Friday, October 15, 2010

Deportation fears erode trust

Earlier this year, I and three other immigrant students left Miami on a 1,500-mile walk to our nation’s capital. We wanted Americans to understand what life is like for the hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants like me who are unable to fully participate in American society.

I won’t forget the day that we walked through Atlanta. There was a marching band and hundreds of people waiting. The mayor sent a representative, elected officials spoke and we were pursued by news outlets.

But what I remember most was a Brazilian couple who came from Cobb County to give me Brazilian food; they had heard that I was born in Rio. I was deeply touched.

They told me about their lives in Cobb as undocumented immigrants. I was familiar with Cobb, because it’s widely known as one of the worst places for immigrants to live in Georgia

Last October, the ACLU of Georgia documented the experience of the Cobb Latino community: one of fear, isolation and racial profiling.

The Brazilian couple were expecting a baby and told me that they were afraid every time they got inside the car to go to the hospital for prenatal care. Their eyes got a little watery when they talked about the possibility of having their baby inside a detention center.

I looked at them, gave them a hug and promised that I would tell their story. The 287(g) program is separating our families and causing so much pain in our communities.

Cobb is one of the four Georgia localities that are part of 287(g), which gives authority to local law enforcement to act as immigration agents, much like Arizona’s SB 1070. The program is widely criticized by human and civil rights groups because it promotes racial profiling and erodes trust between community members and the police.

I also recall the unfortunate case of the young undocumented student, Jessica Colotl, who was detained for driving without a license. She almost got deported, even though she lived most of her life in the U.S.

I am no different from Jessica. I was born in Brazil and sent to Miami at the age of 14 to live with my relatives because my mother was ill and could no longer care for me.

When I arrived here, my family told me that in this nation, if I worked hard all of my dreams would come true.

I took their words to heart and graduated from high school with honors, only to find barriers because I could not adjust my immigration status. I could not afford the out-of-state fees for college.

But a year later, I was given a chance. Miami Dade College accepted me into their honors program. I became the student government president, helped to found a club to build schools in Uganda and became one of the best students in Florida.

In 2008, I made USA Today’s All-USA Community College Academic Team. I also contributed to my community with more than 1,000 hours of service and I made Florida proud of me.

Imagine if this opportunity was not presented to me?

I believe education is the only way out of poverty; for that reason, I am working hard to finish my bachelor’s degree and become a teacher.

I am undocumented just like Jessica and the Cobb couple who were afraid of going to the hospital. We have hopes and dreams to make our families and this country better. We cannot allow our communities to live in fear from programs that promote racial profiling.

That’s why I am back in Georgia to join forces with local and national civil and human rights advocates as well as undocumented students from Georgia demanding an end to the 287(g) program in Cobb.

Felipe Matos is an undocumented student from Trail of DREAMs and an organizer for the national campaign against 287(g).

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