What is it that motivates people to risk their well-being in an effort to further a cause?
Meet Lulu Martinez and Maria Peniche -- two of the nine young undocumented immigrant activists who delivered themselves into the hands of U.S. immigration authorities on the U.S./Mexico border last month in an act of civil disobedience that has captured nationwide attention.
Since the day of their bold action -- when the Dream 9 presented themselves to border police at the Nogales Port of Entry along the with requests for humanitarian parole and asylum in hand -- the entire group has been held in pre-trial detention at a jail in Eloy, Arizona. All nine have deep ties in the United States, some having lived in this country since they were children, and -- to set the record straight -- not one of them crossed the border illegally or broke any law.
"Had they applied for asylum in the U.S. their chances would have been slim," said Holly S, Cooper, Associate Director of the UC Davis Immigration Law Clinic, "We're currently seeing a trend with Mexican asylum claims -- the vast majority are rejected -- yet at the same time violence in Mexico has been increasing exponentially. Through this action, the Dream 9 are exposing the hypocrisy around the treatment of Mexican asylum seekers."
As is the nature of high-stake actions, you can never know what the consequences will be when you set out. Lulu Martinez, a 23-year-old organizer from Chicago, was ready for just about anything. She knew, as an undocumented immigrant, that after crossing the border into Mexico it was possible that she might never be allowed back into the United States. She also knew that, by attempting to reenter the U.S. a few days later, she was risking being held in pretrial detention for months, even years, as is common during the lengthy period immigration courts take to make their rulings. Martinez knew that, if she did end up in jail, the boldness of her stance would catch the nation's attention.
But the actions of Martinez and Peniche of the Dream 9 did not end there. After only a few days at Eloy, the two young women found themselves in solitary confinement, reportedly for "inciting a protest" -- this time inside the detention center.
"One evening last week, Lulu and Maria got up on the table in the dinner hall and started telling the other women detainees about their rights," said Mohammad Abdollahi, an organizer with the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, "They gave them the number of a hotline they could call to try to get a pro-bono lawyer and then started chanting 'undocumented and unafraid.' The whole room joined in."
A few days later, Abdollahi was able to talk to Maria on the phone. "She told us she wanted to hurt herself," he said, "she said she wanted to slam herself against the wall or pour boiling water on her hands. She said that feeling anything, even pain, was better than nothing." After hearing Peniche's threats the guards at Eloy put her on suicide watch.
Maria Peniche, 37, left the United States and returned to Mexico -- the country of her birth -- three days before Obama Administration's Deferred Action plan was announced on June 12th, 2012. She knew that, though she'd grown up in Boston and lived in the U.S. almost all her life, she wouldn't meet the requirements for a green card because she was a few years over the cut-off age to qualify. Instead, Peniche decided to try and get into college in Mexico City, but once she arrived she found it almost impossible to both support herself and go to school.
"It's very hard to talk to Maria," said Abdollahi. "Right now, Lulu is holding it together, she's been an organizer for years and she was ready for something like this. But things have been bad for Maria in Mexico and she's desperate to get back to the U.S. Maria jumped right into this and, after a few days in solitary, she said she felt like everyone in the world had forgotten her and that she might not ever get out."
Martinez and Peniche were held in solitary for ten days and as of now they are back in the jail's general population. The use of solitary confinement in immigrant detention has been under scrutiny in recent months. In addition to psychological damage, suicide and self-harm are a real risk among prisoners in isolation. It's been estimated that an average of 50 percent of completed suicides by prisoners in the U.S. occur in solitary confinement (The Colorado Study vs. the Reality of Supermax Confinement, by Stuart Grassian, M.D. and Terry Kupers M.D.). Also, at the very same detention center where the Dream 9 are currently being held, two other detainees reportedly killed themselves earlier this year.
"The Dream 9 have made an enormous sacrifice," says Cooper, "their act has raised the bar for what immigrant activists are willing to do to be heard. Still, you see this kind of sacrifice every day among immigrants -- they have a right to seek protection, they have a right to be with their families... they're willing to risk everything to remain in the country they call home."
While Congress stalls on passing comprehensive immigration reform, the nationwide grassroots campaign for immigrant rights -- people like Lulu, Maria and the Dream 9 -- are willing to risk their safety, losing their homes and even their freedom -- in hopes that others will someday no longer have to.