Reshaping The Immigration Narrative
by Lizania Cruz
July 15, 2019
This conversation with Albert Saint Jean and Lizania Cruz was conducted and condensed by frank news.
Albert: My name is Albert Saint Jean. I am the New York City organizer for the Black Alliance for Just Immigration [BAJI].
When I heard about BAJI, this was before Trump, I had gotten interested in volunteering, in organizing with BAJI, because a lot of the stuff they were focused on were things I’d seen throughout my life. I was born here, but I was the first of my grandmother's children born here. Everyone older than me had migrated over and I saw what they had to go through with their status, their relationship with law enforcement, their relationship with the criminal justice system, their fear of deportation. I felt like BAJI was at the nexus of a lot of those things when I found out about it three years ago – and long before Trump, because they were things affecting black people. Basically I got into it because it spoke to the things that I saw in my own personal experiences.
Lizania: I'm Lizania Cruz. I'm an artist and a designer originally from the Dominican Republic. I moved here in 2004 when I was 21 to finish college. I started We The News – doing work around shifting the current narrative on migration and trying to figure out how we [people] change.
As we move into different geographic spaces what is our greater sense of belonging and home throughout that?
I was frustrated with the way the current immigration narrative was – only talking about the majority within the minority group, and how the media was taking over the narrative. I didn't feel represented. I didn't feel like our stories were pluralistic in any way. So I started wondering what if we told our own news and our own stories – what would that look like? That's how We The News as a project started. I was talking to different organizations and someone recommended BAJI. I thought it was super interesting how they were talking about migration, blackness, and at the same time talking about the correlation of that and the criminal justice system, which for me, no other organization was doing. Getting involved with BAJI has made the project what it is today. It has also politicized me in ways I wasn't thinking about.
Image via Lizania Cruz, center, with Albert Saint Jean, 3rd from the left.
What are those ways?
Lizania: Looking more at the similarities between disenfranchised communities already in the US and the immigrant movement. Again, I don't think we do that as often, and now I'm constantly thinking of ways that story could be told, and what are the lengths, and how do we organize collectively rather than organize in silos. We're organizing for LatinX folks and maybe labor workers, and we're organizing for people that have been affected by mass incarceration, why are those two things not organized in tandem while looking at the policies in the same way?
You mentioned you feel like the narrative is not pluralistic.
And very mono.
Does the division of groups fighting for their specific causes as separate give their stories more autonomy? If all these issues are nuanced, where do they blend and how do you deliver a message that covers, or even touches on, all of the personal?
Albert: Particularly with BAJI, they look at the nexus between the similarities between African Americans and black immigrants.
The most common thread we find, is that number one, we all look at each other through a white supremacist lens.
When we talk about the immigration issue, we shy away from the racial aspect of it. This is a racial issue. The diversity of immigrants we have now is only possible because of the rights that African Americans fought for in the early 60s. The 1965 Immigration Act was a part of that, the whole civil rights act. That allowed for the diversity of other immigrants to come here. When we shy away from that, we miss a large swath of what's going on in the immigrant community. We miss talking about what are the drivers that send people here in the first place?
US policy is responsible for a large bulk of us being here. My family wouldn't have come here if it wasn't for the United States supporting a dictator for so long. Her [Lizania’s] country wouldn't be the way it is if it wasn't for US agribusinesses and foreign policy.
Where did your family come from?
Another place that they [US] supported dictatorships. It's kind of like the stories we're able to show the common thread is US policy, and a lot of it is the racialized aspect of immigration in the United States.
Lizania: I'll add to that. I see specifically in the work that we've been doing with We the News, a creation of a platform where all these stories could live together. There's not as many platforms like that. Finding a place and a platform where people could come together and share their stories and have a voice. None of us are the same and we all have different experiences, but how the commonality becomes the difference, is always what I'm interested in questioning.
Even when we facilitate the story circles, we open with a prompt that is the same for everyone. But nobody responds the same way. How do these stories sit together and how do we make a space for that to happen?
The personal narrative is a driver for policy in this case. Are you guys interested in changing policy?
Albert: Exposing policy, changing policy. Those are important. But I think with my work, what's even more important is changing structural issues.
Is policy complicit in structural issues?
Albert: Well, there's policies that are a symptom of structural racism. Most people look at the Trump era as, for what it is, a terrible era, especially for immigration. But these problems have been going on long before that. The 1996 laws were implemented after Timothy McVeigh bombed Oklahoma City. A provision they made was that anybody that commits a crime that's a foreign national would be deported. Whether it’s retroactive or not, you don't even have to be convicted. A lot of people I come across aren't convicted. Yes, it's policy driven, but a lot of it is also sustainable. I'd say a majority of this is systemic. So yeah, there's policies that are pushing against it – but also these narratives show the systemic issues I see as well.
Lizania: It's a way of popular education. I think policy is important, but I think you have to start from the bottom up and create the popular education. People vaguely understand where all these issues are coming from. And you could potentially organize to create policy – but even at BAJI, those who are organizing and those who are going to Congress to affect policy, are different.
Albert: Yeah, that's true. Sometimes I'll go to DC and help lobby for certain things or meet with city officials along local issues. But the bulk of that work is in the hands of people who specialize in policy. Not that these folks have any faith in this system, it's just that they know that this is another strategy.
They know that the system is not broken. It is inherently working the way it's supposed to work.
They feel as though we still have to use policy as a tool. So my job is to create the pressure that Lizania is talking about. Creating a space for people in the community to not only learn about themselves and their rights, but also learn to advocate for themselves. The more they start to realize that their experience is not an anecdotal experience, that this is more of a trend than a norm, they're able to do all the things she just mentioned. That's an organizer's job. To make sure that education is there. When we look at past movements, it wasn't Malcolm X or Martin Luther King who started those movements. They came out of those respective movements, to articulate the needs of the people. We have to start somewhere. I think the more we share this with people, the more likely people are going to be able to fight for liberation so to speak.
What's your dream in this?
Albert: In an ideal world?
Yeah. What do you want immigration in America to look like? To feel like?
Albert: I would say the way it was when my grandmother came in, in the 70s. You just come here – I honestly don't believe in borders, to tell you the truth. But, in my lifetime, I would like for people that are undocumented to obtain amnesty, I would like for there not to be any caps or quotas, regardless of where people come from.
Lizania: I ask this question to myself all the time. We're doing this work but what does it look like when the work is done? I think that if this system runs how it's supposed to, there wouldn’t be quotas for the people that could come here.
Albert: Diversity visas.
Lizania: There won't be diversity visas. I was just having a meeting with my lawyer, and the type of visa I’m applying for has a two year backlog, and he's like, "that's actually nothing." Plus the amount of money that goes into the process. It's just not realistic.
It’s interesting to look at the immigration argument coming from the GOP in the 80s, Bush H.W. and Reagan in 1980 are wildly different than Ted Cruz today.
Albert: What a lot of people don't realize, and this is where I hate the two party system, for the reason you pointed out, is at one point in time the Republican party was way further to the left than Democrats now, than Obama. What Reagan did, the amnesty – and don't get me wrong, all the fuckery that's happened started with Reagan in this country, it started before, but Reagan really took it off – but he gave general amnesty in the 80s. This is someone who right wing people worship, you know what I mean? When I look at Democrats and I look at how they're like, "Oh no, be realistic. This is what we can fight for."
Pit Dreamers against everyone else. Good immigrant versus bad immigrant. All of that stuff is bogus to me. It shows me how far right the pendulum has swung.
When people claim to be moderate now and think, "Oh, I'm moderate, I'm in between. I understand both sides." No, you're a conservative. When you look at the historical analysis of it and how far right this country has gotten, how this country doesn't recognize that is even scarier. The fact that it is normalized, even on the democratic side, is scary. The fact that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren can be considered extreme, it's very scary because these were all basic ideas people had.
It's interesting you brought up this thing with Reagan and Bush. I mean, Republican, Democrat, they were always messed up. But Republicans were more strategic. Coming out of the New Deal Era, they knew they had to make concessions in certain places. Especially since they had a labor shortage for certain sectors of the economy. They needed the Bracero Program and domestic workers to come over. They were like, yeah, why would I be against this? They were very practical.
Wet foot dry foot for Cubans. If they made it to the mainland of the U.S., they automatically got a green card because they were fleeing communism. The Haitians, however, were fleeing a dictator who's indiscriminately massacring whole families, women, and children on the streets. 60,000 people were massacred underneath this dictatorship, and people were fleeing. I had family members who were fleeing, but they didn't have the same privileges Cubans had. Once their foot hit land they could be apprehended and found out. I just thought that aspect of it was very interesting to me. The US link. People magically forgot that the US created the situation in El Salvador and Honduras and all these places as late as the 80s, and no one's talking about that. Why are all these people showing up here?
Like our cognitive dissonance is...that's why I like us telling our own narratives. Because we don't forget.
Do you think there’s a lack of education in America about U.S. presence in Central and South America?
Albert: I think that's true globally. Even when we talk about the Middle East we're not really clear about the roots of all those problems.
Lizania: I did a poster that was also part of We the News looking at all of the different interventions in Latin America specifically by the US.
While you're critical of American actions abroad, are you also hopeful for the "promise" of America?
Albert: No, well, I'll say this. I'm hopeful if we can tear down the structures that we have now.
If the will of the people is truly reflected, if this can become an actual democracy in which politics takes a backseat to justice.
The majority of Americans want the same things. Majority of Americans do not care about if Lizania has access to citizenship or not. But politics makes us pit each other against each other. Politics is what uplifts white privilege and makes white folks say, "hey look, you know what? These immigrants and these black folks and these other folks are threatening my security." Politics does that. In reality, most Americans want the same thing and I think that the system we have now does not allow the will of the people to really be represented.
Lizania: If we aren't hopeful, why would we do it? With my work, I'm just trying to find ways that our reality could actually be a more inclusive, a better reality for all of us. I think the reason I do the work I do is because I believe that there could be a better way and that we have to construct that way for ourselves. Hopeful is not the right word. Let’s see how America could work for our communities in a better way. Or maybe it's not only America – how can we as people of the world, live better?