Immigration authorities didn’t consider Brazilian-born Marco a security risk. They merely held him on bond for the price of $10,000, which the Tucson-based prisoner/migrant justice community managed to fundraise, with much luck and difficulty, after several months. Marco meanwhile paid large dividends of his life’s freedom for the crime of being an “illegal” human being.

The harrowing irony of our current immigration system is that Marco, alongside many of the others like him, is among the most directly affected by harsh immigration policies, yet he is not allowed to participate in the election process. You won’t hear his voice in the echoing “debates” on immigration. You won’t see his face on political posters. The closest you’ll come to his humanity is still far away from even recognizing it.

Marco and millions of others remain unnamed statistics spun by the Obama administration, which set historical records in deportation and detention. The current administration also favored one of Marco’s jailers, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which picked up money-spinning government contracts off Marco’s caged body. Alternatively, Obama’s rival Republican candidate promises to increase the severity of these policies if elected. Thus the 2012 hair-splitting election options span from awful to worse.

If the greatest teacher is experience, Marco has much to instruct the nation, which has long been a delinquent violator of human rights. During Marco’s fourth year in lockup, Amnesty International, in its report “Jailed without Justice,” quoted a senior Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) official boasting at a 2008 police officers convention about the sweeping powers at their disposal to deal with people like Marco. “If you don’t have enough evidence to charge someone criminally but you think he’s illegal, we [ICE] can make him disappear.”

Now such grim confidence has the highest law of the land behind it. This summer, the US Supreme Court upheld the most notorious “show me your papers” requirement of Arizona’s SB1070 law. In effect, the Court affirmed that police officers could be committing a crime if they do not check someone’s immigration status when moved by a the social whim of “reasonable suspicion.” In ICE’s words, if someone looks “illegal”, like Marco did, they can be disappeared—virtually forever. Despite Marco’s role and stake in the issues, as a person he is technically irrelevant, invisible and illegitimate, to those who run the game and make the rules.

Another, lesser known November election surrounds 3 crucial seats open on the governing board of Tucson Unified School District (TUSD), where I attended high school and now reside independently. Until this year, TUSD was the only public school district in the country with a K-12 Mexican-American Studies (MAS) program. Anti-immigrant politicians in Arizona targeted the MAS program for several years before finally passing a statewide ban on the ethnic studies education. The current school board dismantled the long-fought-for program after the state legislature enacted crippling economic sanctions on the relatively tiny but largest school district in Tucson for maintaining the program.

The same Arizona politicians have been promising next to go after the same Mexican-American Studies programs at the college level. If those higher-education programs fall, then every similar MAS program in the country is at risk. This is how one upcoming local November school board election in a relatively small city in the US/Mexico borderlands symbolizes the greatest struggle to save and defend institutions of Chicano culture throughout the United States.

So the stakes are high come November. But all sorts of people are determined to create change within and outside the ballot box. Students, both those whose education was taken from them, and those like me who never took MAS courses but nonetheless have various affinities with the curriculum, form the leading edge of frontline battle. Educators and community are focusing on the election and redress through the courts. People like Marco are advocating for those still shuttered away in detention and those who continue to die in the deserts every year from the same policies.

As always, elections are nothing if unpredictable—no matter which way they turn out.

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