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Fighting Anti-Immigrant Laws…for Children and Families

Abdi Soltani,
Executive Director,
ACLU of Northern California
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May 14, 2012

What do anti-immigrant laws have to do with children and youth?

In my 8-year-old son Cyrus's Spanish immersion program at a Berkeley public school, there are families facing deportation. The teacher taught a class on it and the children wrote letters to President Obama, in Cyrus' words, "to keep families together."

So when I told Cyrus I was going on a long road trip to fight discriminatory anti-immigrant laws, he said "Do it, Baba." And with his vote of approval, off I went.

My family seeing me off at the kick-off event in San Francisco.

On April 25, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on Arizona's S.B. 1070 case, the "show me your papers" law which turns every police officer into an immigration agent, and every street corner into a border check point. Laws like this lead to discrimination and racial profiling, and encourage unconstitutional detention and due process violations of citizens and noncitizens alike.

I came of age when California voters passed Proposition 187 in 1994, my state's version of immigration law. Although state-based anti-immigrant laws aren't completely new, they certainly are proliferating.

The National ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project and ACLU affiliates across the country are fighting discriminatory anti-immigrant bills in every state where they are proposed and litigating them in every state where they have passed.

When a federal judge allowed provisions of Alabama's anti-immigrant law to go into effect last fall, the ACLU started gathering stories about the harm caused by the law. One of the stories that moved me most is that of an 8th grader named Brandon, who lives in Clanton, Ala.. In a video documenting Brandon's take on the new law, you can see that his community lives with fear, but his message is one of hope. Watching his video and his friend Jocelyn's video, with the Arizona case just a few months away, I knew we had to do more. We couldn't leave Brandon's call for help unanswered.

So my colleagues and I planned a nationwide campaign tour called Estamos Unidos, which means "We Are United" in Spanish. We launched the campaign as we introduced the Spanish language website, against the backdrop of the Arizona case and the moving stories from Alabama — taking the opportunity to use our First Amendment right to petition the president, in Spanish and English, to stand against discriminatory state and federal programs.It is the cornerstone of an initiative to more deeply engage Latino communities in the ACLU's mission of protecting everyone's full range of constitutional rights.

On April 22, we set off on a road trip across America from California to South Carolina — from sea to shining sea. We spent the eve and the day of the Supreme Court argument at vigils and protests in Arizona, then headed east through New Mexico and spent a day in a Texas-size parade in San Antonio. From there, we went petitioning at a flea market in Houston, met the day laborers who rebuilt New Orleans after Katrina, and attended a church service in Mississippi with indigenous Guatemalans for whom Spanish itself is a second language.

When we reached Clanton, Ala., I got to meet Brandon (pictured above), the young leader whose video inspired the campaign, in person. He and his community had gathered for a Know Your Rights workshop organized by the ACLU of Alabama in conjunction with the Estamos Unidos tour. Brandon was even more inspiring, humble, bold and endearing in person than I could have imagined. His community stood with him. And the ACLU stands with him to defend the basic constitutional rights that apply to every person in our country.

As we loaded our team back in the van for our drive to Atlanta, Brandon stood at the sliding door and thanked us for what we are doing. I told Brandon that we owe the thanks to him and his community, for inspiring us and others to learn more and take action. "Your message sparked all this." And Brandon looked at us all and said, "I now know the power of words."

Words are powerful indeed. And we must continue to speak out. Will you stand with Brandon, with immigrants, citizens and the ACLU in opposition to discriminatory laws that tear families apart? Sign our petition to President Obama and send the message…"Estamos Unidos."

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