By Aine Dougherty, Medill, Immigrant Connect
Hundreds of students and faculty flooded the sidewalk outside Northwestern University’s Multicultural Center on Feb. 1, 2017, spilling out into Sheridan Road, blocking traffic, waving signs, listening to Muslim speakers and chanting, “No ban, no registry, fuck white supremacy.”
In response to President Donald Trump’s executive order restricting travel to the U.S. by residents ofseven Muslim-majority countries, several groups on Northwestern’s campus, including the Immigrant Justice Project and the Muslim Cultural Student Association, came together to plan a walkout and rally in solidarity with members of the Northwestern community affected by the travel ban.
Medha Imam, a Medill senior and child of first-generation Pakistani immigrants, came up with the idea for the walkout and helped organize the widely-attended event. According to Imam, providing a space for students affected by the executive order to have their voices heard was a “number one priority.” When the countries of origin of immigrants or children of immigrants are being attacked, such as after President Trump’s executive order on Jan. 27, 2017, that’s when the urge to become politically active really sets in, Imam said.
This political activism and engagement can take many forms – standing in solidarity during a walkout or protest, sending a letter to one’s lawmakers or educating and mobilizing others in the community to vote. With the current political climate and vitriolic rhetoric from both the government and the nation creating a dangerous and uncertain atmosphere for immigrants in the U.S. today, immigrants (and children of immigrants like Imam) can no longer afford to stay inactive, Imam added.
However, the desire – or need – to get involved in activism often pushes up against the fear of being deported.
Analia Rodriguez, Executive Director of the Latino Union of Chicago, said that many of the immigrants she works with at the Union are experiencing an “itch” to start organizing, to fight back, to feel like they’re doing something. But Rodriguez said the “over policing” of the Latino community can lead to danger for undocumented immigrants wanting to organize and can therefore become a barrier to their activism and empowerment, leaving them feeling helpless in the face of the more openly anti-immigration administration under Trump.
Many immigrants, undocumented or not, tend not to want to cause trouble or draw attention to themselves by protesting or speaking out about politics because dealing with police at protests or marches could possibly lead to an arrest (which can be a devastating blow to those with temporary, precarious status in the United States) or deportation.
Jason Rieger, founder of local advocacy group Indivisible Chicago, whose group identifies as allies of the immigrant communities, said he understand how immigrants fearing deportation under the Trump administration might not want to expose themselves and put themselves at risk “in case Chicago was no longer able to be a sanctuary city and [they] were concerned about ICE coming in.”
“Fear of being targeted is obviously one of the greatest barriers [to political activism by immigrants],” said Sophie Vodvarka, communications coordinator for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR).
And the protesters themselves aren’t the only ones who feel this fear. Imam also spoke about a more unexpected barrier to her political activism as a child of immigrants – her parents.
“A lot of our parents come from countries where protesting is not the norm, freedom of speech is not the norm, freedom of the press is not the norm,” Imam said. “This idea of us being vocal does scare a lot of our parents.”
Members of the Indian-American community in Chicago also mentioned their parents as a reason for less political activism within the community in previous years. Because the generally successful and highly educated group has often been considered (and considered itself) a “model minority,” Indian immigrants have been “historically apathetic” and have felt like they had “no reason to get involved” and risk removal proceedings in the past, said lawyer Rishi Agrawal. This means that younger members of the community may lack role models who are involved politically and may even be discouraged by their parents from being more active, Agrawal said.
But according to Agrawal and fellow lawyer Tejas Shah, since the election of Trump, the Indian community has seen higher levels of civic engagement despite any barriers – parental or otherwise. In addition to members of the community joining protests at airports after President Trump’s travel ban, they have also conducted and attended more “Know Your Rights” seminars, said Shah. Shah said an increased level of education about immigrant rights and citizenship opportunities is crucial because it is the most important pathway to fully engaged activism, since “voting is the best way to influence the direction of federal and local government.”
Rieger also recounted a moment when he noticed a pushback against fear of consequences for political activism by immigrants in the past few months. During a recent town hall held by Indivisible with Senator Dick Durbin,Congressman Mike Quigley, and Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, all Illinois Democrats, he said an undocumented immigrant spoke up to ask a question.
“It was very brave because she was absolutely putting herself out there for all the world to see,” Rieger said. “She asked a question about making sure that the senator and the congressman and congresswoman would fight for immigration rights and to protect [immigrants] from ICE forces and things along that line, so it was very impressive to see.”
Although Imam knows that there are risks involved for immigrants looking to become more political active, she argues that the necessity of action in this threatening political climate overrides the possible negative consequences. Her experience organizing and participating in the No Muslim Ban walkout was her outlet – a necessary form of acting out in protest against the travel ban, no matter the repercussions.
Imam said that, while some have usually been content to write about or discuss issues surrounding immigration in the past, the stakes are higher and involvement becomes more direct and dynamic when their country of origin and cultural identity comes under attack. “You’ll see more foot soldiers,” she said. “We’re on the ground, we’re actually doing work to gather people.”
“We are seeing that even though there is a lot of fear in the communities, we are continuing to rise and put more pressure on our government than ever before to ensure that Illinois is a welcoming state for all of us,” Vodvarka said.Although the immigrants who Rodriguez works with at the Latino Union may be worried about the consequences of activism, she too said many of them have been noticeably more active since the election, some even attending the May Day protest for immigrant rights in Chicago on May 1, 2017. Vodvarka also mentioned “a huge shift to making sure immigrants are aware of their legal rights,” meaning an increase in Know Your Rights seminars and New Americans Citizenship workshops by ICIRR, because “citizenship is your strongest line of defense as an immigrant.” Vodvarka said in addition to educating themselves, immigrants must help educate other members of their community.
“ICIRR as an organization that prioritizes giving immigrants the power to speak for themselves, and seeks to amplify their voices rather than speaking on their behalf,” she said.
Another way Imam has noticed political activism in immigrant communities change in response to the Trump administration is the mobilization of older generations of immigrants to become more active than before. For instance, Imam’s father attended a protest at O’Hare International Airport with her in January to speak out against the travel ban, an uncharacteristic move that surprised his daughter.
‘This idea of becoming politically active wasn’t really in their thought process because that wasn’t a priority,” Imam said of first-generation immigrants like her father. “Their priority was to just keep their heads down and to just follow the rules and just try to climb the ladder as best as they could in order to make a living and have a better life.” However, with the rhetoric and policies of the new administration threatening their safety and way of life, older generations, like their children, are beginning to realize the importance and necessity of action.
“It’s something that has to do with our identity; you can’t push it away,” Imam said. “Everything else doesn’t really matter anymore.”