Irving Cortes, a Union College sophomore, had a message for President Donald Trump on Wednesday – and for anyone else who would listen.
“I am not a bad hombre but a hardworking student who just wants to pursue the American Dream,” said Cortes, who immigrated from Mexico as a 6-year-old.
Cortes joined around 40 Union students and faculty outside the campus library to stand in solidarity with immigrants across the country. Some of the professors shared their own stories of immigration or fleeing their home countries as refugees.
The group criticized the Schenectady City Council for not adopting “sanctuary city” status – the council this week instead passed a resolution calling on Congress to improve federal immigration laws. And the students and faculty, who were joined by local activist Jamaica Miles, said they need to do more to organize politically across Schenectady.
The students, including the sons and daughters of both undocumented and legal immigrants, spoke to the direct impacts of Trump’s immigration crackdown and stalled travel ban from a handful of Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and Africa.
“I consider myself Mexican-American, raised in the United States, but my roots run deep into Mexico,” Cortes said, reading from a poem he wrote for the occasion, dipping in and out of Spanish. “I am from here and from there, but I sometimes feel like I’m neither from there nor from here. ... America the Great, why do you not welcome me yet speak of diversity?"
The faculty members shared their stories as well – in some cases also in the form of a poem. English professor Bunkong Tuon was a Cambodian refugee who fled his home country after his mother and other family members had died or “disappeared” under the brutal communist Khmer Rouge regime. After spending multiple years in refugee camps, he immigrated to the United States.
“It begins in Cambodia and ends in Schenectady at the gate of Union College,” he said of both his poem and his life story. “Refugees, we don’t have much of a choice. Who in their right mind wants to leave their home? Who wants to go to a place that doesn’t speak their language or practice their religion? We leave because we had to; that’s the bottom line.”
Nancy Lopez, a Union sophomore and one of the rally’s organizers, said her mother is undocumented and has become fearful of possible deportation under the Trump administration.
“My mom is undocumented, but she is not a criminal,” Lopez said.
The fear and criminalization of immigrants, who the speakers pointed out have always been a part of American history and contribute much to local communities and society, was a major theme of the rally.
“To criminalize entire communities is not just wrong, it’s impractical,” said Daniel Mosquera, a Latin American studies professor. “It doesn’t recognize the links we need to nourish society.”
Ken Aslakson, professor of early-American and African American history, didn’t mince his words as he took the microphone outside the campus library. He called Trump’s immigration and border policies “nativist” and said he was “done trying to convince crazy Trump voters… because they are not to be convinced of anything.”
“What he’s doing is fulfilling a campaign promise without affecting his own business interests,” he said. “These policies are based on lies… They are dividing America through fear and race-baiting, through trying to destroy communities, but we know better.”
He said Democrats and progressives need to organize among themselves and called on Union students and faculty to look outside the campus gates to the Schenectady community writ large. He said activism should strive for four things: truth, goodness, farsightedness and community.
“I’m asking people at Union to step out of the Union bubble and be active in the community,” he said. “Schenectady is small enough that we can make a difference and big enough that that difference can be seen.”