Welcome to our Social Justice Hall of Heroes: once a month we’ll be highlighting someone in the field fighting to end for-profit incarceration and reduce reliance on criminalization and detention through direct action, organizing, research, and public education.
To start the new year, our January Social Justice Hero is Pamela Reséndiz, a Texas-based activist for immigrant youth. Ms. Reséndiz has courageously spoken out about her own experiences as an undocumented student, including her incarceration in the T. Don Hutto Detention Center; you can see her speech at our recent protest at the Polk County Detention Center here. Below is Pamela’s story in her own words.
How did you get started with your organizing work?
I began organizing in high school, I had various leadership roles but it wasn’t until I moved to San Antonio to attend college, that I began organizing and advocating for immigrants’ rights and the DREAM Act my freshman year of college. Although I wasn’t out as an undocumented student, I was involved in the marches and rallies that grassroots organization in San Antonio planned.
It wasn’t until March 18, 2010 all my fears became reality, and I had to face them. I was wrongfully arrested in the streets of Austin the day before I was supposed to head to Washington D.C. for the largest immigration rally of 2010. One minute I was speaking up against police brutality then I blinked and a policeman shouted, “That’s enough out of you,” dragged me off the sidewalk and shoved me into a paddy wagon. That’s when I knew my life was about to change completely.
All the times mi mamá reminded me I was not like a normal teenager, a normal college student, because of my immigration status, came flooding back to drown my mind. As I sat in the blue chairs of the general population of the Police Department, all I kept thinking was that my end story was going to be different than that of everyone else in the room. I wasn’t going to get to see the judge. I wasn’t going to get my hearing or bond and walk out the next morning. That I wasn’t going to be found innocent before guilty.
When I saw the uniform of the ICE officer approach me and utter my name, I knew my incarceration was truly about to begin. He had a clipboard with all my information already filled out. I knew my secret was no longer a secret. After that, I had the loneliest days of my life. I was being held because of my immigration status, something that hadn’t changed since I was nine years old when I first moved to the United States. I was now a statistic of “Secure Communities.” I was jailed for two days, without any rights, in a cell specifically assigned to people with my status. When the guard shifts occurred, they would still know that whoever was in that cell was there because of their immigration status. I felt what it was to not exist in people’s eyes and hearts.
Even though my mom had reminded me that I was different than my peers, I never really accepted it. I wanted to believe I was going to be whatever I wanted to be, not what I was told to be because I lacked a social security number.
I told myself that day that I was not ever going to allow an undocumented youth to experience what I had experienced. I was going to fight and keep fighting for equality and justice so my fellow peers didn’t have to hide. I didn’t want anyone to be afraid of who they were because of their skin color, or because they were born in a different country or didn’t have a social security number, because those concepts were created to segregate human beings.
It was not until I was moved to Don Hutto Detention Center, one of the most infamous immigrant detention centers in Texas, that I understood how broken our immigration system is. I was now at a modern concentration camp in the land of the free. I was no longer a person but rather an alien number. I was living everything that I had been trying to avoid since I was nine years old, but now I was a scared 21-year old. I stayed at the detention center for four days before my friends and family were able to help me.
While I was detained I met so many amazing women who were just like my mother, my sister, my undocumented friends, and me. Though we were all in the detention center at the same time, life had dealt me a different hand because I was a student, because I had a home and family in the U.S. – a support system that was able to get me legal aid – and because somewhere along the cracks of the system I had been lucky. I was lucky because I had entered this country with a visa and I was a student. My case was given prosecutorial discretion- something most other immigrants never get, and I was allowed to stay in the U.S. That’s why I will fight for justice for all.
As I exited the detention center I made myself a promise to never forget what I had experienced that week of my junior year spring break: I was going to keep fighting for justice and equality and, most of all, I was not going to be afraid to speak up. I will always stand next to those who are demoralized and estranged.
After my arrest, I saw no point in hiding my story from anyone anymore. I began sharing and speaking to my community about the reality that undocumented students face everyday. This evolved into creating an organization for undocumented students by undocumented students and its allies in the San Antonio area DREAM ACT NOW! at UTSA, now named the San Antonio Immigrant Youth Movement. I no longer had any fear. I was facing deportation and if I was going to get deported I was going to make sure I was heard.
It was at this point that I no longer could pretend and continue the rehearsed lines of someone I was not. Coming out as undocumented was liberating. I no longer had to make excuses. I had witnessed the voice of immigrant youth on the frontlines partaking in the current civil rights issue that this nation faces. It was their strength and courage that fed mine.
What accomplishments are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of seeing the organization that I helped start, the San Antonio Immigrant Youth Movement, blossom, develop and nurture the community of San Antonio. I’m proud that I was able to be part of creating a safe space for the community of San Antonio.
What would you like to see come of your work?