“Imagine coming across a flower—the most precious, beautiful flower you have ever seen…You discover this flower, and you really want to have it, to own it as yours. But just as you lean over to pick it up, someone else suddenly swoops by and snatches it from your grasp.”
This parable, delivered by a high school student before a crowd of activists at this year’s May Day rally in Poughkeepsie, NY, was intended to convey a distinct form of oppression. According to the speaker, this oppression occurs when “something is available to you and is within your sight, but you’re prevented from ever achieving or attaining it.”
At the setting of the speech—a rally celebrating the spirit behind the collective struggle of workers and immigrants for dignified working conditions and basic human rights—the student’s words resonated with the crowd because they spoke to many of their problems. For the other students who were in attendance, many felt overwhelmed by the burden of debt from college loans, which can bury their career dreams. The workers who showed up to the rally expressed frustration with the state of the economy and healthcare costs, both of which continue to threaten the welfare of ordinary Americans. The most prominent voices at the rally, though, emerged from those in support of immigrants’ rights.
For many of them, oppression is when a hard-working student is denied access to higher education, or denied access to federal and state financial aid for college, by virtue of having unwittingly entered the country undocumented at a young age. Oppression can be when they are stopped and asked for their papers because of the color of their skin. Oppression is “the criminalization of the American Dream,” a student told me.
The plight of today’s immigrant population in America is quickly being recognized as one of the most important, and most pressing, civil rights issues of our time. From the 1990s to the early 2000s, immigration—specifically from Mexico and other Latin American countries—spiked to record levels, and studies have determined that a majority of those arriving during this period have found success and have integrated into the American mainstream. A 2010 paper published by the Center for American Progress found that the share of foreign-born men earning median incomes has nearly doubled since 1990, from 35 percent to 66 percent in 2008. During that same time immigrants have bought homes at increasing rates, from 9.3 percent to 58 percent.
Despite these promising gains, the immigrant community finds itself in a position of great peril today. Recent legislative developments in states like Arizona, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina have rendered it nigh-impossible to live as an undocumented immigrant, and have even led to the diaspora of immigrants with legal status, in those states. The laws that passed are littered with pernicious measures that make it a crime to work in the state without authorization, while empowering the police to stop and detain any person suspected of being in the country illegally, without regard for warrants.
Of these bills, the one that has garnered the most amount of attention is Arizona’s SB 1070. It was passed in 2010 and set off a cascade of reactionary fear-mongering across the other southern states, and today it finds itself challenged by President Obama’s Justice Department before the Supreme Court. The President has repeatedly criticized SB 1070 for the potential of racial profiling, arguing that no one “should be subject to suspicion simply because of what they look like.” Yet, the Supreme Court has evaded any arguments pertaining to the discriminatory nature of the law, preferring to assess the constitutional allocation of state and federal power.
At the May Day rally, people whom I asked about the court’s hearings were disappointed that this aspect of the law was being brushed aside. “It’s the institutionalization of state-supported racism,” one person told me, “you cannot judge the law without acknowledging this.” Another expressed resentment towards the bill’s “attrition through enforcement” mechanism, which reasons that in order to reduce the undocumented population, the government must create egregious living conditions for those immigrants so that living in the United States becomes undesirable. “It’s contrary to everything I’ve known about this country; it’s impulsive and irrational,” the student said.
These arguments, of course, fall on deaf ears in the Supreme Court, but for those attending the rally, these words formed a chorus of pride and passion. Hundreds of miles away from the court’s steps in Washington, D.C., the people who gathered to celebrate May Day in Poughkeepsie remained adamant about improving their future and eliminating oppression. No matter each individual’s reason for showing up to the march, the group in attendance was unified in chant: El pueblo vive, la lucha sigue. “The people live, the struggle continues.”