Like many in this country, Priscilla Hancock Cooper is among those breathing a sigh of relief with President Obama's recent executive action on immigration. She is the executive director of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. One might ask why the leader of an institution dedicated to preserving and telling the story of the civil rights movement is relieved by the president's measures.
When I first visited the Institute in June I was amazed to see an exhibition about Méndez vs. Westminster, a 1946 federal case dealing with the unconstitutionality of segregated "Mexican schools" in Orange County, California. The case was adjudicated eight years before better-known Brown vs. Board of Education. Later that day I was invited to participate in a meeting of the Institute's Latino New South Advisory Committee, representing the region's burgeoning Latino population, which in Alabama grew by 154 percent between 2000 and 2010. In establishing a committee to work on pressing Latino issues and brainstorm program approaches, the Institute demonstrates its commitment to immigrant integration, and to helping make Birmingham and surrounding suburbs active immigrant-receiving communities.
After the advisory committee meeting, I visited Pelham, one these suburbs. My guide was Victor Palafox, the Institute's Hispanic outreach coordinator. Victor is 22 and a junior at the University of Alabama, where he studies education. He wants to teach. Victor, a Mexican national, remains in this country under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). With Obama's recent action, Victor's aspirations are now on extended life support, meaning he can continue his studies and his important work at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, much to the gratification of executive director Hancock Cooper. I, too, am relieved because the Smithsonian Latino Center is modestly involved with a groundbreaking initiative on the Latino New South, led by the Institute in collaboration with the Levine Museum of the New South (Charlotte) and the Atlanta History Center. The success of this initiative, to be made manifest in the upcoming exhibition, NUEVOlution, is dependent on the participation of young immigrants like Victor, especially in the position he will continue to hold.
In announcing his action, President Obama posed the following rhetorical questions:
Are we a nation that tolerates the hypocrisy of a system where workers who pick our fruit and make our beds never have a chance to get right with the law? Or are we a nation that gives them a chance to make amends, take responsibility and give their kids a better future? Are we a nation that accepts the cruelty of ripping children from their parents' arms? Or are we a nation that values families, and works together to keep them together?
He could well have been referring to the Palafox family. Victor's father, a Mexico City native, was recruited to work construction in the run-up to Atlanta's 1996 Olympic Games. Victor's father, who helped create one of this country's greatest athletic and cultural showcases, continues to live in the shadows, as he is one of the many who will not benefit from Obama's grace-period dispensation. After the Olympics, the Palafox's migrated 160 miles west to Pelham and settled, nestling into what has become a vibrant Latino community, composed of hard-working, tax-paying, socially-responsible families. Strong, secure families are foundational to successful community formation, and so while one can applaud the president's reprieve, the future of the Palafox's head of household still remains uncertain.
As Congress hurtles towards a radical shift in power and as Republican sabre-rattling over the president's executive action ramps up, it is important to look at the Palafox's experience in historical context. The pull-push dynamic associated with the demand for inexpensive Mexican labor has, historically, produced systems and a legacy of dependency and convenience. I recall the Importation Program (1917-21) and the Bracero Program (1942-64), both timed with world wars when this country experienced chronic labor shortages. In both cases, thousands of the Mexican workers were deported when their critical services were no longer needed, abruptly scapegoated by the toxic combination of economic recession and xenophobia. This is part of the underbelly of U.S. labor history that few in power bother or care to recognize or address.
Despite the very best efforts of the Palafox family to prove themselves good Americans, this country seems unable and unwilling to create a reasonable path to full agency in the promise of America, as it has done for previous immigrants. Tomorrow, the Palafox family will awake and, like so many mornings before, head to work or school in a community that is theirs. One wonders when this country will claim them as ours.