Over 100 students, faculty and staff gathered in the main lounge of the Bryn Mawr Campus Center on March 15 to welcome home Jessica Hyejin Lee, BMC ’13.
She was not returning from a trip abroad or a spring break getaway; she had just been released from jail, where she had been held for 24 hours after protesting in front of Immigration and Customs Enforcement headquarters (ICE) in Philadelphia and publicly claiming her status as an undocumented American.
This past Wednesday afternoon Lee and other protestors in conjunction with the organization DreamActivist Pennsylvania, entered ICE headquarters in Philadelphia, declaring their status as undocumented immigrants as part of “Coming Out Week” and condemning the detainment of Miguel Garcia, a DREAM Act-eligible man who has been detained in York County Jail for seven months
The DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act, which has not been signed into law, would give undocumented immigrants 16 years or older a legal pathway to citizenship, provided they have been in the US for five or more years and will complete two years of military service or college, according to Lee. Garcia is currently at risk of being deported after his final plea for asylum was denied.
Anna Machalski BMC’13, who introduced the Community Response Meeting in the Campus Center, explained how Lee was arrested on Wednesday and released the following day “thanks to our support.”
“They put themselves in danger to draw attention to the injustices of the immigration system,” said Machalski of Lee and Tania Chairez, a University of Pennsylvania sophomore who was also arrested in the protest. Both women were charged with disorderly conduct and obstructing the highway, and they will face trial in Municipal Court.
Machalski then acknowledged that “not everyone’s as lucky as Jessica and Tania” to have a community rallying behind them, and passed around a petition on her iPad that called for the release of Garcia, who for many months has been separated from his fiancée and two children.
Three members of Swatties for a Dream, a Swarthmore College group working to support undocumented Americans and the DREAM Act, helped Machalski and Lee lead the meeting. They participated in the Philadelphia protest as well.
They then discussed the importance of personalizing the issue of deportation through individual stories and experiences; so that authorities know “it’s not just numbers” they’re dealing with. The group also expressed the hope that students in the Tri-Co community would continue to work for the cause and take action now rather than waiting until there is more trouble to work together.
One student in the audience asked about the primary goal of the DREAM Act, and the question was then directed to Lee, who had just arrived. The audience enthusiastically greeted her with whoops, whistles and applause as she approached the front of the room.
“I’ve been really touched by all your support,” she said. “I got out, and I didn’t get deported!”
Lee explained how she refused to cooperate with police once inside. “My name was Jane Doe for 24 hours.” The authorities were going to interview her for deportation proceedings until they realized the community support she had behind her and the fact that her had name had been in the news. Chairez had a detainer placed on her as well, but it was soon cancelled.
Lee began to field questions from a rapt audience. One student asked her how undocumented people can come out and not be afraid.
Lee replied that when she was growing up, “I wanted to forget about it, I just wanted to be a person, but then I realized that it’s not just me, but so many other people. It is a real risk, but how long are we going to wait for the government to realize just how integral undocumented Americans are to this community?”
The floor was opened up to the attendees of the meeting for the remainder of the evening. The first to speak was Nikki Lopez, BMC ’10. She spoke with pride about Jessica and Tania’s actions.
“You guys as student activists have an opportunity. It is a privilege to protest,” Lopez said. “Bryn Mawr is going to stay with you your whole life, so call us out, hold your community accountable, and find your allies that are here in this room tonight.”
Michelle Mancini, Lee’s dean was present to support her advisee.
“I told the other deans I was coming tonight as an observer and that I thought it was important someone for the administration to be here, but I am also here as an individual who believes in the cause,” Mancini said. She went on to explain that she was working to reconcile those two sides and trying to understand what that meant. “I’m so impressed with the quality of discourse that was happening on campus about these issues.
Sarah Kim BMC ’12 said to Jessica that “your story inspired me to reach out,” sending letters to APA blogosphere. “There is a community that is so proud to have you a part of it.” Kim has received countless responses already. She and Lee recently participated in a podcast with bigWOWO’s Byron Wong, whose site is dedicated to “Asian-American intellectualism, activism and literature.”
“I’m so grateful that this is my community. You guys got me here,” Lee said at the close of the meeting.
The following morning Michele A. Rasmussen, Dean of the Undergraduate College, sent out an e-mail to the student body, clarifying the school’s position on undocumented student’s and their access to a higher education
“A foundational principle of the College’s admissions policies is that we do not discriminate on the basis of citizenship or national origin when making admissions decisions. Moreover, once a student is admitted to Bryn Mawr and makes the choice to attend, the College will fully support that student in all aspects of her (or his) pursuit of a Bryn Mawr education. In terms of the national debate on immigration, in June 2011, President McAuliffe submitted testimony on behalf of the College to the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security in support of the Development, Relief, and Education of Alien Minors (DREAM) Act,” the email read.
Machalski says that the resolution that she and Lee presented at this spring’s Plenary was “a recommendation to the administration that we support undocumented students.” She thinks that the reason the resolution was ultimately tabled was because “people saw the language of the bill as being really political and [they] got caught up in the specificity and didn’t trust what we were saying.” Machalski stressed that she hoped anyone who felt uncomfortable about the issue or had questions about it would come to her or Lee with their queries.
When I sat down with Lee over the weekend, she said that she was glad that administration supported her actions and but believes that there is still more that can be done.
“I think there should be a policy that undocumented students are viewed as Americans.” She went on to explain that there isn’t a “check box” for undocumented students on the admissions application.
“You have identify as international students and then ‘other,’” said Lee. In addition to not being eligible for FAFSA or private loans, undocumented students cannot receive funding from the school for summer internships.
“I think [Rasmussen’s] email is a beginning and that we shouldn’t accept it as the end.”
Lee did not come out as undocumented until last semester. She moved with her family from South Korea to California when she was 12 years old. Lee said that her parents were both worried and proud about her activism. She had told them about her idea of performing an act of civil disobedience several months ago, but they did not know the outcome until Lee phoned her mother from jail.
“Basically our family’s status is public now,” Lee said. “But I didn’t expect that this action would empower my family too. More than being scared, they feel that this was the right thing for me to do. There’s no longer that stigma attached that was there before.”
When asked if there was still a possibility that she could deported or detained again, Lee said that while the risk was still there, she thought the chances were slim because “the community knows that it’s not right for undocumented Americans to be detained. It’s a matter of human rights, and they’re willing to fight.”
The planning for the protest began in October but had to be postponed once while Chairez and Lee worked to reach out to more people to get involved.
“We eventually realized that Tania and I were the only ones, and that if we don’t do it, there’s not going to be more people willing to participate, because there is so much fear,” said Lee.
Lee described the 24 hours she spent in jail in a very composed manner.
“Jail is oppressive,” she said. “The people next to me, it was reality for them; they weren’t going to get out, family’s not paying bail. The air conditioning is turned on at night and there’s a metal bed that three people have to fit on. You can’t lie down; you just have to sit and sleep. You don’t know [as time passes], you can’t make phone calls, you have to pee in front of everybody. Your toilet’s right next to your bed, and there’s no curtain or anything, you just have to go.”
Lee also expressed an interest in prison reform, saying that “the system only punishes people for what they did; it doesn’t recognize the structural violence that led to people being there.” Lee also hopes to pursue a career in public policy after graduation and to work to prevent human rights violations.
Lee hopes that the original intent behind the civil disobedience didn’t get lost.
“Tania and I got a lot of attention, but Miguel didn’t get as much,” she said. “The action actually was for Miguel. We knew that we were going to get out, but Miguel is still in jail. I hope the Philadelphia community can recognize that Miguel is a part of [it too].”
Machalski echoed a similar sentiment.
“People are often reactive not proactive,” she said. Machalski thinks it is possible that without the galvanizing influence of Lee and Chairez’s arrests, a meeting solely about supporting the DREAM Act would have drawn fewer people. But “we have more of an impact now than we would have before.”
Though there is still a long way to go, Lee feels that the experience was a positive step in the right direction.
“It shows that there are a lot of supporters out there, and to be in jail and see ICE officers and still be able to communicate my conviction about human rights was powerful.”
Additional reporting by Anna Merriman, News Editor and Jessica Watkins, Features Editor