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Hunger Strikers' American Dreams

A group of young hunger strikers in New York reflect a growing impatience across the US for equality for immigrants

by Joseph Huff-Hannon

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:

Young immigrants initiated a hunger strike in front of Sen Charles Schumer's office in Manhattan. (Photograph: Juan David Gastolomendo) "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 professionals?"

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.

Marco 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."

Nearby 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 faces with.

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."

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