Human rights lunch honors courageous undocumented activists

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At every convention, the AFT lifts up human rights heroes at a lunch in their honor, and this year three brave activists took the stage to share their experiences as undocumented immigrants. Angela Chen, of Pre-Health Dreamers; Patrice Lawrence, of the UndocuBlack Network; and Greisa Martinez Rosas, of United We Dream, each have very different stories, but together presented a common sentiment: Despite the threat of deportation and discrimination, they are “undocumented and unafraid,” determined to fight for more-reasonable immigration policies and a better life here in the United States, for themselves and their families.

Executive Vice President Mary Cathryn Ricker, who participated in the panel discussion with these heroes, pointed out that the AFT has a history of standing strong with undocumented immigrants. “We have fought for passage of the Dream Act and against this deportation machine,” she said. “Lots of us have put our bodies on the line on more than one occasion to call for a real solution for Dreamers.” AFT locals have conducted workshops for undocumented people to keep them informed and safe, and the AFT maintains a website of resources about preventing deportation. Many members have declared that they are “unafraid educators” supporting their undocumented colleagues and students.

Patrice Lawrence with Mary Cathryn Ricker

Lawrence, of UndocuBlack (pictured above, with mary Cathryn Ricker), was not always free from fear, though. “I hid the details about my life,” she said. But once she found a group of other black people who either had been undocumented at one point in their lives or were currently undocumented—the members of UndocuBlack—she was comfortable enough to open up. “I felt safe in that space.”

Despite the challenges of being both black and undocumented—a double dose of discrimination—Lawrence and other members of UndocuBlack make a point to “hold onto our joy, to our resilience, to our lived experiences,” she said. “The fact that we live each day means that we are triumphant.” They also continue the practical work of urging policymakers toward passing the Dream Act, preserving Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, and fighting the repeal of temporary protected status for people from select countries—many of them majority-black.

Chen, of Pre-Health Dreamers (below, center), also sounded hopeful. The very nature of her organization, which supports undocumented immigrants who want to become health professionals, is forward-thinking: Its members are enrolled in higher education institutions, including medical schools, and aspire to careers as doctors, nurses and other health professionals. Many of them—75 percent—are the first in their families to graduate not just from college but from high school. Pre-Health Dreamers also advocates for more-equitable health policy and better access to healthcare for other undocumented and documented people, and for the ability to be licensed in their professions.

Angela Chen; Patrice Lawrence; Greisa Martinez Rosas

At United We Dream, Martinez Rosas (above, left) says her members are “stewards of hope.” “We have a clear vision: We want to be able to build a nation and community where young people of color can be safe, can be themselves, have everything they need and are safe.” And, recalling her positive experience with her own childhood teachers, she sees the possibility when she stands with union members. As a fearful child growing up in Dallas, Martinez Rosas said her fourth-grade teacher, Ms. Pat, was the only person she told about her undocumented status. She felt safe with her teacher. “As I stepped into this room,” said Martinez Rosas, looking around the conference room, she saw that “this room is filled with Ms. Pats.”

When Ricker asked the activists what AFT delegates and leadership can do for them, they didn’t hesitate. Chen’s “most sincere ask” was to “uphold the principles of access, inclusion and equity in your classrooms. Stay politically and civically engaged.”

Lawrence was more specific: “If our elected officials are not doing what they’re supposed to do, vote them out! I don’t have the privilege to vote, so I need you to do that for me.”

[Virginia Myers, photos by Pam Wolfe]