Activists Enter Detention and Emerge Inspired

12/16/2011 01:24 pm ET | Updated Feb 15, 2012

The Occupy movements mushrooming around the country have displayed the power of collective action when people organize and take to the streets. But alongside street protests, other more subtle uprisings are also exposing the hypocrisy of the political establishment from within. In Louisiana, undocumented youth have subjected themselves to the immigration gauntlet to expose struggles that countless immigrants face every day, trapped in a detention system that deprives them of basic due process rights. Their direct action coincided with the legal battle against draconian state laws that have emerged in recent months aiming to expand the profiling and detention of immigrants.

Their journey is documented on video by Arts of Aztlan.

On the xicana-ostudies blog of the Chicano Hispano Mexicano Studies program at the University of New Mexico, program director Irene Vásquez and Levi Romero, New Mexico State Centennial Poet and Research Scholar, report on the youth's experiences and their reflections on their ordeal:

Isaac and Jonathan, human rights activists from California, joined hundreds of social activists and hundreds of caravans to Alabama in October and November 2011 to shine a spotlight on harsh immigration laws that threaten the human and civil rights of thousands of families and communities. Unlike the thousands of immigrants held in ICE detention facilities, Jonathan and Isaac walked into their situation voluntarily. On November 10, 2011, they entered a border patrol agency in Mobile, Alabama as part of a direct action to prove that immigrants are currently undergoing punitive treatment by ICE and state officials. Border patrol agents placed Isaac and Jonathan in custody for not having identification or papers proving their legal residency or citizenship.

Isaac and Jonathan weren't totally going it alone. Their actions were part of a broader direct action campaign, supported by NIYA (National Immigrant Youth Alliance) and DreamActivist California. Though their willingness to be imprisoned may seem brazen, the youth said they understood that the impact of any civil disobedience tactic lies in its ability to reveal the moral bankruptcy of the status quo:

When asked by Romero and Vásquez, "What were you hoping to accomplish in Alabama?" Jonathan responded, "Our intention was to show what Obama's [administration] had been doing," in regards to knowingly detaining and deporting immigrants who have not committed crimes. Jonathan said, "We want to challenge the system and policies like Secure Communities and 287G that are criminalizing immigrants." Isaac and Jonathan are part of the San Gabriel Dream Team that has been engaging in acts of civil disobedience directed at ICE. Isaac stated that the San Gabriel Dream Team is focused on "empowering youth to get out and be active because when you challenge the system directly it falls apart. You can see it with our action. We challenged ICE directly and publically, and they didn't want to put us in deportation proceedings."

Yet after their experience, in many ways, Jonathan and Isaac felt fortunate for being able to avoid detention in their day-to-day lives, rooted in a supportive community and connected to family and loved ones. Perhaps the cruelest aspect of the detention system is that to the extent that immigrants have any control over their economic or legal fate, they're forced to choose between their dreams of carving out a better life in this country, and the families they risked everything to support by crossing the border. "This desire to talk to family, be close to relatives, or to help support family members or loved ones," reflected Vásquez and Romero, "can push some immigrants who have been detained to voluntarily sign their own deportation orders."

The kind of destruction that the immigration system imposes goes much deeper than police aggression or incarceration; it rips apart the very fabric of communities. For students like Isaac and Jonathan, crossing the line into the detention system allowed them to reveal an often hidden world, and to take that insight out of the shadows and into the streets.

Cross-posted from CultureStrike, a project that fuses art with activism.