Hunger Strikers' American Dreams
A group of young hunger strikers in New York reflect a growing impatience across the US for equality for immigrants
I asked Sonia, a student from Harlem who was born in Ecuador, how it
is that she looked so energetic and, for all appearances, normal, given
that it was her 10th day without eating. She laughed a little, and this
is what she had to say:
"To be honest I'm losing my voice, and I
feel like fainting. But I'm representing millions of undocumented
students. That's what gives me energy." Sonia, 20, studies at Hunter
College in midtown Manhattan, where she double majors in women and
gender studies, with a minor in political science. "And a little
makeup," she added with a smile.
On a busy stretch of 3rd Avenue
outside New York senator Charles Schumer's Manhattan office on 10 June,
a hundred or so supporters were crowded around the small group of young
people who had gone without food for 10 days and nine nights to call
attention to the plight of undocumented students in the US. Every year
65,000-70,000 undocumented students graduate from US high schools,
according to the New York State Youth Leadership Council, and without a
valid social security number or residency permit, they find themselves
ineligible for financial aid, in-state tuition at public universities,
and legal employment.
"We're tired of living in fear, we can only
be pushed to the wall for so long," José Luis Zacatelco tells me, a
Queens resident who studies mental health at Laguardia Community
College. "I just turned 30 so I'm not doing this for myself, I'm doing
it for all of these young people who want to be doctors, lawyers,
engineers. We've already invested in their K-12 education, why are we
stopping them from pursuing their dreams, studying to become
The hunger strikers camped out on Schumer's doorstep this week because he's the Senate co-sponsor of the DREAM Act,
a bill that would create a pathway to residency and citizenship for
immigrant youth who arrived here as children - but these students say
the bill isn't moving fast enough. They want it introduced as a
standalone bill immediately, and not rolled into a comprehensive
immigration reform bill, which Schumer prefers, that could go either
way during this feisty election year.
This action and others like
it unfolding across the country appear to mark a new impatience in an
immigrant rights movement that had its coming out day in March of 2006.
Maybe it's the economic crash that has made life more precarious for
all of us, especially those without access to education, or the fact
that deportations have risen under the Obama administration. But a major tipping point appears to have been reached with the recent controversial anti-immigrant bill passed in Arizona, which has become a flashpoint for debate on the issue, touching off boycotts, and even driving many Latino immigrants from the state.
Whatever it can be attributed to, something has shifted both in the
tactics that immigrant rights activists are now using on a regular
basis, and in the language they're employing to frame their demands.
And there's an increasing resemblance to the language of
enfranchisement that the American civil rights movement perfected in
the 1960s, and the unceasing nonviolent confrontational tactics that
were employed to push for landmark legislation like the 1964 Civil
Rights Act. Although no arrests were reported at the Manhattan action
on Thursday, a few dozen miles east three immigrant student activists
from the same group staged a sit-in at Schumer's Long Island office, accompanied by Alex Rivera,
an award-winning documentary filmmaker. They were removed by agents
from the Federal Protective Service, detained for a short while and
eventually released without charge.
"For a long time in my life
it's been fear and shame, afraid of being deported, and ashamed of
being undocumented," Marco Saavedra tells me, a 20-year-old student of
sociology at Kenyon College who was born in Oaxaca, Mexico.
didn't make it to day 10 - he halted his fast on the eighth day with
approval by all of the other hunger strikers. He had to start a summer
internship at the New York City department of education, and his fellow
strikers agreed it would defeat the purpose to show up on his first day
of work near starvation.
"Getting involved in this youth movement, it's been like coming out of a depression."
a man with a bullhorn rallies the crowd, chanting, "Up with the Dream
Act" and "Schumer, Schumer, shame on you!" Passing cars honked their
horns, and somebody read aloud a letter of support signed by a number
of local chapters of SEIU, one of the country's biggest unions. Another local union
had provided the hunger strikers with a small grant as well as another
key amenity for an extended summer slumber party on the streets of
midtown - port-a-potties equipped with fresh water to wash hands and
Although the hunger strikers had demanded a meeting
with Schumer it seems the senator was still in Washington and wouldn't
be showing up any time soon. I left a few messages with his office, but
didn't hear anything back. Outside I asked Yessica Martinez, a
17-year-old high school student from Queens what brought her out in
support of the hunger strikers, and she said it's pretty simple.
"It's our country. We have American dreams too."