Calling from a Migrant Lockup in Arizona

Why the DREAM Act should set Hector Lopez Free

“We’re not criminals,” says the young man on the phone. “I’m not here to use the system.”

If he could address the US Congress when it votes on the long-lost DREAM Act, 21-year-old Hector Lopez would ask for freedom from a “106-day nightmare” that started in late August when American immigration authorities ripped him out of his tax-paying, college-going, hard-working life and deported him to Mexico.

He would happily save American taxpayers the money they are now spending on his room and board in a lockup built for migrants near Florence, Arizona.

What I’ve said the whole time is that people like us – the college dreamers – didn’t have any choice. We were brought to this country as children and now we’re your future doctors, lawyers, and neighbors. We’re the future of this country and they’re trying to kick us out. Here you have people who are willing to fight for this country and all we’re asking is permission to call this country our home for the rest of our lives.

“Congress could enable so many productive people by passing the DREAM Act,” says Lopez. “And they would be foolish not to.” With all the things that Lopez has to worry about on Tuesday night, the main thing that keeps his mind busy is how to manage the expectations of what Congress will do with the DREAM Act on Wednesday. “The DREAM Act is finally being voted on,” he says. “I’m trying not to think about it, but it’s making me a nervous wreck.”

Hope is a serious thing to contend with when you’re locked up in Arizona thinking about holiday food. If Congress passes the DREAM Act, Lopez has been advised by attorneys that he would be made a free man. The DREAM Act would make it legal for young folks like him to return to college, get back to work, and make a future in the hometowns of America.

“We could ask for my immediate release,” he says, letting his hope build up momentarily. “So I’m hoping for the best. But on the other hand, I’m trying to stay pessimistic, too.” After all, it’s the US Congress we’re talking about here. They have had good days in history. Maybe even enough good days to make up for the bad.

Whichever way the DREAM Act goes this week, Lopez has backup plans. It’s been three weeks since he crossed the border from Mexico with papers in hand requesting a hearing for “credible fear.” The hearing is usually done in two parts, says immigrant advocate Ralph Isenberg. Lopez is still waiting for part one.

“If people have to wait a long time for the hearing process to begin, that’s a problem in itself,” argues Isenberg from the office of his real estate business in Dallas. “ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) has the discretion to release Hector to his home immediately.” Alongside the effort to free Lopez, Isenberg is also working for the return of another college dreamer, Saad Nabeel, who was deported from Texas in 2009 during the first semester of his freshman year.

If Congress and ICE continue to harass Hector, Saad, and the millions of college dreamers that they typify, then Isenberg will sponsor a civil rights delegation to visit Hector on Friday.

Rev. Peter Johnson was born into a civil rights family in Plaquemine, Louisiana. He was at the Freedom Rock Baptist Church the night state troopers rode their horses right up to the pulpit. That was the night James Farmer had to be smuggled out of town alive in a coffin.

“I want to tell Hector that he is not alone,” says Rev. Johnson over speaker phone. “There are people all over the world who believe in dignity for all human beings and who have a problem with America when it sets out to destroy families.

“There is a long history of America destroying families,” says Johnson. “Under slavery, they would send the father to Georgia, the mother to Alabama, and the children to Virginia. Today America is literally destroying families. I know of cases where a mother puts her kids in school for the day. The mother is picked up by immigration and sent to Haskell (Texas) prison. And when the children get out of school their mother is gone. They are literally destroying families.”

Johnson plans to take books by Gandhi and King as gifts for Lopez. He has a Gandhi book on nonviolence and a favorite by King, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?  Destroying families is chaos, not community. Where will we go from here?

“Look here,” says Isenberg jumping into the conversation. “I’m reading the inscription in Rev. Johnson’s copy of Where Do We Go from Here? It says: ‘Peter, Read this book. There will be a test. In fact, now that I think about it, life will be a test for you, (signed) Martin.’”

“That’s right,” says Rev. Johnson, “and when Dr. King gave you a book to read you made sure you read it because you knew he was going to question you about it.  Where Do We Go from Here was a book written in preparation for the Poor People’s Campaign (of 1968).  The Poor People’s campaign was going to unite Black and White and Hispanic people so they could confront the trap of poverty and unemployment.”  It was a handbook for a movement to come.

“King specifically talked about people South of the border. He said it was America’s moral obligation to help them find a better life.” The timing of Friday’s visit to Florence, Arizona will have three dimensions of significance for Rev. Johnson. It’s nearly a month away from the annual celebration of King’s birthday. The holiday season is coming, which is “a season of forgiveness and atonement.” And finally, December 10 will be the 62nd Anniversary for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“Fundamentally, the case of Hector Lopez is a question of human rights,” says Rev. Johnson. “America is punishing a man who was brought here only weeks after he was born. In our treatment of Hector Lopez, we need to remember the human rights values of dignity and respect for all.”

Greg Moses is editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review and author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. He can be reached at: gmosesx@prodigy.net. Read other articles by Greg, or visit Greg's website.