Letter From Arizona: Immigrant Rights Youth Organizer Leilani Clark Speaks

Letter From Arizona: Immigrant Rights Youth Organizer Leilani Clark Speaks

For Tucson native and immigrant rights activist Leilani Clark, there are two Tucsons. The one in her head – a desert oasis where, just a short ten-minute drive from downtown, you find yourself curving through rugged, sandy cliffs sparsely populated with wild desert plants like the scrubby-looking, coral-tipped ocotillo and green-trunked palo verde tree, all under a bright, shining moon. And then there is the one in reality – the same scene, but with a convoy of border patrol trucks cutting through the frame.

“I am looking at [the debate] from an indigenous perspective. I see the state that my family is in on the [Indian] reservation in northern New Mexico and that’s always been their land,” said Clark, who is half Native American and half African-American!. “And yet we have people that are obviously new to Arizona and they are saying ‘Get out of our land!’ There is this constant feeling of being an outsider in your own community.”

For her, Arizona has only ever been known as one thing – home. Born and raised in Tucson, Clark embodies the many contradictions inherent in the Arizona of today. Her heritage is half-indigenous, but her brown skin means the word “illegal” is often hurled in her direction; she is a proud graduate of the Tucson Unified School District’s ethnic studies program, now slated for closure, and is using what she learned there not to be anti-American, but to push for an America in which she can be proud to live.

Tucson is the closest major city to the big border town of Nogales, Arizona, just across the border from Nogales, Mexico. As a major crossing point for undocumented immigrants from Mexico, Clark says that the city was already living in an environment of “low-intensity warfare: you have the raids, you have the checkpoints. You have the constant military vigilance in your community.”

But since Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed SB 1070 into law in April, which would allow police to question anyone they suspect of being undocumented, Clark says there has been an even sharper escalation in “this climate of fear in Tucson and Arizona.” She has since helped to conduct school walkouts and protests and was one of nine students who chained themselves to the Arizona state capitol to protest the signing of SB 1070.

Clark says she was first politicized by the the Border Protection, Anti-terrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005, otherwise known as the Sensenbrenner bill after its chief architect, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin), which would have fortified the Mexico-US border fence, allowed city police to detain undocumented immigrants and brought in electronic ID cards. The bill was a catalyst for protests by millions of people for immigration reform in 2006 – a junior in high school at the time, Clark took part in a walkout that would spark her continued activism. It was around this time she took an internship with Coalicion de Derechos Humanos, the immigrant rights group she still volunteers with now.

According to a report by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, “Millenials,” as the age group that was born roughly between 1970 and 2000 is known, in the 2008 president election the turnout gap “between voters under and over the age of 30 was the smallest it had been in any election
since 18- to 20-year-olds were given the right to vote in 1972,” showing a high level of civic engagement.

Sara Haile-Mariam, communications and outreach associate with Campus Progress, an organization working to empower youth to organize around progressive issues, says youth activists are “leveraging the collective power of a generation through organizing.” Haile-Mariam has witnessed this growing trend first hand as an organizer on Barack Obama’s campaign for president.

Haile-Mariam, who has been in the United States since she immigrated from Ethiopia at the age of two, was still waiting for her citizenship and, therefore, could not vote during Obama’s election in 2008. Despite this, she worked for the campaign because she felt that she had “a responsibility to check that and be vocal about the change we want.”

“Members of Congress may vote for or against legislation, but we vote for or against members of Congress,” said Haile-Mariam.

Clark is now 21 years old, sports a tattoo with a Che Guevara quote in Spanish, “Let’s be realistic and do the impossible,” and was a guest speaker at a number of immigrant rights workshops at the 2010 United States Social Forum. Clark hopes to stress the importance of youth participation in struggles such as that against SB 1070. “We [Arizona] are the canary in the mine for everything anti-immigrant legislation,” she says. And if the youth don’t fight against it, they will be the ones who have to live with it.

“Everybody in Arizona is connected to somebody without papers,” says Clark of the fallacy that the immigration debate does not affect everyone, “whether you know it or not.”

“For the state of Arizona to be known as the state of terror and fear,” Clark says, hurts her, as does the role of desert in immigration enforcement policies. “The desert was meant to give life and now she is being used as a killing machine.”

The Tucson Sector in southern Arizona has been the site of the vast majority of “unauthorized border crosser” deaths, about 90 percent, according to a report by the Binational Migration Institute (BMI) at the University of Arizona. And the funneling of immigrants attempting to cross the border through the most deadly part of the desert has been part of immigration policy.

“These so-called prevention-through-deterrence measures, initially implemented in the mid-to-late-1990s, that intentionally redirected hundreds-of-thousands of unauthorized migrants away from previously busy crossing points in California and Texas into Arizona’s perilous and deadly landscape,” the report states. “BMI’s findings unambiguously confirm previous evidence that such U.S. policies did create the ‘funnel effect’ and that it is indeed the primary cause of death of thousands of North American, Central American and South American unauthorized men, woman and children who have died while trying to enter the U.S.”

What happens on the border doesn’t stay on the border, it is going to bleed out,” said Clark, quoting a mentor at Derechos Humanos. “I think to myself, wow, if these people had blonde hair and blue eyes, would people give a damn?”

It is a recognition of the humanity of the people she has come across in shelters, working in kitchens and carrying gallons of water to cross the border with that Clark is fighting for – and staying in Arizona for. “To leave it all behind because the oppressors scared us out? That’s not the way to go, at least not for me.”