Arizona Students Are Teaching Us How To Fight Back

Don't go to Arizona looking for beat-down brown people. Young people are full of creative opposition and practical solutions.

By Rinku Sen Apr 08, 2011

Last week, I went to Tucson for the first time in a couple of years. In the place where white politicians, cops and movie stars have been working to intimidate people of color for the last 20 years, you might think that the Latino community and other people of color are huddled, cowering and confused about how to proceed. Instead, I found Arizona’s young people vowing to stay and fighting in some pretty creative ways.

At the University of Arizona, where I spoke as part of their "Who Draws the Line" series, students have put up a border fence designed to provide daily teaching opportunities about what is so wrong with our narrow and race-baiting immigration debate. The project is a collaboration between No Mas Muertes/No More Deaths, which works to prevent people dying as they cross the U.S.-Mexico border, and the Jewish Voice for Peace, which works to end Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The fence spans the length of four football fields and runs along one side of the campus quad, forcing students to walk all the way around it. While a few people have complained about the inconvenience, student leaders told me that many people said thanks for providing a focal point that got people to rethink borders.

College Republicans put out their own perspective through a memorial near the fence honoring fallen border patrol officers. I thought No Mas Muertes did a great job of responding when that memorial was vandalized (someone wrote bad things in chalk on the sidewalk in front of it). Member Francisco Baires told KGUN9 News that he was appalled that someone "desecrated" the Border Patrol memorial and that the fence honored all those who died on the border, migrant and law enforcement alike. Good answer.

I also met Matt Matera, who works with Scholarships A-Z, an organization that helps undocumented young people figure out how to get into and pay for college. I see so much power in efforts that bring together services for real-world challenges, political education and organizing, and these folks do an excellent job of that. Their brochure highlights interesting facts–for instance, that 10 states have proactive policies to create access to higher education for undocumented students, and that not all students without papers are Latino(!), and that people cannot be denied admission to a public university because of their immigration status. They also list clear, practical solutions, like "apply for scholarships that do not require U.S. residency or citizenship"–who knew there was such a thing?–and use social media to crowd-source your tuition.

I wish I had known of this group when I was touring with my book The Accidental American. At each gig, a young brown person would come to me very, very quietly and ask what they could do to enable their college education and change their status. Now I know at least part of the answer, and I’m passing Scholarships A-Z along. Most of all, I love number seven in their tips: "Be patient. Laws can be changed. Don’t give up, be future oriented." I can’t think of any better advice for all of us.

Thanks to Socorro Carrizosa for these great photos.