Last week The Root’s Keli Goff wrote about the child refugees fleeing violence and poverty in Central America and seeking refuge at our border. Unfortunately, she argued that we shouldn’t protect these brown children, and supports deporting them – while claiming that we have our own black children to care about first, citing recent violence in the streets of Chicago.
Well, we are those black and brown children she’s talking about.
One of us – Phillip – grew up in the same Chicago that Goff says she wants to protect, while the other – Isabel – is a young immigrant who came to this country as an undocumented child fleeing violence in Colombia. And in our life journeys seeking justice for all young people, we have committed ourselves to building united social movements that fervently proclaim, “Our lives matter.”
Every one of our lives matters, whether we are black, white or brown, queer or straight; whether we crossed the border or our ancestors came here as indentured servants or on slave ships.
We reject the notion that black lives should matter to our president and policymakers while the lives of the unaccompanied child refugees fleeing devastation in Central America shouldn’t. Because in both cases, they’re surviving or fleeing violence rooted in our own failed policies, like the so-called war on drugs.
In fact, young people across this country are suffering because most of our politicians do not act as if any of our lives matter. If they did, education would be a primary investment over the failed foreign and domestic policies that have only contributed to our criminalization. If our lives mattered, America’s immigration policy would prioritize family safety and unity instead of prioritizing border militarization and profits for the private prison industry.
We reject the notion that black lives should matter to our president and policymakers while the lives of the unaccompanied child refugees fleeing devastation in Central America shouldn’t.
In the 1980s, families fleeing Central American civil wars between guerrillas and U.S.-backed dictators landed in cities like Los Angeles. Youths who had just witnessed the horrors of war in their home countries now faced the reality of America’s streets during the height of the war on drugs. Many joined gangs feeling that they had no other recourse to protect themselves.
Instead of being treated as if their lives and their trauma mattered, these young people were deported back to countries where the only people they knew were other young gang members. As a number of researchers have observed, the U.S. deportation regime helped turn two small street gangs started by young refugees into transnational criminal organizations operating across Central America with partners in the U.S., eventually creating the ripples of refugees we continue to see today.
The story of young African Americans on the South Side of Chicago is not that different. Since the early 1900s, black families had fled the lynching and racial violence of the Jim Crow South, only to be met with redlining, unemployment and refined racial segregation in Chicago. Without adequate jobs and political power, many young people who had witnessed the horrors of Jim Crow also began forming gangs to protect themselves from the violence of a society that continued to degrade them as either criminal or cheap labor.
Instead of being offered adequate education and opportunities to thrive, these young people were subject to mass incarceration. The criminal justice system, also fueled by the war on drugs, turned Chicago’s small street gangs into national organizations by releasing inmates into a society with no adequate infrastructure for their reintegration and rehabilitation.
Both of these groups – and the youth across this nation – rely on policymakers and our president to prove to them that their lives do, in fact, matter.
And as José Luis Vilson, writing for The Root, also noted last week, deporting child refugees who are victims of the same failed policies will never reopen even one of the 50 schools that the president’s former chief of staff, and current Chicago mayor, Rahm Emanuel has closed. Believing this lie only caters to the whims of pandering politicians.
As young people who have grown tired of politicians pitting us against each other, we stand together here in Florida to build up our collective power. Our communities are not pawns to be picked up and maneuvered whenever it fits political strategy. Our work and our vision are not anchored to the politics of scarcity that are perpetuated by those who live in abundance.
We will not be divided. We will continue fighting together – from Chicago’s South Side to the Gaza Strip to Central America's Northern Triangle – holding accountable all who help to line the pockets of those who profit from our suffering.
(Phillip Agnew is executive director of Dream Defenders and Isabel Sousa-Rodriguez is youth organizer for the Florida Immigrant Coalition.)