5 Questions for Immigrants Who Organize

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #11 in July 2010]

For issue #11, AREA has undertaken a series of interviews. We are asking five questions to immigrants who do political organizing work in Chicago:

–        What is your personal experience of immigration?

–        What kind of work do you do in Chicago?

–        How has your experience as an immigrant influenced the work you do?

–         What challenges do you encounter in your work?

–         What is your vision for the role of immigrants in ?the US?

Jose Herrera, Justice Mission, Moratorium on Deportations Campaign

–         What is your personal experience of immigration?

For me it began three years ago in 2008. I was stopped by the Chicago police for speeding, and then it came out that I don’t have a license. They held me overnight in Cook County Jail. I was there when the immigration officials came to the cell where they were processing all of the prisoners and asked me where I was from. They put me under “immigration hold” which basically meant that when Cook County finished with my case, immigration came to get me to investigate me.

They asked me how long I had been here, and I told them that I’ve been in the country 20, 21 years. I have a son who is a citizen—I’m a single father. I told them all of this: I go to university, I work, I have my citizen son who I take care of, and they told me I had two options, I could sign and leave voluntarily, or I could go before an immigration judge. That’s what I chose, to fight the case and go to court and see what would happen, and see if I could win, if I could stop my deportation.

–        How has your experience as an immigrant influenced the work ?you do?

It has a huge influence because otherwise, maybe I would have never been interested in the issue of immigration. And looking back on my life, I would have to say that before, I probably wasn’t. Before I was directly affected by these laws, my life was going to college, working, worrying about money, living well. And the question of immigration, and whether or not I had papers was at the bottom of my list of problems. So being directly affected changed my life completely. From 2008 to today, everything I do is organizing, being an activist, and working with different community groups for social justice, and not just for immigration. So it’s opened up a different path for me, because of everything that’s happening in this country. And it’s an opportunity to keep learning more.

–        What challenges have you encountered in your work?

There are many. First, there is your life, or you can say, a piece of your life, that when you’re in the struggle and you’re organizing, you have to sacrifice a lot of things. You also sacrifice being with your family. And your family members sacrifice as well. …

Another bigger challenge is that sometimes the large organizations within the movement, we’re not very united, and it’s difficult to work with other organizations that have resources, who have the money to help the community, but they also have their political agenda, they have their politicians, they have the people they deal with. … it’s really difficult to work with them because sometimes they seem like they’re helping the community but at the same time they’re taking advantage of them and benefiting off of them. This is more than anything the big organizations that have the resources. And we as individuals are always in the struggle with them. We’re always trying to work together because we can’t be divided, and always do what we can to be together. With the Moratorium on Deportations group what we do is make these bridges and these connections with other struggles, not just with immigration. We say that it is a big struggle, and we’re part of it. ◊

Reema Ahmad, Project Mobilize

–        How does your personal experience of immigration affect the work you do as an organizer?

On one hand I don’t actively think of myself as an immigrant. Although, I am a Muslim woman, Islam is a religion. It spans cultures and backgrounds, but people identify it with an immigrant community. I come from an immigrant background; I think of my father’s experience and I would be lying to say that having an immigrant parent hasn’t affected the issues that I care about. Racial profiling would be one example. I’ve experienced it. I try to go under the premise that I won’t let things get to me. So someone will make a comment questioning my language acquisition or questioning whether I belong in this country and I’ll just let it brush off. But at the same time, it does get to you sometimes. The fact that I have experienced racial profiling is definitely a reason why I would care about that as an issue and work to eliminate it from our society.

–        What challenges do you face in your organizing?

… The journey toward full realization of political American identity is going to be different for the Muslim-American community than it has been for the Hispanic-American community, for the Irish-American community, for the Jewish-American community, for all of these other communities. On the one hand I would say we’ve come so far from the xenophobia we had in this country, and around the world, toward the “other” in the past several decades. Yet, when it comes to the Muslim-American community, it’s like it’s ok. Xenophobic sentiments are seen as justified. So I think it’s going to be an added challenge for this community to work against that obstacle. You can’t even appeal to logic, because logic doesn’t seem to work in this case. So we have to double, triple, quadruple efforts toward education and outreach before we can even begin to be more involved in the political process. And that’s something that has been going on in the community, especially since September 11. It’s increased tenfold. But I definitely see that going hand-in-hand with any efforts toward political representation; because of how much ignorance there is out there and how much Islamophobia there is out there.

–        What is your vision for the role of immigrants in the US?

My hope is that the Muslim-American community assumes all the rights and responsibilities, the political identity that every other minority, and every community, has in this country. I hope that we fully assume our American identities through the political process. I think that’s the end goal for not only the Muslim-American community, but also other minority communities that are involved in this process. We talk about immigrants like they’re a foreign element to this country, but we’re a country of immigrants. So if there’s a role that the current immigrant community has it’s to remind the rest of country—people who don’t even remember how long ago their ancestors immigrated here—that we are a country of people who emigrated from other places. Immigrants can remind people that we have that shared experience, whether it’s in our immediate consciousness or through our ancestors. ◊

Alie Kabba, United ?African Organization

–        What is your personal experience of immigration?

I organized my first demonstrations (in Sierra Leone) when I was in ninth grade! By the time I was at the University, the student movement was the only civil society group that could challenge the one-party state. Of course that meant that I was working under a lot of risk, I was in prison a few times and I had to leave the country. I had my first experience of being a political exile at a very young age.

–        How has your experience as an immigrant influenced the work ?you do?

I had an opportunity in 1991 to come to Chicago. My past quickly caught up with me in the sense that I couldn’t just be here and pretend not to see the same contradictions that I was fighting against in Sierra Leone, you know, they are present here. The beginning was really tough, figuring out my space here and understanding all the different ethnic groups and the different races, and how as an African immigrant I could really share my own voice and be part of a wider struggle for a more perfect union.

When i was in Sierra Leone recently, one of the things i observed in myself was that i was looking at all these different groups and at the situation generally as a quintessential Chicago community organizer. By that I mean connecting it to the work we do here, building solidarity, working with coalitions with different groups and developing a common agenda. Because one of the things that I say for us in Chicago is that being a relatively small immigrant community in the context of other immigrant groups, one way that we can advance our community interests is figuring out ways that we can work with other groups, which is very important in the context of Sierra Leone. Because as long as these different groups are fighting different battles and not working together, it is going to be very easy for the elite to continue to fragment opposition. And the other thing that I have been able to use and connect to my work here and in Sierra Leone is the ability to start to work with different African groups in order to ensure that we work within the context of a common African agenda. It is very difficult to fight for economic transformation or a change in the relationship between a particular African country and Europe or North America, if you do not think about African unity. So the work that we do here in bringing different African groups together in a united African organization is indeed a very important … because my vision for Sierra Leone is intimately connected to the pan-African vision of ensuring that we start to work together collectively, much like a consciousness about bringing Latin American states together. Because alone you cannot really negotiate good terms with North America, NAFTA has taught us that if you go alone and negotiate your people are not going to benefit much. But if you come together as a collective and say these are the terms of new economic relations, I think ultimately everybody wins. So Chicago has made me more of a pan-Africanist than I was even when I was in Africa. ◊

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