| Karla Mejia
Photo: @Askangy and @word_women
A series of nationally coordinated actions demanding a moratorium on deportations was launched the weekend of April 4-6, bringing the #Not1More Deportation movement to a new stage of activity. Thousands of undocumented people and their allies, coordinated by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and other community-based organizations, participated nationwide. The protests came on the heels of a wave of hunger strikes in immigration detention centers, which were followed by hunger strikes and protests at the White House and the Capitol.
The protests escalated as the Obama administration ordered a review of Department of Homeland Security deportation policies. The review is the White House’s response to widespread demands that the president use his discretionary and executive authority to suspend deportations. Many activists are demanding that the current deportation system be replaced by a more just immigration system that prioritizes family unity and does not penalize migrants.
On April 6 in New York City, a crowd of undocumented youth activists and their supporters gathered at Union Square for the annual “Coming Out Undocumented and Unafraid” rally. It was organized by the New York State Youth Leadership Council and joined by local and national organizations.
Following the protest, Heather Benno of Liberation News sat down with 21-year-old undocumented activist and organizer Karla Mejia to discuss the recent wave of protests and the growth of a new immigrant rights movement. For the first time in her life, Mejia came out publicly as undocumented at the April 6 rally.
Mejia came to the United States from Mexico when she was eight years old, and she has not been able to return since. During her early childhood, she was separated at various times from her father, her mother and her siblings. She is a now a student and retail worker in New York City. She recently received her employment authorization and “protection from deportation” under the two-year program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which is set to expire this fall.
Why do you think that immigrants around the country are now demanding that President Obama stop deportations?
KM: Recently, the number of deportations under the Obama administration reached 2 million. Two million is a lot—it has definitely affected a huge amount of people. It affected more than just the people getting deported—it affected their relatives, friends, sons, daughters, uncles, aunts, entire families. Also, [Obama] had promised so much to the immigrant community, and it hasn’t really happened. ... He has deported more people than even George W. Bush.
I think people are starting to really face the facts about the Democrats that the numbers are getting bigger, and people are getting really fed up in general. Even people who are not getting deported are fearful that it could just be any of us. The rallies that have been happening give us a chance to really come out and talk about what is going on.
Do you feel that you are protected from deportation under the DACA program? If not, why not?
KM: No. Because DACA stated that if I had any trouble with the law, I could be facing deportation. So, for example, we are constantly being stopped and harassed by the cops for no reason. I just feel, especially as an activist, if for some reason the cops arrested me and they decided to [pursue me], I feel like I’m going to get deported. So, I don’t feel like I am safe from deportation.
DACA also ends in October—my working permit and the Childhood Arrivals program that I have is only good for two years. So I don’t know what is going to happen in October. But as far as I’m concerned, I have made myself visible and presented myself as an undocumented person in the United States. So they now know that I’m here illegally. … It’s one thing to be here when no one knows that you’re here. It’s another thing to stand up and make yourself present, and be given a social security number, and not know what’s going to happen in two years. I could be deported. So, no, I don’t feel like I’m protected from deportation.
What benefits does the DACA program give undocumented youth?
KM: The only benefit is that it allows us to have a job on the books. We are not even allowed financial aid, so education is still a challenge for us. So, for example, I had to pay entirely out of my own pocket to go to school. Although I had permission to work in the United States, I wasn’t given any real options for my education. So, it benefits us only really for [low-wage] jobs—the kind of jobs where they pay you around $9 an hour. But working is still the biggest benefit for us.
Has there been any reprieve for families of early childhood arrivals?
No, and it makes me very angry. The deportations affect everyone. How does my semi-protection give me justice? What am I going to do if my father and mother get deported? I can’t go back over there [with DACA protection]. We would be separated—knowing when I would see them again would be a question for me … because I can’t go back. If I do go back over there, I won’t be able to come back here again unless I cross the border again. This sort of semi-protection is nothing but being able to work legally.
Undocumented immigrant activists are trying to push the issue of deportation into the White House and Congress to show that immigrants will not wait any more for relief. How do you explain the new stage of struggle?
KM: People have waited a really long time already, and we are facing larger numbers of deportations than ever. This has motivated people to go out there and make ourselves visible and heard. We look at the circumstances people are in—how people are being oppressed. How people are getting killed in the desert and thrown in solitary confinement. Everything together is pushing people to go out there.
What do you think justice would really look like for undocumented people in the United States?
KM: It would require a change of law that would allow us to be treated as equals. We live in the shadows. We have no rights. We are always scared. We are fearful for our lives. Justice would mean feeling like you’re equal to everyone else. To feel that you have a voice. Stopping deportations will be part of what justice looks like—knowing that there aren’t tons of families getting separated from one another.
We are here. We have created a life here. We are people—we are not stray cats in the street that people know are around but never acknowledge. We are not just “the immigrants” or “illegal.” We are human beings. Justice would be being treated and really acknowledged as human beings. I want to be able to just be another human being.