At 3 p.m. last Thursday, my wife and I drove impatiently through heavy Boston traffic from the historic Faneuil Hall downtown to Harvard Square in Cambridge. Moments earlier, we had been sworn in as U.S. citizens. We both teach at Harvard, and we were rushing from our naturalization ceremony straight to a protest to defend our students against the repeal of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era immigration policy that protected people who were brought here as kids.
The ceremony aims to transform. As we had filed inside the hall, we were greeted with American iconography — flags, an eagle and busts of John Adams, Fredrick Douglass and Lucy Stone. The solemn moment, punctuated by the cheers of new citizens and their families, ritually signaled the beginning of a new era in our lives. As we emerged citizens from the Great Hall, we were endowed with new rights: We can vote, govern and serve as judges of our peers.
But more fundamentally, we now can build lives that won’t be taken away; we can work and raise family without worrying about when we need to pick up and go. These United States were now ours, too.
Yet some of my students are denied these rights. With the Trump administration abolishing DACA, my students now live in fear that the lives they have built will be wrestled away, that they could be thrown out of this country, which is theirs as much as it will ever be mine. Adding insult to injury, President Trump is using them as pawns in his political games. First, shirking his responsibility, he put their fate in the hands of Congress. Then he suggested that he would take action if Congress doesn’t, and that they will not be a deportation priority. Finally, he tweeted that they have nothing to fear “for six months.” Throughout, the abuse continues. These young people are to continue working, studying and serving this country while simply hoping that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents don’t show up, and they are expected to believe in a system that consistently rejects their rights and threatens their lives and families.
The discourse defending DACA focuses on these young people being in the United States “through no fault of their own.” This narrative vilifies their parents to avoid difficult, broader questions about immigration, racism and xenophobia. My “DACAmented” students are here thanks to their parents, who made many sacrifices to offer their children better lives. Two generations ago, James Baldwin wrote of “the American Negro”: “It is a terrible thing for an entire people to surrender to the notion that one-ninth of its population is beneath them. Until … we are able to accept that we need each other, that I am one of the people who build the country, there is little hope for the American Dream.” Baldwin’s prescient diagnosis is still germane; our society still denies the contribution of millions of undocumented Americans to the making of this country, and dismisses their rights to the fruits of what they helped build. The American Dream lives in tortured dissociation: claimed to be for all, but denied to many.
So last week, my fellow Boston professors and I protested beside a statue of Charles Sumner, an abolitionist who nearly lost his life for rejecting the Fugitive Slave Act. We crossed Massachusetts Avenue to stand in the middle of the street. As a friend put it, we wanted to bridge the distance between law and justice with our bodies. Before we were arrested, the officers informed us that we were disturbing the peace. But the peace that we disturbed is but a veneer obscuring the injustices embedded in arbitrary immigration systems and institutional racism.
I was now a citizen, able to disturb the peace without fear of being thrown out of the country. While citizens and noncitizens alike are guaranteed the right to free speech, and I and other noncitizens have joined protests before, it’s never certain what impact an arrest — even for the misdemeanors of disturbing the peace — could have on one’s status or naturalization applications. In recent months, reports indicated that border agents asked travelers attempting to enter the United States about their political views and sometimes inspected their social media. Undocumented students and those with DACA, such as Daniela Vargas, who were arrested in protests, were threatened by ICE agents. Others, like Wendy Contreras, who do not fit the stated criteria for being a priority for deportation, were indeed deported. As of last week, I am now safe from the environment of fear and suspicion that so often prevents noncitizens from fully expressing their opinions and protesting measures that they find unjust. And my rights came with a duty to participate in the American tradition of disobedience from Harriet Tubman to Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez to Harvey Milk, from the Battle of Michigan Avenue to Standing Rock and many others.
Along with 28 colleagues, I was arrested. We were only in custody for few hours before being released on personal recognizance. The plastic handcuffs were not particularly tight, and the officer kindly inquired whether the fan in the police van was working. On Tuesday, the first group of us appeared in court for arraignment, with the rest of us scheduled to appear on Wednesday and Thursday. The district attorney dropped the charges and the case was dismissed. It was not difficult to see that most of the officers who arrested and processed us, the prosecutors and the judge who dismissed our cases understood what we wanted to say. Their actions were first steps in bridging this gap between law and justice. They also demonstrated the gap between the Trump administration’s xenophobic and discriminatory discourses and local governments’ understanding of the place of immigrants and undocumented Americans in our communities. The sympathy we were offered was also a reminder of our privilege and cultural capital. The presumption of innocence and the willingness to listen and understand were far from how many others experience policing and the justice system. It was a reminder of what we owe this society that affords us such privilege.
Our country faces a moment that will redefine its identity. Economic problems and political opportunism were the kindling that inflamed ongoing racism, misogyny and xenophobia. While some believe that such hatred was in the past, black, brown and queer Americans know otherwise: This hatred was never in the past. It is the lived experience of many people in this country. Today, the fight for the soul of this country intensifies and is fought precisely over our black, brown and queer bodies. The fight for the rights of DACA recipients and of the millions of undocumented Americans is another key moment in the history of American civil rights. Those of us who enjoy the protections of citizenship, let alone the privileges of wealth, or the benefits of unmarked race or gender, must now step up and do our part to forge a more just and perfect union.
As I pledged allegiance to the flag, I was reminded of Baldwin’s words: “The flag to which you have pledged allegiance, has not pledged allegiance to you.” In my first day as a citizen, I joined my colleagues in disturbing the peace, and I was arrested with them in hopes that the flag I had given my allegiance to will swear allegiance to all of us who make this country what it is.