Collective Power For Migrant Justice: Interview W/ AFSC Intern Saul Aleman

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Photo: Homestead ERA

Note: Lucy Duncan came back from visiting Quaker meetings in South Florida with Saul Aleman really excited about his energy for the migrant rights movement, for using nonviolence as a tool for change, and for telling stories and bringing forward migrant voices to change the narrative around immigrants in this country. She described Saul as someone who you felt had the energy to make real change, who seemed to be at the center of many actions while including and supporting the leadership of many people.  She suggested that I interview him. I found his energy infectious and was really impressed with how much he is moving forward with a collective of young migrant activists. – Greg

Greg Elliott (GE): Share a little bit about your background and what you bring to your social justice work.

Saul Aleman (SA): I was born in San Luis Potosi, Mexico. I came to the U.S. at the age of 3, and part of the reason my parents took the big step and decided to come to the United States was that we had very few resources, like we didn’t have enough food for me or my Mom.

I decided to join the immigrant rights movement after I graduated from high school. It really shook me that there was no opportunity for me to go to college. My dad was always the person to tell me that as long as you have good grades, everything will go swell, don’t worry about the rest. In our situation, being undocumented was something we knew about but didn’t really understand, or I didn’t really comprehend what that would really mean for me, and so I couldn’t go to college.

Luckily, I met a brave warrior. His name is Diego Sanchez, and he recruited me into the movement and helped me go to school, and since then I’ve been involved with the movement. I co-founded Homestead Equal Rights for All (Homestead ERA), and it’s a youth-led immigrant rights group here in Homestead. It’s the largest immigrant youth-led organization in Florida.

And at this point after four years of organizing, I really get to take a step back and be able to mentor a lot of the new leaders. You see a pattern of different struggles and challenges that these activists have, and so I play a really key role in helping them build their leadership, as well as helping people develop actions, campaigns, DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) forums, and all of that good stuff.

GE: Could you tell us a little bit about your work with American Friends Immigrant Services (AFIS)?

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Photo: Homestead ERA

SA: My work with American Friends Immigrant Services (AFIS) here in Miami has been as an intern, and my role as an intern is to empower undocumented youth in South Florida. I work closely with organizations like Homestead ERA, We Count has several young key, amazing leaders, Florida’s Farmworkers Association, the Florida Immigrant Coalition, and we do a lot of movement building together. I train a lot of the leaders that are coming up in the leadership, and we developed a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) forum to educate people on the eligibility of DACA and now on the eligibility of DAPA (Deferred Action for Parents Accountability).

At the local level, we are working to end the collaboration between Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the local police. There’s been a lot of check points and raids. A lot of people who are eligible for DAPA—as well as people who are eligible for DACA, people who have no criminal convictions and are good members of our community—have been caught up in these raids, arrested, detained, and in some cases, deported.

So we went to this Council meeting and we told them this was happening, and three or four of them are going to have a meeting with us now, one-on-one, to talk about the collaboration between ICE and the local police because they were unaware it was going on.

Immediately after that council meeting, there was a tense conversation with the local police department, us, and the chief. We had a conversation on ICE and the collaboration. They were a little uneducated and tried to educate us. They told us that most of the people that they are helping ICE arrest are people with criminal convictions, and we’re like, “Well, statistics say that 70 percent of the people being deported have no criminal convictions.” They were a little in awe and surprised, so we’re going to be having a meeting with all of them soon.

On narrative change, changes in the movement, and collective power

GE: I’ve noticed that the narrative of immigrant justice is changing toward migrant justice, migrant youth, etc. Why is that language shift happening, and why is it important?

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Photo: Homestead ERA

SA: So the reason why we’re now calling everyone the “undocumented community,” “undocumented youth,” and “undocumented parents” is to put a face to, and to bring to light, a lot of the people who were left out of the conversation originally. A lot of people like my parents, and even parents who may not have had legal, permanent resident children—bringing them into the conversation to give them some sort of identity and restore dignity to our community. That’s one of the reasons that we want to reshape or rename the narrative to include more people.

In 2008 and 2009, the DREAMer narrative began—this whole idea that young people were being brought to this country through no fault of their own, and that these kids have grown up in schools here, they are the top-notch kids in our schools, have never been arrested, are valedictorians, and all of that good stuff, and that it wasn’t their fault they were brought here. It was through the actions of their parents, right?

The immigrant justice narrative, a lot of people associate that, especially in these last 10 years, to DREAMers advocating for higher education. But the migrant justice narrative is a little more inclusive of parents, of farm workers, of people who don’t fit that valedictorian narrative. I think stressing that is very important. They are also part of the migrant community and the undocumented community. It is key if we want to be able to pass bills in the Senate or House that include a lot more of our family members and our community members, if not all of them.

These last two years have been really inspirational for me seeing organizations like the DREAMers’ Moms come about, as well as United Families, and other organizations that are parent-led to bring the voice of parents who came here as well, and to put a face to the issue, to start humanizing people who were left out of the conversation in the past years, and to include them into this fight. I’ve been really in awe of that, and I’ve been noticing that that continues to develop throughout the years.

GE: As an activist, what inspires you and motivates you to continue doing the work that you’re doing?

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Photo: Homestead ERA

SA: One of the reasons that I’m consistently inspired to continue to do the work that I’m doing is seeing people who don’t necessarily have to be part of the struggle, be part of the struggle. A lot of black and brown folks and even white people who are joining the movement and becoming powerful allies of it and raising the voice of the migrant community and undocumented community. And I really encourage that. I’ve seen a lot of Quakers take initiative, and that’s truly been a humbling experience. Also, for me, it’s seeing a lot of undocumented youth who are struggling through high school, and not fitting that valedictorian narrative. I really enjoy seeing them be part of organizations and to educate themselves on the struggle, educate themselves on their history, and educate themselves on why they belong. That entire process of empowering and inspiring themselves is very, very amazing to me.

Also the power that we have as a collective never ceases to impress me and to inspire me. Recently, at the action we had at Marco Rubio’s [presidential bid] announcement, I saw people take initiative in ways that they hadn’t done, in ways I haven’t seen in a while.  Marco Rubio was having a screening outside of the Freedom Tower for his supporters who couldn’t be inside of the building, so we decided to go into that supporters’ rally, while they were watching it, stand in front of the screen, and drop a big banner saying, “Rubio’s dream is our nightmare.”

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Photo: Homestead ERA

When media came in, people in that rally got very, very mad, to the point they were calling us all of these disgusting words that really dehumanized us and divided us, to the point where I saw mothers who are part of the struggle almost cry.

At one point, there was a supporter who came into our rally just because he was inspired. He didn’t understand nonviolence and peace work. At one point he was about to fight with one of the Rubio supporters, but myself and another leader from Colorado got in between both of them, locked our arms, and started chanting. When we started chanting, the supporter of Rubio backed off and really felt that what he was doing maybe was not right. At the same time, our supporter calmed down and realized that we are an organization that does not support that and we would not stand by that but that we were here to build each other up.

Being able to go to lots of protests and help bring awareness that we’re a peaceful organization, that we’re a peaceful movement, and that we’re nonviolent is very powerful for me.

On how to get involved in the movement

GE: For allies who are looking to get involved in Florida and beyond, would you recommend that people really clue in to what is going on in their specific state?

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Photo: Homestead ERA

SA: In Florida, I’m part of a team who’s developing the Florida Immigrant Youth Network. This coalition of organizations was done a while ago to bring undocumented youth and allies to a space to inspire and encourage leaders across the state of Florida, so if they just want to get involved at the local level, folks can definitely talk to me, and I can connect them to these amazing leaders across the state. I feel that everything starts at the local level, real change can be brought at the local level, and that’s how we build national power. I definitely encourage people to get involved in an organization at a local level.

If they want to get involved in another state, I also encourage people to reach out to me. I have a database of organizations in this country, who I think are in 26 or 27 states, so we can definitely connect them to a local organization in order to join the fight and be part of the struggle.

GE: It sounds like you have the resources for if anyone wants to get involved, you can let them know about organization in their state. Certainly anyone in Florida who’s a Quaker can get involved by contacting you directly. You mentioned seeing allies from the Quaker community has been helpful to the movement. Do you want to say anything else about your experience working with Friends?

Photo: Homestead ERASA: I had the opportunity to be part of Southeastern Yearly Meeting (SEYM) with Quakers in central Florida. And they were able to give us space to talk about migrant justice work and the undocumented community and the movement that we have and how it is. We were able to reconnect with a lot of these Quakers who I guess for a while had not been connected, at least in the Southeast, to the undocumented community and the immigrant rights movement. We inspired a lot of people who wanted to be part of the struggle who said, if you have an action in my area, I need to be there; if you’re in Tallahassee getting involved in pressuring for change, I can house you. That was very humbling and knowing that they have our backs and knowing that they want to be allies of the struggle was very inspiring. Being able to reestablish the relationship that existed with Quakers is always awesome.