Tearing Down Invisible Walls at the NIIC2019
Last week, Mi Familia Vota attended the nation’s largest immigration integration symposium, the National Immigrant Integration Conference (NIIC), with over 1000 community leaders from across the country. We planned to lead sessions on how to attain “Full Citizenship For All” and how to help our community use their civic power. The NIIC was held in Detroit, Michigan, a city with a rich history of spectacular mobilizations – from labor movements to African-American pursuit for racial justice. Detroit captured a relatable scene being experienced across America: Motor City is in the throes of economic inequality leading to harsh gentrification. Lyft workers repeatedly lamented that their district used to be a safe-haven where they retreated from posh neighborhoods, but today the unbalanced revival of the city – by outsiders making investments that exclude long-time residents – has pained the original population. “Before you could escape it,” said one driver referring to visible injustice and systemic discrimination, “but now it’s in your face all day long.”
There was so much symbolism in this city– from the highway signs marking Flint a mere 50 miles away to the flags outside of the General Motors building at half staff in honor of the late Elijah Cummings. The most touching for me, however, was our spectacular view of Canada across the Detroit River. Less than half a mile away, Windsor, the City of Roses, gleamed in the most picturesque way through the windows of our conference building. The sight was as invigorating as it was enervating because many of our NIIC attendees couldn’t breach that half-mile crossing, unless they didn’t want to be let back into the country. DACA recipients and undocumented folks were part of the hundreds of advocates who had traveled to Detroit for this convening. We had been warned several times by the NIIC not to cross the adjacent bridge and not to enter the Detroit-Windsor tunnel that would lead us directly to Canada. But their unexpected proximity generated palpable fear putting attendees on edge when they realized how close we really were to the border- we were just feet away from our northern neighbors.
Canada (through no fault of its own) represented all of the injustices that we were fighting. We should have all felt free but we couldn’t escape feeling limited and restricted because of man-made laws. I felt ashamed that our country would deny people who’ve lived here their whole lives access to simple pleasures, like visiting a coffee shop across the river or experiencing a hint of Fall from the Canadian side.
I visited Canada for a brief – but lively – twenty minutes. The road to Canada was easy – there is a bus system behind a church next to the GM building that runs passengers through the tunnel every 30 minutes for a nominal five dollar fee. I boarded at the exact stop time and was whisked away on a 10-minute drive to a simple immigration post with one other passenger. I had just enough time to venture through a few rows of houses, pass by some shops and restaurants, then purchase an over-sweetened London Fog tea latte before jumping back on the international bus. It wasn’t without guilt but it was an experience, as lackluster as it was, that I couldn’t miss. And I wish my peers could have gone with me.
Mobility is a human right and I was reminded every day in Detroit – this too was in my face all day long – that we had a lot to fight for at the NIIC. Even a thousand lead advocates gathered in the name of immigration couldn’t topple the invisible walls surrounding us that weekend, but we will one day.
And then maybe we’ll go visit Canada.
Learn more about the NIIC 2019 conference here.